Adam Ash

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The US Empire - the longer we keep it going, the more we endanger democracy at home

Is Imperial Liquidation Possible for America?
by Chalmers Johnson

In politics, as in medicine, a cure based on a false diagnosis is almost always worthless, often worsening the condition that is supposed to be healed. The United States, today, suffers from a plethora of public ills. Most of them can be traced to the militarism and imperialism that have led to the near-collapse of our Constitutional system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, none of the remedies proposed so far by American politicians or analysts addresses the root causes of the problem.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll , released on April 26, 2007, some 78% of Americans believe their country to be headed in the wrong direction. Only 22% think the Bush administration’s policies make sense, the lowest number on this question since October 1992, when George H. W. Bush was running for a second term — and lost. What people don’t agree on are the reasons for their doubts and, above all, what the remedy — or remedies — ought to be.

The range of opinions on this is immense. Even though large numbers of voters vaguely suspect that the failings of the political system itself led the country into its current crisis, most evidently expect the system to perform a course correction more or less automatically. As Adam Nagourney of the New York Times reported , by the end of March 2007, at least 280,000 American citizens had already contributed some $113.6 million to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani, or John McCain.

If these people actually believe a presidential election a year-and-a-half from now will significantly alter how the country is run, they have almost surely wasted their money. As Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism ,puts it : “None of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with the promise of reviving the system of check and balances…. The aim of the party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them.”

George W. Bush has, of course, flagrantly violated his oath of office, which requires him “to protect and defend the constitution,” and the opposition party has been remarkably reluctant to hold him to account. Among the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that, under other political circumstances, would surely constitute the Constitutional grounds for impeachment are these: the President and his top officials pressured the Central Intelligence Agency to put together a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s nuclear weapons that both the administration and the Agency knew to be patently dishonest. They then used this false NIE to justify an American war of aggression. After launching an invasion of Iraq, the administration unilaterally reinterpreted international and domestic law to permit the torture of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and at other secret locations around the world.

Nothing in the Constitution, least of all the commander-in-chief clause, allows the president to commit felonies. Nonetheless, within days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush had signed a secret executive order authorizing a new policy of “extraordinary rendition,” in which the CIA is allowed to kidnap terrorist suspects anywhere on Earth and transfer them to prisons in countries like Egypt, Syria, or Uzbekistan, where torture is a normal practice, or to secret CIA prisons outside the United States where Agency operatives themselves do the torturing.

On the home front, despite the post-9/11 congressional authorization of new surveillance powers to the administration, its officials chose to ignore these and, on its own initiative, undertook extensive spying on American citizens without obtaining the necessary judicial warrants and without reporting to Congress on this program. These actions are prima-facie violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (and subsequent revisions) and of Amendment IV of the Constitution.

These alone constitute more than adequate grounds for impeachment, while hardly scratching the surface. And yet, on the eve of the national elections of November 2006, then House Minority Leader, now Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), pledged on the CBS News program “60 Minutes” that “impeachment is off the table.” She called it “a waste of time.” And six months after the Democratic Party took control of both houses of Congress, the prison at Guantánamo Bay was still open and conducting drumhead courts martial of the prisoners held there; the CIA was still using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners in foreign jails; illegal intrusions into the privacy of American citizens continued unabated ; and, more than fifty years after the CIA was founded, it continues to operate under, at best, the most perfunctory congressional oversight.

Promoting Lies, Demoting Democracy

Without question, the administration’s catastrophic war in Iraq is the single overarching issue that has convinced a large majority of Americans that the country is “heading in the wrong direction.” But the war itself is the outcome of an imperial presidency and the abject failure of Congress to perform its Constitutional duty of oversight. Had the government been working as the authors of the Constitution intended, the war could not have occurred. Even now, the Democratic majority remains reluctant to use its power of the purse to cut off funding for the war, thereby ending the American occupation of Iraq and starting to curtail the ever-growing power of the military-industrial complex.

One major problem of the American social and political system is the failure of the press, especially television news, to inform the public about the true breadth of the unconstitutional activities of the executive branch. As Frederick A. O. Schwarz and Aziz Z. Huq, the authors of Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror , observe, “For the public to play its proper checking role at the ballot box, citizens must know what is done by the government in their names.”

Instead of uncovering administration lies and manipulations, the media actively promoted them. Yet the first amendment to the Constitution protects the press precisely so it can penetrate the secrecy that is the bureaucrat’s most powerful, self-protective weapon. As a result of this failure, democratic oversight of the government by an actively engaged citizenry did not — and could not — occur. The people of the United States became mere spectators as an array of ideological extremists, vested interests, and foreign operatives — including domestic neoconservatives, Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi exiles, the Israeli Lobby, the petroleum and automobile industries, warmongers and profiteers allied with the military-industrial complex, and the entrenched interests of the professional military establishment — essentially hijacked the government.

Some respected professional journalists do not see these failings as the mere result of personal turpitude but rather as deep structural and cultural problems within the American system as it exists today. In an interview with Matt Taibbi, Seymour Hersh, for forty years one of America’s leading investigative reporters, put the matter this way:

“All of the institutions we thought would protect us — particularly the press, but also the military, the bureaucracy, the Congress — they have failed… So all the things that we expect would normally carry us through didn’t. The biggest failure, I would argue, is the press, because that’s the most glaring…. What can be done to fix the situation? [long pause] You’d have to fire or execute ninety percent of the editors and executives.”

Veteran analyst of the press (and former presidential press secretary), Bill Moyers, considering a classic moment of media failure, concluded : “The disgraceful press reaction to Colin Powell’s presentation at the United Nations [on February 5, 2003] seems like something out of Monty Python, with one key British report cited by Powell being nothing more than a student’s thesis, downloaded from the Web — with the student later threatening to charge U.S. officials with ‘plagiarism.’”

As a result of such multiple failures (still ongoing), the executive branch easily misled the American public.

A Made-in-America Human Catastrophe

Of the failings mentioned by Hersh, that of the military is particularly striking, resembling as it does the failures of the Vietnam era, thirty-plus years earlier. One would have thought the high command had learned some lessons from the defeat of 1975. Instead, it once again went to war pumped up on our own propaganda — especially the conjoined beliefs that the United States was the “indispensable nation,” the “lone superpower,” and the “victor” in the Cold War; and that it was a new Rome the likes of which the world had never seen, possessing as it did — from the heavens to the remotest spot on the planet — “full spectrum dominance.” The idea that the U.S. was an unquestioned military colossus athwart the world, which no power or people could effectively oppose, was hubristic nonsense certain to get the country into deep trouble — as it did — and bring the U.S. Army to the point of collapse, as happened in Vietnam and may well happen again in Iraq (and Afghanistan).

Instead of behaving in a professional manner, our military invaded Iraq with far too small a force; failed to respond adequately when parts of the Iraqi Army (and Baathist Party) went underground; tolerated an orgy of looting and lawlessness throughout the country; disobeyed orders and ignored international obligations (including the obligation of an occupying power to protect the facilities and treasures of the occupied country — especially, in this case, Baghdad’s National Museum and other archaeological sites of untold historic value); and incompetently fanned the flames of an insurgency against our occupation, committing numerous atrocities against unarmed Iraqi civilians.

According to Andrew Bacevich , “Next to nothing can be done to salvage Iraq. It no longer lies within the capacity of the United States to determine the outcome of events there.” Our former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas W. Freeman, says of President Bush’s recent “surge” strategy in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province: “The reinforcement of failure is a poor substitute for its correction.”

Symbolically, a certain sign of the disaster to come in Iraq arrived via an April 26th posting from the courageous but anonymous Sunni woman who has, since August 2003, published the indispensable blog Baghdad Burning. Her family, she reported , was finally giving up and going into exile — joining up to two million of her compatriots who have left the country. In her final dispatch, she wrote:

“There are moments when the injustice of having to leave your country simply because an imbecile got it into his head to invade it, is overwhelming. It is unfair that in order to survive and live normally, we have to leave our home and what remains of family and friends…. And to what?”

Retired General Barry McCaffrey, commander of the 24th Infantry Division in the first Iraq war and a consistent cheerleader for Bush strategies in the second, recently radically changed his tune. He now says , “No Iraqi government official, coalition soldier, diplomat, reporter, foreign NGO, nor contractor can walk the streets of Baghdad, nor Mosul, nor Kirkuk, nor Basra, nor Tikrit, nor Najaf, nor Ramadi, without heavily armed protection.” In a different context, Gen. McCaffrey has concluded : “The U.S. Army is rapidly unraveling.”

Even military failure in Iraq is still being spun into an endless web of lies and distortions by the White House, the Pentagon, military pundits, and the now-routine reporting of propagandists disguised as journalists. For example, in the first months of 2007, rising car-bomb attacks in Baghdad were making a mockery of Bush administration and Pentagon claims that the U.S. troop escalation in the capital had brought about “a dramatic drop in sectarian violence.” The official response to this problem: the Pentagon simply quit including deaths from car bombings in its count of sectarian casualties. (It has never attempted to report civilian casualties publicly or accurately.) Since August 2003, there have been over 1,050 car bombings in Iraq. One study estimates that through June 2006 the death toll from these alone has been a staggering 78,000 Iraqis.

The war and occupation George W. Bush unleashed in Iraq has proved unimaginably lethal for unarmed civilians, but reporting the true levels of lethality in Iraq, or the nature of the direct American role in it was, for a long time, virtually taboo in the U.S. media. As late as October 2006, the journal of the British Medical Association, The Lancet , published a study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad estimating that, since March 2003, there were some 601,027 more Iraqi deaths from violence than would have been expected without a war. The British and American governments at first dismissed the findings, claiming the research was based on faulty statistical methods — and the American media ignored the study, played down its importance, or dismissed its figures.

On March 27, 2007, however, it was revealed that the chief scientific adviser to the British Ministry of Defense, Roy Anderson, had offered a more honest response. The methods used in the study were, he wrote , “close to best practice.” Another British official described them as “a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones.” Over 600,000 violent deaths in a population estimated in 2006 at 26.8 million — that is, one in every 45 individuals — amounts to a made-in-America human catastrophe.

