Sand is Most At-Risk Resource on Earth after Water

Sand mining - Screenshot taken from sand-wars website
Filmmaker Denis Delestrac made an extraordinary documentary in 2013 researching what was happening to sand, why the gold rush for sand - used in everything, from construction to glass - was inexorably leading to a collapse of human life on Earth. Unless we can do something to stop the loss of sand...

Yesterday I watched it on Arte TV and I unfortunately can't share it with you here in English, it's in French but it's well worth watching if you can:

Combined with Climate Change, as global warming leads to the rise of the seas by an expected average of one meter, some 100 million people living on the coastlines or on islands like the Maldives will find themselves without sand (a protective barrier) and under water by...2100.

That's 100 years earlier than I predicted in my specultive fiction novel Gateway to Forever: I thought it would take longer than 85 years, but American scientists (who no doubt know better than I do) think that's how fast it will happen.

"By 2100, if you want to see a beach, you will have to turn to History books..."

That's what Denis Delestrac says in his TED talk - in English! - that you can watch here:

A way out? Perhaps using "recycled glass sand" instead of sand. That's Denis Delestrac's suggestion at the end of his TED talk. Glass bottles can be recycled to create a perfectly usable sand, even birds mistake it for the real thing and lay their eggs on it, and of course it can be used in construction just like real sand.

The trouble is that it's expensive compared to sand you find on beaches or in the sea.

The real question is: how long will it take humanity to place a price on sand? That's a job for governments, they could put on a tax, provide subsidies to recycling etc There are many policies that can be pursued to put a price on sand and make business realize how short-sighted it is in its relentless pursuit of sand-mining - literally killing the goose with the golden eggs.

 Delestrac did his documentary in 2013 and talked about it on TED in the same year - have governments reacted since then?

No, not really.

Except the United Nations, and in particular UNEP, and that's very encouraging. Thumbs up for the UN staff who had the courage to put out a paper on this issue conveniently ignored by most politicians because of the huge lobbies of the sand-mining industry. Millions of dollars are at stake and big corporations won't let go.

Here's what the UNEP paper (March 2014) had to say:
Despite the colossal quantities of sand and gravel being used, our increasing dependence on them and the significant impact that their extraction has on the environment, this issue has been mostly ignored by policy makers and remains largely unknown by the general public.
The paper is well worth taking a few minutes to read (14 pages), it is an eye-opener. It concludes:
Sand and gravel represent the highest volume of raw material used on earth after water. Their use greatly exceeds natural renewal rates. Moreover, the amount being mined is increasing exponentially, mainly as a result of rapid economic growth in Asia...
A large discrepancy exists between the magnitude of the problem and public awareness of it. The absence of global monitoring of aggregates extraction undoubtedly contributes to the gap in knowledge, which translates into a lack of action. 
Therefore, to raise this issue on the political agenda, there is a need for:
  1. more in-depth research
  2. implementation of a monitoring mechanism of aggregates extraction and trade 
Anyone listening out there? 

Some places are receptive. The EU, especially the Netherlands since so much of it is already "under water", is concerned with coastal management. But it apparently pursues  a"sand nourishment" policy with techniques to deposit a layer of sand on the beach or seabed - even though, as Delestrac compellingly argues in his documentary, this is hardly a "final solution" as sand moves around and continues to disappear because of sand-mining. And in California, there is rising enthusiasm on the part of authorities for using "recycled aggregates" (see here).

But so far there's no global solution and the place to start doing this would be the United Nations. That 14-page UNEP paper is only a start. 

What is needed is a global political will to do something about the misuse of a resource that we now know is essential to our survival on this planet. 

Politicians wake up! Let's start by monitoring this issue and ask scientists to come up with solutions.

For more on the "sand wars" and the loss of sand, visit this website: http://sand-wars.com/


A Timely Thriller Featuring Iran's Nuclear Sting

This novel, Blind Scorpion: Iran's Nuclear Sting, lands right in the middle of the on-going debate around the recent agreement concluded with Iran about its nuclear program. In the coming weeks, this debate promises to heat up as the deal still needs approval from the American Congress since it involves the lifting of sanctions against Iran. This is something most Europeans want. European politicians are flocking to Iran, the British have just re-opened their embassy in Teheran.

In short, this book couldn't be more timely.

And fun. Unputdownable.

Though the premise is scary enough: what if Iran had already built its atomic bomb? What would it take to stop it?

The book is written by an Iranian-American in-the-know, Mr. Farsheed Ferdowsi, and it has been subsequently edited by best-selling author Mike Wells and republished with a new, enticing title: Blind Scorpion.

