Prabir Purkayastha

The West is using COP27 to shift blame to poorer nations: Private greed prevails over humanity’s survival

COP27 has begun in Sharm el-Sheikh. Although the Ukraine war and the U.S. midterm elections have shifted our immediate focus away from the battle against global warming, it still remains a central concern of our epoch. Reports indicate that not only are we failing to meet our climate change goals, but we are also falling short of the targets by a large margin. Worse, the potent methane greenhouse gas emissions have grown far more rapidly, posing as much of a climate change threat as carbon dioxide. Even though methane lasts for a shorter time in the atmosphere, viewed over a period of 100 years, it is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The net result is that we are almost certain to fail in our target to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. And if we do not act soon, even a target of 2 degrees Celsius is hard to achieve. At this rate, we are looking at a temperature rise of 2.5-3 degrees Celsius and the devastation of our civilization. Worse, the impact will be much higher in the equatorial and tropical regions, where most of the world’s poor live.

In this column, I will address two issues. One is the shift from coal to natural gas as a transitional fuel, and the other is the challenge of storing electricity, without which we cannot shift successfully to renewable energy.

The advanced countries—the U.S. and members of the European Union—bet big on natural gas, which is primarily methane, as the transition fuel from coal. In Glasgow during COP26, advanced countries even made coal the key issue, shifting the focus from their greenhouse emissions to that of China and India as big coal users. The assumption in using natural gas as a transitional fuel is that its greenhouse impact is only half that of coal. Methane emissions also last for a shorter time—about 12 years—in the atmosphere before converting to carbon dioxide and water. The flip side is that it is a far more potent greenhouse gas. Its effects are 30 times greater over a 100-year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. So even a much smaller amount of methane has a much more significant global warming impact than carbon dioxide.

The bad news on the methane front is that methane leakage from the natural gas infrastructure is much higher, possibly as much as six times more—according to a March 2022 Stanford University study—than the advanced countries have been telling us. The high methane leakage from natural gas extraction not only cancels out any benefits of switching to natural gas as an intermediary fuel but even worsens global warming.

There are two sets of data on methane now available. One measures the actual leakage of methane from the natural gas infrastructure with satellites and planes using infrared cameras. The technology of measuring methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure is easy and cheap. After all, we are able to detect methane in exoplanets far away from the solar system. Surely, saving this planet from heat death is a much higher priority! The other data is the measurement of atmospheric methane conducted by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. estimates that 1.4 percent of all natural gas produced in the U.S. leaks into the atmosphere. But the March 2022 Stanford University study using cameras and small planes that fly over natural gas infrastructure found that the figure is likely to be 9.4 percent—more than six times higher than the EPA’s estimate. Even if methane leaks are only 2.5 percent of natural gas production, they will offset all the benefits of switching from coal to natural gas. “Clean” natural gas may be three to four times worse than even dirty coal. At least in the hands of capital!

The EPA does not conduct any physical measurements. All it uses to estimate methane emissions is a formula that involves a number of subjective factors, along with the number of wells, length of pipelines, etc. Let us not forget that there are many people in the U.S. who either do not believe in or choose to ignore the fact of global warming. They would like to take a crowbar to even a weakened EPA, dismantling all measures to reduce global warming.

The impact of methane leaks can be seen in another set of figures. The World Meteorological Organization reported the biggest jump in “methane concentrations in 2021 since systematic measurements began nearly 40 years ago.” While WMO remains discreetly silent on why this jump has occurred, the relation between switching to natural gas and the consequent rise of methane emissions is hard to miss.

The tragedy of methane leaks is that they are easy to spot with today’s technology and not very expensive to fix. But companies have no incentive to take even these baby steps as it impacts their current bottom line. The larger good—even bigger profits, but over a longer time frame—does not interest them. They aren’t likely to change unless they are forced to by regulatory or direct state action.

The cynicism of the rich countries—the U.S. and members of the EU—on global warming can be seen in their conduct during the Ukraine war. The European Union has restarted some of its coal plants, increasing coal’s share in the energy mix. Further, the EU has cynically argued that developing oil and gas infrastructure in Africa is all right as long as it is solely for supply to Europe, not for use in Africa. African nations, according to the EU, must instead use only clean, renewable energy! And, of course, such energy infrastructure must be in the hands of European companies!