One subject that the government, the military, and the news media try to avoid like the plague is the racist and murderous culture of rank-and-file American troops when operating abroad. Partly as a result of the background racism that is embedded in many Americans’ mental make-up and the propaganda of American imperialism that is drummed into recruits during military training, they do not see assaults on unarmed “rag heads” or “hajis” as murder. The cult of silence on this subject began to slip only slightly in May 2007 when a report prepared by the Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team was leaked to the San Diego Union-Tribune . Based on anonymous surveys and focus groups involving 1,320 soldiers and 447 Marines, the study revealed that only 56% of soldiers would report a unit member for injuring or killing an innocent noncombatant, while a mere 40% of Marines would do so. Some militarists will reply that such inhumanity to the defenseless is always inculcated into the properly trained soldier. If so, then the answer to this problem is to ensure that, in the future, there are many fewer imperialist wars of choice sponsored by the United States.

The Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

Many other aspects of imperialism and militarism are undermining America’s Constitutional system. By now, for example, the privatization of military and intelligence functions is totally out of control, beyond the law, and beyond any form of Congressional oversight. It is also incredibly lucrative for the owners and operators of so-called private military companies — and the money to pay for their activities ultimately comes from taxpayers through government contracts. Any accounting of these funds, largely distributed to crony companies with insider connections, is chaotic at best. Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army ,estimates that there are 126,000 private military contractors in Iraq, more than enough to keep the war going, even if most official U.S. troops were withdrawn. “From the beginning,” Scahill writes, “these contractors have been a major hidden story of the war, almost uncovered in the mainstream media and absolutely central to maintaining the U.S. occupation of Iraq.”

America’s massive “military” budgets, still on the rise, are beginning to threaten the U.S. with bankruptcy, given that its trade and fiscal deficits already easily make it the world’s largest net debtor nation. Spending on the military establishment — sometimes mislabeled “defense spending” — has soared to the highest levels since World War II, exceeding the budgets of the Korean and Vietnam War eras as well as President Ronald Reagan’s weapons-buying binge in the 1980s. According to calculations by the National Priorities Project, a non-profit research organization that examines the local impact of federal spending policies, military spending today consumes 40% of every tax dollar.

Equally alarming, it is virtually impossible for a member of Congress or an ordinary citizen to obtain even a modest handle on the actual size of military spending or its impact on the structure and functioning of our economic system. Some $30 billion of the official Defense Department (DoD) appropriation in the current fiscal year is “black,” meaning that it is allegedly going for highly classified projects . Even the open DoD budget receives only perfunctory scrutiny because members of Congress, seeking lucrative defense contracts for their districts, have mutually beneficial relationships with defense contractors and the Pentagon. President Dwight D. Eisenhower identified this phenomenon, in the draft version of his 1961 farewell address, as the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” Forty-six years later, in a way even Eisenhower probably couldn’t have imagined, the defense budget is beyond serious congressional oversight or control.

The DoD always tries to minimize the size of its budget by representing it as a declining percentage of the gross national product. What it never reveals is that total military spending is actually many times larger than the official appropriation for the Defense Department. For fiscal year 2006, Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute calculated national security outlays at almost a trillion dollars — $934.9 billion to be exact — broken down as follows (in billions of dollars):

Department of Defense: $499.4
Department of Energy (atomic weapons): $16.6
Department of State (foreign military aid): $25.3
Department of Veterans Affairs (treatment of wounded soldiers): $69.8
Department of Homeland Security (actual defense): $69.1
Department of Justice (1/3rd for the FBI): $1.9
Department of the Treasury (military retirements): $38.5
NASA (satellite launches): $7.6
Interest on war debts, 1916-present: $206.7
Totaled, the sum is larger than the combined sum spent by all other nations on military security.

This spending helps sustain the national economy and represents, essentially, a major jobs program. However, it is beginning to crowd out the civilian economy, causing stagnation in income levels. It also contributes to the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs to other countries. On May 1, 2007, the Center for Economic and Policy Research released a series of estimates on “the economic impact of the Iraq war and higher military spending.” Its figures show, among other things, that, after an initial demand stimulus, the effect of a significant rise in military spending (as we’ve experienced in recent years) turns negative around the sixth year.

Sooner or later, higher military spending forces inflation and interest rates up, reducing demand in interest-sensitive sectors of the economy, notably in annual car and truck sales. Job losses follow. The non-military construction and manufacturing sectors experience the largest share of these losses. The report concludes , “Most economic models show that military spending diverts resources from productive uses, such as consumption and investment, and ultimately slows economic growth and reduces employment.”

Imperial Liquidation?

Imperialism and militarism have thus begun to imperil both the financial and social well-being of our republic. What the country desperately needs is a popular movement to rebuild the Constitutional system and subject the government once again to the discipline of checks and balances. Neither the replacement of one political party by the other, nor protectionist economic policies aimed at rescuing what’s left of our manufacturing economy will correct what has gone wrong. Both of these solutions fail to address the root cause of our national decline.

I believe that there is only one solution to the crisis we face. The American people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created in their name and the huge (still growing) military establishment that undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire. By doing so, Britain avoided the fate of the Roman Republic — becoming a domestic tyranny and losing its democracy, as would have been required if it had continued to try to dominate much of the world by force.

For the U.S., the decision to mount such a campaign of imperial liquidation may already come too late, given the vast and deeply entrenched interests of the military-industrial complex. To succeed, such an endeavor might virtually require a revolutionary mobilization of the American citizenry, one at least comparable to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Even to contemplate a drawing back from empire — something so inconceivable to our pundits and newspaper editorial writers that it is simply never considered — we must specify as clearly as possible precisely what the elected leaders and citizens of the United States would have to do. Two cardinal decisions would have to be made. First, in Iraq, we would have to initiate a firm timetable for withdrawing all our military forces and turning over the permanent military bases we have built to the Iraqis. Second, domestically, we would have to reverse federal budget priorities.

In the words of Noam Chomsky , a venerable critic of American imperialism: “Where spending is rising, as in military supplemental bills to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would sharply decline. Where spending is steady or declining (health, education, job training, the promotion of energy conservation and renewable energy sources, veterans benefits, funding for the UN and UN peacekeeping operations, and so on), it would sharply increase. Bush’s tax cuts for people with incomes over $200,000 a year would be immediately rescinded.”

Such reforms would begin at once to reduce the malevolent influence of the military-industrial complex, but many other areas would require attention as well. As part of the process of de-garrisoning the planet and liquidating our empire, we would have to launch an orderly closing-up process for at least 700 of the 737 military bases we maintain (by official Pentagon count) in over 130 foreign countries on every continent except Antarctica. We should ultimately aim at closing all our imperialist enclaves, but in order to avoid isolationism and maintain a capacity to assist the United Nations in global peacekeeping operations, we should, for the time being, probably retain some 37 of them, mostly naval and air bases.

Equally important, we should rewrite all our Status of Forces Agreements — those American-dictated “agreements” that exempt our troops based in foreign countries from local criminal laws, taxes, immigration controls, anti-pollution legislation, and anything else the American military can think of. It must be established as a matter of principle and law that American forces stationed outside the U.S. will deal with their host nations on a basis of equality, not of extraterritorial privilege.

The American approach to diplomatic relations with the rest of the world would also require a major overhaul. We would have to end our belligerent unilateralism toward other countries as well as our scofflaw behavior regarding international law. Our objective should be to strengthen the United Nations, including our respect for its majority, by working to end the Security Council veto system (and by stopping using our present right to veto). The United States needs to cease being the world’s largest supplier of arms and munitions — a lethal trade whose management should be placed under UN supervision. We should encourage the UN to begin outlawing weapons like land mines, cluster bombs, and depleted-uranium ammunition that play particularly long-term havoc with civilian populations. As part of an attempt to right the diplomatic balance, we should take some obvious steps like recognizing Cuba and ending our blockade of that island and, in the Middle East, working to equalize aid to Israel and Palestine, while attempting to broker a real solution to that disastrous situation. Our goal should be a return to leading by example — and by sound arguments — rather than by continual resort to unilateral armed force and repeated foreign military interventions.

In terms of the organization of the executive branch, we need to rewrite the National Security Act of 1947, taking away from the CIA all functions that involve sabotage, torture, subversion, overseas election rigging, rendition, and other forms of clandestine activity. The president should be deprived of his power to order these types of operations except with the explicit advice and consent of the Senate. The CIA should basically devote itself to the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence. We should eliminate as much secrecy as possible so that neither the CIA, nor any other comparable organization ever again becomes the president’s private army.

In order to halt our economic decline and lessen our dependence on our trading partners, the U.S. must cap its trade deficits through the perfectly legal use of tariffs in accordance with World Trade Organization rules, and it must begin to guide its domestic market in accordance with a national industrial policy, just as the leading economies of the world (particularly the Japanese and Chinese ones) do as a matter of routine. Even though it may involve trampling on the vested interests of American university economics departments, there is simply no excuse for a continued reliance on an outdated doctrine of “free trade.”

Normally, a proposed list of reforms like this would simply be rejected as utopian. I understand this reaction. I do want to stress, however, that failure to undertake such reforms would mean condemning the United States to the fate that befell the Roman Republic and all other empires since then. That is why I gave my book Nemesis the subtitle “The Last Days of the American Republic.”

When Ronald Reagan coined the phrase “evil empire,” he was referring to the Soviet Union, and I basically agreed with him that the USSR needed to be contained and checkmated. But today it is the U.S. that is widely perceived as an evil empire and world forces are gathering to stop us. The Bush administration insists that if we leave Iraq our enemies will “win” or — even more improbably — “follow us home.” I believe that, if we leave Iraq and our other imperial enclaves, we can regain the moral high ground and disavow the need for a foreign policy based on preventive war. I also believe that unless we follow this path, we will lose our democracy and then it will not matter much what else we lose. In the immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

(Chalmers Johnson is the author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007). It is the final volume of his Blowback Trilogy.)

Iraq - what the other Arab states are thinking

The Great Circle of Enmity
By Fouad Ajami/US News & World Report

Truth be known, American diplomacy can't reconcile the ruling order of power in Arab lands any more than it can sweet-talk the Arab "street" to accept the right of this new Iraq to its place among the nations. Hard as the Bush administration might try, there is no hope that those Arab neighbors will write off the debts incurred by Saddam Hussein in his ruinous wars. It is idle to think that the day is near when the Arab satellite channels, silent toward the misdeeds of Arab rulers, will cease the steady drumbeats against all that plays out in Baghdad.