The two have been long-time friends since their college days at Vanderbilt University and Mike Wells describes his foray into this (for him) unusual kind of international thriller à la John LeCarré in the following terms:
When Farsheed decided to write this story, he had never tackled the writing of a novel before, and since we have been close friends ever since college, I agreed to be his mentor.  As he finished each chapter, I gave him detailed feedback and helped him keep the narrative tight, to maintain the high level of tension required to achieve the "unputdownable" reader engagement that I am so particular about.  When the manuscript was finished and polished, Farsheed published it himself in both paper and ebook format under another title (Mushroom in the Sand), but due to his busy schedule and family commitments, he was never able to put a serious effort into promoting it.  However, despite this limitation, Mushroom in the Sand garnered 122 Amazon reviews averaging 4.6 stars, which--interestingly--is almost exactly the same number of reviews/average rating that Lust, Money and Murder  book 1, 2 and 3  has (126 reviews and 4.6 stars average). 
Lust, Money and Murder (Book One is free) is of course Mike Wells own latest thriller, the kind of story his fans love and are used to read - though I would recommend they take a break and read Blind Scorpion, it is well worth it.

As to why Mr. Ferdowsi had no time for promoting his own book, this is easily explained. If you take a look at his biography (at the end of Blind Scorpion) you will learn that he is in fact a serial entrepreneur. Born and raised in Teheran, he entered the United States in 1973 to pursue a higher education. Armed with a bachelor's degree from Vanbderbilt University and a master's in structural engineering from U.C.Berkeley, he founded a business software development firm in 1979 and followed this with a string of companies in  technology information, notably PayMaxx ranked among the top 10 payroll service providers in the US. A busy man!

I just finished reading Blind Scorpion this week-end and wrote this review posted on Amazon:

Fast paced and suspenseful, it features a surprising range of highly likekable characters, in particular the sprightly and brilliant Dr. Shaheen, the Iranian-American scientist who is the hero of the story, and his beautiful Russian wife and their two teenage children, as well as his wife's father, lovable and grumpy General Pugachov. The latter has become friends with Colonel Nash, the steely Deputy Director of Operations at the CIA, both united in their fight against terrorism. Add to this gallery, the sexy TV reporter, the clever CIA agent and a range of unpleasant characters and villains, including the Iranian scientist who has developed the bomb and a violent Russian spy.
What I liked the most, however, in this well-written spy thriller, was the depiction of Iran, how it is remembered by Dr. Shaheen who left it as a young man, and how he finds the country changed when he returns there now. This is a thoroughly well-researched book by a person in the know, including fascinating details about making an atomic bomb (no fear, there are not enough details to actually build one!).

A highly recommended read for anyone who enjoys thrillers with a political edge.


Peace, Love and Romance for Baby Boomers

Back from my break...I  found this lovely  anthology, Peace, Love and Romance for Baby Boomers (like me) and as I had pre-ordered it, the book landed straight into my Kindle today, August 25, date of publication, flying in from the US though I live in Italy - Ah, the wonders of the digital age and exactly the kind of read I needed to extend the happy days of summer... As announced on Amazon (see here):
For a limited time, ten of today's hottest and bestselling authors bring you Peace, Love & Romance - a collection of full-length novels (some sweet, some sizzling!) all celebrating women who have loved, lost, and triumphed. 
And here's the enticing cover:

Even before publication, it was already ranked 158th in the Kindle Store in the category "women's fiction - humor" (on August 24). Impressive!

It is also available on other platforms: Barnes and Noble (click here), Kobo (here) and Apple iTunes (here).

An anthology organized by 10 authors...I was immediately curious about how they managed it and they were kind enough to answer my questions.

My first question: How did it all start? How did all 10 of you get together?  

Jennifer Theriot (author of Out of the Box Regifted) explains, answering all my questions at one go (it makes sense, the whole project started with her):

Diane Rinella and I are officially confirmed partners in crime. We’ve been friends for over two years and we talk almost every day by phone on my commute home from work. Nine months ago, I called her and told her I had an idea, to which she replied “Dear GAWD!”  Our constant ideas get us into trouble more often than not, so I spilled the details and she immediately said “Hell YES!”

From there, we went on a ‘do diligence’ hunt for the perfect mix of authors and books for the anthology.

Our main focus was books that were written about Boomer/GenX women – strong, and all of who had experienced heartache and triumphed. We laugh, because this process has been a nine-month ordeal – just like a pregnancy. It was ‘conceived’ and developed from there – complete with all the elements of a traditional pregnancy. Elation, skepticism, fear, tears, determination, more tears and a diet of organization, task assignment, daily affirmations and planning. I’m so happy with our choices…. the child we’ve birthed is one that we are so pleased to announce and have given the name, Peace, Love and Romance. What a beautiful name and a testament to women everywhere!

Diane Rinella (author of Scary Modsters and Creepy Freaks):  In a world where everyone seems to have published a book, finding authors for this set was a lot harder than anyone would expect. We had so many requirements -- the biggest ones being that the book had to be not only well written, but also a good fit. The author also had to be dedicated to success. Working on a set like this is like being a firefighter, because at any moment you may need to jump to action on an opportunity. The experience is grueling, and no one has time to pick up anyone's slack.