The key to a transition to renewable energy—the only long-term solution to global warming—is to find a way of storing energy. Renewables, unlike fossil fuels, cannot be used at will, as the wind, sun, and even water provide a continuous flow of energy. While water can be stored in large reservoirs, wind and sun cannot be, unless they are converted to chemical energy in batteries. Or unless they are converted to hydrogen and then stored in either tank or natural storage in geological formations, underground or in salt caverns.

There has been a lot of hype about batteries and electric cars. Missing here is that batteries with current technology have a much lower energy density than oil or coal. The energy from oil or natural gas is 20-40 times that of the most efficient battery today. For an electric vehicle, that is not such a major issue. It simply determines how often the vehicle’s batteries need to be charged and how long charging will take. It means developing a charging infrastructure with a quick turnaround time. The much bigger problem is how to store energy at the grid level.

Grid-level storage means supplying the grid with electricity from stored energy. Grid-level batteries are being suggested to meet this task. What the proponents of grid-level batteries neglect to inform us is that they may supply power for short-term fluctuations—night and day, windy and non-windy days—but they cannot meet the demand from long-term or seasonal fluctuations. This brings us to the question of the energy density of storage: How much energy does a kilogram of lithium battery hold as compared to a kilogram of oil, natural gas, or coal? The answer with current technology is 20-40 times less. The cost of building such mammoth storage to meet seasonal fluctuations will simply exhaust all our lithium (or any other battery material) supplies.

I will not address the prohibitive energy cost—electric or fossil fuel—of private versus public or mass transportation, and why we should switch to the latter. I will instead focus on addressing the larger question of how to store renewable energy so that we can run our electricity infrastructure when wind or sun is not there.

Is it possible that a new technology will solve this problem? (Remember the dream of nuclear energy that will be not only clean but also so cheap that it will not need to be metered?) But do we bet our civilization’s future on such a possibility?

If not, we have to look at existing solutions. They exist, but using them means seeking alternatives to batteries for addressing our grid-level problems of intermittent renewable energy. It means repurposing our existing hydro-projects to work as grid-level storage and developing hydrogen storage for use in fuel cells. No extra dams or reservoirs, as the opponents of hydroelectricity projects fear. And of course, it means more public transportation instead of private transportation.

All of these existing solutions mean making changes on a societal level that corporate interests oppose—after all, doing so would require public investments for social benefits and not for private profits. Capital privileges short-term private profits over long-term social benefits. Remember how oil companies had the earliest research to show the impact of global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions? They not only hid these results for decades but also launched a campaign denying that global warming is linked to greenhouse gases. And they funded climate change deniers.

The contradiction at the heart of global warming is private greed over social needs. And who funds such a transition, the poor or the rich? This is also what COP27 is all about, not simply about how to stop global warming.

Author Bio: Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Is the US chip ban on China a declaration of war in the computer age?

The United States has gambled big in its latest across-the-board sanctions on Chinese companies in the semiconductor industry, believing it can kneecap China and retain its global dominance. From the slogans of globalization and “free trade” of the neoliberal 1990s, Washington has reverted to good old technology denial regimes that the U.S. and its allies followed during the Cold War. While it might work in the short run in slowing down the Chinese advances, the cost to the U.S. semiconductor industry of losing China—its biggest market—will have significant consequences in the long run. In the process, the semiconductor industries of Taiwan and South Korea and equipment manufacturers in Japan and the European Union are likely to become collateral damage. It reminds us again of what former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said: “It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The purpose of the U.S. sanctions, the second generation of sanctions after the earlier one in August 2021, is to restrict China’s ability to import advanced computing chips, develop and maintain supercomputers, and manufacture advanced semiconductors. Though the U.S. sanctions are cloaked in military terms—denying China access to technology and products that can help China’s military—in reality, these sanctions target almost all leading semiconductor players in China and, therefore, its civilian sector as well. The fiction of ‘barring military use’ is only to provide the fig leaf of a cover under the World Trade Organization (WTO) exceptions on having to provide market access to all WTO members. Most military applications use older-generation chips and not the latest versions.

