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America's Upside Down Energy

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

America's Upside Down Energy

Most liberal Americans are disappointed with the Obama Administration, feeling that the “Yes We Can” dreams of 2008 have succumbed to partisan squabbles and White House compromise on every single issue. Michael Levi argues that on at least one issue of serious importance – energy – the Obama years have witnessed dramatic transformation, occurring with such rapidity that most of the citizenry hasn’t really noticed.

In The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future Levi details how the United States went from energy dependency to a near glut in diverse sources of energy to power our homes, factories, cars, and economy. Along the way his pragmatic, empirically-driven expiation tackles climate change concerns, solar and wind power, fracking, coal, global balances of power, U.S. petro-diplomacy, and the energy future of the planet. I suspect every reader that is not an energy specialist will frequently find themselves saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” while reading this well-constructed book. But those that come to the energy topic with strongly entrenched points of view, from climate change denial to the idea that the entire global fossil fuel tap must be turned off immediately to save the planet, will growl and mutter their ways through this short, fast-paced analysis.

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Digital Life

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Digital Life

In the recent history of biology it would be hard to imagine a character more colorful, imaginative, and controversial than J. Craig Venter, who both runs a non-profit research institute that bears his name and a for-profit biotech company Synthetic Genomics, Inc. There aren’t many scientists in any field that have managed to balance public, private, and academic interests; gain substantial wealth; and remain on the cutting edge of inquiry. Come to think of it, only one individual comes to mind: Dr. Venter

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Hands Across the Colorado River

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Hands Across the Colorado River

Shannon O’Neil’s love affair with Mexico began in 1994 when she signed onto a boutique bank analyst job in Mexico City. From her financial perch, Irish-American O’Neil watched Mexico struggle out of decades of dire poverty, into BRICS status – alongside China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Indonesia, exploding economies of the twenty-first century. She is an unabashed booster, certain that Mexico’s future is bright.

But O’Neil is no Pollyanna. She knows that Mexico’s expanding middle class, growing manufacturing sector and (hopefully) modernization of its petrochemical sector are only half the story. Violence, the drug trade, corruption, and tense relations with El Norte are the other half.

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Before Bombing Syria, Read "The Italian Letter"

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Before Bombing Syria, Read "The Italian Letter"

As Congress debates whether President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent use of sarin gas to kill some 1,400 fellow-Syrians merits retaliatory American military action, many are recalling the “weapons of mass destruction” rationale used to justify U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though Secretary of State John Kerry has been at pains in recent days to underscore the caliber of intelligence supporting the Obama administration’s claims of Assad genocidal use of nerve gas, there is public doubt.

We’ve been here before, and Americans are weary not only of war, but also of con artists in positions of power.

Much of the language used to describe the Syrian situation is reminiscent of phrases and claims utilized by the George W. Bush administration to garner intervention backing from the United Nations Security Council, a long list of allies, and the United States Congress. So it is inevitable that nine years later, amid chatter of U.S. cruise missile launches to take out Syrian government military stockpiles I should revisit the sorry history of Bush’s drumbeats of war.

The Italian Letter is my choice for a brilliantly researched, jaw-dropping book that ought to be on every politician’s reading list this week.

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Sleepless in Hollywood

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Sleepless in Hollywood

People living in Greater Los Angeles are genuinely different from all of the rest of us. They are so fixated on milieu of movies that it’s impossible to get through a dinner or cocktail party anywhere from Pomona to the Pacific without talking about scripts, directors, movies-in-production and an aging starlet’s bad botox work. I can say this because I am a fifth generation Los Angelena, I grew up in LA and those movie-laced conversations pushed me to the East Coast, fleeing the plastic-fantastic Lotus Land. Despite the area’s vast expanse and gigantic, highly diverse population there is no doubt in any resident’s mind what is meant by the phrase “The Industry.”

It means Hollywood.

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DAN BROWN’S INFERNO, PLAGUES AND CFR

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

DAN BROWN’S INFERNO , PLAGUES AND CFR

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It’s a bit unnerving when the biggest selling fiction writer in the world, specializing in conspiratorial mysteries depicts an evil scenario that is dangerously close to yourself and your work.  Dan Brown’s latest venture into iconography-meets-heinous murder, Inferno, imagines an evil biologist based at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, who kidnaps the Director-General of the World Health Organization.