Robyn Roze (author of Chain of Title): How you got together: I was approached by an author in the anthology who'd read my book and thought it would be a good fit with the theme of the box set. I was slated as the tenth and final author. How things change! Within a few months, we went from ten authors down to four. We could've called it a day, but we believed in our message of celebrating women who have loved, lost, and triumphed. We stayed positive and focused, loaded our Kindles, and found six talented authors to join us on this journey.

Aubree Lane (author of Tahoe Blues):  I was asked to join the anthology when the first set of authors fell apart. Please don’t refer to me as part of the second string (I’m trying my best not too, lol). Jennifer, Diane, Christine, Kelly and I have known each other and our work well. It was inevitable we end up working together.

Dee Ernst (author of A Different Kind of Forever): This is easy! I was approached by one of the organizers and said ‘yes” right away.  Being part of an anthology, particularly one with these caliber of writers, was a no-brainer for me.

Nan Reinhardt (author of Sex and The Widow Miles): Honestly, I sort of came along toward the end and I think I got involved because Christine read Sex and the Widow Miles, liked it, and thought it would be a good addition to the anthology. I was surprised and flattered that they wanted me to participate. It's been lovely meeting other authors who write to this niche--Baby Boomers. We've been dismissed and ignored for such a long time even though we all know that women just get better as they age! I got so tired of reading books about little twenty-something’s who had no life experience and perfect bodies. I couldn't find the kind of heroines and heroes I wanted to read about, so I wrote them myself. Surprised the heck out of me that other women my age were interested enough to buy my books. Surprised me, but thrilled me too!

Christine Ardigo (author of Cheating to Survive): Just a few months into publishing my first books, I was asked to join the PLR group by Jennifer Theriot.  I remember clearly reading the message over and over again, shocked that anyone even knew who I was, and that they thought my book was a great fit for this anthology. Before even finding out all the details, I immediately said Yes, Yes Yes, and have learned so much about each author in the past 9 months.

Jill Cox Vogt (author of The Fizgig): Getting together with this group was meant to be. Rebecca Warner, an author I admire, was asked to be in the anthology, and when the authors were looking for a tenth contributor, she suggested that my novel The Fizgig would be a good fit. They discussed it, and the next thing I knew I was doing a happy dance because I was in.

Kelly Cozzone (author of Tropical Nightmares): I've been friends with Diane Rinella and Jennifer Theriot for a couple of years. They approached me about joining them in Peace, Love & Romance and I jumped at the chance to work with them again. We collaborated last summer on the anthology, Love, Honor and Hope and had a great time.

Rebecca Warner (author of Doubling Back To Love): Author Jennifer Theriot and I met on a book promotion site when we read and reviewed each other's books. Jennifer felt that my book would be a good fit for the Peace, Love, & Romance anthology, and was gracious enough to invite me to join her and nine other authors in this endeavor.

Q: What were the challenges over the 9 months it took you to put this together?

Diane Rinella: No one could decide on the darn cover! The minute we would be close to deciding, someone would toss in a money wrench!

Robyn Roze:  Building consensus is difficult enough when you're in the same room with people, let alone in cyberspace. Words read on a screen don't have a tone of voice, body language, or facial cues by which one can gauge mood or intent. It becomes incredibly important to interact and project from a positive, non-judgmental place. Otherwise, it would be quite easy to slide into disarray and lose the necessary momentum.

Aubree Lane: Trying to pull together ten authors who have commitments, deadlines, families, day jobs, along with a multitude of other things going on in their lives is almost impossible. Like Yoda says, “Do or don’t do. There is no try.”  You have to resign yourself to working a bunch of really late nights. It helps to have a bottle of wine on hand when it gets overwhelming.

Dee Ernst: My biggest challenge has been keeping up with some of these other writers!  Talk about energy - not to mention, becoming much more active on social media than I’m used to.

Nan Reinhardt: I've only been on board for the last three months, so I can't speak to the birth of the idea, but I would say figuring out how each of would fit into the plan was a big challenge. We all have different skills, different amounts of time and money that we can contribute to the cause. Some of us have full-time jobs that suck up so many hours in the day--I'm a freelance editor and I usually run several projects concurrently, so making time is a huge factor for me. Also, there is the experience thing. I've never done an anthology, never done any of the promotional events that the others have, so I'm flying blind frequently. I'm kind of a bad promoter--I'm shy and I'm not used to putting myself out there, so it's good that we have enough different personalities.

Christine Ardigo:10 different women with 10 different personalities, ideas, and opinions can either destroy a group, or bring out the best in each other.  Understanding, support, and encouragement along the way, can help each author grow and learn from one another. When more experienced authors guide the others in a loving way, it can only inspire them to want to help more. A good leader motivates the members, makes each one feel important, and appreciates all their hard work, knowing how stressful this could be.

