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Coronavirus: A Radical Interpretation

In a previous essay, I outlined how society might take advantage of our dire pandemic predicament by exploring, consolidating and streamlining certain environmental ideas which would have been regarded as too edgy just a scant few months ago.  Though it may seem difficult, it is incumbent on us to try and salvage something from this humanitarian crisis, and assuming the world goes back to some semblance of normality, society must transform itself not just environmentally but politically and socially as well.  Though pandemics may vary in type, duration and mortality, they frequently tend to be "game changers," and so, as Coronavirus exacts a greater social and economic toll, it may be helpful to reflect on some previous history.


During the Black Death, disease killed so many people that the pandemic wound up hastening the ultimate demise of feudalism.  With labor in short supply, peasants were able to bargain for higher wages and lower rents, and the standard of living as well as social mobility increased.  Simultaneously, wealth inequality plummeted as workers began to eat and drink better than before, while acquiring fancy clothes.  Moreover, landlords saw their incomes shrink due to lower rents, and lords and knights began to disappear within the social hierarchy.  What's more, the plague shattered public confidence towards authority as people flagrantly disregarded the law, a development which needless to say perturbed the wealthy.


Similarly, the Spanish flu of 1918 served as a kind of "clarifying moment" highlighting class and social differences.  By exacerbating the supply of goods, flu prompted uprisings, strikes and anti-imperialist protest across the globe, while leading many to become disenchanted with capitalism and colonialism.  In many countries, governments were pressured to phase in the welfare state and improve public health measures.  In the U.S., meanwhile, women left farms and entered the workforce as a result of the death of so many men, which in turn accelerated the drive towards the women's vote.  In India, flu killed an estimated 18 million, fanning anger against British authorities which had neglected healthcare and uniting militants behind Gandhi and the independence movement.


False Choice: Nationalism or Globalization?


While society finds itself in a bleak predicament, we must try to find a silver lining to this crisis or alternatively descend into a dystopian future in which democratic regimes falter while authoritarian governments become more assertive.  In France, Italy and Britain, political leaders enjoyed an initial surge in popularity, but as patience has worn thin with the Coronavirus response, the public has begun to turn on politicians.  With the West distracted, Xi Jinping has cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators and sought to intimidate Taiwan while providing aid to countries struggling to contain Coronavirus.  In Hungary, meanwhile, Viktor Orbán has assumed emergency powers while sidelining parliament, even as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and India's Narendra Modi clamp down on civil rights.


If nationalists become emboldened, the pandemic may force elites to re-evaluate "globalization," a trend referring to the globalized flow of goods, people and capital.  Even before Coronavirus hit, right-wing nationalists had railed against globalization to further their own political agendas, and that trend is likely to continue as the world comes to terms with pathogens spreading at an alarming rate via air travel.  Already, there is talk of reforming globalization, or promoting a drive toward "national developmentalism."  Indeed, some nationalists have seized on Coronavirus as an additional reason to seal off borders and bring factories home, while railing against China for spreading the virus.


And yet, throughout this crisis, other progressive voices have been largely absent from the debate, perhaps out of concern that criticizing China might feed into a nationalist critique.  This in turn has allowed rightists to monopolize the entire discussion, an ironic development in light of the earlier anti-globalization movement which brought together organized labor and environmentalists.  If anything, Coronavirus should prompt a reconsideration of such previous struggles, which sought to protect local economies from subversion of transnational capital while erecting tariffs to protect farmers and conducting an activist trade policy designed to sustain national economies, rather than disrupting the latter via cheap commodities and supply chains run by large corporations.

On a certain level, it seems logical that if globalization takes a hit as a result of Coronavirus, then the central state will become a direct beneficiary.  In the short-term, at least, the pandemic has strengthened the hand of nativists intent on dismantling international supply chains and repatriating production to the domestic United States, and the crisis may encourage experimentation with state capitalism.  In the long-run, however, authorities failure to address public health emergencies may conversely bolster calls for greater state socialism.  In that model, officials would nationalize hospitals and workers would not be regarded as a force to protect markets but rather as a means of protecting life itself.  In this scenario, the government would step in to ensure food production, energy and housing.


Class Conflict and Pandemics


Though state socialism would certainly be an improvement over the status quo, it's not as if socialist Spain, for example, has stood out for its stellar handling of Coronavirus.  As a result, it's possible that some countries could become even more radicalized by the end of this crisis and class conflict will be sharpened.  In the absence of a coordinated state response, we have seen the emergence of so-called "mutual aid" networks which have stepped in to provide essential services.  Originally a term coined by nineteenth century anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, "mutual aid" is currently enjoying a revival, from neighbors helping each other to community support networks to providing grocery shopping to meal preparation.


In the U.S., Coronavirus has highlighted class fissures in stark relief.  The economically disadvantaged and racial minorities have been more prone to disease, and Coronavirus has laid bare class divides in terms of access to health care, education, living space and the like.  Indeed, "a kind of pandemic caste system" has developed, with the rich ensconced in their vacation homes, the middle class stuck at home with children and the working class forced to work on the front lines.  Internationally, too, the disease has revealed class fissures: in China, for example, the rich can afford home delivery of meals, but food delivery drivers have been forced to work.  In India, social distancing seems like an unrealistic pipe dream in the midst of crowded shantytowns.

Needless to say, inequalities have sparked class conflict and led to improvised political organizing.  In the U.S., Amazon workers incensed over lack of safety walked off the job, while workers at Whole Foods staged a "sick out."  Meanwhile, healthcare workers have protested lack of protective equipment, tenants are organizing rent strikes, and housing activists have occupied vacant buildings.  In Detroit, transport workers went on strike over concerns that vehicles had not been properly disinfected.  Laborers abroad have followed suit, with port workers in France walking off the job due to unsafe conditions.


Challenge to State Authority


On the face of it, Coronavirus has created "boom times for centralized state bureaucracies," accompanied by an extraordinary level of state intervention in citizens' lives and a blow to globalization with clamp downs on international borders and travel.  Meanwhile, the concept of multilateralism, from the European Union to the United Nations to the World Health Organization, has suffered a crisis of confidence.


And yet, in certain parts of the world, it's not central states which have taken the lead but other institutions, suggesting that "rather than a world of strengthened states contained within ever more impermeable borders, the pandemic could leave behind a much more complicated and messier political world, where power is contested in new ways—or perhaps in very old ones."  In Brazil and Mexico, state and regional governments have stepped in to fill the vacuum in central planning, while in France local authorities have defied Paris by overseeing more extensive public health measures.


Perhaps, we could see the emergence of "hyper-regionalism," in which mega-cities become more dominant and step in to provide resilient services.  Already, northeastern U.S. states have formed a pact to try and figure out a common Coronavirus strategy, with western states including California, Oregon and Washington following suit, not to mention a group of Midwestern states.  Governors have even named public health and economic officials to assist with joint plans.


