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Is climate change the new slavery?

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The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is out, with its layers of deadening bureaucratic prose. Climate watchers have had their latest chance to make out, as best they can, what biblical futures await us on a hotter, drier, stormier planet. Two sentences from the report’s second installment struck me with the force of a storm surge: “Climate change is projected to progressively increase inter-annual variability of crop yields in many regions. These projected impacts will occur in the context of rapidly rising crop demand.” Translation: We’ll have smaller harvests in the future, less food, and 3 billion more mouths to feed. The IPCC has done an heroic job of digesting thousands of scientific papers into a bullet-point description of how global warming is shrinking food and water supplies, most drastically for the poorest of Earth’s 7 billion human inhabitants. Being scientists, though, they fail miserably to communicate the gravity of the situation. The IPPC language, at its most vivid, talks of chronic “poverty traps” and “hunger hotspots” as the 21st century unfolds. The report offers not a single graspable image of what our future might actually look like when entire populations of people — not only marginalized sub-groups — face perennial food insecurity and act to save themselves. What decisions do human communities make en masse in the face of total environmental collapse? There are no scientific papers to tell us this, so we must look to history instead for clues to our dystopian future. The last global climate crisis for which we have substantial historical records began 199 years ago this month, in April 1815, when the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia cooled the Earth and triggered drastic disruptions of major weather systems worldwide. Extreme volcanic weather — droughts, floods, storms — gripped the globe for three full years after the eruption. In the Tambora period from 1815 to 1818, the global human community consisted mostly of subsistence farmers, who were critically vulnerable to sustained climate deterioration. The occasional crop failure was part of life, but when relentless bad weather ruined harvests for two and then three years running, extraordinary, world-changing things started to happen. The magnitude and variety of human suffering in the years 1815 to 1818 are in one sense incalculable, but three continental-scale consequences stand out amid the misery: slavery, refugeeism, and the failure of states. Across what was then the Dutch East Indies, the rice crop failed for multiple years following Tambora’s eruption. In response, the common people did what they always did when faced with starvation: They sold themselves into slavery, by the tens of thousands. In faraway China, desperate parents likewise sold their children in pop-up slave markets. Across the globe, starving peasants abandoned their homes, roaming the countryside in search of food, or begging in the market towns. Irish famine refugees, numbering in the tens of thousands, were met by armed militias at the gates of towns whose inhabitants feared a kind of zombie invasion by human skeletons carrying disease. In France, tourists mistook beggars on the road for armies on the march. Meanwhile, governments everywhere feared rebellion, so they closed borders and shut down the press. Europe witnessed an upsurge of end-of-the-world cults. In southwest China, Yunnan province suffered total civic breakdown post-Tambora, only to remake itself as a rogue narco-state, new hub of the booming international opium trade. These are the sorts of world-altering disaster scenarios the IPCC’s board of scientist-bureaucrats fail to mention in their latest report. But then, climate change has never had its own proper language, a language commensurate with the threat it represents, a language that would forcefully express what it is: the great humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. To invent a language for climate change, we might start with the historical analogy of slavery, which flourished during the Tambora climate emergency two centuries ago. Like our future under climate change, slavery was a human-designed global tragedy that lasted centuries, displaced tens of millions of people, and reorganized the wealth and demographics of the planet. Like climate change, slavery institutionalized the suffering of millions of people from the global south so that folks in Europe and North America (and China) might lead more comfortable, fulfilling lives. And like climate change, few people at the time saw slavery as a serious problem. Even those who did believed nothing could be done without bringing about global economic ruin. That exact argument is used today to defend the continuation of our fossil-fuelled societies. Related Articles:Please, scientists: Tell us how you really feel about climate changeHenry David Thoreau would have given “12 Years a Slave” the Oscar for best picture, tooBlood on the leaves: The hidden environmental story in “12 Years a Slave”Some historians have argued that it was the harnessing of carbon energy — not the abolitionists — that truly made an end to slavery possible in the 19th century. But in a dark historical irony, that same carbon energy, as a pollutant altering the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, is now ushering in a new era of global slavery. Millions this century, living and yet unborn, face displaced lives without hope or freedom of choice, only desperate hardship, due to haywire changes in weather patterns. Does that make climate change the new slavery? One thing we can say with “high confidence,” to use the lingo of the IPCC, is that even now — as the U.N. panel marks its quarter-century anniversary with its fifth and most dire report — there is no international climate change movement comparable to abolitionism. For one thing, we don’t even have a name for the millions of people across the world who are passionately committed to the cause of averting climate disaster. Even Bill McKibben, probably the most effective climate activist in the United States, when branding his organization, could do no better than a number — 350, the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we need to return to for climate safety. Given that climate activism is faring so badly in the public-relations stakes, perhaps it’s time to brush off the old slogan that worked so famously well for the abolitionists, the rallying cry of the greatest humanitarian victory of all time: “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” And instead of an African in chains above the caption, let’s show a crowd of faces from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the Arctic north — the faces you won’t find in the IPCC’s report, but who are stubbornly real nevertheless, living precariously in their millions on the shifting global frontlines of climate change.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy

