Sunday, March 27, 2011


Flesh of the Earth

This Arab Spring has been uncannily like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, only this one's entirely made by humans. Like continental plates grinding against each other, tensions that can't go on forever have been going on way too long. Once they shift, the energies released are as implacable and unstoppable as a tsunami. Mass movement is scary, more like a force of nature than a volitional act.

Volitional acts do matter, though. In both natural disasters and manmade ones.

Revolutionary situations expose the faultlines usually hiding beneath the surface of a political superstructure. While the unrest of the Arab Spring has spread in ever wider circles, events in the countries where it has broken out have followed rather distinct trajectories. While situations like these are extremely fluid and anything but deterministic, a good deal of what's going on is explicable by the hidden faultlines within the societies now coming to the surface.

Egypt and Tunisia are rather robust societies and polities. There are minorities—in particular the 10-million-strong Coptic one in Egypt—but they're not big enough to endanger the unity of the society. Both countries have relatively stable institutions, and local, tribal, or sectarian identities aren't strong enough to tear the country apart. Their revolutions were from the start a contest between an autocratic state and a relatively uniform people. In both cases, the people triumphed in the revolutionary phase, and both countries have since moved to a post-revolutionary phase, where the contest continues at a lower intensity and with relatively little violence. The prospects for an outcome that's significantly better than what went before look pretty good, even if it's certain to fall far short of the dreams of the revolutionaries.

Bahrain is fractured along sectarian lines. The migrant workers making up half the population have not participated much in the revolutionary activity. The citizenship is about one-third Sunni and two-thirds Shi'ite, with the institutions of power held by the Sunnis, and the revolutionaries mostly Shi'ite. Clearly, the regime's threshold of using lethal force on the revolutionaries was lower. It has now turned into a sectarian conflict, with external powers drawn into the game. This is a recipe for civil war. Too much blood has been shed already for either party to step back from the brink, and a great deal more will have to flow before one of them is defeated, and it is unlikely that whatever emerges will bear much resemblance to a state of, by, and for all of its citizens equally.

Libya is a tribal society, and its character has quickly asserted itself. The situation has been so fluid because tribal leaders have been switching allegiance between the rebels and the loyalists, some more than once. Tribal loyalties are stronger than national ones, or loyalty to Tripoli or Benghazi. There's no way of knowing how that'll go, nor of what will emerge if and when Qaddafi is finally toppled. The possible outcomes range from a long and protracted tribal civil war to some kind of new arrangement between the tribes to restore a semblance of normalcy and perhaps even some kind of open society.

Syria is in a class of its own: a 70% Sunni Muslim country with a large variety of minorities, and the summit of the ruling clique from one of them, the Alawites. That makes it very difficult to predict what will happen there, since so much depends on the decisions of that ruling clique.

I just came across an interesting article about the correlation between the level of violence in a revolution and the type of system that emerges from it. Nonviolent revolutions have resulted in consistently better systems than violent ones. That means that prospects are pretty good for Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen if things don't spin out of control there in the endgame, but rather bad for Bahrain and Libya. Clearly there's no single template that the revolutions will follow; much depends on local conditions and structures as well as the path the dynamic, unpredictable, and fluid revolutions themselves take.

It is pretty powerful argument for nonviolence, there. That violent revolutions aren't worth the sacrifice, because what emerges won't be any better.


  1. Interesting point of view...
    The article you read by Juan Cole is very interesting too even though it is mostly what you have said previously.

    On another topic.
    Any new insights on Japan's nuclear facilities ? It seems to be getting quite bad again in some of the facilities even though they managed to stop the crisis in some of the others.
    With several first-response units getting heavy radiation burns from the water already...

  2. Also, since I'm reading yours. You should have a look at mine now :)

  3. Re Japan reactors: I can only guess. We do know that there's been highly radioactive water leaking out of one of them. That means that, er, there's a leak somewhere. I think it's unlikely to be the reactor vessel itself; that would be pretty dramatic since it's under pressure—steam and jets of water all over the place. So it's probably in the plumbing used to pipe seawater into and out of it. If the fuel rods are damaged—as it appears they are—you'll have all kinds of nasty stuff leaching into the water from them, on top of the activation you get when seawater comes into contact with massive amounts of radiation.