Though such moves are certainly innovative, states could move even further by establishing "interstate compacts," which are similar to treaty arrangements, and thereby bypass federal control.  In an eye-opening statement, California governor Gavin Newsom recently remarked that he would "use the purchasing power of the state of California as a nation-state" to acquire needed medical supplies.  Though Newsom is a Democrat, such pushback from states has been lauded by no less than the libertarian right as a necessary corrective to federal failure.


World-Wide Rebellion and Pandemics


Meanwhile, the pandemic most certainly will fan the flames of revolt which had broken out even prior to the pandemic, from Lebanon to Chile to Hong Kong and beyond.  Indeed, 2019 had already come to be known as "the year of street protest."  Sparked by corruption, political repression, the rising cost of living and simmering inequality, such revolts unfortunately failed to articulate a coherent radical vision, let alone a consistent set of environmental principles.  For now, Coronavirus has predictably enough exerted a chilling effect on unrest.


Nevertheless, the pandemic hasn't entirely stamped out the spirit of revolt.  From hungry migrant laborers protesting in the streets, to starving others demanding the right to work, to prison riots, to demonstrators calling for their governments to do more to confront the virus to citizens banging on pots and pans, people across the globe have come up with creative forms of dissent.  Some activists have even taken to online protest, though unfortunately such demonstrations have failed to cause the same level of disruption as earlier street protest.


Hardly a bastion of progressive thought, Bloomberg media itself has remarked, "the immediate effect of Covid-19 is to dampen most forms of unrest, as both democratic and authoritarian governments force their populations into lockdowns, which keep people from taking to the streets or gathering in groups.  But behind the doors of quarantined households, in the lengthening lines of soup kitchens, in prisons and slums and refugee camps — wherever people were hungry, sick and worried even before the outbreak — tragedy and trauma are building up.  One way or another, these pressures will erupt."


Sweeping Aside the Ancien Régime


Conventional pundits have claimed that Coronavirus will shore up authoritarian governments.  But even in China, where Xi Jinping has seemingly weathered the political storm, unrest seethes below the surface.  As Financial Times notes, it would be a mistake "to misread [authoritarian] power-grabs as evidence that the pandemic naturally entrenches illiberal regimes."  Indeed, if anything, Coronavirus has exposed Beijing's fragility as evidenced by angry public protest over the authorities' initial handling of the pandemic.  Such protest overlapped with months of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.  In Russia, meanwhile, Coronavirus has exacted a heavy economic and political toll on Vladimir Putin.


Ultimately, however, "with the street revolts' underlying causes largely unaddressed, those surviving remnants could eventually swell once more."  Whether protests break out within western democracies or authoritarian states, Bloomberg notes that "it would be naive to think that, once this medical emergency is over, either individual countries or the world can carry on as before.  Anger and bitterness will find new outlets.  In time, these passions could become new populist or radical movements, intent on sweeping aside whatever ancien regimes they define as the enemy."

It was difficult enough to sort through and make sense of the earlier diffuse wave of 2019 world-wide protest, which in time might seem positively quaint in comparison to what lies in store.  Having failed to link up with such earlier struggles, perhaps environmentalists might seize on our present predicament to rethink and re-tool their message.  Just like previous public health "game-changers," Coronavirus will no doubt galvanize and crystallize class and social divisions, but if future rebellions are to succeed and not merely slip into chaos, they must think shrewdly about how the pandemic is likely to reconfigure, or even revolutionize, politics as we know it.

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This Crisis Requires Fresh Thinking Within the Environmental Movement

Who's been worse when it comes to handling Coronavirus, the federal government or the media?  Though the Trump administration has been laughably incompetent and ill-prepared for the pandemic, cable news has been no less derelict in its reporting.  Just like the politicians in Washington, the media has been caught flat-footed, having previously failed to inform the public about the true origins of Coronavirus, let alone other diseases which are linked to our disruptions of the natural world.  Having botched the environmental discussion about pandemics, the media's reporting on Coronavirus has been decidedly short-term, thus making it all the more unlikely that society will make the necessary adjustments to avoid future crises, that is if we even manage to emerge from this one.


For me, Coronavirus carries a slight sense of déjà vu.  Ten years ago, I warned about the deadly cocktail of environmental destruction and proliferation of tropical diseases in my book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet.  As I wrote at the time, climate change, intense El Niño-driven drought and fires in the Amazon have resulted in a boomerang-type effect.  When pasture land dries up, water becomes stagnant, which in turn results in greater numbers of malaria-driven mosquitoes.  Under such conditions, tropical diseases like dengue flourish, and huge percentages of indigenous people in local villages wind up contracting malaria.  The increasingly more intense El Niño cycle is also linked to cholera, since warming ocean currents encourage the growth and spread of bacteria.  This in turn has led to outbreaks of cholera in Peru, a country fond of ceviche, a favorite dish comprised of marinated raw fish.


Complex Interplay of Forces


As I wrote at the time, perhaps prophetically, "every time South Americans are hit with a powerful El Niño and a cholera or dengue outbreak, they wonder what it's going to take for the Global North to spring into action."  Apparently, in light of recent events, the only way the public will wake up to the threat of disease is when a pandemic emerges in more affluent countries, and even then, the media will perpetuate a narrow-minded perspective which fails to address systemic and underlying environmental problems.


To be sure, Coronavirus differs from other tropical diseases, yet environmental campaigner Chandra Bhushan argues that a warming planet tends to encourage the spread of further illness, as rising temperatures and humidity assist in the breeding of pathogens.  Writing in Financial Express, Bhushan points out that while there's no "smoking gun" linking climate change to Coronavirus, let alone concrete evidence that global warming activated the virus to jump from animals to humans in the first place, nevertheless it's possible that our immune systems have become compromised due to changes in the environment, thus making us more vulnerable to novel superbugs.


Normally, he remarks, we produce antibodies which neutralize bacteria and viruses, but now, in the era of global warming, pathogens are surviving at higher temperatures outside the human body.  As a result, these pathogens have become more adept at withstanding heat inside the body as well, thus suggesting an indirect link to climate change.  Ultimately, however, it's too simplistic to merely blame global warming for the rise of pandemics such as Coronavirus, since much more complex forces are at play.  Experts point out that Coronavirus is considered to be a "zoonotic" disease, meaning that it originated in an animal species and then moved to humans.  If anything, the rise of Coronavirus forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that we have done a poor job at "staying in our own lane," which has in turn disrupted the natural order.