The specific sanctions imposed by the United States include:

  • Advanced logic chips required for artificial intelligence and high-performance computing
  • Equipment for 16nm logic and other advanced chips such as FinFET and Gate-All-Around
  • The latest generations of memory chips: NAND with 128 layers or more and DRAM with 18nm half-pitch

Specific equipment bans in the rules go even further, including many older technologies as well. For example, one commentator pointed out that the prohibition of tools is so broad that it includes technologies used by IBM in the late 1990s.

The sanctions also encompass any company that uses U.S. technology or products in its supply chain. This is a provision in the U.S. laws: any company that ‘touches’ the United States while manufacturing its products is automatically brought under the U.S. sanctions regime. It is a unilateral extension of the United States’ national legal jurisdiction and can be used to punish and crush any entity—a company or any other institution—that is directly or indirectly linked to the United States. These sanctions are designed to completely decouple the supply chain of the United States and its allies—the European Union and East Asian countries—from China.

In addition to the latest U.S. sanctions against companies that are already on the list of sanctioned Chinese companies, a further 31 new companies have been added to an “unverified list.” These companies must provide complete information to the U.S. authorities within two months, or else they will be barred as well. Furthermore, no U.S. citizen or anyone domiciled in the United States can work for companies on the sanctioned or unverified lists, not even to maintain or repair equipment supplied earlier.

The global semiconductor industry’s size is currently more than $500 billion and is likely to double its size to $1 trillion by 2030. According to a Semiconductor Industry Association and Boston Consulting Group report of 2020—“Turning the Tide for Semiconductor Manufacturing in the U.S.”—China is expected to account for approximately 40 percent of the semiconductor industry growth by 2030, displacing the United States as the global leader. This is the immediate trigger for the U.S. sanctions and its attempt to halt China’s industry from taking over the lead from the United States and its allies.

While the above measures are intended to isolate China and limit its growth, there is a downside for the United States and its allies in sanctioning China.

The problem for the United States—more so for Taiwan and South Korea—is that China is their biggest trading partner. Imposing such sanctions on equipment and chips also means destroying a good part of their market with no prospect of an immediate replacement. This is true not only for China’s East Asian neighbors but also for equipment manufacturers like the Dutch company ASML, the world’s only supplier of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines that produces the latest chips. For Taiwan and South Korea, China is not only the biggest export destination for their semiconductor industry as well as other industries, but also one of their biggest suppliers for a range of products. The forcible separation of China’s supply chain in the semiconductor industry is likely to be accompanied by separation in other sectors as well.

The U.S. companies are also likely to see a big hit to their bottom line—including equipment manufacturers such as Lam Research Corporation, Applied Materials, and KLA Corporation; the electronic design automation (EDA) tools such as Synopsys and Cadence; and advanced chip suppliers like Qualcomm, Nvidia, and AMD. China is the largest destination for all these companies. The problem for the United States is that China is not only the fastest-growing part of the world’s semiconductor industry but also the industry’s biggest market. So the latest sanctions will cripple not only the Chinese companies on the list but also the U.S. semiconductor firms, drying up a significant part of their profits and, therefore, their future research and development (R&D) investments in technology. While some of the resources for investments will come from the U.S. government—for example, the $52.7 billion chip manufacturing subsidy—they do not compare to the losses the U.S. semiconductor industry will suffer as a result of the China sanctions. This is why the semiconductor industry had suggested narrowly targeted sanctions on China’s defense and security industry, not the sweeping sanctions that the United States has now introduced; the scalpel and not the hammer.

The process of separating the sanctions regime and the global supply chain is not a new concept. The United States and its allies had a similar policy during and after the Cold War with the Soviet Union via the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) (in 1996, it was replaced by the Wassenaar Arrangement), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Control Regime, and other such groups. Their purpose is very similar to what the United States has now introduced for the semiconductor industry. In essence, they were technology denial regimes that applied to any country that the United States considered an “enemy,” with its allies following—then as now—what the United States dictated. The targets on the export ban list were not only the specific products but also the tools that could be used to manufacture them. Not only the socialist bloc countries but also countries such as India were barred from accessing advanced technology, including supercomputers, advanced materials, and precision machine tools. Under this policy, critical equipment required for India’s nuclear and space industries was placed under a complete ban. Though the Wassenaar Arrangement still exists, with countries like even Russia and India within the ambit of this arrangement now, it has no real teeth. The real threat comes from falling out with the U.S. sanctions regime and the U.S. interpretation of its laws superseding international laws, including the WTO rules.