I work at the Council on Foreign Relations as a Senior Fellow for Global Health. I was trained as a biologist, and though I have never kidnapped WHO’s Dr. Margaret Chan, I have been known to drag her off to a quiet corner for private tète-a-tètes.

Hours after Inferno was published I started getting alarming e-mails and phone calls from friends and family that were devouring the novel on their e-readers. I was worried that Brown would fan conspiratorial flames about CFR and even my personal work. After all, his Da Vinci Code and other novels left millions of Dan Brown fans convinced that dark cabals lurk in the halls of the Vatican, indulging in self-mutilation and global manipulation.

In the end, Dan Brown has done something interesting with Inferno – silly, but provocative. He is delving into the worlds of synthetic biology, dual-use research, human genome alteration and even hypothetical germ line mutation of people. Having devoted a series of bestsellers to castigating religion, Brown now casts aspersions on Science. As should be expected with a genre that mixes 14th Century Dante with 21st Century gene sequencing none of it is really accurate and all tends to nightmarish extremes.

But Brown’s Inferno is asking readers to consider the possibility of a juncture in the near future that finds humanity facing man-made microbes, pandemics and human over-population simultaneously. His scenario walks just close enough to the edges of reality to make for thriller reading. And Biology as a discipline is now delving into human-directed evolution and creation of life forms in ways that merit greater public scrutiny. The real work of science work is not conspiratorially dark and genocidal, as Brown portrays, but there are risks of accidental release of modified organisms and, less likely, terrorism that merit wider attention.

Among the most absurd plot devices in Inferno  are: The WHO owns a private C-130 jet that wings its way around the world; the EU's version of the Centers for Disease Control has a huge secret SWAT team of fully armed, military disease-fighters; global health leaders are so powerful that they can dial a number and instantly tell Prime Ministers what to do; vector biology has reached a stage where genes affecting human fertility can be inserted in our DNA. Wouldn't it be sweet if the impoverished WHO actually did have a budget large enough to finance an agency C-130 and rapid response team? In truth, the agency's rapid epidemic reaction division is bankrupt. No kidding: bankrupt.

The one kidnapping scene that takes place inside the Council on Foreign Relations is, of course, absurd, not only as an impossibility, but also as a literary device.  The book’s evil foil is not employed by CFR, and his connection to the institution seems nonexistent, yet somehow he has access to its facilities. Several times subsequently in the novel Brown references “the Council” and “the CFR” with hints of darkness, but the connection does not work.  The evil-doer could have hauled his kidnapped WHO target to any locale in Manhattan: CFR serves as nothing more than a room inside of which he berates the Director-General. It’s a cheap shot on Brown’s part, poking a finger at the Council without either literary or any other rationale.

21st Century Global Health Diplomacy

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

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 The perils of pandemics and poor health have never been problems neatly confined inside of national boundaries. Certainly the empires of the Incas, Aztecs, Shona, Yoruba and hundreds of other non-European peoples learned this ugly lesson when explorers and conquistadores from afar brought hitch-hiking deadly microbes to their shores. Following the Black Death of the 14th Century many European societies incorporated forms of “health” provision into essential governance. But no European government in the Middle Ages could separate “disease” from “religion”, as they had no germ theory explaining why suffering and death occurred. As a result, cooperation across borders to control spread of disease inevitably confronted religious and cultural differences between societies. Disease, therefore, furthered tensions, contributed to conflict, and undermined European social cohesion.

During the 17th century, Europe was torn to shreds by the Thirty Years War: the culmination of what had actually been 140 years of violence across the continent and into the British Isles, often under the banner of Catholic versus Protestant domination. Tiny nation-states, even mere city-states battled endlessly, each trying to impose its religion, values and trade advantages upon another.

In the end the bloody carnage was war over sovereignty – what defines a State? When, if ever, does one State have a right to impose its will on another State? The terrible warfare ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia under which Europe defined shared terms of “sovereignty,” clearly delineated its borders and agreed to peaceful coexistence between religious states. From the Westphalian pact grew a golden era of European development, featuring spectacular cross-border sharing of scientific, medical, artistic and philosophical ideas. Countries created disease control mechanisms, and cooperated to slow the spread of epidemics.