Jill Cox Vogt: Accomplishing the success of this anthology is not without its challenges. How do I eat minestrone soup and type at the same time? How do I keep up with the group on Facebook when it is banned at work, and I can only sneak some peeks on my phone. How big do I let that pile of laundry grow in the living room while I promote Peace, Love, and Romance? Time management, getting together necessary tools such as a website! - and my needy computer skills in comparison to these savvy women's are at the top of my challenges list. I am inspired by others’ challenges as well. 

Kelly Cozzone: The challenges were trying to find the right mix of books and authors.  When you're working on a project such as this, it takes a ton of teamwork.  It's not a project to take on lightly.  Meshing personalities and strengths and weaknesses is a huge undertaking in order to make sure everything got done.  Thank goodness we're all thick skinned! LOL

Rebecca Warner: For me, the greatest challenge was keeping up with these savvy and experienced authors. They not only wrote great books, they also knew how to market those books through networking and social media--something which I had not learned to the same degree. But they were very generous in sharing their knowledge and pushing me to step up my game. 

Q: Advice  on how to do something as complex as this and do it well... 

Diane Rinella: Democracies are great, but if I had to do it all over again, I think I would go with majority rules. While I am thrilled that everyone bought in 100%, it made the process take forever.

Robyn Roze: The real estate maxim is: location, location, location. The anthology maxim should be: organization, organization, and organization. We each have different strengths and weaknesses. And it's important to allow each author in the group to leverage her strengths, but also be willing to step outside her comfort zone to learn new things. Doing so not only benefits the group and successful outcome of the project but the individual as well.

Aubree Lane: My best advice is to have a great plan. Then have a back-up plan for your back-up plan. Brace yourself for a wild ride, laugh when things go wrong and rejoice when they don’t.

Dee Ernst: I’m just taking orders here, so the only advice I have is to be lucky enough to fall in with some very savvy and hard-working women!

Nan Reinhardt: This is my first one, so I'm not the one to give advice. I can say that having experienced authors surely is important, people who know how things work and who can guide those of us who are newbies. Also, being organized seems to be very important and making sure we all agree on how things are going happen. We all signed a contract together--that was significant. But, as I said, I'm the greenhorn here and am learning a lot from the more experienced marketers and promoters in the group. I'm impressed as hell at their level of energy and their knowledge!

Christine Ardigo: Good organization of projects is important. Having a set schedule, following it, having one new task a day to work on and perfect before moving on to the next, is critical. Insuring each task is understood, perfected and completed, guarantees nothing is missed, everyone is up to speed, and no one gets lost. Communication in imperative as well, and all members should be included in every discussion so as not to confuse anyone. Of course, all 10 authors treated as equals, promotes close bonds and life long friendships. This can only strengthen the team, thus bringing out everyone's enthusiasm and pure enjoyment to work on this every single day for months on end. How lucky I am to found that kind of group. I hope you feel our excitement, too, when reading our stories!  I think we included a fantastic collection of novels that will resonate with every women in some way. Enjoy!

Jill Cox Vogt: For me, to do something and to do it well is a journey of thinking positively even when it’s gloomy and envisioning the outcome exactly how it should be even when fog creeps in. It is wanting other people to appreciate it as much as possible. I am often struck by a quote by Marie Curie:  “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
Yes, we must believe. Working with such a smart, savvy, skilled, talented, wonderful group of women makes it easy to believe. They have done far more than I have to make this anthology happen. They give me support and encouragement and help when I need it. They have truly become my friends.

Kelly Cozzone:  Decide on a theme, a leader, and stick too it. Make sure the leader is strong and able to multitask.  Diane took the bull by the horns and ran with it. She's done an incredible job too.  However, leading a project combining 10 books and 10 women authors is not for the faint of heart!!!

Rebecca Warner: To do something like this well, there has to be strong leadership within the group to set goals, and cooperative efforts on everyone's part to do whatever is necessary to meet those goals in a timely manner. We were lucky to have two strong leaders, Diane--who kept her foot in our back to push us along, and Jennifer, who gently took us by the hand and tugged us along. They kept us focused and productive, though all of the authors have a lot of self-motivation. We built a team, and developed the same mentality for winning--which we will do when we hit a best-seller list!

Thank you all for answering my questions...And I believe we have all learned for your experience and we are (certainly I am!) looking forward to reading your books.

UPDATE: Six days after publishing, this book had already garnered 22 customer reviews and 91% of them rating 5 stars. Unsurprisingly, the book has been pushed up in Amazon's best-selling rankings (date of observation: 31 August 2015):


The Future of the United Nations - Kevin Rudd's views

I am happy to reblog this article that appeared on the online UNICEF magazine CONNECT. Mr. Kevin Rudd makes some very powerful remarks in it, that are in fact at the center of my own concerns (and the reason why I am working on a book about the United Nations). If you have time, view the full conversation on Youtube.