The advantage the United States and its military allies—in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and the Central Treaty Organization—had before was that the United States and its European allies were the biggest manufacturers in the world. The United States also controlled West Asia’s hydrocarbon—oil and gas—a vital resource for all economic activities. The current chip war against China is being waged at a time when China has become the biggest manufacturing hub of the world and the largest trade partner for 70 percent of countries in the world. With the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries no longer obeying the U.S. diktats, Washington has lost control of the global energy market.

So why has the United States started a chip war against China at a time that its ability to win such a war is limited? It can, at best, postpone China’s rise as a global peer military power and the world’s biggest economy. An explanation lies in what some military historians call the “Thucydides trap”: when a rising power rivals a dominant military power, most such cases lead to war. According to Athenian historian Thucydides, Athens’ rise led Sparta, the then-dominant military power, to go to war against it, in the process destroying both city-states; therefore, the trap. While such claims have been disputed by other historians, when a dominant military power confronts a rising one, it does increase the chance of either a physical or economic war. If the Thucydides trap between China and the United States restricts itself to only an economic war—the chip war—we should consider ourselves lucky!

With the new series of sanctions by the United States, one issue has been settled: the neoliberal world of free trade is officially over. The sooner other countries understand it, the better it will be for their people. And self-reliance means not simply the fake self-reliance of supporting local manufacturing, but instead means developing the technology and knowledge to sustain and grow it.

Author Bio: Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

All that pomp and pageantry for Queen Elizabeth II but no apology for colonial atrocities

Led by the royals, British colonialists committed every form of cruelty imaginable—those who suffered under the empire and fought it are angry over the homage paid to Elizabeth II.

How should we remember Queen Elizabeth II and her 70 years on the British throne? It’s perhaps better to consider after the media parade about her funeral is in the rearview mirror.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

A number of people have reacted to the glorification of her rule, pointing out the British Royals’ direct connection to the slave trade, Britain’s colonial massacres, mass famines and its loot from the colonies. Britain’s wealth—$45 trillion at current prices from India alone—was built on the blood and sweat of people who lost their land and homes and are today poor countries. Lest we forget, the slave trade was a monopoly of the British throne: first, as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa in 1660, later converted to the Royal African Company of England. The battle over “free trade” fought by British merchant capital was against this highly lucrative Royal monopoly so that they could participate in it as well: enslaving people in Africa and selling them to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean.

According to western legends of the European Age of Discovery, co-terminus with Enlightenment, was what started it all in the 16th century. Explorers such as Vasco de Gama, Columbus, and Magellan went across the world, discovering new lands. The Enlightenment led to the development of reason and science, the basis of the industrial revolution in England. The Industrial Revolution then reached Europe and the United States, creating the difference between the wealthy West and the poverty-stricken rest. Slavery, genocide, land expropriation from “natives” and colonial loot do not enter this sanitized picture of the development of capitalism. Or, if mentioned, only as marginal to the larger story of the rise of the west.

Actual history is quite different. Chronologically, the Industrial Revolution takes place in the second half of the 18th century. The 16th-17th centuries is when a small handful of western countries reached the Americas, followed by the genocide of its indigenous population and enslaving of the rest. The 16th-17th centuries also see the rise of the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. It destroys African society and its economy, what Walter Rodney calls How Europe Undeveloped Africa. The plantation economy—based on slavery in the Caribbean and Continental America—created large-scale commodity production and global markets.

While sugar, the product of the plantations, was the first global commodity, it was followed by tobacco, coffee and coca, and later cotton. While the plantation economy provided commodities for the world market, let us not forget that slaves were still the most important “commodity”. The slave trade was the major source of European—British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese—capital. Gerald Horne writes, “The enslaved, a peculiar form of capital encased in labor, represented simultaneously the barbarism of the emerging capitalism, along with its productive force” (The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, Monthly Review, April 1, 2018).