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Illegal basement case against Henry Tang’s wife adjourned

<!– google_ad_section_start –> The illegal structure case in Kowloon City Court involving Lisa Kuo Yu-chin, wife of former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, was adjourned until next February after she disputed with prosecution claims that she had insisted on pressing ahead with the construction of a <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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China news round-up: China prepares for Bo Xilai trial, Venezuela hopes for US$5b loan

<!– google_ad_section_start –> PoliticsWall Street Journal <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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China’s Xi harks back to Mao in party ‘cleanup’

<!– google_ad_section_start –> BEIJING (AP) — China’s new leader Xi Jinping is commanding wayward Communist Party cadres to purify themselves of corruption, and he’s summed it up in a pithy slogan as Mao Zedong might have done: Look in the mirror, take a bath. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Tiananmen activist Zhang Boli keen to spread gospel in China

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Caught in a raging Siberian blizzard hours after crossing the frozen Heilongjiang river into the Soviet Union, Zhang Boli thought he was going to die in the snow on Christmas night, 1989. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Images of spectacular mass games captured in secretive North Korea

<!– google_ad_section_start –> In a gigantic stadium, an audience of 150,000 enjoys a 120-minute spectacle, with tickets costing as much as €300 (HK$3,000). The show itself, boiled down from 250-million man hours of gymnastic effort, features spectacular scenes of seamlessly choreographed human mosaics followed by a grand fireworks display as the finale. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Guangzhou urban villagers defend homes

<!– google_ad_section_start –> With eight centuries of history, Tan is the last urban village left in Guangzhou’s Zhujiang New Town, a prime site filled with high-end office buildings. Like the 137 other urban villages in Guangzhou, old Tan is gradually being reduced to concrete rubble by the wreckers’ ball. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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China eyes residence permits to replace divisive hukou system

<!– google_ad_section_start –> China’s new leaders are planning a system of national residence permits to replace the household registration or ‘hukou’ regime, a government source said, a vital reform that will boost its urbanisation campaign and drive consumption-led growth. The hukou system, which dates to 1958, has split China’s 1.3 billion people along urban-rural lines, preventing many of the roughly 800 million Chinese who are registered as rural residents from settling in cities and enjoying basic urban welfare and services. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Message from developers is clear: more profits

<!– google_ad_section_start –> What we saw a day after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s policy speech was the sickening face of unrestrained greed. Property developers and home-sellers gleefully rubbed their hands as Leung’s speech landed with a hollow thud, empty of the cooling measures they had feared. Home-sellers jacked up prices immediately. The greedier ones took their flats off the market. As for our tycoon developers, Public Eye has repeatedly said their greed knows no boundaries. Leung’s speech had a clear message – he wants to make homes affordable for Hongkongers. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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‘Pretty post-80s’ vice-mayor accused of nepotism

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Controversy is being stirred up in Liaoning province, after the young, recently-appointed female vice-mayor of Donggang was found to have scored the lowest among 25 candidates in a selections test. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Mistresses and sex workers part of the same supply chain, says sociologist

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Mistresses and sex workers belong to the same supply-chain – albeit at different levels, says a renowned Chinese sexologist. Li Yinhe, a sociology professor and widow of the late Chinese novelist Wang Xiaobo, shared her observations with more than 200 attendees at Hunan’s first-ever “Love and Culture” forum in Changsha, last Monday. “Because a mistress is long-term and a sex worker is a one-off relationship, the former represents wholesale and the latter retail,” said Li. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Chinese student in France sick of buying luxury goods for other people