The foundations of world cooperation in health were essentially set in the post-Westphalian environment, spreading from Europe to its colonies. In essence, the concepts of health – where do diseases come from, how are they spread, what should the State do in response – and the responsibility to protect the health of populations were both deemed to be domestic matters, to be determined by each State, separately. Tuscany might deem all disease the devil’s doing, and set up strings of Catholic-run quarantine centers, while Bohemia could define all outbreaks as the evil-doing of Jews and Gypsies, “containing” epidemics thru genocide campaigns. To each European State, his own, as it were. But collaboration between States, both in the form of sharing intellectual insights and in responding to outbreaks and epidemics, was encouraged as an element of European diplomacy.

The idea that health was part of the sovereign identity of a State has always had serious downsides. Rich countries could always afford to provide more hospitals and clean water to their masses than could poor nations. Dictators and cruel leaders could patently deny all forms of public health while squandering national wealth on other matters. And germs carry no passports: Viruses and bacteria do not respect Westphalian boundaries.

During the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Globalization, the weaknesses in the Westphalian notions of health seemed to equal their strengths. By the time Boris Yeltsin was standing atop a tank in Moscow, fending off a would-be communist putsch, the HIV pandemic had successfully spread into every country on Earth, creating the third largest plague in world history. The Westphalian concept of health – embedding disease inside of sovereignty – was part of the problem. Country after country saw HIV coming, but refused outside intervention, insisted the epidemic was the result of some other State’s decadence or immorality, and failed to take steps to stem the virus’ spread until no reasonably effective and humane prevention measures remained.

When effective HIV treatment emerged in 1996, treatment and activist communities directly challenged Westphalian health notions, insisting that every country had two mandates: If rich, share the burden of cost and training for HIV care; if less rich, a nation had to allow outsiders, their drugs, clean needles, and condoms, inside, no matter what cultural and political taboos might be challenged. Both sides of this algorithm have proven politically painful.

By the dawn of the 21st Century this post-Westphalian view of health was the new normal, affecting not only contagious diseases such as influenza, HIV and tuberculosis, but also the very constructs of healthcare delivery and financing. Debate over HIV reached the UN Security Council and sparked two special sessions of the General Assembly. A fantastic increase in the flow of financing from wealthy nations to the poor during the early 21st Century propelled genuine revolutions inside nations, turning their health systems and notions of disease upside down. And within the donor countries the Christian question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has been answered in the affirmative for a range of global health concerns.

While health was part of diplomacy for the Westphalian State, it was only so during moments of agreed cross-border sharing of ideas or outbreak control. By 2013 health has become a thoroughly integrated element of overall diplomatic efforts in most of the powerful States, with the United States, in particular, incorporating health-related programming into the daily duty charts of its entire Ambassadorial corps, worldwide. Within the UN system diplomatic efforts now include noncommunicable diseases like cancer and diabetes, as well as a call for universal health coverage.

The concept is still evolving: “health diplomacy” remains an awkward theme, lacking global consensus in both definition and implementation. All global health practitioners and observers are struggling with the political and economic sides of the diplomacy equation, while political leaders remain flummoxed regarding “health” and governments’ obligations to the well-being of their own citizenries, much less humanity, planet-wide.

Novotny and Kickbusch’s compendium of essays helps a great deal. While in the end it poses many questions and leaves the reader still wondering what, precisely, “health diplomacy” may be, the book reveals the facets of debate, and evolving thinking. I very much doubt we will reach any consensus on the boundaries and implementation of “global diplomacy” during my lifetime, but this book will help sort out many of the issues, and guide the debate.

[World Scientific Press 2013]

Man Ray Portraits

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

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Well of course I knew Man Ray was a revolutionary and key part of the Dada movement of the early 20th Century, but Terence Pepper’s book has opened my eyes to another role the great photographer played: Chronicler.  From Marcel Duchamp to Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein to Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray captured them all thru a special Dada lens. If you take this gorgeous book in during a single sitting, as I did, it almost feels as if you’re in the salons of Paris in 1920. A breathtaking photo of Ernest Hemingway captures simultaneously how sexy he was during his Paris days, and dangerous. Ray’s portrait of art patron Guggenheim is lit in such a way that her long draped skirt seems to be made of gold, while her torso and arms cast equally long shadows across a tawdry burlap wall: It seems to say, “Here is our lovely Dada benefactor, who gives us not only money, but ideas and critical backing.” In his portrait of Meret Oppenheim, Ray positioned her naked, behind a massive wrought iron machine, the handle protruding to appear as her penis, and shadows casting ambiguity across the rest of her sexuality: Bold stuff.  In his essay Pepper tells us that Man Ray was more than a portraitist – he was “a great mythologist.” Rifling through these photographs I realized that nearly every image I’d acquired in my mind’s eye of the 1920s Dada scene came from Man Ray pictures.