Search for Smoking Gun


Though no bats were discovered at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China where the Coronavirus outbreak occurred, studies have concluded that the disease may have originated with them.  Because they harbor a higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than mammals, and can fly across vast distances as they transport disease, bats are ideal hosts.  What's more, bats can pass along viruses in their feces, for example by defecating on a piece of fruit.  If another animal consumes the fruit, that creature in turn can become a carrier.  Some studies have shown that a bat-borne virus lacks the ability to attach itself to human cell receptors, which has led others to suggest that an intermediate host may have spread the disease.


Scientific teams have reportedly uncovered SARS (or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)-like coronaviruses in pangolins, endangered animals which were seized by Chinese authorities in the south of the country.  Pangolins, scaly animals which have been physically compared to an artichoke, or a cross between "an anteater, an armadillo and a pinecone," are considered to be the most smuggled mammal in the world.  Last year alone, 100,000 pangolins were killed, and as a result they are threatened with extinction.  Highly prized for their scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, pangolins are also sought after for their meat which is regarded by some as a delicacy.


Perhaps, a bat and pangolin virus may have traded their genetics before spreading to humans, though such theories have yet to be proven definitively.  Some have suggested it wasn't a pangolin which spread the virus, but rather some other mammal species, perhaps belonging to the badger family.  Others have pointed out that while pangolins are the world's most trafficked animal, they are rarely found in wildlife markets as they are generally killed and their scales removed for medicinal use beforehand, and "a dead scale off the surface of an animal is unlikely to spread a virus."

Reassessing Relationship to Wildlife

While the consensus among researchers is that Coronavirus originated in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which also sold meat from other wild animals, there are still lingering questions.  One possibility is that the virus emerged earlier, since some of the first victims had no link to the market.  Under this theory, the virus may have originated elsewhere and later made its way to the market, which served as a kind of "amplifier," or, alternatively, the virus was somehow able to thrive in the market and then jump from human to animal and back again.  Such speculation, however, doesn't resolve the central question of when the original "spillover" event occurred.  Perhaps, Malayan pangolins contracted the virus in their native habitat or from bats along their trafficking route, though all available evidence suggests the outbreak occurred in China itself.


Whatever the case, Coronavirus forces us to reconsider our underlying relationship to wildlife.  To be sure, some animals carry dangerous pathogens but it's our closer proximity to wildlife, coupled with globalized travel, which is creating greater risk.  When a pandemic arises, people might be tempted to exterminate bats, though that would be a colossal mistake.  As scientists point out, it's not the animals themselves which are creating the problem: in fact, bats consume tons of insects, thus reducing the spread of other human diseases such as malaria and dengue.  Bats also help to promote bio-diversity and the overall health of their respective ecosystems by pollinating plants and spreading seeds.  Similarly, even though it's not the pangolin's fault that Coronavirus has spread, conservationists are concerned that people may be prompted to kill even more of the creatures in the wake of recent news reports concerning the pandemic.


Horrific Conditions


All things being equal, if people simply did a better job of "staying in their lane" and kept their distance from wildlife, then perhaps we wouldn't be facing a pandemic.  The risk, however, is that when bats and pangolins are sold in so-called "wet markets," viruses may leap from one species to another.  The Wuhan market, for example, seems to have served as a "perfect viral melting pot," since it had a wild animal section in which both live and slaughtered species were put on sale, while hawkers displayed gruesome body parts of camels, koalas and birds.

Reportedly, the ground in such markets is "slick with water and blood," and "the animals that have not yet been dispatched by the butcher's knife make desperate bids to escape by climbing on top of each other and flopping or jumping out of their containers."  On the other hand, "at least in the wet areas, the animals don't make a sound," whereas "the screams from mammals and fowl are unbearable and heartbreaking."


From a hygienic perspective, bringing animals together from different countries, different habitats and different lifestyles is a perfect storm asking for trouble.  Experts warn that when such animals become stressed due to displacement or confinement, they are more prone to disease.  That is to say, the animals become "immunocompromised" and this leads creatures to shed more virus, thus leading in turn to a potential "spillover effect."  Meanwhile, hawkers who handle or butcher animals are susceptible to viruses through cuts in their skin, while secretions of infected snakes can be "aerosolized" and breathed in by both workers and shoppers alike.


Wildlife and Wider Society


The issue of wildlife markets as incubators of disease forces us to consider pandemics in wider perspective, since the problem touches on many underlying trends ranging from changing social tastes and morés of an increasingly affluent globalized elite to special political protections emanating from the very top.  Though turtle and boar meat can be spotted in Chinese restaurants from time to time, other types of rare game meats from civet to cats and snakes and pangolins are rare and regarded as specialties only within certain regions.


"Their consumption," writes the New York Times, "is driven as much by the desire to flaunt wealth as by a mix of superstition and belief about the health benefits of wildlife."  Though China's tasted for wildlife is somewhat new, and has been spurred on by economic growth, many on social media have expressed anger that the country's nouveau riche has endangered the lives of others through their relentless appetite for exotic species.


Over the years, meanwhile, Chinese wildlife agencies have "practically become a spokesperson for wildlife business interests," while wildlife "protections laws" have become a catch-22 by protecting business interests as opposed to the animals themselves.  The wildlife trade has become so symbiotically fused with the government, that businesses have promoted their own aims as reflecting the national interest, with tiger and rhino farms going so far as to claim they are euphemistically furthering "conservation," and bear farm owners claiming they are promoting "public health."

Belatedly, the authorities shuttered the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan after the pandemic spread.  Officials have also temporarily banned the wildlife trade, and they may even outlaw it altogether.  Beijing was no doubt stirred to act after users on Weibo, a social media platform, denounced the sale of wildlife under the hashtag #rejectgamemeat (the trending category attracted 45 million views).  In the long-run, some hope the emergence of Coronavirus may lead to a "domino-like effect" which will prompt further steps against wildlife trafficking throughout China and Southeast Asia.


"The just-issued trade ban should not be a temporary measure," argues South China Morning Post, adding "it should be made a lasting policy.  China has to choose between the narrow interests of wildlife businesses and the national interest of public health.  It cannot allow a minority of wildlife traders and exotic food lovers to hijack the public interest of the entire nation."


Punishing Wildlife


While it's unclear whether the temporary wildlife ban may become permanent, many are asking why it has taken Beijing this long to act.  If anything, the warning signs were already on the wall back in 2002-4 during the SARS epidemic, which probably started in a wet market.  That disease was traced back to a coronavirus that jumped from bats to Asian palm civets, a small weasel-type mammal related to the mongoose.  Civets are considered a delicacy in southern China, and can also be found for sale in wildlife markets.


From civets, the virus jumped to humans engaged in the wildlife trade in Guangdong.  In a frenzy, authorities then drowned or electrocuted thousands of civets as a means of cutting off the source of the SARS virus.  Reportedly, authorities ignored appeals from the World Health Organization — which feared the killings might destroy vital clues about the source of SARS — and Hong Kong animal activists, who condemned the slaughter.  CBS news reported that civets were burned, while photos showed health workers dressed in white protective suits drowning the animals.