Vice President Dick Cheney may descend on Arab capitals, as he did last week, and our secretary of state can assemble one huge diplomatic conclave after another in support of Iraq, but the great circle of enmity around this fragile Baghdad government will not be broken. We can warn the powers in Arab capitals of the dangers of failure and breakdown in Iraq, but we should understand that those neighbors may dread the prospects of Iraq's success more.

This region has been stubborn in its refusal to accept the stark verdicts of history. The State of Israel is a year away from its 60th anniversary, and still the Arab imagination denies Israel's legitimacy. Iraq is different, but a state that gives pride of place to the Shiites (and the Kurds) is still an oddity in the Arab landscape. For well over a millennium, the Shiite Arabs have not governed; they have been the stepchildren of the Arab world. But in their long years of defeat and subservience, the Shiites remained righteous in their claim to the Prophet Muhammad's mantle, in their stubborn hope that the day would come when the order of things would be righted.

True to those Shiite hopes, American power, in a moment of perfect innocence, struck into Baghdad and upended an entrenched order of power, granted the dispossessed a chance at a new history, delivered them a big country loaded with oil and possibilities.

The Sunni Arab rulers, and the angry men and women on the airwaves and in the "chat rooms" of the Arab world, insist that their animus toward this new Iraq derives from their opposition to the American presence. This is plain hypocrisy, for vast stretches of the Arab world are within the orbit of American power. Pax Americana, and the shadow and the reality of its power, underpin the security of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In Amman, Jordan, and Cairo, American largess and security networks uphold these regimes. In the Arabian Peninsula, the American presence-military and economic and cultural-dates back decades.

Those angry preachers and pundits who take to the pages of the Arabic dailies or to the ceaseless agitation of al Jazeera television to brand Iraq's leaders American "collaborators" and stooges look past the entire edifice of American power all around them. They shout in the knowledge that America is too unschooled in Arab malice and evasions to see through their mischief and belligerence. If anything, it is the prospect that America may forge a bond with those embattled Iraqis that unsettles Iraq's Arab neighbors.

New political order. Against the background of a cruel war, and in a region addicted to failure and self-pity, American power has brought forth in Baghdad a political order alien to its habitat-a state that does not belong to a ruling caste or a single master. That state fights for its life, but a secular Kurd of great civility and learning, Jalal Talabani, is the constitutional head of state, and a modest Shiite man who has risen from the depths of Iraqi society, Nouri al-Maliki, is the head of government. Around them are political figures drawn from practically all of Iraq's checkered communities-a Kurdish foreign minister, a Sunni speaker of parliament, etc. To be sure, the Sunni Arabs are no longer masters of this turbulent country, but no one in Iraq thinks that a new, tranquil order could be had without them.

This new Iraqi history will stand or fall of its own weight; the specter of an Iranian-dominated Iraq peddled by the Arabs is a scarecrow. Now the Arab regimes are openly campaigning for nothing less than an American coup d'état against the Maliki government and for the return of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a man at ease with Arab rulers and intelligence services. But Allawi, who spends more time in Amman and the United Arab Emirates than in Baghdad, is anathema to his own Shiite community, and America has not waded deep into Iraq to perpetuate those old Arab ways.

The amazing Bjork in concert

The Zeitgeist Reloaded
An ecstatic, tear-bursting evening in Björk's pagan gospel church
by Greg Tate/Village Voice

James Baldwin liked to say "Artists are here to disturb the peace." True that, Jimmy, true that. But when those rowdies are really on their game, they also rip folks out of mortal time and the fear of extinction. Lunge them away from their circadian lockstep and into the white-water roller-coaster rush of mythicized ritual frenzy, becoming mad, redemptive angel-banshees on the loose, casting wide nets, screaming love on that ass.

A lifetime of loving Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman prepares you to love Björk and the way she worries the notes, stresses tonality until it cracks not because she can't help it but because she lives to crucify a pretty melody with her own brand of wounded, buck-wild, Middle Earth dissonance. She has become this century's zeitgeist artist for that reason, that alarming sonic tongue she uses to zap her diversity-conference audience's sense of emergency, fragility, and pure animal panic. She also operatically exalts and exudes that most elusive and fanciful of human desires: untrammeled, untamable freedom, laid out to the pomo techno-tribalist beat all you earthbound E.T.'s now call home. What the funk were the Wachowski Brothers going for in that Matrix Reloaded rave scene? Nothing less than the pagan gospel church of Björk in full-spectacle throw-down mode.

At her Cinco de Mayo gig at the United Palace Theatre in Harlem—where you can still go Sunday afternoons to catch Reverend Ike preach the gospel of "plenteousness"—Björk showed a Negro how far we've come from 1964: lots of grown-ass white women skuh-reem-ing her name like bobby-soxers and teenyboppers once shrieked for Frank, Elvis, and the Beatles. Even everybody's favorite gangstress, our girl dream Hampton, broke down in tears the moment Björk opened her mouth. Lots of grown-ass Others doing the same: Blackfolk, queerfolk, Latinfolk, Asianfolk, hippiefolk, gothfolk, hipsterfolk, graypantherfolk . . . Björk's is a hunter-gatherer ministry calling all barbarous bohemian nations. Plenty of nappyheads for sure (you know we represented), but was trill hiphop in the house? No, nobody vaguely resembling a single ATL stripper in sight, though human nature tells us, just like East Village Nuyorican she-males once transformed the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" into a personal problem, down in the Dirty, Björk's probably inside hella pole dancers' iPods. "Pagan Poetry"? You know them girls are living there: "Swirling black lilies totally ripe/A secret code carved."

But forgive me for being so gauche. Like us old heads used to do with Miles, I'm not even supposed to tell you what she sounded like before telling you what she was wearing, but a brother's thousand-yard stare ain't what it used to be and, strained for details (Was that bell of Halloween-flavored plumage made of feathers or taffeta? Were those thigh-high witch's boots?), all we know for true is a black storm of barely shorn hair got shook like a Polaroid picture, and nobody does the centaur dance better.

Her band of gypsies included an all-homegirl brass ensemble, a vocal choir decked out in gaily colored church robes, a drummer, a synthesist, and a laptop jockey who doubled on a 'Pod-rigged wheel of steel. Special guests per her new album, Volta , included Antony (minus the Johnsons), two members of the Congo's own opening act Konono No. 1, and Ming Xiao-Fen bluesing her pipa like the spirit of Blind Willie McTell had gotten all up in her area. Gargantuan eco-friendly banners were strung across the back of the stage as if UN Plaza had been taken over by tree huggas with attitude. Nobody since Larry Levan has bewitched or deafened a crowd like her, and he's for damn sure up there in snap heaven raining "fiercefaeriewarriorqueenbeatchyoubettawork!" catcalls down upon her.

No brag just fact: Like she already told you, when it comes to being post-everything, every-freaking-body short of Stockhausen, Sylvester, and Joni Mitchell needs to go get a late pass. The set list spun gold and new, crescendoing through nothing borrowed and plenty newfangled Icelandic-tinged country blues. If you're deep off in the cult, you won't be mad at Volta —she'll likely already have you at hello and whatnot. And at this point, like Prince, she's a legacy artist. Her best work's not necessarily behind her, but what is behind her is kinda genius, and whatever happens now is postscript. Still, we'll review: Volta 's brass ensemble thing sounds a wee bit too Stravinsky-on- Demerol. In concert, it was more haunting, droning, and Doppler Effect–ish, poking up through the martial drum din and then receding. And maybe it's just moi, but her and Antony on the same track . . . don't you think that might be too much drama, m'dear? Like Freddie Mercury had done a mating dance with Nina Simone. We're supposed to humanly process all that surgical emoting at once? Your call, G, I'm just saying .

Thankfully, Björk and kora master Toumani Diabaté both seem more comfortable in their own skins, more like when handshakes collide rather than worlds. Her pairing with thumb-piano–flaunting Konono No. 1, on the other hand, makes for more friction despite their mutual affinities. And the very prospect of her and Timbaland chirping and hiccuping on the same track is hands-down the best idea for a collab anyone's had since Sun Ra and John Cage made nice on Coney Island in 1986. Missy so owns Tim's thang that when you hear these Björk/Tim joints, you may feel compelled to drop the hee-haws in her absence. But the first one to mash up Volta 's "Declare Independence" and Missy's "She's a Bitch" is a ripened lily.

The freak-flag–waving "Independence," by the way, served as Björk's electropunk encore at Reverend Ike's Palace. One can only imagine what pandemonium might have ensued had her battle cry been a genuinely risky non-sequitur like "Fuck the Police." Even so, Tolkien never told us the Elf had militant-house anthems for days. Or that whatever scares this hi-fi priestess ain't got nothing to do with man, god, machine, mother nature, or the way of the drum.

Does amputee sprinter have unfair 'cyborg' advantage?

An Amputee Sprinter: Is He Disabled or Too-Abled?

MANCHESTER, England — As Oscar Pistorius of South Africa crouched in the starting blocks for the 200 meters on Sunday, the small crowd turned its attention to the sprinter who calls himself the fastest man on no legs.

Pistorius wants to be the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympics. But despite his ascendance, he is facing resistance from track and field’s world governing body, which is seeking to bar him on the grounds that the technology of his prosthetics may give him an unfair advantage over sprinters using their natural legs.

His first strides were choppy Sunday, a necessary accommodation to sprinting on a pair of j-shaped blades made of carbon fiber and known as Cheetahs. Pistorius was born without the fibula in his lower legs and with other defects in his feet. He had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. At 20, his coach says, he is like a five-speed engine with no second gear.

Yet Pistorius is also a searing talent who has begun erasing the lines between abled and disabled, raising philosophical questions: What should an athlete look like? Where should limits be placed on technology to balance fair play with the right to compete? Would the nature of sport be altered if athletes using artificial limbs could run faster or jump higher than the best athletes using their natural limbs?

Once at full speed Sunday, Pistorius handily won the 100 and 200 meters here at the Paralympic World Cup, an international competition for disabled athletes. A cold, rainy afternoon tempered his performances, but his victories came decisively and kept him aimed toward his goal of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, even though international track officials seek to block his entrance.