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Li Yuandong, 23, remembers buying 10 Burberry scarfs, two Burberry handbags, two Louis Vuitton handbags and some luxury perfumes in one day in Paris without blinking an eye. “Then I blew my ‘millionaire’ identity by hopping on a crowded subway train heading home”, wrote Li, a Chinese graduate student studying engineering in France on his blog . Li’s post went viral on China’s social media, including Sina Weibo, China’s popular twitter-like service. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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‘Two old men’s love’: Retired teacher and migrant worker come out after celebrity LGBT campaign

<!– google_ad_section_start –> “Coming out” has made a retired Beijing history teacher, who prefers to stay anonymous, and his lover – a water delivery worker – the most controversial topic on China’s social media. Inspired by the “Big Love” gay rights campaign launched by openly gay Hong Kong singers Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, and Denise Ho Wan-sze this month, the couple decided to share their story on Weibo, China’s popular twitter-like service.  <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Ex-bank official purchases properties worth 1b yuan using fake ID

<!– google_ad_section_start –> The state banking watchdog is launching an investigation into a former Shaanxi bank official after she was accused of using a double residence loophole to buy properties worth millions of yuan, the Beijing Times reported on Saturday. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Slow CPPCC banquets don’t fill me up, says Eric Tsang

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Hong Kong showbiz veteran Eric Tsang Chi-wai didn’t get enough to eat during the CPPCC meeting in Guangzhou this weekend. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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About time China grew out of the one-child policy

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Mainland officials in charge of statistics are not known for flagging areas of concern when they meet the press at regular briefings and present the latest economic data. Instead, they always try to highlight positive numbers, while glossing over the disappointing figures. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Forgotten stories of the huge escape to Hong Kong

<!– google_ad_section_start –> Chen Bingan, a writer from Shenzhen, spent more than 20 years interviewing sources and compiling information on an untold story involving millions of people, which has now been published as The Great Exodus to Hong Kong. The book, which came out in October, documents an important but forgotten slice of history, when mainlanders fled en masse between the 1950s and 70s to seek better lives in Hong Kong. This enormous movement of people was long considered too sensitive to discuss until a few years ago, when mainland authorities first began to ease up on secrecy. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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How Rich People Celebrated New Year’s Eve in the Gilded Age

