The Commonwealth Blog
"Nationalization in Mexico" was discussed by Herbert I. Priestley in his February 3, 1939, speech to The Commonwealth Club of California.
Thomas C. Hayes discussed "Reinventing Silicon Valley" in his January 30, 1993, speech to The Commonwealth Club of California?.
Walter S. Douglas spoke about "Mass Transportation for the Bay Area?" in his January 28, 1955, address to The Commonwealth Club of California.
By: Mehroz Baig
As someone who’s taken a fair share of science classes, I know that it can be difficult to tie the daily homework assignments of configuring compounds in chemistry or calculating velocity in physics to a broader world perspective. But that’s precisely what science does: it allows us to understand how our world works and use that understanding to shape how we can address global issues.
Science enables us to go to doctors and be treated for diseases, understand changing weather patterns and the influence of human beings on our environment, and send astronauts into space to walk on the moon, among many other things. Science has allowed us to explore our own terrain and that which is millions of miles away. And the most fascinating aspect of scientific discovery is that it keeps going—the potential to find more cures, explore more of our oceans and solar system, and solve the problems that we face today is never ending.
But it takes more than scientific ability to tackle the world’s most pressing concerns: it takes expertise and resources. That’s where Dr. Ed Lu comes into the picture. Lu, a former NASA astronaut who is the CEO and co-founder of the B612 Foundation, is on a mission to literally save the world. Dr. Lu spoke at the Commonwealth Club about his project to build an infrared telescope that can go out into space, detect asteroids and track them. His reason for taking on this project was because no one else was doing it. “Our current strategy for dealing with asteroid impacts is luck,” he said. “I think that’s unacceptable.”
Dr. Lu noted that as of today, we have the capability to stop asteroids from hitting the Earth, but without the technology in place to track and detect them as they get closer, we can’t do anything to stop them. He explained that once we know the location and speed of an asteroid, it’s fairly simple to ensure that it won’t hit: if we have about a decade’s notice of an impact between an asteroid and our planet, all we have to do is shift the asteroid’s trajectory by nudging it, by one millimeter per second, or as Dr. Lu put it, “the speed that an ant walks.”
This isn’t new territory. NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005 included hitting a comet. Though the objective for that mission was to gather more information about comets, the same technology can be applied to reorient asteroids. The only problem is that we have to know where they are. According to Dr. Lu, currently less than one percent of the asteroids in space are being tracked. That’s the problem he’s hoping to solve. Once information on asteroid location and speed is available, more can be done to prepare for their impending arrival. And all this happens over many years: Dr. Lu mentioned that if an asteroid were coming toward the Earth, we could have as much as a 10-year notice before its potential impact. That’s enough time to put together a mission to divert its path.
Dr. Lu is adamant that asteroid impacts are “the only global natural disaster that we know how to prevent.” And they’re going to continue happening. Most recently, as the world was celebrating entering a new year, a small asteroid named 2014 AA, was spotted close to the Earth and is thought to have made impact over the Atlantic Ocean. Dr. Lu noted in his talk that most of the Earth’s surface consists of oceans, so if an asteroid comes into the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s more likely that it will hit water. But can we really afford to take that risk? Dr. Lu doesn’t think so. His belief is, “Let’s not go the way of the dinosaurs because we didn’t bother looking.”
From the archives: Gail Cleland addressed The Commonwealth Club of California? regarding "Struggle for Democracy in Korea: U.S.A. v. U.S.S.R." on January 23, 1948. While in the U.S. Army, Cleland served as senior chaplain for "Southern Korea," as it was then known. He spoke to many groups about the comparative situations in the Soviet-occupied Northern Korea and the U.S.-occupied southern portion of the country.
By: Mehroz Baig
“It’s hard to imagine fallible human beings creating machines that are infallible,” Eric Schlosser said in reference to nuclear weapons. Schlosser is an investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation and, most recently, Command and Control, which examines nuclear risk. “Nuclear weapons are highly complicated machines and like all machines, they can go wrong,” he added.