Since March, Pistorius has delivered startling record performances for disabled athletes at 100 meters (10.91 seconds), 200 meters (21.58 seconds) and 400 meters (46.34 seconds). Those times do not meet Olympic qualifying standards for men, but the Beijing Games are still 15 months away. Already, Pistorius is fast enough that his marks would have won gold medals in equivalent women’s races at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Pistorius’s time of 46.56 in the 400 earned him a second-place finish in March against able-bodied runners at the South African national championships. This seemingly makes him a candidate for the Olympic 4x400-meter relay should South Africa qualify as one of the world’s 16 fastest teams.

“I don’t see myself as disabled,” said the blond, spiky-haired Pistorius, a former rugby and water polo player who declines to park in spaces reserved for the disabled. “There’s nothing I can’t do that able-bodied athletes can do.”

An Equalizer or an Edge?

Still, the question persists: Do prosthetic legs simply level the playing field for Pistorius, compensating for his disability, or do they give him an inequitable edge via what some call techno-doping?

Experts say there have been limited scientific studies on the biomechanics of amputee runners, especially those missing both legs. And because Pistorius lost his legs as an infant, his speed on carbon-fiber legs cannot be compared with his speed on natural legs.

Track and field’s world governing body, based in Monaco and known by the initials I.A.A.F., has recently prohibited the use of technological aids like springs and wheels, disqualifying Pistorius from events that it sanctions. A final ruling is expected in August.

The International Olympic Committee allows governing bodies to make their own eligibility rules, though it can intervene. Since 2004, for example, transgender athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics.

“With all due respect, we cannot accept something that provides advantages,” said Elio Locatelli of Italy, the director of development for the I.A.A.F., urging Pistorius to concentrate on the Paralympics that will follow the Olympics in Beijing. “It affects the purity of sport. Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back.”

Others have questioned the governing body’s motivation.

“I pose a question” for the I.A.A.F., said Robert Gailey, an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Medical School, who has studied amputee runners. “Are they looking at not having an unfair advantage? Or are they discriminating because of the purity of the Olympics, because they don’t want to see a disabled man line up against an able-bodied man for fear that if the person who doesn’t have the perfect body wins, what does that say about the image of man?”

According to Gailey, a prosthetic leg returns only about 80 percent of the energy absorbed in each stride, while a natural leg returns up to 240 percent, providing much more spring.

“There is no science that he has an advantage, only that he is competing at a disadvantage,” Gailey, who has served as an official in disabled sports, said of Pistorius.

Foremost among the I.A.A.F.’s concerns is that Pistorius’s prosthetic limbs may make him taller than he would have been on natural legs and may unfairly lengthen his stride, allowing him to lower his best times by several seconds in the past three years, while most elite sprinters improve by hundredths of a second.

“The rule book says a foot has to be in contact with the starting block,” Leon Fleiser, a general manager of the South African Olympic Committee, said. “What is the definition of a foot? Is a prosthetic device a foot, or is it an actual foot?”

I.A.A.F. officials have also expressed concern that Pistorius could topple over, obstructing others or injuring himself and fellow competitors. Some also fear that, without limits on technological aids, able-bodied runners could begin wearing carbon-fiber plates or other unsuitably springy devices in their shoes.

Among ethicists, Pistorius’s success has spurred talk of “transhumans” and “cyborgs.” Some note that athletes already modify themselves in a number of ways, including baseball sluggers who undergo laser eye surgery to enhance their vision and pitchers who have elbow reconstruction using sturdier ligaments from elsewhere in the body. At least three disabled athletes have competed in the Summer Olympics: George Eyser, an American, won a gold medal in gymnastics while competing on a wooden leg at the 1904 Games in St. Louis; Neroli Fairhall, a paraplegic from New Zealand, competed in archery in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; and Marla Runyan, a legally blind runner from the United States, competed in the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. But Pistorius would be the first amputee to compete in a track event, international officials said.

A sobering question was posed recently on the Web site of the Connecticut-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “Given the arms race nature of competition,” will technological advantages cause “athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones?” wrote George Dvorsky, a member of the institute’s board of directors. “Is it self-mutilation when you’re getting a better limb?”

Limits and Accommodations

Historically, the I.A.A.F. has placed limits on devices that assist athletes. It prohibits an array of performance-enhancing drugs. And it does not allow wheelchair athletes into the Olympic marathon, given that wheels provide a clear advantage in speed.

But the governing body has also embraced technological advances. For instance, it permits athletes to sleep in tent-like devices designed to simulate high altitude and increase oxygen-carrying capacity.

As disabled athletes improve their performances, the I.A.A.F. is certain to be faced with more decisions about accommodating them. Last February, Jeff Skiba, who has one leg amputated below the knee, competed in the high jump at the United States indoor track and field championships.

Some I.A.A.F. officials say Pistorius’s application should not be treated dismissively. Although he would not be considered a medal candidate, his appearance at the Beijing Games could provide an inspiring story.

“There is no real grounds to say he should not be allowed to compete” in the Olympics, said Juan Manuel Alonso of Spain, who heads the I.A.A.F.’s medical and antidoping commission. “We’d like to have more information and biomechanical studies.”

His own fear, Pistorius said, is that the governing body, which has not contacted him, will ban him on supposition, not science.

“I think they’re afraid to do the research,” Pistorius, a business student at the University of Pretoria, said. “They’re afraid of what they’re going to find, that I don’t have an advantage and they’ll have to let me compete.”

Pistorius, whose stated height is 6 feet 1 _ inches while wearing his sprinting prosthetics, says that the devices are within an allowed range determined by the length of his thighs. The peak length of his stride, he said, is 9 feet, not 13 feet as some I.A.A.F. officials suggest.

There are many disadvantages to sprinting on carbon-fiber legs, Pistorius and his coach said. After a cumbersome start, he needs about 30 meters to gain his rhythm. His knees do not flex as readily, limiting his power output. His grip can be unsure in the rain. And when he runs into a headwind or grows fatigued, he must fight rotational forces that turn his prosthetic devices sideways, said Ampie Louw, who coaches Pistorius.

“The I.A.A.F. has got no clue about disabled sport,” said Louw, who has coached Pistorius since 2003.

Insufficient credit is given to Pistorius’s resolve in the weight room and on the track, Louw said, describing one intense workout that requires him to run 350 meters in 42 seconds; 300 meters in 34.6 seconds; 200 meters in 22 seconds and 150 meters in 15.4 seconds. “The kid is a born champion,” Louw said. “He doesn’t settle for second best.”

Having worn prosthetics since infancy, Pistorius did not have to adjust to artificial legs after he began competing, as many disabled athletes do. He won a gold medal in the 200 at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

“These have always been my legs,” he said. “I train harder than other guys, eat better, sleep better and wake up thinking about athletics. I think that’s probably why I’m a bit of an exception.”

One who is attempting to broaden the definition of an Olympic athlete.

“You have two competing issues — fair competition and basic human rights to compete,” said Angela Schneider, a sports ethicist at the University of Western Ontario and a 1984 Olympic silver medalist in rowing.

The I.A.A.F. must objectively define when prosthetic devices “go from therapy to enhancement,” Schneider said. The danger of acting hastily, she said, is “you deny a guy’s struggle against all odds — one of the fundamental principles of the Olympics.”

How government rigs the economy in favor of well-off workers

Loser Liberalism Versus Power Populism
By Dean Baker/

The Democrats like to portray themselves as the party of humble masses. This is in contrast to the Republicans, who President Bush once jokingly described as the party of the "haves and have mores."

But there are two very distinct ways in which Democrats see themselves as helping out the middle class and poor. On the one hand, much of the Democratic Party leadership portrays the government as sort of a collective charity. These Democrats draw a picture that has the market determining societies' winners and losers. But, because they are nice people, they think it's appropriate to tax the winners to help out the losers. This distinguishes them from the Republicans, who want to tell the losers to get lost. This philosophy can be thought of as "loser liberalism," since it holds that the government must tax back some of the winners' money to help out those who did not do very well on their own.

This view can be contrasted with "power populism," which doesn't accept the basic government/market distinction that loser liberalism treats as its starting point. The power populists see government policy as determining who wins and loses in the market place. For example, it is government policy that makes it easy to import cars and clothes, thereby putting auto workers and apparel workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. This trade policy makes manufacturing workers losers.

On the other hand, government policy also makes it difficult for foreign doctors and lawyers to work in the United States, unlike foreign dishwashers and custodians. Since the government protects doctors and lawyers and other highly paid professionals from foreign competition, it ensures that these people will be among the winners in the global economy.

Government policy also dictates that patent monopolies will be the primary method for financing drug research and copyright monopolies will be the main method for promoting software development, thereby enabling companies like Merck and Pfizer and individuals like Bill Gates to get very rich. There are other, more efficient mechanisms for financing research of developing drugs and software that would not create the same winners or lead to as much inequality, but the rich and powerful use their power to keep these alternatives from ever being publicly debated.

Loser liberalism is by far the predominant strain within the Democratic Party for the simple reason that these are the folks with the money. And money not only buys campaign ads, but it is the basis for being taken seriously by the media. The media feels completely justified in ignoring the positions of the presidential candidates who haven't raised the tens of millions that they have decided is necessary to win the nomination. This means candidates that don't promote loser liberalism are simply excluded from the outset.

Not only are populist candidates excluded from the debate, but political positions that are inconsistent with loser liberalism are also largely excluded from public debate. So, trade policy is consistently portrayed as a debate between "globalizers" and "free traders" who are being challenged by "protectionists." In reality, the globalizers are ardent protectionists who are happy to have highly educated professionals protected from foreign competition. They also want to increase patent protections on drugs and copyright protections on software and make poor people in the developing world pay more money for these products. They are only "free traders" when it comes to placing less educated workers in the United States in competition with workers in the developing world.

The loser liberals similarly control the debate in other areas. A modest tax on stock trades and other financial transactions, like the one that England has, could easily raise more than $100 billion a year in revenue. But, the hedge fund crew knows that this would be real money out of their pockets, so they don't even let the issue get discussed. After all, it's fine to make a bunch of stupid auto workers lose their jobs -- we can always give them "wage insurance" - but it's another matter altogether to cut into the income of the hedge fund crew.

The loser liberals also keep single payer health care insurance off the table, although they might be willing to pay somewhat higher taxes to allow a few more kids to get health care coverage. The loser liberals would never allow for a serious discussion of alternatives to patent-financed research for prescription drugs, no matter how many Vioxx-type scandals fill the newspapers. After all, we're talking about the profits for Merck and Pfizer, not pensions for steelworkers.