I have highlighted in yellow the main points he raised.

Global Governance 2.0: insights from former Australian Premier

A young girl from Bangladesh smiles as her uncle picks her up.
A young girl from Bangladesh smiles as her uncle picks her up. © UNICEF/UNI175476a/Noorani

Is there a future for the UN in a fast evolving landscape of new global challenges (as well as some old unsolved ones) and growing number of other multilateral institutions?
Yes, said Kevin Rudd, Chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism and former Prime Minister of Australia. The Honorable Kevin Rudd recently came to UNICEF to debate the future of multilateralism with UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake and a large audience, as part of UNICEF’s Conversations with Thought Leaders series.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, with Kevin Rudd.
UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake, with Chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, Kevin Rudd. (c) UNICEF/2015/Kania Azrina

Calling the UN “the Parliament of Humankind,” Kevin Rudd was clear: “we should remind ourselves of why the institution itself is inherently valuable. We should cherish what we have. We have been handed by those who have come before us a fragile institution. If it falls apart, it will be extraordinarily difficult to reconstitute anything of its kind.”
In his view, the UN is doing an “extraordinarily bad job” at explaining what it achieves. Hence, Mr. Rudd insisted “for the UN to have a future, we must recapture the imagination of the human family… not just in their hearts, but also in their heads through the record of achievement on the ground.” How? By investing in public relations. There needs to be a much more substantive investment in telling the wider public what it is that the UN does for peace, security and development.

At the same time, Mr. Rudd was realistic: often a swift action on emerging global challenges requires a smaller coalition of the willing and those who have influence. Just think of the global economic crisis. It required a smaller group of major players (the G20) who could take rapid decisions to avert the crisis. Similarly, he was optimistic about the international community reaching a climate change deal in Paris in December. Why? There is a clear commitment that China, India and the US have demonstrated in recent months, which is in turn creating a momentum for a global deal.
Reflecting on the ambitious task ahead – the Sustainable Development Goals – Mr. Rudd wasted no time on pondering where the funding would come from. He suggested to put global private capital to greater use in development, particularly to finance the infrastructure in developing countries. The international community should construct a deal whereby private capital takes on infrastructure projects in developing countries, often an underpinning challenge for development of any kind.  The governments’ role would then be to finance the gap between the real return on investment and the minimum required to attract private capital. Mr. Rudd believed this would “turbocharge” the development agenda. How sustainable would this be in the long term, one may ask? It is an interesting idea to consider, which perhaps deserves a separate conversation altogether.
These are just some of the takeaways from the insightful Conversation with Kevin Rudd on the future of multilateralism. A need for a rolling policy research capacity at the UN to capture lessons learned and a global summit on people’s flows were some of the other ideas he put on the table.
Want to learn more? View the full Conversation here and let us know what you think!
This discussion took place on 10 July 2015 as part of UNICEF’s Conversations with Thought Leaders series. Yulia Oleinik is a Policy Officer in the Policy Planning Unit, Division of Data, Research and Policy at UNICEF.


The Battle for the North Pole is Heating Up

There is a deep hole under the North Pole said to hide a treasure trove of natural gas, minerals and oil - an estimated 30% of the world's oil reserves - and the countries around it, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, the US - all hope to lay their hands on it.

With the ice cap melting as a result of Climate Change, exploration and drilling for gas and oil has become much easier. And economic. So everyone is scrambling to get a piece of the (icy) cake. And the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is presiding over the scramble.

Sea areas in international rights (Wikipedia)
Under UNCLOS, countries with Arctic coasts can claim offshore territory beyond their 200-nautical mile economic zone, the so called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) if they can prove underwater geology is an extension of their continental shelf.

Canada was the first to lay a claim (for a reasonable area) but Denmark won the first round in December 2014 by claiming  what appeared to be more than its due by simply pulling Greenland into the picture, adducing that it was a part of Denmark.

And now it looks like Russia is about to win the second round. Ever the wily negotiator, Russia didn't respond to the Danish provocation by claiming all the waters right up to the Canadian and Danish EEZ boundaries (though some Russian hard liners would have liked it to do so).

Instead, it simply re-submitted  a claim it had first submitted in 2001 to UNCLOS (and that had been suspended at the time due to insufficient evidence). It reiterated that some 1.2 million square kilometres in the resource-rich Arctic waters around the North Pole are a "natural prolongation of the Russian land territory" and provided new evidence to bolster its case. That's more than 750,000 square miles of arctic shelf, including the North Pole. UNCLOS is expected to deliver a response this fall.

Cover image of Russian submission report to UNCLOS

Why such laudable restraint on the part of Russia?

First, let's clarify that Russia has gone to extremes to strengthen its arguments.

Russian flag in titanium planted on the arctic seabed
by a robotic arm  (source of photo here
Already in 2007, it had sent submarines to the North Pole, daringly diving to 4,300 meters to collect soil samples and plant a flag.

