Back in February 2013 the journal “Nature” ran an article by J. David Hughes exposing the rocky economics on which the shale gas-&-oil revolution in the United States rested. Huge levels of debt are required to fund the matrix of horizontal pipelines and the countless wells that have to be drilled before the black gold starts bubbling. And since the money only comes after the event, an oil shale company has to keep borrowing and investing to secure the oil to pay off the debt. The article was poo-pooed by many US pundits and ‘market experts’. Evidently, though, somebody in Saudi Arabia read it carefully, digested it, pondered and persuaded some else in his country to act, slowly but surely. On the NASDAQ today, a barrel of Brent was changing hands at just over 50 dollars. Many commentators have spoken of the shale oil operators requiring a price of at least 60 dollars to stay afloat. We can assume that many a smaller shale oil extractor is looking anxiously at the display each time his cell rings, worried it may be his bankers….
The year 2014 saw Germany celebrate 25 years of unification, the last ten years of it spent with East German born-and-socialized Angela Merkel at its helm. The year also saw Germany celebrate its real return to the arena of world politics, with Russian-speaking Angela Merkel again playing a key role. As the only Western leader able to converse as an equal with Vladimir Putin she carefully helped guide Europe during the Ukraine crisis. Indeed, the Germany that was now enjoying what officialspeak calls ‘unity’ had emerged from the economic and financial crises of the Noughties robust (albeit with its growth rate dented) with the number of jobless down at a long-time low. Having now shouldered a geopolitical role more commensurate with its size, it stepped into 2015 as a big player.
The impact the financial crisis of 2007-8 has had on Europe has actually not been financial at heart. For what was a financial crisis triggered by bad debt in the United States has given birth to a re-emergence of island-state nationalism coupled with national egotism. In so doing the financial crisis is rapidly morphing into a crisis of the European idea. It is doing so because politicians have resolutely ignored the linkage and have allowed economic arguments to be hijacked and used to inculcate fear. A fear of what? A fear of further losses? That seems improbable? A fear of job losses? Well that has only happened in the Romance countries. So perhaps the key fear is that of having to alter a lifestyle…
In the late afternoon, the sun is low, and without the earlier glare things are now easier to see without my eyeballs scorching and bunching up. From the car I spot a line of women and girls queuing at a borehole under some trees, each of them with a yellow plastic canister. They are patiently waiting to take their turns in getting water for the evening.
Here in the Ethiopian countryside, as in other African countries, the women seem to be the beasts of burden. Like those I have seen carrying baskets, wicker panniers, bales of fodder, stacks of wood, claypots or babies on their backs. Most of them have no shoes. Over the last hundred kilometres the number I have seen walking solitarily or in twos or threes, single file, along the road, strap over their head or a rope across their upper chests to keep the load in place, has exceeded anything else. One long procession of women at work. Like the equally endless lines of eucalyptus trees, sucking the water from the ground and denying the short conifers and palms the same. Without trees, no life. Without water no life.
There are places that are frightening because at just about every corner you can sense oppression, you feel the fear in the air, air that seems thin, as if everyone were suffocating. In such places, people scurry along without looking at one another, words spoken in public are hushed, a world of whispers, where outspokenness is something for a courageous few. There are places where such scenes unfold, as the iron fist of tyranny is manifest at every street corner, the police are a terrifying instrument of maintaining order, not law.
The old guy with the wizened face, his eyes shaded by his baseball cap, has a high voice. He is singing background on Ti’amo in the pool-&-BBQ band that plays for the lunchtime buffet and through the afternoon in the Umubano Hotel in Kigali, Ruanda. Behind the little band stand is a giant frangipani tree, its yellow and white blooms catching the sunlight: Beauty without a fragrance. It doesn’t offer shade either, a tree only for the eye.
Cairo is a city that is an architectural and urban design disaster. If the sentence is true that “all Egyptians want to be designers”, as one professor of the applied arts tells me, then it is a pity that this was not the case at least 30 years ago. Cairo is the city of the block, the slab, the monolith. It reflects the nimbus of construction in the country, whose first industrial champion was Arab Contractors, a state corporation that privatized and is now tantamount to a state itself. Having built the Assuan Dam it branched out. And was soon followed by the cement industry, which was in turn followed by the light breeze-brick industry. The slabs are often only two apartment boxes wide, with a single utility shaft for the elevator, stairs and piping. The sides of the building are left bare, no money shelled out for plasterwork – the desert dust will sandblast the red bricks beige soon enough.