There is a long list of government policies, many of which are extremely harmful to the economy and society, that have the effect of redistributing income upward. Like the Republicans, the loser liberals want to make sure that these policies never come up for public debate. But, the loser liberals may be willing to pay taxes on their billions. Perhaps we should be thankful for small favors, but real change will require overturning the structures that redistribute income upward, not a modest trickle of tax revenue that allows some of this money to flow back down.

(Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer ( ). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.)

The gadfly economists - Paul Krugman and John Kenneth Galbraith

The 'Usefully Dangerous' Economist
By Mark Levinson/Dissent

This is the story of two economists—John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last year at age ninety-seven, and Paul Krugman, who at fifty-four is in his prime as an economist and a columnist for the New York Times . Like Galbraith, Krugman is a forthright liberal, the most well-known economist of his generation, skilled at writing about economics for a general public.

Yet relations between the two were not what one might think. Throughout much of the 1990s, Krugman declared war on popular writers of economics, and sneeringly said of Galbraith that “he has never been taken seriously by his academic colleagues, who regard him as more of a ‘media personality.’” The “fault line,” he wrote, “between serious economic thinking and economic patent medicine, between the professors and the policy entrepreneurs, is at least as important as the divide between left and right.”

But the world changed when George W. Bush was elected in 2000, and what is arguably the worst administration in the history of the United States took office. It seemed to shake Krugman to the core. He now says of his polemics in the 1990s, “I was wrong obviously. If I’d understood where politics would be now, it would have been quite different.”

Whether lashing out at the administration’s shifting explanations as to why they were delivering truckloads of cash to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts or explaining the dishonesty in the administration’s plans to privatize Social Security or puncturing the cultlike worship of Alan Greenspan or railing against Bush’s deceptions about the war or describing how oil company lobbyists made energy policy for Dick Cheney’s task force, Krugman has committed himself to exposing “the lies of the powerful.”

It is as if Krugman were transported back in time and took to heart Galbraith’s words from his presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1972. Galbraith insisted that power—which he defined as “the ability of persons or institutions to bend others to their purposes”—is decisive in understanding what happens in the world. He went on: “If we accept the reality of power . . . we have years of useful professional work ahead of us. And since we will be in touch with real issues, and since issues that are real inspire passion, our life will again be pleasantly contentious, perhaps even usefully dangerous.”

It’s hard to think of a better description of Krugman. His discovery of the abuse of power now seems to influence not only his op-ed pieces for the Times but also his more serious economic writing.

One example: Krugman has been writing about inequality since the early 1990s. Back then, he documented the extent of inequality and refuted conservative attempts to deny its seriousness or existence. But it is one thing to describe how unequal American society is and another thing entirely to understand the causes of inequality. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Krugman spoke about causes, he usually said something like this (from an interview in 1999): “Looking at the numbers makes it clear that this [inequality] is . . . [caused by] some combination of technological change and more complicated factors.”

In late 2006, Krugman said, “We have only a modest amount of direct evidence that technological change is driving increased income inequality.” Now his explanation incorporates power and politics: “The government can tilt the balance of power between workers and bosses in many ways—and at every juncture this government has favored the bosses.” The minimum wage has withered, tax policy favors the rich, the administration blocked corporate reform, thus allowing CEOs to reward themselves at unprecedented levels, and perhaps most important, “There has been a concerted attack on the institutions that have helped moderate inequality—in particular unions.” This is Krugman at his “pleasantly contentious” and “usefully dangerous” best. Somewhere, John Kenneth Galbraith is smiling.

Bookplanet: Indian review of "Planet Of Slums" by Mike Davis

Housing catastrophe
The author brings us face to face with the consequences of decisions taken by those far removed from the stench and struggle of slum reality.
By SUSAN RAM/The Hindu

IN his 1998 study, Cities in Civilization , the planner and scholar Sir Peter Hall endorsed an ancient optimism: belief in an umbilical link between urban life and civilisation. Irrespective of the age, he argued, cities energise, replenish, renew. By token of their very size and complexity, they act as incubators in whose "innovative milieu" cultural inertia is transformed by the coming together of a critical mass of creative people. Twenty-first century cities, Hall predicted, would build on this tradition. Geared to the "marriage of art and technology", they would be harbingers of a "coming golden age".

A chasm separates these conclusions from those reached by Mike Davis in a new study, which follows Hall's by only eight years. Its publication coincides with an epochal transition that has received scant media attention or public debate. Some time in the next year or two (it may have happened already), the urban population of the earth will for the first time in human history outnumber the rural. What confronts this town- and city-dwelling majority, Davis argues, is the antithesis of civilisation as it has been understood since cities first came into being several millennia ago.

For giant swathes of people (one billion, according to United Nations figures), urban life is already indistinguishable from slum-based survival. What Davis calls "the astonishing prevalence of slums" is the central theme of a report, "The Challenge of Slums", published by the U.N. Human Settlements Programme (U.N.-HABITAT) in 2003. Drawing extensively on its "historic and sombre" findings, Davis expands on it by offering a critical survey of the literature on global urban poverty, underpinned by meticulous data synthesising. The result is a reality check that brings the reader up short: a passionately executed audit of human misery that is also an indictment of the policies plunging our planet into urban catastrophe.

Davis, a California-based political ecologist and Marxist, has in a series of books established himself as an innovative explorer of the interface between politics and the environment, understood as the historically shaped physical reality in which humans operate. In City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (2000), he offered a provocative new way of looking at contemporary southern California, dissecting with controlled ferocity the bleak suburban sprawl, class divisions and deep-rooted insecurities of Los Angeles. In Late Victorian Holocausts (2001: reviewed in Frontline April 13, 2001), he showed how the great drought-famines of the later 19th century, while triggered by the synchronous weather system known as the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, were transformed into cataclysmic events by the imperatives of global capitalism. His work is characterised by the amassing and critical scrutiny of daunting quantities of evidence, by analytical sharpness, and by the propensity to challenge orthodox "explanations" that benefit the rich and powerful.

In his new book, Davis addresses two questions: what is happening in the world's cities as humankind crosses the threshold to become a predominantly urban species, and how has this reality come about?

Urbanisation, Davis finds, is taking place with a velocity that far outpaces the experience of Victorian Europe. Cities are growing "by a million babies and migrants each week". Ninety-five per cent of all future world population growth (expected to peak at about 10 billion in 2050) will occur in the urban areas of developing countries whose populations will double to four billion over the next generation. Megacities, with populations in excess of eight million, will swell into hypercities with more than 20 million inhabitants (perhaps 33 million in the case of Mumbai, though, as Davis notes (page 5), "no one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable").

Across much of the world (China, Korea and Taiwan are the exceptions), urbanisation is taking place in the absence of industrial development or economic growth, constituting what Davis calls "overurbanisation", driven by the reproduction of poverty, not the supply of jobs. The inevitable result, whether in Karachi or Sao Paulo, Nairobi or Mexico City, is the mass production of slums. Rather than the soaring creations of glass and steel anticipated by earlier generations of urban planners, 21st-century cities will be fashioned from "crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood", their residents squatting "in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay" (page 19).

How to account for this nightmarish turn, this negation of all that urban life was once held to promise: jobs, culture, openings for personal and social progress? The old optimism, Davis argues, has been flattened by the "brutal tectonics" of neoliberal globalisation, in particular the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) slapped on debt-strapped nations in the 1970s and 1980s. This was the "big bang" of overurbanisation, the time when, for poor rural migrants as well as for millions of newly impoverished town-dwellers, slums became "an implacable future".

For Indian readers, Davis' account of what followed will strike powerful resonances. In line with International Monetary Fund/World Bank strictures, Third World states retreated from the sphere of housing provision. The emphasis was now on "improving" slums rather than eradicating them. Slums in cities as far-flung as Mumbai, Dar-es-Salaam and Manila became laboratories for the testing out of World Bank nostrums, whether "sites and services" in the 1980s or, since the mid-1990s, the bypassing of governments altogether through the sanctification of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). For Davis, the latter approach, as embodied in the `poverty reduction strategy' associated with John Wolfensohn's presidency of the World Bank, is nothing short of "soft imperialism": (page 76) "For all the glowing rhetoric about democratisation, self-help, social capital, and the strengthening of civil society, the actual power relations in this new NGO universe resemble nothing so much as traditional clientelism ... The broad impact of the NGO/`civil society revolution', as even some World Bank researchers acknowledge, has been to bureaucratise and deradicalise urban social movements."

Beyond the blandishments of slum "improvement" and fads such as the `titling' movement pioneered by the Peruvian businessman Hernando de Soto (for Davis, "the global guru of neoliberal populism"), Davis shows how infinitely more potent market forces are propelling most urban-dwellers deeper into the margins. He tracks how, from the late 1970s, any notion of synchronisation between urban land values and economic growth (in the sense of industrial development) has been overwhelmed by an unstoppable surge of land speculation. One result has been the closing off of such options as squatting. Another has been a population density implosion that, as in Mumbai's Dharavi, with its estimated 18,000 people an acre, "defies credibility". Shoehorned into ecological disaster zones ruled by squalor and disease, slum-dwellers face the constant threat of eviction, their "voluntary relocation" sought - and brutally enforced - in the name of city "beautification".

This is an angry book, designed not only to inform but also to stir passions and generate outrage. At times, the unrelenting bleakness of the story threatens to overwhelm the reader. One is also struck by the absence of any sustained engagement with the politics of resistance, the actions of slum-dwellers in defence of their homes and communities.

Acknowledging this in an online interview in May 2006, Davis explained that he had envisaged writing a much longer book that would have embraced the politics of the slum but found it impossible to rely on secondary or specialist literature to deal with this dimension. He opted to stretch the project out to include a second volume, which he is now writing in collaboration with Forrest Hylton, an activist with first-hand experience of political organisation and resistance in the slums of Colombia and Bolivia.

In what, then, is his opening salvo, Davis defines and exposes the global housing catastrophe with a ferocity and forensic attention to detail that make his case unassailable.