Marx characterized it as so-called Primitive Accumulation and as “expropriation,” not accumulation. Capital from the beginning was based on expropriation—robbery, plunder and enslaving of people by the use of force; there was no accumulation in this process. As Marx writes, capital was born “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

The British Royals played a key role in this history of slavery and the so-called primitive accumulation. Britain was a second-class power at the beginning of the 17th century. Britain’s transformation was initially based on the slave trade and, later, the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Its ships and traders emerged as the major power in the slave trade and, by the 1680s, held three-fourths of this “market” in human beings. Out of this, the Royal African Company, owned by the British Crown, held a 90% share: the charge for Britain’s domination of the slave trade was led by the British Royals.

Interestingly, the slogan of “free trade,” under which slogan the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created, was the British merchant capital wanting the abolition of the Royal Monopoly over the slave trade. It was, in other words, the freedom of capital to enslave human beings and trade in them, free of the royal monopoly. It is this capital, created out of the slave trade and outright piracy and loot, that funded the industrial revolution.

While slavery was finally abolished, in Britain it was not the slaves but the slave owners that were paid compensation for losing their “property.” The amount paid in 1833 was 40% of its national budget, and since it was paid by borrowings, the UK citizens paid off this “loan” only in 2015. For the people of India, there is another part to the story. As the ex-slaves refused to work on the plantations they had served as slaves, they were replaced by indentured labor from India.

To go back to the British Royalty. The Crown’s property and portfolio investments are currently worth 28 billion pounds, making King Charles III one of the richest persons in the UK. Charles III personal property itself is more than a billion pounds. Even by today’s standards of obscene personal wealth, these are big numbers, particularly as its income is virtually tax-free. The royals are also exempt from death duties.

In the three hundred years of the history of British colonialism, brutal wars, genocide, slavery, and expropriation were carried out in its name and under its leadership. After the industrial revolution, Britain wanted only raw materials from its colonies and not any industrial products: the slogan was “not even a nail from the colonies.” All trade from the colonies to other countries had to pass through Britain and pay taxes there before being re-exported. The complement of the industrial revolution in Britain was de-industrializing its colonies, confining them to be a producer of raw materials and agricultural products.

Why are we talking about Britain’s colonial past on the occasion of the death of Queen Elizabeth II? After all, she only saw the last 70 years when the British colonial empire was liquidated. This is not simply about the past, but that neither the British Crown nor its rulers have ever expressed any guilt over the brutality of its empire, and its foundation based on slavery and genocide. No apology for the empire’s gory history: not even for the massacres and mass incarcerations that took place. In Jallianawala Bagh, which Elizabeth II visited in 1997, she called the massacre a “distressing episode” and a “difficult episode”; not even a simple “We are sorry.” Prince Phillip even questioned the number of martyrs.

How do we reconcile the anger that people who suffered from Britain’s colonial empire feel about their leaders making a bee line to pay homage to the Queen? Does it not shame the memory of those who laid down their lives in the freedom struggle against the British Crown that India lowered the national flag to half-mast to honor the Queen?

One can argue that this happened long before Elizabeth II took over the Crown, and we cannot hold her personally responsible for Britain’s colonial history. We should: she as Queen represented the British state: it is not Elizabeth, the person that people want an apology from, but the titular head of the British state. That is why Mukoma Wa Ngugi, the son of Kenya’s world-renowned writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o said, “If the queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their names, then perhaps I would do the human thing and feel bad,” he wrote. “As a Kenyan, I feel nothing. This theater is absurd.”

Mukoma Ngugi was referring to the Mau Mau revolt for land and freedom in which thousands of Kenyans were massacred, and 1.5 million were held in brutal concentration camps.

This was 1952-1960; Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, very much in her lifetime!

Author Bio: Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Why electricity prices should not be left to bogus 'free markets'

The so-called electricity markets were created to help private capital, not people. It is time that we wind up such bogus electricity markets and return all such public services to the people, to be run cooperatively for their benefit.

The price of electricity has risen astronomically in Europe over the last two years: by four times over the previous year and 10 times over the last two years. The European Union (EU) has claimed that this rise in prices is due to the increase in the price of gas in the international market and Russia not supplying enough gas. This raises the critical question: Why should, for example, the German electricity price rise four times when natural gas contributes around one-seventh of its electricity production? Why does the UK, which generates 40 percent of its electricity from renewables and nuclear plants, and produces half the natural gas it consumes, also see a steep rise in the price of electricity? All this talk of blaming Russia for the recent increase in gas prices masks the reality that the electricity generators are actually making astronomical windfall profits. The poorer consumers, already pushed to the wall by the pandemic, face a cruel dilemma: With electricity bills likely to make up 20-30 percent of their household budget during winter, should they buy food or keep their houses warm?