Schlosser’s book documents some of the mishaps that have taken place in our history of owning and expanding our nuclear arsenal. However, as Schlosser admits and Walter Russell Mead in a review of his book in The New York Times points out, there hasn’t been a nation that has yet to face the consequences of an accidental nuclear disaster. Schlosser warned that the likelihood of an accident happening increases every day that there isn’t an accident. “I think we were lucky [that we haven’t had an accident], and there’s no guarantee that that luck will last,” he said.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It’s Too Late, joined Schlosser at the Commonwealth Club for a discussion recently on nuclear safety. He noted another argument for reducing our nuclear arsenal: the sheer cost of maintaining and updating nuclear weapons. A report by the Ploughshares Fund estimates that the United States will spend anywhere between $620 and $661 billion dollars on nuclear weapons in the next 10 years. And though it’s understandable that creating and maintaining nuclear weapons is costly, there is some questioning about where that money is going.
An article in Time magazine reported that in October 2013, the Pentagon requested approximately $10 billion in funding to update the country’s B61 bombs. However, we had already developed a more advanced version of the B61: the B83. The problem? The B83 is much too destructive. The article reported, “The B83, truth be told, is a city-destroyer. First detonated in 1984, its yield (adjustable, but about a megaton) is 75 times that of the ‘Little Boy’ that destroyed Hiroshima.” That means that it’s not very good at being a deterrent, one of the reasons why we keep nuclear weapons. The reason is that more than likely, our government wouldn’t use such a strong weapon against an enemy due to the much higher number of casualties and destruction it would cause because, it could be against international law. If the United States faced an attack and retaliated by obliterating a city, it would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the principle of proportionality, which requires attacks in armed conflict to take into account the destruction they would cause compared to the military advantage they yield.
Kennette Benedict, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, makes another argument for reducing our nuclear arsenal: the increased ability to use diverted funds to strengthen the U.S. economy. In an article for the Bulletin, she notes, “The diversion of investment into military production leaves a society with fewer resources for housing, agriculture, and education,” and goes on to add, “public sector investment, as well as production in the civilian economy, are engines of long-term growth.” The money that would be saved from nuclear spending could indeed be put to good use elsewhere, to improve the myriad issues the United States is currently facing, including education, unemployment, and weakening infrastructure.
Complete denuclearization might be unrealistic, especially with other nations acquiring or working toward acquiring nuclear weapons. However, the argument that Schlosser, Cirincione, and Benedict make is that the thousands of nuclear weapons we currently possess are an unnecessary source of danger, not only physically but also economically. Cirincione noted that in order to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the United States only needs about 500 of them, not the estimated 7,700 we currently have. “Several hundred seems to be what many military and national security experts think will serve our deterrence needs,” he said during his discussion at the Commonwealth Club.
Mead agrees, noting in his review, “[Schlosser’s] core recommendation that the United States explore the possibilities of operating a minimal deterrent, the smallest number of nuclear weapons needed to prevent adversaries from contemplating a nuclear attack on us, may be the most hopeful direction in which we can look.” The United States is slowly moving in that direction, having signed the New START treaty with Russia, which aims to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both nations. The treaty’s duration is 10 years and reduces the number of weapons to 1,550. And though the president is working toward further reducing our nuclear arsenal along with that of Russia’s, we’ll have to wait to see how long it takes, and hope that the luck that’s kept a nuclear accident from happening up until now comes along for the ride.
We may not see forced labor explicitly in our day-to-day lives, but that illusion hides the reality that an estimated 20.9 million people are victims of forced labor globally, according to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO). Of the 20.9 million people exploited globally, 18.7 million, or 90 percent, “are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises,” the ILO reports. It is in this exploitation where we can be most culpable.
Supply chains for products are hard to keep track of, and if companies aren’t investing time, money, and energy in ensuring a clean supply chain, our consumerism continues to support labor exploitation. California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act, passed in 2010, is a first-of-its-kind legislation that requires “retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in California and having $100 million or more in annual worldwide gross receipts [to] inform their consumers about what the company is doing to end human trafficking and slavery within their supply chains.” Know the Chain, a non-profit organization, aims to be “a resource to promote greater transparency and dialogue around issues of slavery in supply chains.” As such, they provide information on California’s law and a list of companies that have and have not posted disclosure statements in requirement of that law.
While companies are being asked to do their share, we can do ours by examining what we use and how much that can contribute to forced labor practices. An Oakland-based non-profit, Slavery Footprint, allows users to take a short quiz about their lifestyle (what they wear, eat, etc.) and calculates based on that information, how many slaves work for that individual. You can take the quiz online or use their mobile app. As The Huffington Post points out, the calculation may be a little skewed, but it does shed light on which of our habits contribute the most to slavery around the world.