As edifices of assumption crumble beneath his onslaught, as comfortable Western equations between city and civilisation collapse into the dusty, effluent-strewn alleyways of Nairobi, Kolkata and Rio de Janeiro, Davis brings us face to face with the consequences of decisions taken by bankers, developers and governments far removed from the stench and struggle of slum reality. Whether we recognise it or not, the battle for human living space is on. As with global warming, there is an apocalyptic quality to its possible outcome.

Responsible rainforest farming

A new wave of young entrepreneurs is using our passion for healthy lifestyles as a way of promoting global economic and social justice
By Jay Walljasper/New Statesman

Our small boat bobs along the unimaginably wide Amazon River, then heads up a fast-flowing tributary into the heart of the rainforest. Monkeys scamper in the trees above us as the motorboat chugs more and more slowly until the stream becomes too narrow to travel. This is where José Luiz de Oliveira and his 17-year-old son, Alex, live on a small farmstead alive with bird calls. Piglets frolic in the cool mud below the dock, while ducks march in formation.

The de Oliveiras live as people have for centuries - drawing their daily meals and livelihood from the land, the river and the livestock. But the tiny house has no electricity, no telephone, no fans, no mosquito screens in the windows.

Is it possible to bring the de Oliveiras some of the advantages of modern life - for example, schools and shoes for Alex - without in the pro cess destroying valuable things such as the Amazon rainforest itself, crucial to us all as a source of ecological balance and new medicines?

José invites us to sit under the palm-thatched shelter at the end of their dock. For them it's a welcome break from working in the heat as well as an opportunity to show off baskets of freshly picked açaí, which they gathered from the tops of palm trees surrounding their home.

Açaí - a fruit slightly larger than a blueberry with a similar colour - is our reason for coming up the river. It has recently been discovered outside the rainforest as a "superfood" - a nutritious bundle of amino acids, fibre, essential fatty acids and more of the highly coveted antioxidants than either red wine or blueberries. People often report feeling a surge of energy after eating it - I certainly did when gobbling some after a long day on the river without lunch. Now that açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) products are beginning to appear in health-food shops around the world, the berry offers hope that development in the Amazon can be more than a choice between environmental ruin and continuing poverty.

My boat mate, Travis Baumgardner, a 31-year-old Texan working for a US food company, believes açaí will prove to the people of the Amazon, in cold cash, that it is more lucrative to leave the rainforest standing than to chop it down to raise cattle or grow soybeans.

His company, Sambazon, is part of a new wave of entrepreneurial companies promoting ecological restoration and economic justice as an integral part of their business - a concept known as "market-driven conservation". Such firms hope to push the natural foods industry "beyond organic". Rather than simply rejecting dubious practices such as the use of chemical pesticides and genetic modification, they want to create products that make a contribution to the environment and local communities.

Sambazon sells açaí throughout North America, Europe and Brazil in the form of ready-to-drink smoothies, frozen packets, powder and capsules. Last November, alongside General Motors and Goldman Sachs, the company won a State Department Award for Corporate Excellence, for US businesses operating abroad. But Sambazon operates by principles quite different from those of most corporations. It purchases açaí from co-ops and growers at prices higher than those paid by the usual brokers and it pays workers at its own fruit-processing plant in Macapá, near the mouth of the Amazon, three times the local wage. The firm also helps farmers become certified as organic (expensive, and complicated for people not used to paperwork).

Sambazon's founder Ryan Black, 32, a former professional US football player who first encountered açaí on an off-season surfing trip to Brazil, sees market-driven conservation as the next logical step for the booming organics in dustry. "We want to give something back as part of the production process."

He believes this can help bring democracy to the market place. "It means giving people what they want - a chance to vote with their dollars. People can become policy-makers, spending their money on the future they want to see."

That's an ambitious mission, but one winning the support of respected figures in the fields of ecology and business. Meindert Brouwer - a consultant working with the WWF and Hivos, the Dutch sustainable-development institute - says: "Sambazon is doing a great job. The açaí is harvested in an ecologically sound way. These guys are quite young, and are an example of young entrepreneurs who are doing things differently. They represent a new generation of business."

Brouwer predicts that the emerging movement will become influential because it fits directly with a number of other business trends he observes, including a growing emphasis on transparency throughout the international business world; mounting interest in social responsibility; consumer demand for authenticity in products that we all use; and increasing concern among corporate leaders about diminishing natural resources.

Gourmet ice cream

Jan Oosterwijk, who brought the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry's to the Netherlands and other countries in western Europe, is another champion of "market-driven conservation". He's an investor in Sambazon and is considering putting capital into Guayakí, which he believes has gone the furthest in creating a new paradigm for organic businesses.

Guayakí markets maté, a tea-like drink from South America made from the yerba plant, which is grown in large fields in the usual manner of industrial agriculture. But yerba maté can also be grown in the shade, like coffee, and Guayakí pays a premium price for organic yerba cultivated in the rainforest. The company offers growers a better deal for preserving their trees than they could get cutting them down to make way for cattle, lumber or conventional yerba.

Guayakí is pushing the frontiers of organic agriculture with one project that supports farmers planting native rainforest trees in the middle of their yerba fields. Rather than just avoiding unsustainable farming methods, notes Oosterwijk, the company is pioneering ways to reverse environmental destruction.

"They show how business can be more of a force of restoration," Oosterwijk says of both Guayakí and Sambazon. "To save wildlife spe cies. To promote fair trade for workers. To restore the earth."

Such projects "can be like an ice-breaker in frozen waters", Oosterwijk contends, "and then the big boats follow". After all, gourmet ice cream, sustainable outdoor wear and natural body care products - all huge markets now - were seen as niche products when socially responsible firms such as Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, the Body Shop and Aveda rose to prominence in the 1990s. Indeed, the market forecasters Min tel named Amazon superfoods (including açaí) number one in its top ten supermarket trends for 2007, with ethical products ranking second.

These initiatives are emerging at an interesting time, with the future of the organic industry and the idea of socially responsible business up for grabs. Recently, several leading natural-product companies have been snapped up by huge corporations; they include the Body Shop ('Oréal), Tom's of Maine (Colgate-Palmolive) and Green & Black's (Cadbury Schweppes).

And what happens now that huge firms such as Kellogg's and Heinz, along with retailers such as Wal-Mart, have entered the organics market?

"Industrial organics will only get bigger," says the noted US environmental author Michael Pollan. "[But] there are issues that organics don't deal with. When they were formulating organic rules, they focused on a number of concerns mostly having to do with chemicals. They ignored social-welfare issues, they ignored labour; they didn't insist on animal welfare. There are many issues, like energy use. It's not clear, for instance, that organic production by itself will make any difference on global warming."

Greg Steltenpohl founded the juice company Odwalla in 1980 with a simple aim: to promote good health by offering a tasty alternative to sugary soft drinks. He succeeded at that, in part because his company was taken over in 2001 by Coca-Cola, which has access to nearly every corner shop and convenience store around the world.

"In the past, organic and natural foods were about personal health," says Steltenpohl, "which is why they have become mainstream today. And that's very important. But it's impossible to separate the organic movement from environmental and social-justice issues. The idea now is to make the whole process of what you do the thing that does good in the world."

Guayakí was founded by Alex Pryor and David Karr, two students at California Polytechnic State University, in 1996. Pryor is a native of Argentina, where yerba maté outsells coffee seven to one, and he brought a big supply with him to school. While delivering a caffeine boost, maté contains far more nutrients than coffee or tea, which many drinkers (including me) report leaves them with a smoother feeling. Pryor's friends at college all started drinking maté during finals week, surprised at how they could study all night without the usual coffee jag. That convinced Pryor to undertake a class project, marketing maté around campus, and things just took off from there. He soon invited Karr, his best friend and confirmed maté fanatic, to join him in introducing the drink to North Americans.

Pryor is now back in Buenos Aires, running Guayakí's South American operation, while Karr oversees the business in North America, which sells yerba maté in tea bags, packets of loose leaf and ready-to-drink beverages. Guayakí's yerba supply comes from the Ache Guayakí indigenous people of Paraguay, who cultivate the crop beneath trees in their rainforest preserve, as well as from Argentinian farmers who are preserving or reforesting endangered subtropical rainforests and a Brazilian farmers' co-op that harvests one of the remaining stands of wild yerba.

"We want to be a bridge between consumers looking for health products and growers who want to take care of the earth," Pryor tells me, as we finish lunch in the garden that separates his home from Guayakí's office.

His English is quite good, but Pryor looks concerned, as if he hasn't made his point as forcefully as he would like. He jumps up and hurries into his office, bringing back a picture from the wall, which he hands to me. It's a photograph of a forest. I look up at him, a bit perplexed. "I went up in a plane to get this picture," he tells me. "It's one of our yerba maté fields in Paraguay."

It's a steamy spring day in Iguazú National Park, one of the last remnants of rainforest in north-eastern Argentina. Less than 10 per cent of the original subtropical Atlantic Forest in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil still stands. The rest has been chopped down for timber and agriculture, including plantations growing yerba for maté, which Argentinians drink all day long.

Just outside the park boundaries, Alfonso and Gladys Werle give me a tour of their yerba fields, which look noticeably different from those I stopped to inspect along the highway a few miles away. The leaves are greener, which Alfonso says is because he farms organically - still a rarity in Argentina. He also claims that organic maté tastes sweeter because it contains more of the vitamins, minerals and amino acids that gently balance the drink's caffeine kick.

But the most striking difference here is the trees: 14 different varieties such as cancharana and lapacho, all native to the Atlantic Forest, that Alfonso and Gladys have painstakingly planted throughout their fields. Their dream, and the dream of Guayakí, which buys their crop, is that in a few years this field will become a natural extension of the park's rainforest, while still producing top-quality maté.

The Werles' farm already serves as an im portant wildlife corridor, allowing jaguars and other threatened species to move freely between Iguazú and another national park in nearby Brazil. Alfonso, Gladys and Guayakí hope this land - which also grows organic bananas, lemons and pineapples, and rings with the sound of birds, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs and children - will become a showcase, proving that the Atlantic rainforest can be restored while offering farmers a secure livelihood and providing the world with ample food.

Alfonso suddenly strides into the middle of the field to examine one of the trees he and Gladys planted. He looks at it intently and then turns back towards us with a smile. "This is redesigning agriculture," he shouts.