This daredevil exploration was triumphantly reported on Russian state television  and it instantly upset all the other countries with their own claims on arctic waters.

As reported in the UK Guardian at the time, the Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said "This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say: 'We're claiming this territory'". And he added he wasn't worried, "There is no threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic ... we're not at all concerned about this mission. Basically it's just a show by Russia."

Yes, just a show by Russia that is now coming to fruition.

By exercising some restraint in its claims and adducing strong evidence, Russia may be choosing to place itself in an internationally secure position that with UNCLOS approval would enable it to attract the investors it needs to develop its EEZ arctic resources. This at least is the view reported by one of the Polarisk experts in a recent interview to Jane George (see here).

Polarisk, a UK-based consultant group founded in 2012, came out in January with the Polarisk report listing several "hot issues" in the polar regions in 2015. The issues are neatly summed by Jane George here. In a nutshell, they are:

Cover of Polarisk report (here)
1. Russia's Arctic re-militarization program:  beyond military investments, it includes 10 rescue centres established across the Russian Arctic to turn the region into an area “as friendly as possible to economic development.”

 2. “Battle” for the North Pole by the nations bordering the Arctic Ocean like Canada, Russia, the U.S., Denmark and Norway — but also China via investments in Canada, Iceland and Greenland and through its observer status at the Arctic Council. NOTE: Other major world players have also observer status: in Asia: India, South Korea, Japan, Singapore; in Europe: France, UK, Italy, Spain, Netherlands and Poland.

3. Weaponization of the Canadian Arctic: Canada's military presence is felt to be presently insufficient and this will come up as an issue in Canadian elections - however there is a danger according to Polarisk: “the more Ottawa politicians misrepresent, misunderstand or caricature the Canadian Arctic, the harder it will be for them to attract committed investors to its wealthy northern lands.”

4. Risks to investors, resulting from what Polarisk calls "unsustainable developments" (e.g. an oil spill) that could scare away investors for years;

5. Arctic protests:  they include Greenpeace that will continue to go after Shell, and other oil companies, on Arctic drilling activities; and indigenous populations, like the Inuit, who rightly feel major policy decisions cannot be taken without them. As of 2014, six Arctic indigenous communities representing all the major populations in the North have Permanent Participant status at the Arctic Council and they want to be more involved in the UNCLOS negotiations.

6. New Arctic Policy Players: France at COP 21, the United Nations climate talks taking place in Paris in December. France has placed ‘the fate of the Arctic' on the agenda and,  as a the first step towards a formal Arctic strategy, France is expected to publish an Arctic roadmap "later" this spring but I wasn't able to find it.

UPDATE: I was just contacted on Twitter by the head of Polarisk, Mr. Mikå Mered, who informed me that the the "French roadmap" was adjourned sine die and I thank him for letting me know.

Perhaps this "adjournement" is not too surprising: COP 21's agenda is overburdened with "hot issues" and it doesn't seem wise to add to it Arctic issues. Totally unnecessary. Identifying and agreeing on a strategy to address climate change and global warming is not the same thing as deciding what to do with the Arctic Ocean.

On the other hand, this Russian "expansion" in the Arctic is worrisome and could easily degenerate in an unwanted show of force. Let's hope that the UNCLOS process can put a lid on this simmering pot before it boils over...


The Rhythms of Life: an Interview with Francine Kaufman, MD

Dr. Francine Kaufman, chief medical officer and vice president of Global Diabetes for Medtronic, Inc since 2009, and previously head of the Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, is perhaps best known for her critically-acclaimed nonfiction book Diabesity: The Obesity-Diabetes Epidemic That Threatens America - And What We Must Do to Stop It (Bantam, 2005, available on Amazon here).  She also has a long list of more technical writing as well, books and more 200 peer-reviewed publications.

But 2015 has proved to be a turning point for her with the publication of her first novel, Rythms. Here is the enticing cover that artfully reflects the theme of the book:

Available on Amazon in digital and printed version, click here 
(Published by Charm Kraft Ind, California)

Since it is a novel that features a woman physician grappling with the last, harrowing three days in her mother's life (she is suffering from arrythmia), I was immediately struck by the implications, both for Dr. Kaufman who seems to have fictionalized a major event in her life and for myself, since I lost my own mother a few months ago (she was 101 and also suffered from arrythmia -  I  recounted her passing with a poem "The First Days of My Life Without You", published on this blog here). 

The opening paragraph immediately grabbed me:

This is a remarkable first chapter, the author throws her reader in media res, you can see the woman grappling with the issues right away. And I am very pleased to share with you this interview with author Francine Kaufman.

Q: The book description on Amazon is terse and direct: "A novel about a woman physician and the last three days of her mother's life". Could you tell us what the book is about in your own words?