Our ability to be aware and do something is a fact that Martina Vandenberg wants us to remember. Vandenberg, founder and president of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center in Washington DC, spoke at The Commonwealth Club about facts and myths of human trafficking. She pointed out that slavery exists all around us. There have been recent cases of modern-day slavery, from women held in domestic servitude by diplomats just miles from the White House, to three women having been held for 30 years in Britain, including one woman who was believed to have been born in captivity.
That’s not all. People are held in slavery in almost every country in the world, and children are not immune. In many cases, due to a lack of financial resources and available credit, families may borrow money from other individuals with the intent of paying it back through labor. That’s how the conversation starts. However, once the person is indebted, a high interest rate ensures that the debt will never be paid back, and the person is bound to continue working as a slave indefinitely. That’s the story that Lisa Kristine encountered on her journey to India, Nepal and Ghana, for a project with Free the Slaves, an organization based out of Los Angeles. Kristine is a humanitarian photographer who captured portraits of men, women, and children enslaved in labor camps and sex trafficking in the countries she visited. She shared her work at The Commonwealth Club in November. She talked about people who work in brick kilns in India, often bringing their children with them, and the miners in Ghana who are forced to work in shafts hundreds of feet deep for up to three days at a time, or the men and women who pan for gold in mercury-tainted waters, often leading to disease and physical ailments.
Her portraits and stories bring a human face to slavery and remind us of its prevalence. According to the Global Slavery Index from the Walk Free Foundation, Mauritania has the highest prevalence of slavery today, with 140,000 – 160,000 enslaved individuals in a country of 3.8 million. In absolute numbers, India tops the list, with estimates ranging from 13.3 to 14.7 million enslaved people. The United States is estimated to have anywhere between 57,000 and 63,000 people in slavery. The report points out that factors that highly correlate with slavery are corruption, human development (such as levels of income and the availability of education and health care), GDP, and access to financial services. These factors are not surprising but they are also not the sole cause of slavery, because even the most developed of nations have some prevalence of slavery. For this reason, both Vandenberg and Kristine stress the importance of awareness among individuals—of what slavery is in today’s world, how it happens, and actions that we can take to reduce it, if not eliminate it. As much as eradicating slavery rests with institutions—governments that enforce their laws, corporations that check their supply chains—part of the onus lies on us. Our demand for products and services drives the supply and if we demand cleaner supply chains, fair and humane treatment of individuals, and understand that the cost may be a few extra dollars compared to a life lived in servitude, we may make a difference.
By: Mehroz Baig
“Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” That’s the finding after a two-year investigation by a high-level panel that examined detainee treatment by the United States during the war on terror, in a report published earlier this year by The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment. The report states that there was systematic use of torture and in many cases, it did not result in any useful information. The report also identifies the maneuvering that allowed torture to happen — the legalities of war, as noted in the Geneva Conventions, have already been outlined; definitions of conduct that is allowed and conduct that is illegal in international law have been hammered out. What has happened over the past 13 years, however, is the fudging of boundaries and the redefining of terms that allowed government officials to distinguish between abuse and torture, drawing a very fine line between what constitutes legal torture and what doesn’t. The report concludes that torture took place widely, that it was in fact illegal, and that it violated our ethical duties.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, there was uncertainty about the best way to proceed and the repercussions of any action by the U.S. on policy, military, and legal fronts. This was also new terrain — there wasn’t a clear, territorial enemy, but rather one classified as a non-state actor, and not much precedence for an attack against the United States on U.S. soil. The new circumstances allowed officials to create a plan of action on policy, tactics, and the U.S. approach toward its enemy. Rules were created, bent, and broken and in some cases, to avoid a broken rule, a new classification was invented to circumvent current law.
The report clearly states,
“The most important element may have been to declare that the Geneva Conventions, a venerable instrument for ensuring humane treatment in time of war, did not apply to Al-Qaeda and Taliban captives in Afghanistan or Guantánamo. The administration never specified what rules would apply instead.”