Building a house that supplies all its own energy

The Zero-Energy Solution

Mike Strizki’s house, the house of the future, the revolutionary house that might very well change our lives forever, is an unremarkable two-story, 3,000-square-foot, white colonial-style kit home in front of which, one rainy day last November, were parked no fewer than seven trucks and cars, a pair of Jet Skis, a speedboat on a trailer, several golf carts, a small tractor, a couple of vans and an old dump truck rusting in the middle of the woods, like a major reworking of a Robert Frost poem. There was nothing odd, or futuristic, or exotically “eco” about the house — no solar panels to be seen, no giant arrays of thermopane windows passively drinking up light and heat; yet here, I’d been told, in the Sourland Mountains in New Jersey, an hour from Manhattan, was a house that had the potential — not long from now, not 20 years from now, but maybe within 5 to 10 years — to help turn millions of American homes into fully self-sustaining power plants, each one capable of producing hydrogen to fuel cars as well.

A sign at the head of Strizki’s long gravel driveway said, “Welcome to the first solar-hydrogen residence in North America.” Strizki, the 50-year-old director of residential and commercial systems for Advanced Solar Products, a solar installation company, designed a backyard power plant that provides all the house’s energy, using a combination of solar panels and solar-generated hydrogen. Although he built the house 15 years ago, the power plant is a more recent addition, dedicated in October 2006. Strizki lives in the house with his wife, Ann, a 23-year-old son, two dogs and a cat. As it happens, there are several rival claimants to the title of first solar-hydrogen house, including the United States Merchant Marine Academy, which has an 800-square-foot, prefabricated solar-hydrogen-powered house on display at its campus in Kings Point, N.Y.; now occupied by a professor, it was dedicated as “America’s First Solar-Hydrogen Home” in June 2006. But Strizki maintains that his system was the first to fuel an average-size American home in which a real American family actually lives.

Strizki gave me a tour. Outside, the sky was the color of hammered steel. There was a patch of lawn the size of a small putting green, a brick walkway leading to the door and, inside, the proverbial expansive American-home interior — a cozy kitchen with all the usual appliances, a spacious living room with an enormous L-shaped leather couch, a big-screen television, a stereo, an office upstairs, washers and dryers downstairs: the full-on, living-large ensemble of modern comfort and convenience on display. If this was part of a revolution in green architecture, of an America still hopeful about its chances for a sustainable future — a renewable America — it was one that came equipped with a La-Z-Boy.

Back outside, Strizki, who is built like a bowling ball closing in on a strike, began a well-practiced patter that sprang readily from the microparticulars of photovoltaic cells and proton-exchange membranes to what he sees as the macro-, going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket range of problems that beset the globe: staggering energy demand in the face of diminishing resources; global warming ; peaking fossil-fuel production; energy insecurity; and the specter of economic collapse as the world makes the painful shift from petroleum to whatever must, of necessity, come next. Strizki, whom many have described as a natural-born mechanical genius, has worked in obscurity on renewable-energy technology for most of his adult life. Lately, it seems, people have started to pay attention.

We walked from the house about 50 yards through maple and oak trees to a large metal outbuilding roughly the size of a barn and stopped in front of two key elements of the solar-hydrogen system. To my left, a 10-kilowatt array of solar panels completely covered the south-facing roof of the metal shed, the business end of his system, dully transforming the gauzy, rain-soaked sunlight into electricity. To my right, 10 large propane tanks sat filled with hydrogen. Almost everything I saw, Strizki explained, was overengineered and bigger than necessary for the job: the electrolyzer, used in industrial laboratories to generate hydrogen; the fuel cell, used by telecom companies to power remote cellphone towers; and, most conspicuously, the 10 hydrogen tanks. If patching together these disparate and cumbersome elements from heavy industry for a home seemed a little like hooking up a jet engine to run a scooter, it was just a natural stage, he said, in the development of a commercial product that would be streamlined and form-fitted for domestic use. “When they build a computer chip,” he explained, “they build a big one.” They call it a breadboard, “and once they get the components the way they want it, they miniaturize it and then mass-produce it. This,” Strizki said of his prototype solar-hydrogen system, “this is our breadboard.”

Here’s how the solar-hydrogen house works. The solar panels above Strizki’s garage generate electricity, which goes directly to power his house. For about seven months of the year, the panels are designed to make more electricity than the house needs, as much as 60 percent more during the summertime. Strizki’s system takes this extra electricity and runs it through an electrolyzer, which uses technology invented in the mid-19th century to convert electricity and water into a modest quantity of hydrogen — the energy equivalent of about a gallon of gasoline each summer day — which is then sent to the tanks outside. In this inaugural shakedown year, Strizki had to purchase his hydrogen (19,000 cubic feet of it, at a total cost of about $2,000) to prime his empty tanks. According to Strizki, that’s the last fuel bill he will ever have. Though he will continue to monitor the system, measuring the amount of hydrogen produced, the hydrogen should act like a natural battery bank that never dies or degrades. During the winter months, the solar panels should still provide about 60 percent of the power to the house, he said. It’s then that the accumulated hydrogen will be siphoned from the storage tanks to a fuel cell, which will simply reverse the process of the electrolyzer, reconfiguring the hydrogen back to water and electricity.

Although it can stand alone completely off the main power grid, Strizki’s system is “grid-tied,” which means that with the flick of a switch in his basement, he can connect to the grid for backup power or to sell electricity to the local power company. As a final touch, there is a geothermal component to the scheme. Six feet beneath the lawn, freon gas circulates through a radiatorlike grill of copper tubes, bringing the ground temperature — at that depth it remains a constant 56 degrees — into the house. In winter, some of the stored hydrogen powers a heat pump that steps up the temperature in the Strizkis’ house another 12 degrees. During the 90-degree days of a New Jersey summer, they use that steady 56-degree ground temperature to stay cool and comfortable.

Solar power, of course, in one form or another has been around for thousands of years. The Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest incorporated passive solar design into their cliff dwellings. Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans (never materialized) for a kind of solar-concentrating industrial furnace. The basic properties of active solar photovoltaics were described in the 19th century; photovoltaic solar panels have been around since the 1950s. There is nothing new, in short, in Mike Strizki’s backyard. Even his method of using hydrogen to store solar-generated electricity was studied more than 120 years earlier by the French inventor Augustin Mouchot, who once made ice with a solar-powered steam engine. Strizki’s principal achievement lies in inventing a clever system from components that were already at hand.

Although 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen may sound like a lot, it really isn’t. It is, Strizki explained, the energy equivalent of only about a single tank of gasoline in a large S.U.V., yet this would be more than enough hydrogen to provide the house with all the heating, cooking, hot water and additional electrical power needed to last through the dark winter months. Soon, he said, the same amount of hydrogen could be stored in a single tank at high pressure, substantially reducing the “storage footprint.” But for now he chose 10 tanks at low pressure, in part to avoid alarming New Jersey’s building inspectors with the prospect of pressurized hydrogen.

Above us, the clouds seemed to have dropped a few feet closer to our heads. A light rain began to fall.

“The thing is,” Strizki told me, “dark days like this don’t affect me.”

“Because of the hydrogen?” I asked.

“Because of the hydrogen,” he said.

The implications of the solar-hydrogen house are immense. Eventually, it seems, for the price of a home-improvement loan, millions of homeowners could install solar-hydrogen systems, with zero emissions, generating 100-percent clean renewable energy. It is all part of a new trend toward “distributed generation,” whereby homes, businesses, schools, factories and retail outlets might one day produce their own electricity while remaining tied to the grid — capable, that is, of reducing the load on the grid when it really needs it, such as during peak summer months, when demand for air-conditioning skyrockets. This potential for “peak shaving,” as it’s called, remains one of the most attractive features of the growing solar movement. A recent M.I.T. study, for instance, found that adding a gigawatt of solar power — the equivalent of 100,000 10-kilowatt solar panels like the one that powers the Strizki house — to the New England region would shave peak pricing and thus lower utility rates for all of the area’s customers by 2 to 5 percent. The solar-hydrogen home can also generate fuel for transportation. Strizki’s house has a hydrogen fueling station that he uses to fill an experimental hydrogen car, the New Jersey Genesis, which has a range of 300 miles. Since Americans, it turns out, drive on average no more than 33 miles per day, theoretically the home hydrogen-fueling station could in the future satisfy the commuting needs of millions.

Perhaps most important, Strizki’s system can be adapted to existing homes. The system, in other words, doesn’t dictate a radical change in architectural style. If you don’t have a house that incorporates passive solar design — banks of south-facing windows for collecting heat and light, heat-retaining stone flooring — no matter. By installing a solar-hydrogen system, almost any house, it seems, could go seriously green — and without a whiff of the sacrifice or changes in lifestyle that sometimes come from the more puritanical quarters of the environmental movement. The Strizki home offers a greener world and the continued pursuit of happiness. Indeed, its premise and secret promise is to recommend two things that are dear to many Americans anyway: energy independence and the permission to keep all one’s toys.

Is all of this too good to be true? Well, yes, according to Howard C. Hayden, a solar skeptic, a nuclear-power advocate and the author of “The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World.” Hayden says he believes that Strizki couldn’t possibly generate enough hydrogen from his solar panels to last him through the winter — particularly not without the help of the geothermal system installed back when the house was built. Hayden doubts Strizki’s claim that he will generate the energy equivalent of about a gallon of gasoline in stored hydrogen per day; even if he does, Hayden says, when you allow for an efficiency loss of 50 percent, Strizki will be able to store only 17 kilowatt-hours per day. “He’s not going to get enough energy out of his 10-kilowatt system” to power the house and car year round. “It’s not going to happen.”

But according to Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California at Irvine, the technology works. Samuelsen and a team of engineers fed several months of data from two conventional California homes into a computer model that simulated a solar-hydrogen system very much like Strizki’s and found that it could provide enough energy for the houses throughout the year. The comparison is skewed, of course, because in the temperate Pacific climate, homes generally consume about 60 percent of what mid-Atlantic homes do, according to Department of Energy statistics. Still, the results were robust enough to prompt Samuelsen, who is characteristically measured in his statements, to declare that solar hydrogen “is the means by which residential homes will be powered in the future and probably small-to-medium commercial buildings as well.”