Officials subsequently removed all references to "yewei" (meaning "wild taste," a Chinese term for wild animals used as food) from shop signs in Guangdong.  They also prohibited the sale of civets, but after a mere few months the ban was reversed and the trade ramped up just like before.  More recently, many have wondered why Beijing did so little to regulate the sale of wildlife since the outbreak of SARS: indeed, top Chinese scientists have been urging the government to adopt a lasting ban on wildlife sales for years.


From Deforestation to Ebola


But just for the sake of argument, would banning the sale of wildlife at unhygienic markets actually halt the spread of pandemics?  While such measures would undoubtedly help, there are still wider forces at play which could undermine efforts to halt the spread of disease.  Take, for example, deforestation which puts humans into closer contact with wildlife.  An important driver of climate change in and of itself, deforestation is subjecting stressed animals to habitat loss and exacerbating disease.  One ominous harbinger of change was the Malaysian Nipah virus of 1998-99: in that case, researchers concluded the disease had been spread by fruit bats which had in turn been dislodged by forest fires and an El Niño-related drought.  Once the bats started to feed on fruit trees grown on the same farms as pigs, this allowed the virus to migrate from bats to pigs and then on to farmers.


Just as deforestation in the Amazon is thought to be driving up the spread of malaria, destruction of rainforest in West Africa may have played a role in the spread of Ebola, yet another zoonotic disease.  Like Coronavirus, Ebola is thought to have originated in bats and then jumped to humans, though other animals such as antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees may also be culprits.  At the time of the epidemic, researchers connected deforestation in West Africa to Ebola, noting that habitat destruction had brought wildlife into closer contact with people.  But in addition to deforestation, virtually any form of climate change, including droughts and even increased rainfall, will inevitably increase the risk of Ebola outbreaks since warming temperatures drive bats and other animals into new areas.


In 2014, again somewhat presciently, I wrote about how China, in yet another instance of reckless economic expansion, had pursued a harmful environmental role in West Africa.  By building roads and infrastructure, which Beijing hoped would complement its mining investments, China may have facilitated the spread of Ebola.  In another line conjuring up an eerie sense of déjà vu, I noted that "while China has been intimately caught up in West Africa's economic spoils for some time, the Asian tiger's role has been obscured in the midst of the media's sensationalist coverage of the Ebola crisis."


The Factory Farm-Pandemic Link


As if the media's short-term coverage could sink no further, the issue of factory farms, pandemics and climate change has also slipped through the cracks.  Take, for example, the H5N1 virus: as I noted some time ago, migratory ducks, geese and herons can carry the H5N1 avian influenza, also known as bird flu, and pass the virus on to domesticated birds such as chickens.  Because they are capable of flying long distances, water fowl can spread many different types of influenza viruses.  When the waterfowl come into contact with chickens on factory farms, packed conditions offer an environment in which microbes can quickly turn into deadly pathogens.


In 1997, an H5N1 outbreak which in turn made the jump to human beings led the authorities in Hong Kong to destroy 1.3 million chickens.  As with the Coronavirus, it is thought that bird flu may have originated in a local market.  In that case, getting rid of the chickens seemed to work in the short-term, but such efforts unfortunately failed to contain subsequent outbreaks of H5N1 surfacing in dozens of countries.  In 2014, yet another strain of H5N1 hit North America, which led to the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry.


And it's not only chickens which pose a worrying link in the food supply chain, but pigs as well.  The fact that pigs and humans share a similar immune system, which makes it easy for viruses to jump between both species, worries scientists.  In 2009, another influenza virus called H1N1 spread from pigs to humans and spread around the world within weeks, causing a pandemic.  And just a few years ago, 25,000 pigs living on Guangdong farms died from swine acute diarrhea syndrome or SADS, a virus which was nearly identical to a coronavirus found in bats.


Climate Change, Diet and Factory Farms


Not surprisingly, climate change threatens to introduce yet another wildcard into the already volatile mix of factory farms.  Scientists say it's possible that migratory birds might alter their wintering sites in response to global warming, which stands to affect the distribution or risk of further H5N1 outbreaks.  It's conceivable, for example, that Europe eventually might be prone to more risk from H5N1 than Southeast Asia.  "Industrial livestock production means that it's not just a farm family that may be sickened by pathogens from a pig or cow," notes Slate, "but potentially hundreds or thousands who consume meat or other products from those animals."


The by now "routine viral assaults on food security," adds Wired magazine, "demonstrate that regardless of the precise route of zoonotic transmission of the current Covid-19 outbreak, our reliance on massive-scale animal farming is neither prudent nor pragmatic in the best of times or the worst of times.  It's time to admit that we, as a civilization, have outgrown the dated notion of using animals to produce meat.  Hunting and animal farming served their purpose for millennia of human population growth.  But in 2020, we need to be brutally honest with ourselves.  We can't keep doing this.  The current system is broken.  It is inefficient, insecure, unsustainable, and extremely unsafe."


On the other hand, removing animals from the food system has become more viable as of late, as demonstrated by tremendous innovation in both "plant-based" and cultivated meats grown in a lab, both of which avoid the risk of zoonotic disease.  "There's no time to waste in pushing forward solutions for what is likely the underlying cause of this pandemic, and what has been at the root of dozens of prior zoonotic events," adds Wired.  "We can't afford not to have the same level of urgency in directing funding, effort, and talent into accelerating the development and deployment of safer, modern meat production methods.  It is past time to move away from animal-derived meat altogether."


Lack of Public Discussion


Given their tremendous scope and complexity, what are the chances that the world will come to grips with such problems?  While portions of the U.S. public have only very belatedly started to take climate change seriously, society as a whole is blissfully ignorant of deforestation, except briefly, perhaps, when forest fires in the Amazon make their way into international headlines.  Given the necessity of "staying in our lane," so to speak, averting further deforestation and exposure to wild animals and pathogens is of paramount importance.  And yet, as I explained in my book on the Amazon, addressing deforestation is a colossal economic, social and even political endeavor at the international level which barely represents a blip on the media landscape.


What's more, if deforestation has remained overlooked, the notion of tackling factory farms and the food system, which will undoubtedly contribute to the spread of further disease, has been completely absent from public discussion and politicians rarely mention diet which is considered to be up to personal choice.  During the 2020 campaign, the only Democratic candidate to mention the issue of diet on the debate stage was Marianne Williamson, largely derided as a new-age lightweight who never attracted much of a following.  At another point, when offered an opportunity to discuss his choice of a vegan diet during a presidential debate, Democratic candidate Cory Booker declined to elaborate, perhaps fearing he would be perceived as judgmental or elitist.