Dr. Francine Kaufman: Rhythms is a family drama centered around the death of the protagonist’s elderly, frail mother. It takes place over three days, but toggles back and forth in time to introduce the reader to the characters and their lives.  The three days in the present show how all-consuming caring for an elderly parent can be - particularly when that parent resides in your home.

Q: What motivated you to write it?

Dr. Kaufman: I was motivated by the power of families keeping secrets. I was also moved to write to come to terms with the death of my own mother. I did care for my own mother when she was dying in my home. There were times it was very hard. I tried to reveal the fear, disgust, and rawness of realizing that you have become your mother's mother.  I also tried to show how this intermingles with the realization that many of us don't really know who all that there is to know about our own mothers. I always felt my mother had secrets and I didn’t know all that happened to her in her life. I know we all have secrets and I explored in my book how this helps share who we are and what can happen in our lives.
Q: The book is a skillful blend of medical detail and the personal life of a family. How easy was that for you to do, since this is your first novel after all.  

Dr. Kaufman: As a doctor, I found myself drawn to telling the story through a medical lens. And also that in the life of a doctor who is a mother and wife, there is a lot of multi-tasking. I drew on my own experience for that. The protagonist, Dr. Rebecca Brodie, is a doctor in every cell of her body, excited by research, but driven by the human interactions, the stories she is told by her patients, and the need to play detective to determine what is real from what is not. Her job as a doctor is to find out everything about everyone, but yet I show in my book how she is unable to find out everything about her own family. There’s irony in Rebecca being able to penetrate the facades put in place by her patients, but not by her own family.

Q: Is this a feminist “having it all” sort of story?

Dr. Kaufman:  Rhythms is the story of the woman raised in a time when the world wanted her to believe she could do anything and everything. Only Rebecca could determine for herself at what sacrifice that had to be done - and cope with the angst of never feeling she could do enough. Perhaps it’s a feminist story about an empowered, effective woman who is a doctor and scientist, but it also shows the emotional ties that a woman needs to thrive as a mother and wife.

Thank you, Dr. Kaufman, for sharing these thoughts with us. I can fully empathize with your observation that as a woman "raised in a time when the world wanted her to believe she could do anything and everything" - in this case, juggling three lives, one as a scientist, another as a mother and the third as a daughter caring for her dying parent - must have given her the "angst of never feeling she could do enough." 

That angst, I'm afraid, is with all of us working mothers and, more broadly, all of us baby boomers, male and female, having to take care of our aging parents and yet still responsible for our grown-up children - the "sandwiched generation". And that is why Dr. Kaufman's novel is such an important book and I highly recommend it.


What the United Nations Really is: A Battlefield

Every issue that turns up in the news sooner or later ends at the United Nations (if it didn't actually start there). Recent examples? The killing of Cecil the lion and President Obama's decision to tighten fossil fuels regulations.

Regarding the latter, announced over the week-end, Obama appears determined to make of these new regulations  the second signature policy of his presidency - the first being of course Obamacare, the extension of health coverage to millions of Americans that didn't have it.

How does all this relate to the UN?

First, Cecil the Lion. In the midst of the scandal raised by Cecil's shameful killing by an American dentist and the announcement that Zimbabwe would ask for his extradition and the US Fish and Wildlife Service would launch an investigation (see here), the United Nations General Assembly adopted on 30 July, the "first ever" resolution on 'tackling illicit trafficking in wildlife' with a high number of co-sponsors, including all European Union member states, the United States, Canada and Australia, among others:

Draft Resolution circulated to the UNGA on 15 July - adopted on 30 July 2015 (screenshot) It shows the list of states sponsoring the Resolution
Please note that the "wildlife crisis" - and the need to protect biological diversity, a key element and "irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the Earth" - had been an on-going subject of debate at the UN long before the Cecil tragedy drew the world's attention to the damage done by Big Hunters. And the push to regulate illicit trafficking in wildlife will now continue long after everyone has forgotten about Cecil. Year in, year out, the UN General Assembly is tasked by the Resolution itself to review progress and is in fact expecting concrete proposals from the UN Secretary General next year.

UN staff is working on it along with partners: in 2009, an international consortium of five major agencies (ICCWC) was created to fight wildlife and forest crime:

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (see UNDOC's Annual Report 2014) was asked to take the lead and has a 4-year Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime:

Second, the new set of US environmental regulations. Meant to combat climate change, they are placing the US in the driving seat  at the Climate Change Summit (COP 21) to be held in December in Paris. As Obama says in this video, "climate change is not a problem for another generation, not anymore" and he wants to turn the US into a leader in the fight against Climate Change :

That Climate Summit in Paris will surely see much heated debate among the 50,000 participants it is expected to attract, including 25,000 official delegates. A major bone of contention is likely to be, as in the past, demands from developing countries who are attached to the so-called "principle of common but differentiated responsibilities" which establishes that “while all countries are responsible for contributing to sustainable development, countries that have been historically richer have additional responsibilities.’ Additional responsibilities for addressing Climate Change that, of course, they are not willing to accept without a fight.