Meaning that unless a tenant decides to paint the façade around the balcony, all buildings look alike in terms of dingy color tone, and their shapes differ only depending on whether they are cylindrical (next to the Nile) or a greater or lesser grid of boxes. And each sand-colored building is topped in the same inimitable way: by a crown of satellite dishes, all aligned in the same direction such that if you buzzed the city with a small plane the impression looking down would probably be similar to gazing across an extensive field of mussels all standing in rows reaching up into the water – from the sandy seabed below. Even at 25 storeys in height, it is a matter of 25 layers of identicalness. Difference is a matter of the interiors or the street life at ground level, or the proximity of gardens or parks, of which there are many – despite the excessive price of land that has prompted all these buildings to rush upwards, clamoring for space.
There was a time when the Greens were called the Alternatives in Germany. But now there is an alternative to the alternatives that, what a great stroke of imaginativeness, calls itself the “Alternative for Germany”, the AfD. So, unless it’s like two negatives making a positive, meaning that the new alternative is only the opposite of the green alternatives and therefore re-Establishment, and therefore nothing new, it bears trying to find out what the alternative is. To paint things in the right colors: The Greens were an alternative in left field. Remember, green = yellow and blue, the colors the German Liberals used to be made of. Well, the Liberals are of course now completely blue, as they have disappeared. Possibly, because they were so yellow and insisted on proclaiming the ‘fun society’ instead of politics). Leaving the parliamentary majority with the centrist Blacks (conservatives) and weak reds (Social Democrats). One might be forgiven guessing the alternative now must be on the right, to the right of the right – which, if one went full circle would be back on the Left. Yes, this being alternative thing can be quite confusing.
Georg Lukacs, Hungarian Marxist philosopher, enthused in his “The Historical Novel”, and it was to become the standard work on the subject, that Sir Walter Scott managed despite his inordinately reactionary, pro-aristocratic stance to write progressive literature. Lukacs claimed that Scott developed “typical’ characters in his novels, and these characters dramatized major social conflicts, highlighting the flux of transformation – the moment in ‘time’, in history – rather than depicting stasis. Lukacs championed such novels over what was for him the aberrant experimentation of a Franz Kafka or a James Joyce – formal innovation changed nothing, he opined. If he saw how Sir Walter Scott’s heritage is being used by a campaign for formal innovation called ‘independence’ and described in the words of “a day when we can decide our future” uttered by Alex Salmond.
It was a grand afternoon in the early fall of 1991, the air crispening with incoming autumn, the sun sharply bright on Pennsylvania Ave., when Col, Condy, Dick, Don and Paul all sat down for tea in one of the innumerable wooden-paneled offices with the thick leather club chairs and old-worldly feel with which we are so familiar from the West Wing and Houses of Cards delivered to our own living rooms. This particular office boasts ottomans, befitting the occasion. As invited for the afternoon chinwag were Bernie and Sam, helicoptered in for the occasion from Boston and Princeton respectively. It fell to Condy as the spring chick among the poker-faced men of steel to play mother and pour out the best first flush from the Turkish Black Sea into the wafer-tin cups of china with their golden handles and rims. Dick grabbed the silver tongs, added three sugar cubes, took a ginger biscuit in his Texan paw and dunked it in the syrupy brew, before opening proceedings. In so doing, he simply set the agenda for the next two decades: “Colin may be my senior, but since I sent out the invites, let me be so presumptuous and say why we’re gathered here today. Hardly a surprise, but in my opinion it’s a matter of our national security, of how we defend our real interests in the world. And of course it’s a matter of how we don’t get ourselves in the same position as the peanut-shucker did in Iran. We’ve paid out billions since 1980 on stabilizing Saddam and whittling away at the muftis’ power; we’re now spared further spending on busting any more Russian balls in Europe, so it’s high time to think what we need to next. And I’ve invited you two distinguished professors here because I’m fed up of opening the paper and reading the crap that RAND’s little fake-Jap gushes on the end of history. Just because we won the one war we shouldn’t be overlooking the next one. That’s greenhorn academics for you. Not like you guys. So…”