If Bernie Sanders has been aware of the links between pandemics, wildlife and climate change, his own campaign web site makes little mention, though to be sure the Vermont Senator has come up with many positive recommendations to confront the scourge of Coronavirus, and the candidate has also been outspoken about the need for a Green New Deal as a whole.  On the other hand, during a one-on-one debate between Sanders and Joe Biden, neither candidate answered a question about public health and climate change directly, thus suggesting that politicians, even when they are on the progressive side, share the media's penchant for "short-termism," for lack of a better way of putting it.


Finding a "Silver Lining"?


As horrible as the Coronavirus epidemic has been, it is incumbent on environmentalists to try and salvage something from this humanitarian crisis.  "There's nothing good about the novel coronavirus," remarks noted environmental campaigner and writer Bill McKibben.  "It's killing many people, and shutting millions more inside, with fear as their main companion.  However, if we're fated to go through this passage, we may as well learn something from it."


Already, people are avoiding flying, prompting Wired magazine to write that "if you're reading this at home—isolated because your company has mandated that everyone work remotely, lest you all spread the novel coronavirus—know that your loneliness may be good for the planet."  In the long-run, the deadly virus could bring about much-needed changes in behavior if people continue to avoid flying or boarding cruise ships, while opting instead for remote working and video conferences.


"Most of us learned as children what it meant to be grounded," notes Philip Warburg, former president of the Conservation Law Foundation.  "Perhaps we should give that term a new, non-punitive meaning," he adds.  "What in our local communities have we come to overlook as we scout out our next faraway travel prospect?…If we traveled less, we also might make more time for the activities that give us a sense of civic purpose and human connection here at home….For climate stability and personal health, it may be time to ground ourselves and give localism a chance."


Environmentalist Response


Though it's extremely discordant to even talk about "silver linings," one unintended consequence of the pandemic has been a fall in carbon emissions from China and beyond.  In Hubei province alone, improvements in air quality may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under five years old and 73,000 adults over seventy, that is to say such improvements have saved more people than Coronavirus has killed.  In the U.S., meanwhile, people are working from home and, as a result, they are driving less.  What's more, with fewer vehicles on the road, New York has seen sizable declines in carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane emissions.  In Europe, traffic is down in some of the continent's dirtiest cities which had previously failed to adhere to EU air quality limits.  In Italy, reductions in nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane emissions, all of which can affect climate, were apparent to such a degree that they could be observed from space.


If they are shrewd, environmentalists will be able to capitalize on such developments and hopefully prevent a full-scale return to polluting "normalcy," provided that the Coronavirus epidemic abates over time.  Even before the pandemic, activists with international environmental group Extinction Rebellion held street blockades in order to halt traffic and congestion.  Ironically, local authorities in New York have now closed off some streets in order to prevent large social gatherings, suggesting a possible opening for further activism.  In addition, environmentalists may find the public is more supportive of reining in the airlines, which are not only polluting but also serve as a conduit for accelerating epidemic disease.  Perhaps, recent events will even pressure airlines to quicken the pace of technological and environmental change.


Moving Beyond "Climate Change Activism"


But while environmentalists should try to prevent a return to polluting business as usual, they must also evolve as a movement.  If anything, the Coronavirus epidemic forces not only a tactical but also a philosophical rethink, since public health, wildlife and climate change have become so intertwined that it's a little difficult to distinguish one issue from the next.  Perhaps it's even time to drop the term "climate change activism" and start talking about "anti-pandemic activism," a term which might prove more accessible to many.  As Columbia University's Earth Institute has noted, "depictions of the 'climate apocalypse' often fixate on the temperature changes, sea level rise and proliferation of natural disasters wrought by climate change.  Epidemics are an often overlooked outcome that belongs to that future."


It would seem environmentalists have been caught just as flat-footed as the politicians when it comes to Coronavirus.  Having been deprived of street protest, one of their most powerful tools for raising public consciousness, activists have embraced social media messaging and digital strikes.  Young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, meanwhile, has urged supporters to "take it online."  Recent developments have also forced campaigners to scrap plans for the fiftieth annual Earth Day in April, or alternatively move such commemorations into the digital realm.  While organizers have changed their tactics, some acknowledge that hashtag activism may not exert the required impact or just wind up reaching the same people within a constant echo chamber.

It's time to shift gears and focus on healthcare, wellbeing and the delivery of essential supplies, says Extinction Rebellion.  To its credit, the environmental group seems to have given some thought to shifting exigencies, though statements are still somewhat vague on specifics.  The pandemic, campaigners note, "calls for an evolution – not a shelving – of our rebellion.  This is a time to remember what we are rebelling for – a thriving and just world of regenerative cultures that can weather crises, foster cooperation and look after each other on a global scale…We are living through an emergency response that shows us things can be done differently.  The possibility is opening up to make the necessary and urgent changes to respond to the intersecting global crises – financial, health, climate and ecological – creating a world where life can thrive."


Crafting a New Environmental Message


Though certainly laudable, such statements must be accompanied by more specifics.  If cable news and the likes of CNN and MSNBC continue to ignore international environmental trends while adhering to their usual short-term outlook, then campaigners must try to raise the profile of long-neglected issues which have failed to enter public consciousness.  To be sure, it may be difficult to distill a succinct and cogent message given the complexity and magnitude of environmental challenges ranging from factory farms to wildlife protection and the link to public health.  Perhaps, however, people may be more receptive to environmentalism in light of the challenges which we currently face.


Activists might start by updating their approach to industrial farming.  Traditionally, campaigners have criticized factory farms for being environmentally wasteful, contributing to greenhouse gasses, driving deforestation and placing a burden on natural resources.  Others have addressed the link between meat consumption and obesity and illness.  What has been overlooked, however, is the connection between factory farms and the potential spread of new pathogens.  Perhaps, by combining many of these concerns about public health, the environment and diet, activists might finally manage to break through.


The Coronavirus epidemic should also prompt environmentalists to become more creative in their organizing strategy.  While they have the facts and science on their side, campaigners haven't done a very good job at conveying their message to the public since climate change can sometimes feel abstract.  The pandemic, however, offers a unique opportunity to promote symbolism and iconic animals such as palm civets and pangolins.  Since children are more prone to embrace wildlife, it makes sense for campaigners to venture into schools and organize wildlife clubs, perhaps by promoting emblematic flags or badges sporting a pangolin with captions such as "Coronavirus wasn't my fault!"  If children prove receptive, then perhaps in time this might encourage a ripple effect which reaches parents and families alike.


While devastating on so many levels, the Coronavirus epidemic could offer an opportunity for environmentalists to advance and even broaden their goals, provided they are willing to improvise and experiment a bit more, while at the same time seeking to distill and sum up the current public zeitgeist.