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Why we drink champagne on the holiday, and other curiosities The dining room at Marble House, one of Newport’s Gilded Age mansions (Library of Congress) For many people around the world, New Year’s Eve was (and still is) a rustic holiday. Homely traditions include running outside with luggage, if you want to travel in the new year, and exchanging money or tokens to bring wealth. In many cultures, it’s a day for predicting who you will marry — in some countries, by casting lead or wax and reading the resulting shapes. But during the Gilded Age, the New Year’s holiday, like other elements of American social life, transformed. What was once a rustic folk celebration became, for a certain class, a soignee wealth-fest — one that still influences how we celebrate the holiday today. Many of America’s most extravagant New Year’s Eve parties took place not in cities but in summer resort towns. By the peak of the Gilded Age, Newport, Rhode Island, may have been most popular of all. Newport began its life as a refuge for Southern planters fleeing the scorching summer heat. The Northern WASP elite later rented or bought homes there, giving the town a sought-after but relatively low-key social cache.The newly rich took note. By the second half of the 19th century, New York tycoons like the Vanderbilts and the Astors had begun to build lavish residences there, hoping to capture a little old-money legitimacy. (Edith Wharton’s novel House of Mirth is a portrait of this social scene.) As the exclusive town grew in popularity, families began opening their houses during the winter holidays, or leaving them open year-round, rather than closing them for the year at the end of the summer. By the end of the 19th century, Newport’s New Year’s parties attracted so much of the New York (and Boston, and Philadelphia) elite that the New York Times sent society reporters to the town to cover the parties there. “Newport is getting to be quite lively in winter,” one writer noted in January 1890. As early as 1885, the paper reported on an opulent New Year’s Eve ball at the Newport Casino, which the owners had opened just for the holidays. A gala at a summer resort in the middle of winter appeared to provoke some cognitive dissonance in the reporter, who repeatedly mentioned the ball’s summery atmosphere. (The weather in Rhode Island at this time of year hovers close to freezing.) “The display of fine clothes, diamonds, flowers, and pretty women has seldom been equaled at Newport,” he wrote, “and a person looking upon the scene would scarcely realize that it was Winter instead of Summer.” A reporter sent to cover Newport in 1890 noted a “profusion” of “tropical plants” among the holly and wreaths of that year’s ball. The ball of 1890, held at Newport’s Masonic Hall, required guests to purchase tickets. This made sense at the time. Only a relatively small group of people came to Newport for the holidays. But as the society colony continued to expand, subscription parties may no longer have been considered exclusive enough. By the turn of the century, it appears that more families hosted their own private parties. Guests did not purchase tickets but were invited to the parties, which often involved a full sit-down dinner in addition to dancing. Women wore elaborate, corseted evening gowns from the House of Worth and other fashionable Parisian couturiers. Men dressed in white tie, often with a waistcoat. Servants at Newport mansions prepared days or even weeks in advance for the New Year’s parties. The food of choice? Heavy and time-consuming French cuisine, which Americans — in a vogue for all things Continental — considered particularly sophisticated. The Newport Historical Society, in a report on life in the servant’s quarters at the Chateau sur Mer, describes the lead-up to a Newport dinner party, which could consist of eight courses. The days of labor that the Chateau’s cook and two assistants put into a party might have taxed Julia Child: A creamy sauce veloute was whisked and coddled to the perfect consistency. Chilled, it became a sauce chaud-froid to coat a ham or a boned and stuffed fowl, which was elaborately decorated with artistic cutouts from vegetables. One of the girls probably labored for hours over the kitchen mortar and pestle grinding chicken meat to a fine paste for quenelles. The quenelles also required making a panade, a pastry-like mixture into which eggs were thoroughly beaten, by hand in this case. The combined paste and panade was seasoned, then carefully formed into small ovals and gently poached. Another sauce would be prepared for the quenelles, then the last step before serving was to carefully glaze the finished dishes with a red-hot salamander. A delicate sponge paste would be prepared to make ladyfingers for an architecturally composed Charlotte for dessert. The soft dough had to be carefully piped onto sheets and baked to a delicate, pale gold color. Table service had changed by the turn of the century, partly to reduce strain on the waitstaff, but the dinner service still had to be precise. Frequently, the footmen brought the courses to the table already plated, in the “Russian style,” while the butler decanted wines — or, at the New Year, uncorked champagne. Even the Ancient Romans drank on New Years’ Eve. But the custom of drinking champagne at the holiday came, again, from France, where it became the choice beverage of the aristocracy once the French revolution had ended. (Drinkers considered it more delicate and elegant than the traditional French wines, like Burgundies, that peasants also quaffed.) Over the course of the 19th century, the European bourgeoisie developed a taste for it, and by the second half of the 19th century, the American wealthy had begun to drink it as a mark of sophistication. (Plus, turns out it really does get you tipsy faster than regular wine.) Given its association with prosperity, it became a drink of choice at American New Years’ Eve parties. Newport may have been the most popular winter destination, but resort towns like Tuxedo, New York — which gave the evening garment its name — had similar parties. And some people chose to stay in the city for the holiday: A social bulletin from 1901 lists three New Year’s Eve apartment parties in Manhattan. By the Jazz Age, New Year traditions had changed and, like all social events, become less formal. Buffet-style meals were becoming the norm for large galas, and dress codes began to relax. Ultimately, though hosts still lavished money on their New Year’s celebrations, the parties themselves grew more and more casual. This may have helped democratize a number of New Year’s traditions, like the drinking of champagne (or sparkling wine), that many Americans follow today.

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N Korea’s caste system faces power of wealth

<!– google_ad_section_start –> For more than a half-century, a mysterious caste system has shadowed the life of every North Korean. It can decide whether they will live in the gated compounds of the minuscule elite, or in mountain villages where farmers hack at rocky soil with handmade tools. It can help determine what hospital will take them if they fall sick, whether they go to college and, very often, whom they will marry. It is called songbun. And officially, it does not exist at all. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Composer Wang Qiang tells of musical journey from China to Hong Kong

<!– google_ad_section_start –> The first time Wang Qiang felt completely free to write her music, she was already 56 years old. Fed up with the political interference that dominated most of her artistic life, the composer moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1991. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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America, Inc. at it’s Finest

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New July 2013