Everytime, a major issue affecting humanity is raised, it reaches the UN, turning it into a  battlefield.


Because there are three broad categories of "users" of the UN system - or stakeholders - with different mandates and interests, and within each, there are special interest groups.


1. Government delegates guided by national interests; and among them, two major groups that do not see eye-to-eye: developing vs. developed countries - though, overtime, this has been an evolving scenario, as certain countries emerge and join the developed West; further breaklines occur when one of the Big Five uses his veto power at the Security Council, as Russia recently did in the matter of the Malaysia flight shot down over Ukraine (see related article below);
2. UN Secretariat and UN agency staff generally guided by the values of the UN Charter and the specific mandates of UN agencies with the occasional exception of UN managers that have been dropped in their high-placed positions by political agreements, explicit and implicit, worked out among delegates. 
3. Civil society, a rising stakeholder since the 1990s: (1) charities and NGOs; (2) people's movements (e.g. indigenous people); (3) businesses, including green business and ethical business. The three groups do not share the same objectives, they do not normally communicate with each other, and their participation in official debates is largely mediated by UN staff. At the upcoming Climate Summit in Paris, it is remarkable how much effort is expended to ensure a high level participation of business: 

These are the players in the UN game. Their interaction - endless debates, numerous resolutions, programmes, development agenda, field projects to demonstrate pilot approaches to sustainable development etc etc - all this, overtime, has a consequence on the international political scene. It adds up to what I would like to call the United Nations' "soft power".

More about that in future posts, as I work on the concept for my upcoming book on the United Nations. 


Why the UN is Marginalized

The United Nations seems "marginalized", as many people of goodwill have told me time and again. These are people who claim to like and support the UN yet they sound despondant about it, as if they no longer believed in it. A sad state of affairs...

In fact, the UN's 70th birthday that falls this year is celebrated with depressing discretion, yet the UN tries hard to work up enthusiasm on a dedicated website (here):

In spite of the flowery language - "A Strong UN, A Better World", "The UN Charter is our compass" - it would seem the UN no longer counts in world politics.


 Two terrible mistakes were made at the birth of the United Nations (as I've already suggested in a previous post (see here):
1. Granting veto power at the UN Security Council to the winners of World War II: France, the UK, the US, Russia and China - this makes it impossible for the Security Council to function in a democratic manner, giving every member a right to vote; 
2. Not setting up an independent "core army" for UN peace interventions: as a result, UN peacekeeping must necessarily depend on the "good will" of member nations, a good will that often turns into outright reticence and denial of the forces needed. 
But some things were done right:
1. An independent bureaucracy was set up and given a clear mandate to sustain the UN Charter and its values; hiring at operational levels (up to P-5, the highest of the five professional levels) is substantially free from political pressure; 
2. UN technical agencies were established with clear missions and vision statements within the UN Charter and monitored by ECOSOC, the UN Economic and Social Council - and ECOSOC itself has been strengthened overtime; this has ensured continuity in the Organization's mandate and functions and, with the support of the UN staff who saw this as their duty, the continuing expansion of agency mandates and activities.
Yet problems persisted:
1. UN higher management was subject to political pressure from the start: there was a game of political division that began as soon as the UN was created, with certain agencies reserved to particular countries, with the US getting the lion's share (e.g. control of the World Bank, the World Food Programme etc); 
2. Member countries did not pay their dues or paid them late as a way to exercise political pressure or manifest discontent with the UN's action; historically, countries in arrears of payment are renegade countries that have tended to be poor and autocratic with one major exception, the United States, that has often wielded its power in this way, for example exiting UNESCO in 1984 in protest to its activities or delaying payments and diminishing contributions in a systematic way, year after year  (e.g. at FAO starting in the late 1980s supporting so-called "zero-growth budgets" and pursuing this policy for decades; at WHO, making it impossible for that organization to maintain enough staff to monitor epidemics worldwide,  and as a result, as we recently saw, WHO was late to call out on the  Ebola emergency); 
3. The scramble for extra-budgetary funds caused by problem (2) has weakened the independence of the UN and limited its range of action: many agencies have fallen prey to interest groups; civil society's presence at the UN has risen considerably and some, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wields a larger power, both economic and social, than many UN agencies.

Does the rise of civil society spell the end of the UN? 

Over the past two decades, since the Earth Summit held in 1992 in Rio, thousands of NGOs have risen along with countless charitable organizations and even entirely new movements have sprung up like people's organizations and minorities. Take a look at UNPO that was constituted in 1994:

The question now arises: Is civil society strong enough to displace the UN and its member governments - is it changing the face of the UN?

Note here the beginning of an answer: UNPO, like so many similar entities, is organized with the aim of helping members to be "heard" at the UN (see their brochure and events organized at the UN, like this one last year).

More about that in my next post.

Source of photos: screenshots of websites.