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New Africa Scramble: China Has Economic Leverage But Lacks Brazil's "Soft Power"

To read the article, click here.

To read a rejoinder appearing in Forbes magazine, click here.

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WikiLeaks: Chinese “Locusts” Spreading into Latin America

If Wikileaks documents are any indication, Chinese investors might have a big surprise in store as they continue their push into Latin America. In their effort to extract raw resources, the Chinese have fared relatively well in such areas of the globe as Africa. However, recently disclosed U.S. cables hint that Latin America may not prove as pliable for the Chinese. Indeed, during private discussions with U.S. diplomats in Shanghai, Chinese experts candidly admitted they faced a “public relations challenge” in Latin America, and that local residents viewed Chinese businessmen as “locusts” intent on “extracting minerals and natural resources and leaving very little of lasting value behind.”

China is a relative newcomer in Latin America, yet the Asian powerhouse has made a big splash. In its drive to dominate Latin American markets, China is primarily motivated by economic and not political considerations. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have understood that native industry must be provided with adequate supplies of energy, minerals, and other basic raw materials if the Asian powerhouse is to sustain continued economic growth. In tandem with such desires, China has moved aggressively to become Latin America’s second largest commercial partner after the United States.

For their part, the Latin Americans have been content to export their raw materials to China, though many countries have uncomfortable memories of U.S. economic enclaves and may wonder whether the Asian powerhouse will encourage sustainable development and social equity. While China is willing to help construct ports and railroads, such infrastructure projects will be linked to the transport of raw materials and in this sense the Asian tiger is little different from the United States, which historically sought to promote the type of “development” which would merely facilitate the extraction of South America’s resources.

Latin America is Not Africa

In Africa, China found that it could import its own labor, ignore environmental standards and essentially adopt a colonialist approach toward local peoples and resources. Compliant political elites, who displayed scant regard for human rights, made life easy for Chinese investors. But Latin America, having recently witnessed a tectonic shift to the left, is less willing to embrace untrammeled economic development if this comes at a high social and environmental cost.

In contrast to Africa, Latin America has a much more dynamic political culture characterized by combative political parties, labor unions and non-governmental organizations. Though many within Latin American civil society may have looked upon China as the champion of “Third World-ism” at a certain point, some will be less than impressed by the Asian tiger’s shedding of any ideological pretensions in the name of promoting a more politically neutral “multi-polar” world.

WikiLeaks documents shed fascinating light on the many difficulties and contradictions in the incipient Chinese-Latin American relationship. Speaking with officials at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, Chinese experts said their nation’s leaders were interested in paying more attention to large emerging countries like Brazil and Mexico “amid the changing global economic balance of power.” Chinese companies, however, had difficulty understanding the Latin business milieu, and complained about “strong labor unions and cultural conflicts.”

Fundamentally, experts noted, “Chinese investors think Latin America and Africa are the same…but it is easier for them to do business in Africa since Africa's institutions and regulatory environment are less well-developed than Latin America’s.” Chinese workers, meanwhile, had a “different work ethic” from their Latin American counterparts, and as a result many companies had chosen to import their own laborers which had in turn fed “local resentment.” Conscious of the need to improve its public image, China encouraged its companies to take on more local employees, and the Asian tiger had become a substantial donor to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Differing Views on China

Despite these many problems, it is also clear from WikiLeaks cables that Latin America’s view of China depends very much on the individual country. Indeed, while China is viewed as a friend in some nations, in others it is viewed as a threat. In recent years, China has signed free trade agreements with Peru and Chile, two countries which don’t have competitive industries to defend. China has failed to negotiate accords with some of the other larger countries, however, because certain Chinese exports are viewed as more direct threats.

One country which has been particularly wary of the Asian tiger is Mexico. In early 2009, U.S. diplomats at the American embassy in Mexico City wrote Washington that “Mexico’s trade deficit with China and concerns over China’s approach to investment continue to color Mexico’s perception of China as a true partner.” While Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was well received in Mexico, officials were “reluctant to push too strongly for increased Chinese presence.” One top Mexican businessman confided to the Americans, “We don’t want to be China’s next Africa.”

The entrepreneur was referring to “the oft-cited criticism that China has pursued a strategy of seizing the continent’s huge natural resources while dumping cheap industrial manufactured products into Africa’s markets.” “We need to own our country’s development,” the businessman added. Judging from WikiLeaks documents, the Chinese are aware of Mexico’s skittishness. Speaking to U.S. officials in Shanghai, Chinese experts pointed to the “similar industrial structure” between China and Mexico, adding that the Asian powerhouse should “invest more in the Mexican oil industry to counter Mexican concerns about China's growing trade surplus with the country.”

Seeking a South American Gateway

Another nation with mixed feelings toward the Asian tiger is Colombia. In WikiLeaks cables, U.S. diplomats in Beijing remarked that Colombia was actively seeking new economic partners but was still “wary of Chinese motives.” Speaking to the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Beijing, Colombian businessmen expressed their concern that China might “walk all over” Colombia and its people much as the Asian powerhouse had done in Africa. In addition, the Colombians were wary of Chinese investment in mining and hydrocarbons given the Asian tiger’s awful track record on environmental and labor practices [such talk is rather ironic in light of Colombia’s own horrible standards on these counts].

Because Colombian exports compete with those from China, the Andean nation is mainly interested in investment as opposed to signing a free trade agreement with the Asian powerhouse. Originally, China had directed its companies to invest in neighboring Venezuela, but the firms had “dragged their feet.” Reportedly, Chinese businessmen regarded Colombia as more stable and economically open than Venezuela, and therefore a “better base for targeting the rest of Latin America.”

In the long-term China may find that Colombia, which has a much more repressive anti-labor climate than Venezuela, is a country more to its political and economic liking. Indeed, recent business deals suggest that China sees Colombia as its preferred South American gateway. Take for example a Chinese plan to build an auto assembly plant in Colombia. The factory will manufacture light vehicles for export to different regional markets. The Chinese chose Colombia over Chile, Brazil and Mexico and the factory will begin production in 2012.

Brazil: “We Don’t Want to Be Colonized Again”

While Colombia and Mexico are certainly economically important within the overall Chinese strategy, it is the South American powerhouse of Brazil which has become the most indispensable linchpin. China has already displaced the U.S. as Brazil’s chief trading partner and experts predict that between now and 2014 the Asian tiger could invest an average of about $40 billion a year in Brazil. As they establish their key beach head in South America, the Chinese will target specific economic sectors such as telecommunications, infrastructure, farming, oil, biofuels, natural gas, mining and steel.