    My guess? It's not indicative of a worsening of the situation as such, such as an impending meltdown. It does indicate that something's broken, and certainly makes the effort to stabilize and cool the reactors more dangerous and difficult. The ecological impact as the water goes into the sea is likely to be fairly limited; the stuff dilutes quickly and most of the radioactive isotopes have fairly short half-lives.

    But these are guesses only. I really don't know much about what's going on there.

  4. Oh, and, welcome to the blogging club. We're one big family. Big, dysfunctional, borderline insane family, but still.

  5. :)
    How did you do the things I read, Things you read thing ? I like it. I keep reading the things you read ...

  6. They're "gadgets." You can add and configure them on the "Design" tab in Blogger. The former is the Blog List gadget, the latter the Popular Posts gadget.

  7. Here is an interesting read even though you probably know about it already ...

  8. Yeah, Olkiluoto 3 is a pretty big issue here, politically speaking. The project is also late and over budget; the constructor—Areva, they're French—has not been doing a very good job, and the Radiation Security Agency has called halts to the work a lot of times; I think some stuff even had to be torn down and rebuilt.

    I do trust it more than another nuclear plant where we get a lot of our electricity—the one in Sosnovyi Bor, just outside St. Petersburg in Russia. It's the same age and design as the Chernobyl one, and its operating license just got extended by another ten years. As long as we're importing electricity from there, IMO it's hugely hypocritical to oppose building it here.

  9. Does Finland have Thorium in its ground ? Enough to actually work with it ? Also, how much more does it cost to build a Thorium reactor compared to a normal fissile reactor on Uranium ?
    From wiki all I could gather was that Thorium is not fissile and so it needs a built-in Uranium reactor to cause the fission for it to work, which means there is still some fissile risk, albeit lower than in a full-on Uranium reactor, but it didn't say anything about the cost and why there aren't any more Thorium reactors being built in the world ?

    How much do you know about this ?

  10. Lots. Uranium too, although it's not currently being mined.

    The nuclear reaction to produce energy from thorium is more complex than from uranium; it goes by first transmuting the thorium to U-233 by irradiating it with slow neutrons, which will then produce energy in a fission reaction. The idea is that this happens as a continuous process inside the reactor, rather than the way it's done in current breeder reactors, where the bred plutonium has to be removed and reprocessed before it's used as fuel (or, more commonly, weapons material).

    The same type of reaction can be used to breed fissile fuels from spent fuel rods; eventually you end up with low-active waste, which is something that's orders of magnitude easier to deal with than the high-active waste current processes produce.

    There are many ways to do that. I don't know enough to be able to discuss the merits of the different reactor designs. The only one I've really looked at in any detail is the accelerator-driven subcritical nuclear reactor, which is nice because it's passively safe. It relies on an external neutron source to drive the reaction: you don't need any control rods, because the reaction is subcritical. Switch off the neutrons, and the fission stops instantly. But it's a complex beast, and there may well be other designs that get the job done with less fuss.

    Anyway, this process is more complicated, and therefore more expensive, and has the same issues with decay heat that are causing all the trouble in Japan. It's not a free lunch in other words, just an improvement in some ways.

    Why more hasn't been built? Cost, mainly—the reactor designs currently in use exploit the simplest controllable nuclear reactions we know. Thorium fuel is cheaper than enriched uranium fuel, of course, but the bulk of the cost of nuclear power isn't in the fuel, it's in the plant, so it makes economic sense... especially if the cost of disposing of the spent fuel isn't factored in, as is the case the way things stand now.

  11. Didn't know where to post this, but it's quite interesting. I can't read Persian but a Google translate from the articles seem to agree with what the blogger is saying, so it doesn't seem to be a load of crap either :