Sadly, the Man Ray exhibit for which this volume was prepared will not be touring the USA, though if you are fortunate enough to be in London, Moscow or Edinburgh in 2013 you may catch it at the National Portrait Gallery (Feb-May), Scottish National Portrait Gallery (June – Sept) or Pushkin Museum (Oct – Jan 2014).

[Yale University Press  2013]

After Mandela: The Struggles for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

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I’m admittedly biased about Douglas Foster’s AFTER MANDELA: THE STRUGGLES FOR FREEDOM IN POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA: Doug is an old friend. A fellow UCSC Banana Slug, I have tracked Foster’s stellar journalism career for decades.  And many times over the years of writing and editing this tome Doug called me to ask, “How the hell did you survive writing your books?” (Of course my answer to most first-authors is, “Don’t do it, unless you are prepared to experience the most profound loneliness of your life.”)

It is with great delight that I can report, Reader, that After Mandela is a fantastic book. What Foster has managed to accomplish, as a white outsider from Chicago, is remarkable. He lifts the veils deliberately placed over the inner machinations of politicians inside the African National Congress, shows that many heroes stand on legs of sand, and introduces readers to the children and grandchildren of South Africa’s most famous leaders. Through their eyes – including the AIDS orphaned grandsons of Nelson Mandela, protesting university student daughters of President Jacob Zuma – Foster shares a glimpse of the complicated nation’s future. More importantly, through the narratives of disenfranchised, alienated young black men Foster illustrates the precarious nature of the country’s hopes and dreams.

I have made several journeys to South Africa over the post-Apartheid years, and knew many of its ANC exiled leaders living in Zambia during the worst of the period of Boer domination. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from Foster’s book.  Like him, I find that the world turns away from countries after their moments of dramatic liberation, during the most pivotal time of social and political development. I saw this across the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, and most immediately in Myanmar/Burma. The heroes of liberation are rarely quality leaders of mundane governance. While the outside world gives them grand stature, in their own countries or communities the once-successful rebels too often prove to be incompetent governors, malevolent political in-fighters, egomaniacs, power-hungry fools or simply well-meaning fonts of mediocrity.  Foster’s book finds all of these elements in the post-Apartheid South African scene, along with fantastic sparks of humanity and vision.

[Liveright Publishing    2012]

Kings and Tyrants in Burma

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

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Thant Myint-U is the grandson of Burma’s most famous diplomat, U Thant. When U Thant was Secretary-General of the United Nations his grandson thrived in a New York intellectual environment that was international, Ivy League educated, and rich with Burmese culture and history.  This book was long banned in Myanmar, but now that the country is opening up I saw venders hawking it all over the place. THE RIVER OF LOST FOOTSTEPS is a tour de force, providing a political history that is riveting, and often left me staring off into space, trying to imagine 10th Century palaces filled with gold. Thant’s opener is motion-picture gripping, as a 20-something Burmese emperor in his teak, tropical palace begs for his life before wool-clad British soldiers and bag-pipers.  This book, more than anything else I’ve read, has helped me to understand the Burma I visited in January 2013, its long dark decades of military domination, and the precarious future it now faces.  I highly recommend Thant’s book for readers interested in Asian history, modern SE Asian politics or just great nonfiction writing.

[Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006]

Merlin the Weird

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

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Yale Books sent me Anne Lawrence-Mathers’  THE TRUE HISTORY OF MERLIN THE MAGICIAN, which I opened on a lark. It reads like a book adapted from a thesis, and many points are reiterated so frequently that I want to scream, “Enough already!”  Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by the evolution of the concept of Merlin and King Arthur, from its whole-cloth fabrication by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th Century to Disney and BBC sit-coms. It reinforces the notion that a lie, told often enough, becomes a truism, though the Myth of Merlin evolved over centuries – imagine fueling such a concept through Twitter.

[Yale University Press, 2012]