The most visible sign of burgeoning Sino-Brazil ties is the Açu complex, a mega port which is being constructed near Rio de Janeiro. The vast $2.5 billion facility will open in 2012 and its piers will host fleets of cargo ships including the ChinaMax, a huge vessel capable of holding a whopping 400,000 tons of cargo. In the nearby city of São João da Barra, the local town hall is providing free Mandarin lessons to those who wish to work with an anticipated wave of Chinese guests.

Though the new economic relationship has proven beneficial to both China and Brazil, it is rather lopsided. Indeed, China’s needs have begun to alter the Brazilian economy in fundamental ways. Take, for example, the Brazilian footwear industry which has been decimated by Chinese imports. Caught by surprise by China’s economic rise and burgeoning manufacturing sector, Brazilians worry that they haven’t laid the ground work for a sufficiently balanced relationship, one which will result in sustainable growth and not just small enclaves of prosperity.

Información Selectiva, a Mexican company providing financial news from around the region, recently reported on an eye-opening business meeting which brought together Latin and Chinese executives. During the summit, which took place in Chengdu, Brazilian investor Nizan Guanaes remarked “We were already colonized once and we don’t want to be colonized again. We want to be partners.” It’s unclear whether the Chinese have the patience to put up with such insolent independence. Frustrated by everything from Brazilian bureaucracy to strong labor unions to a more vigilant media culture and stringent environmental laws, the Chinese have found that Brazil is no pushover.

To be sure, the Chinese relationship has brought tangible economic benefits for Brazil. Take for example the local soybean industry which has thrived amidst booming exports to China. For the Asian tiger, soya is a versatile product which is utilized from everything from soy flour to tofu to soy sauce. In my recently published book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) I discuss the rise of soy boom towns in Brazil and accompanying infrastructure such as highways which are designed to facilitate exports to China. Even here, however, local development has been a mixed bag: while the soybean industry has brought economic gains it has also led to severe environmental downsides and pressures on the Amazon. Meanwhile, paved roads linking Brazil to Pacific ports of call and onward to Asia have cut through the rainforest and exacted a high ecological toll.

Wikileaks cables underscore underlying tensions in the Sino-Brazilian relationship. Speaking with American officials at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, Brazilian diplomats expressed some concern about growing imbalances in bilateral trade. Although Brazil exported some small commercial aircraft to China, in general the South American nation was a mere provider of commodities to the Asian tiger and received higher value-added machinery in exchange. Meanwhile, Chinese investors failed to adequately understand the local Brazilian market and regulations.

As history has shown, the Latin American people do not take kindly to outside powers coming in to the region and reaping maximum economic advantage while failing to encourage equitable social development. For years, it was the United States which raised the political ire of many countries throughout the hemisphere as it set up economic enclaves and propped up compliant elites. So far, the Chinese interest in Latin America has been primarily economic though the Asian giant may be obliged to become more involved in local politics as its interests grow. If China expects, however, that it will get its way in Latin America as easily as it did in Africa then the Asian tiger may find that it has another thing coming.

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Hugo Chávez’s Geopolitical Rivalry Reaching Soaring New Heights

Hugo Chávez's geopolitical rivalry with Washington has reached soaring new heights -- literally into space.  After meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Caracas recently, the Venezuelan leader remarked that Moscow had offered to assist Venezuela in developing its own space industry including a satellite launch site and a factory.  It was Putin's first visit to Venezuela, and the Russian was received with full military honors upon arrival.  "This is a truly important day for the country and for Latin America," Chávez said.


Back in Washington, officials wasted no time in dismissing the Chávez-Putin tête-à-tête.  "We would note that the government of Venezuela was largely closed this week due to energy shortages," declared State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.  In a caustic reference to Spielberg's E.T. perhaps, Crowley added, "to the extent that Venezuela is going to expend resources on behalf of its people, perhaps the focus should be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial."


What's behind the Chávez-Putin summit?  At this point, the true scope of the space deal is unclear and hopefully all future initiatives will be wholly peaceful in nature.  Could the discussions have something to do with counteracting U.S. influence?  Chávez himself denies it, proclaiming loudly during Putin's visit that "we aren't making alliances here against Washington."


Such claims don't ring particularly true, however.  For the past few years, Venezuela's leader has been assiduously courting Russian support.  Indeed, just since 2005 he has signed a dozen military agreements with Moscow worth more than $4 billion.  Chávez's buying spree has included helicopters, fighter jets, and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.  In addition, Venezuela has received more than $2 billion in credit lines for more Russian arms including T-72 tanks and an advanced anti-aircraft missile system.


To be sure, the Obama administration has stoked Venezuelan fears by proceeding with planned U.S. military bases in Colombia, a nation which borders Venezuela.  Yet, there's something disturbing about Venezuela's turn towards Russia.  In 2008, Chávez conducted joint military exercises with Russian vessels in the Caribbean, including the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great.  The ship has massive firepower and can deliver conventional or nuclear warheads, as I described in an article at the time.


With Washington warning of a regional arms race, the left has chosen to stay mute about the weapons purchases or alternatively bash U.S imperialism.  Within the increasingly more unsettling geopolitical milieu, Chávez rails about the need to create a "multi-polar" world in which the U.S. would not be the only superpower.  Which nations are to comprise this Axis of Good?  Presumably, those countries which Venezuela is seeking to ally to, including Russia but also others such as China and Iran.


Chávez is sounding increasingly defiant.  When asked by reporters how the U.S. might view Venezuela's lavish defense spending, the president remarked, "We don't really care what Washington thinks."  For his part, autocratic Putin sounded cynical when discussing the budding new relationship.  If the U.S. didn't want to sell arms to Venezuela, he said, "Well, for us that's good."


During their meeting in Caracas, Chávez presented Putin with the so-called Order of the Liberator -- Venezuela's highest honor -- and provided the Russian leader a replica of a sword brandished by South American independence hero Simon Bolívar -- the namesake of Venezuela's socialist-inspired "Bolivarian Revolution."  Kissing the replica, Putin remarked, "Russia from the start has supported Latin America's struggle for independence."  The Russian added, unconvincingly, "Our objective is to make the world more democratic, make it balanced and multi-polar."


At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets supported Cuba but it's debatable whether Russia ever took Latin American emancipation very seriously. Today, Russia has no ideological project and its take on Latin America seems even more narrow-minded. The budding geopolitical alliance between Russia and Venezuela, which now looks as if it could reach into space, would seem to be more of a marriage of convenience than anything else.
"Satellite" Diplomacy


The same might be said of Venezuela's courting of China, a relationship which has already yielded collaboration in many realms including military. Reuters reports that Venezuela has purchased a network of radars and jet-training aircraft from the Asian nation. Venezuela says the planes will be used to train local pilots and intercept drug traffickers, though the K-8 planes may also be refitted for combat as well as a missile-defense radar system. Chávez, who says he is simply modernizing his armed forces, adds that "China has become one of the biggest allies of Venezuela, and Venezuela is one of the biggest allies of China in the world."