In a year of unprecedented “green” awareness — green advertising campaigns, a green issue of Sports Illustrated — the big promise of renewables, from biofuels to wind and solar, is their capacity to generate another kind of green, a fact that has not been lost on Wall Street. Though solar is just a tiny fraction of the United States’ $1.2 trillion energy market, and less than .05 percent of the world’s share of generated electricity, demand for solar power is so off the charts in America, Japan and Europe (cold, cloudy Germany is a dominant force in the world market) that there is currently a worldwide shortage in the basic substrate used to manufacture photovoltaic cells — processed silicon — which has pushed up its price.

“The stars are aligned right now,” Jean-Marc E. O’Brien of Ardour Capital Investments told me. The high prices of oil, gasoline and natural gas have concentrated more private-sector investment into R&D. So have concerns about energy security, an increasing corporate awareness that global warming affects the bottom line and a legislative push at the state level to subsidize renewable energy. Big investment houses have moved into solar- and wind-power project financing. According to The Economist, total investments of all kinds in renewable energy rose to an estimated $63 billion in 2006, from $30 billion in 2004. The smart money, as they say, is positioning itself toward a new energy paradigm.

In the spring of last year, as Mike Strizki was midway through the four-year, red-tape-delayed process of installing the solar-hydrogen system for his house, things ground to a halt. One of the key hurdles came in the form of officials enforcing the New Jersey building code, who balked at storing hydrogen in used propane tanks. Help came in the form of Gian-Paolo Caminiti, a former psychotherapist who branched off into management training and human resources, and had gotten to know Strizki after he’d installed a solar-power system in Caminiti’s home. “There were no rules and regulations for building a hydrogen system in a residential environment,” said Caminiti, who set up a meeting with state officials and got everyone talking again. Soon both sides hammered out an agreement that would bring the solar-hydrogen house up to code. Caminiti now works for Strizki as his chief operations officer at Renewable Energy International, the company that Strizki set up to bring his solar-hydrogen system to market. Others have joined in the effort. They include an inventor-entrepreneur named Steven Amendola, and Lyle Rawlings, Strizki’s boss at Advanced Solar Products, whom many regard as the founding father of renewable-energy legislation in New Jersey — now the fastest-growing solar market in the country.

With all the venture capital flying around, you’d think these men would have been flush with office suites and spanking new laboratories, but they operated out of bedroom offices and borrowed garage space, printing their business cards on home computers. Meanwhile, Strizki regaled me with stories about energy-saving technologies — from the electric trolley to the electric car — that had been quietly withheld, removed or in some way derailed from production. He is particularly wary of big investors wresting control of his invention. “We’re not going to sell anything out,” he told me. “We’re not running the risk of someone coming in as a front company and buying our technology off the market and shelving it.” He prefers, he said, to run a little lean and wait for an angel investor, someone who can afford $2 million to $5 million to help roll out a solar-hydrogen system as a retail product without asking for too much in return.

But even if Strizki’s solar-hydrogen system were to hit the market intact, is it economically feasible? Would it simply cost too much for the average homeowner to install? Is hydrogen storage safe? Will solar power be competitive with fossil fuels? Then there is perhaps the more fundamental question of inertia. According to a recent study by the Shelton Group, which monitors consumer attitudes toward energy, 58 percent of Americans cannot name a single form of renewable energy. Are we ready to make the jump to something that most people can’t even name?

The cost of solar power is a bedeviling problem, and 90 percent of it must be paid upfront at installation: Strizki’s system, not including the geothermal component or hydrogen-fueled appliances, cost $500,000. Donations from others and a New Jersey Board of Public Utilities grant of $225,000 reduced his out-of-pocket costs to $100,000. As a unique, first instance of applied technology, it was, like all prototypes, expensive. But the “experience curve” — the value of all the lessons learned in getting a bona fide, certified, code-approved working system up and running — would soon bear fruit, Strizki claimed, reducing the total cost of the very next solar-hydrogen house to about $100,000, an 80 percent cost reduction just one generation beyond the prototype. According to Travis Bradford, author of “Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry,” the cost of solar has been dropping by 5 or 6 percent a year, and as the popularity of solar increases, its costs will continue to go down.

Still, as some have noted, $100,000, amortized over the life span of the system, works out to about $4,000 a year on energy, plus the costs of replacing parts. This is quite a bit more than the $1,800 a year average homeowners spend on all their home energy needs. That is true, Bradford says, only if you decide not to calculate all the ways that Strizki’s system can save money. “If you refuel your car at home with hydrogen,” Bradford explains, “you can add your annual gasoline costs” — about $3,400 per year for the average homeowner, according to Department of Energy figures — “to what you save on home energy. Then the savings easily approach $5,000 per year.” Perhaps most important, Bradford observes, “purchasing the solar-hydrogen system insulates you from any future price increases” in home heating or transportation fuels.

Yes, these new technologies, as their opponents claim, are more expensive. But economies of scale coupled with the increased price of fossil fuel, Bradford says, will inevitably make solar competitive, as it already is in Japan and Germany, where energy costs are high. “Let’s do a thought experiment,” he said. “Let’s say that 5 percent of homeowners in America would willingly pay more for a home with solar panels — for reasons that have nothing to do with cost-effectiveness. Let’s say there are 100 million homes in America. Five percent of that is five million homes. But right now there are only 50,000 solar homes in America, so you’d need to build or install 100 times the current number of solar homes in America before you’d exhaust the number of people who are willing to pay more for a solar home. And by the time you reach five million, the economies of scale really kick in, and you’ve solved the so-called cost-effectiveness problem.”

“And if my mother were a car,” Howard Hayden retorts, “she’d have wheels.” There are too many “ifs,” according to Hayden, in Bradford’s cost analysis to give it credence. Even a solar advocate like Lyle Rawlings considers Bradford’s estimates overly optimistic. Still, Rawlings says, even some fraction of 1 percent — a few hundred thousand homes — might be enough to kick-start the economies of scale in favor of the solar-hydrogen house.

But for Hayden, Strizki’s system — and solar power in general — can never be cost-effective. Hayden doesn’t buy the argument that the price of solar power will plummet. He agrees with Bradford that the price of solar panels has declined steadily, though not precipitously, by about 5 percent per year. So if this decline continues, and if energy prices continue to rise, won’t solar power become affordable? “Yes,” Hayden says. “And if you extrapolate your growth curve from when you were 12 to when you were 13, you’d be 64 feet tall.” Hayden, in other words, doesn’t think the price will continue to drop, mostly because of manufacturing costs. “Eventually, even with the improvement in efficiencies,” Hayden maintains, “you will not be able to surmount the costs of silicon. You get down to an irreducible minimum — the price of manufacturing the solar panels — which will continue to be the main price-barrier.”

It is one thing to extol or doubt the cost-effectiveness of solar panels, the primary component of the solar-hydrogen house, but what about the hydrogen? It is unfair, for instance, to mention the Hindenburg disaster, the fiery destruction of the hydrogen-filled dirigible over Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937. Although new evidence suggests that hydrogen was not the primary cause of the disaster, the Hindenburg’s spectacularly filmed crash cast a long shadow in the public mind over hydrogen as a dangerous and tricky material to handle. Is adding hydrogen to solar power a complication of an already complex idea — the technological equivalent of stuffing something tasty like a turkey with a duck and a chicken and adding, for good measure, a stick of dynamite? Arguments about efficiency losses, cost-benefit analyses and the like are more or less beside the point if hydrogen is a substance that might blow you to smithereens.

This is what Joseph J. Romm, who was acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy during the Clinton administration, seems to suggest. Romm is an environmental pragmatist. He says he believes that the problems of global warming are urgent and that hydrogen technologies are too remote in time to be of any real help. The author of “The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate,” he has traveled the country speaking against hydrogen, arguing that as energy pathways, fuel cells and the like are extremely inefficient and expensive. He also mentions the safety issue, and the Hindenburg seems to float ominously into the debate.

“Hydrogen is odorless,” Romm says. “And it’s invisible. And it burns invisibly and it leaks through anything.” Romm praises Strizki’s use of solar and geothermal components, but has nothing good to say about hydrogen. “I’m not going to dispute those who say you can work with hydrogen safely,” Romm told me, “but there’s a big difference between hydrogen in an industrial setting and hydrogen being made by your next-door neighbor with his dogs and little kids.” He says, “The last thing you want is somebody making hydrogen in his garage. If there was a leak — if you collected any amount of gas — you would never know it, and any spark at all sets it off. So I would go to the local zoning board to stop my neighbor from putting in a hydrogen generation system.”

John Turner, an electrochemist who has been working with fuel cells and hydrogen production for 28 years as a principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, disagrees. “I think Romm greatly overstates hydrogen’s risk,” Turner says, explaining that it is very difficult, in fact, for hydrogen to accumulate anywhere because it diffuses so rapidly. “All energy carriers,” Turner adds, “are by their very nature dangerous. Gasoline? Incredibly dangerous,” he says. “It’s a poisonous, carcinogenic, flammable liquid. I’ll bet that Romm sits on 20 gallons of it every day.”

“In terms of safety,” Turner says, “hydrogen is something we can deal with.”

The fact is that Strizki’s system has passed New Jersey’s building code, one of the toughest in the nation. “I want to put an exclamation point on that,” Scott Samuelsen observes. “Passing the code is the most important aspect of the story for the American homeowner and energy consumer.”

The debate between hydrogen advocates and skeptics, the hands-on hydrogen-friendly inventors like Strizki and the pragmatists like Romm, is really a debate about what form a new energy paradigm will take. It resembles resource debates reaching back more than a hundred years, with coal giving way in the 20th century to petroleum, for instance, which then had to make room for natural gas. Rival technologies threaten what Romm calls “incumbent energy regimes.”

It made me think back to my first visit to Strizki’s house. He was in his big metal garage, leaning over his fuel-cell car, the amazing aluminum-framed Genesis, and talking about “greater truths,” which is something he likes to do, at times with a kind of exasperated flourish, as if rehearsing for his own filibuster scene in “Mr. Strizki Goes to Washington.” “The solar-hydrogen house,” he told me, choosing his words carefully, “is an incredibly disruptive technology.

“You can go out and buy an oil well,” Strizki went on to say. “You can buy a coal mine, but it’s a little hard to buy a piece of the sun. It’s like buying air. It’s going to inspire some radical changes. And the people who have the monopolies are going to have a hard time giving that up.”

(Mark Svenvold is the author of “Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America.” His “Empire Burlesque” won the 2007 Journal Award in Poetry.)