Other actions, such as classifying detainees as “enemy combatants,” allowed for military proceedings to overtake civilian proceedings. “By defining Guantanamo detainees as enemy combatants, the Bush administration cleared the way for some to be tried in newly created offshore military commissions rather than in civilian courts,” reported The Wall Street Journal. The creation of the military commissions was found to be unconstitutional in 2006 but military commissions were reinstated when Congress passed the Military Commissions Act. This was followed by a ruling giving the military commissions power to choose if each detainee classified as an “unlawful enemy combatant.” If so, he was not accorded any rights that a prisoner of war, under the Geneva Conventions, would receive. The Obama administration dropped the term “enemy combatant” in 2009, in a symbolic gesture to distance itself from the Bush administration — the Department of Justice under President Obama continued to argue for indefinite detention of Guantánamo inmates.
The report goes on to address the complicity of medical professionals in creating interrogation techniques that amounted to torture and not reporting any abuse. “After September 11, 2001, military psychologists and physicians were instructed that they were relieved of the obligation to comply with nonmilitary ethical principles, and in some cases their military roles were redefined as non-health-professional combatants.” The report notes that established professional conduct for medical professionals includes refraining from abusive conduct, participating in interrogations, or providing medical information to interrogators. Yet the policy and reclassification of doctors and psychologists as “non-health-professional combatants” allowed them to circumvent their ethical duties on paper through a very conservative adherence to the letter of the ethical standards.
Policy changes also took place elsewhere within the U.S. apparatus against terrorism. As the report points out, changes were made in the Army Field Manual that allowed previously negated interrogation techniques:
“For over 50 years, the Army Field Manual has been an invaluable document guiding American soldiers away from abusing prisoners, with its clear prohibitions on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and torture. However, the 2006 version deleted language that explicitly prohibited the use of sleep deprivation and stress positions, and its Appendix M authorizes an interrogation technique called “separation,” which could inflict significant physical and mental anguish on a detainee.”
The problem with these changes is that they did not happen in isolated incidents but in a cohesive manner that shields the government from accountability. There is evidence that torture occurred and yet when a victim of torture seeks justice, the judiciary cannot help him. The report is explicit in noting that the Convention Against Torture, to which the U.S. is a party, requires that nations have a legal system that allows victims of torture redress. However, “the United States has not complied with this requirement,” the report’s authors note, adding, “in large part because of the government’s repeated, successful invocation of the state-secrets privilege in lawsuits brought by torture victims.” The argument has been that the government cannot defend itself in such cases without revealing state secrets pertaining to national security, so the cases are dismissed.
“It’s a travesty that we’ve applied classification to [torture],” said Ambassador Thomas Pickering, one of the members of The Constitution Project’s Task Force, at a Commonwealth Club program in October. He added that the minimum requirement we face as a nation is to ensure that torture doesn’t happen again. He counts torture as “a serious and disturbing problem in our national history.”
However, it’s a slow move away from some of the terrible and illegal actions the U.S. government took, and continues to take, in its quest to hunt down terrorists. Even today, Guantánamo — a prison that has housed 779 suspected terrorists, including 15 children, one as young as 13 years old — remains open. Ambassador Pickering said, “I hope Guantánamo is closed shortly,” but added, “I don’t think it will happen.”
In her article, “The Tortured Body, the Photograph, and the U.S. War on Terror,” Julie Gerk Hernandez, a professor at the University of Cincinnati examined the violence that took place at Abu Ghraib, arguing that the torture that took place in Afghanistan is part of a “historical continuum of racialized violence.” She compared the photographs from Abu Ghraib to photos of lynchings in the post-Civil War years. “In both cases,” she says, “a group of people records — as a source of enjoyment, pride, and righteousness — another person’s experience of mind-numbing pain or the aftermath of such an experience (death), which individuals of the group inflict.” She further goes on to say in reference to one of the photos from Abu Ghraib, “What this picture suggests is that the sexual violence at Abu Ghraib stems from the same racialized hatred and fear that made lynching possible.”
If Hernandez is correct, the torture, ethical, and moral abuses are not simply part of an unprecedented situational context. And as such, they could easily happen again, given the right combination of zealousness, anger, hatred, and a defined “other” as the enemy. We’re not doing ourselves any favors if we don’t address this issue head-on and try to amend some of the mistakes we’ve made. Much of that involves transparency about what happened and accountability for it. Accountability comes in many forms, including allowing justice for victims of torture through recognition of what they’ve endured and compensation. But if we don’t take an introspective look at the policies and actions we’ve taken in the name of national security, actions that grossly violate our fundamental values, then we are leaving the door open for this to happen again. Public outrage on some of these issues has been short-lived, and we may face the same situation or worse yet again, if we decide not to look back.