With the launching of Venezuela's Venesat-1 communications satellite in late 2008, that alliance has resulted in big benefits for Chávez. The satellite, also dubbed "Simon Bolívar," was built with Chinese know-how and was Venezuela's first. Chávez hailed the launch as an "act of liberation," designed to eliminate his country's "satellite illiteracy." Venesat-1 was the product of concerted shuttle diplomacy: Chávez has been a frequent visitor in Beijing. 


Indeed, Venezuela and China have been collaborating on scientific and technological matters for the past eight years. As with Russia, Chávez hopes that growing ties with China will lead to a new multi-polar model in order "to break" U.S. hegemony. In 2005, both countries signed a contract for Venesat-1 in Caracas, and the next year Chávez went to China personally to oversee the construction of the satellite costing more than $200 million.


The satellite, which is designed to provide radio, television, and internet in three band frequencies, and whose signal will extend all the way from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, will facilitate not only broadcasting but also distance learning and medical services.  In southeastern Venezuela, a financially poor and rugged region where land lines are expensive to build and maintain, Venesat-1 will provide welcome telecommunications coverage.


From an economic and social standpoint, that is certainly a welcome development: for years, satellite-based networks have been concentrated in Venezuela's higher-income, more heavily populated regions. Venesat-1 by contrast will help to facilitate distance education and bring the internet to schools and homes across Venezuela. 


The orb will also lead to great advances in "telemedicine," that is to say the sending of medical tests of patients from remote areas via internet to medical centers for speedy diagnosis. This is particularly helpful for Warao Indians, a tribe residing in an easterly region of the Orinoco River Delta. Through telemedicine, the Warao will be able to consult specialists working in Venezuela's best hospitals.


Venezuela's Houston Mission Control


Let's not kid ourselves however: Venesat-1 also fulfills some valuable political objectives. Chávez himself has remarked that "a satellite at the service of capitalism is launched to make money, but Simón Bolívar will benefit development and the integration of our people." A satellite will help Chávez proceed with his agenda of politically integrating like-minded regimes throughout the region.


Reportedly, the first users of Venesat-1 have included the very vocally pro-Chávez public station Canal 8, as well as Telesur, an interesting pan-Latin American TV channel based in Venezuela [for those interested in exploring the politics surrounding Telesur and the media in Venezuela, see my chapter on the subject in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left].  Chávez says Venesat-1 will strengthen Venezuela's sovereignty by overcoming the constant U.S. "media bombardment."


El Sombrero is a town lying some 200 miles south of Caracas in Central Venezuela. Recently, rolling farming landscape has been transformed by the arrival of satellite technology. Chávez's version of Houston mission control, El Sombrero houses satellite dishes as well as a radar facility which has employed both Venezuelan and Chinese scientists. Above the entrance of the facility there's a massive sign reading "Patria, Socialismo o Muerte" -- Fatherland, Socialism or Death. Nearby lies an air force base where Russian Sukhoi fighters take off constantly from a landing strip.


Daniel Varnagy, a telecommunications expert from Simon Bolívar University, told the BBC that Venesat-1, which followed the nationalization of Venezuela's telecommunications sector, could give the government the possibility of interfering with communications. "Chávez is trying to protect his political project and his own person. He believes he's being pursued and spied on by other countries," Varnagy said.


Venezuelan authorities, however, insist their intentions are peaceful and rule out any military or espionage uses. Venesat-1, Chávez asserts, is designed to lead toward the "construction of socialism."  The Venezuelan leader adds that Latin countries "spend millions of dollars in satellite services, almost all of them monopolized by big international companies.  It is the domination of space." Hardly amused by such fiery rhetoric, Washington reportedly requested that China suspend the launch of Venesat-1, a plea which Beijing flatly disregarded.


Another Space Race?


Chávez is correct in criticizing the excesses of U.S. foreign policy and his concern about American dominance over the space industry is understandable.  In light of U.S. high handedness in Latin America, it's reasonable that countries like Venezuela would want to build up their own space industry in an attempt to rival the technological edge of their northern neighbor.  To be sure, Venesat-1 will also be put to some beneficial logistical and social uses [though it could also be abused].


The problem is not there, but in the overall geopolitical context in which Venezuela finds itself. In an effort to build up his "multi-polar world," Chávez has allied himself with anti-democratic countries like China and Russia. Chávez's relations with these two have a technological component, but the alliances have taken on an increasingly diplomatic and political hue and it is here where Venezuela gets into ideological contradictions.


In an effort to satisfy China, Chávez has been making bizarre statements backing up Beijing's repression in such far-flung corners of the globe as Tibet [for more on this, readers can go to my website and read this article]. Though the world would be a better place without a sole superpower like the U.S., Chávez's multi-polar vision is problematic and could very well make things worse. What's more, in a political sense Venezuela's alliances are making a mockery of Chávez's calls for "21st century socialism."


Another undesirable result of these alliances has to do with military strains. Tensions on the high seas between Russia and Venezuela on the one hand and the U.S. on the other are bad enough. Could we now see a similar drama in space? The last space race, which pitted the Soviet Union against the United States, exacerbated superpower tensions and made the world a very unsafe place to live.


NASA, beset with fluctuating budgets and the political whims of ever-changing administrations and congresses, has experienced a relative decline in recent years. While such a decline was not such a huge concern following the end of the Cold War, America's once-clear dominance of space is now being challenged by other nations. Russia has been a leader in space launches, but currently China is a key player in human spaceflight. Indeed, China became just the third nation after the United States and Russia to send its own astronauts out on a spacewalk.

Evan Ellis, a consultant with technology firm Booz Allen Hamilton, told the Los Angeles Times that Venesat-1 was an example of "strategic relationships" China had been able to acquire because the United States no longer "closely defends its exclusive presence" in Latin America.

"Traditionally, Chinese diplomacy has been cautious there for fear of provoking us and endangering its U.S. trade relationship," Ellis declared. "But it's become bolder in its affairs, not just with relatively neutral countries, but even with a country like Venezuela, which is openly hostile to the United States."


The new competition has some on Capitol Hill growing concerned. During a hearing of the House's subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics last year, ranking Republican of Texas Pete Olson remarked, "We should never ever cede American leadership." With Russia and now China promoting space ties with many new nations such as Venezuela, there is sure to be much hand wringing in Washington in the not too distant future.


All of a sudden, the space industry has become pretty fluid. It's a situation with unforeseen consequences for the traditional players but also for up and coming countries like Venezuela, a medium-sized nation which has now chosen to insert itself into the wider geopolitical milieu.

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