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

This steep rise in electricity prices is the other side of the story of the so-called market reforms in the electricity sector that have taken place over the last 30 years. The cost of electricity is pegged to the costliest supply to the grid in the daily and hourly auctions. Currently, this is natural gas, and that is why electricity prices are rising sharply even if gas is not the main source of electricity supply to the grid. This is market fundamentalism, or what the neoclassical economists call marginal utility theory. This was part of Augusto Pinochet’s electricity sector reforms that he introduced in Chile during his military dictatorship there from 1973 to 1990. The guru of these Pinochet reforms was Milton Friedman, who was assisted by his Chicago Boys. The principle that electricity price should be based on its “marginal price” even became a part of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution in Chile. The Chilean reforms led to the privatization of the country’s electricity sector, which was the objective of initiating these reforms.

It was the Chilean model that Margaret Thatcher copied in the UK, which then the EU copied. The UK dismantled its Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) that ran its entire electricity infrastructure: generation, transmission, and bulk distribution. This move also helped the UK shift away from domestic coal for its thermal power plants, breaking the powerful coal miners’ union. These were also the Enron market ‘reforms’ in California, leading to the summer meltdown of its grid in 2000-2001.

The European Union banked heavily on natural gas as its preferred fuel to bring down its greenhouse gas emissions; it also ramped up renewables—solar and wind power—and phased out lignite and coal. The EU has imposed a series of sanctions on Russia, made public its plans to impose further sanctions on the country, and seized about 300 billion euros of Russia’s reserves lying in EU banks. The EU has also said that it will cut down on Russia’s oil and gas supplies. Not surprisingly, Russia has sharply reduced its gas supplies to the EU. If the West thought it could weaponize its financial power, why did it think that Russia would not retaliate by doing the same with its gas supplies to the EU?

Due to the Russian supplies of natural gas to Western Europe falling, the price of LNG has risen sharply in the international market. Worse, there is simply not enough LNG available in the market to replace the gas that Russia supplied to the EU through its pipelines.

With the price of gas rising by four to six times in the last few months, the price of electricity has also risen sharply. But as only a fraction of the electricity is powered by gas, all other sources of energy—wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, and even dirty coal-fired plants—are making a killing. It is only now that the EU and the UK are discussing how to address the burden of high electricity prices on consumers and the windfall profits made by the electricity generators during this period.

It is not only the EU and UK consumers who are badly hit. It is also the European and British industries. Stainless steel, fertilizer, glass making, aluminum, cement, and engineering industries are all sensitive to input costs. As a result, all these industries are at risk of shutting down in the EU and the UK.

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in his article “Time to Blow Up Electricity Markets” writes, “The European Union’s power sector is a good example of what market fundamentalism has done to electricity networks the world over… It’s time to wind down the simulated electricity markets.” The rest of the world would do well not to follow the EU’s example.

Why then is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s central government rushing into this abyss? Did it not learn from last year’s experience when, after a coal shortage, the prices in the electricity spot market went up to Rs 20 ($0.25) per unit before public outcry saw it capped at Rs 12 ($0.15)? So why push again for these bankrupt policies of market fundamentalism in the guise of electricity reforms? Who will benefit from these market reforms? Certainly, neither the consumers nor the Indian state governments, which bear the major burden of subsidizing electricity prices for their consumers.

Author Bio: Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

The genetic revolution's legacy of scientific racism

Scientific advances are not always linear; they zigzag in unexpected ways. This is particularly true of genetics, which has a dark history of being coopted into eugenics and race science.

In July, the world celebrated 200 years since the birth of Gregor Mendel, who is widely accepted as the “father of modern genetics” for his discovery of the laws of inheritance. His experiments with peas, published in 1866 under the title “Experiments in Plant Hybridization,” identified dominant and recessive traits and how recessive traits would reappear in future generations and in what proportion. His work would largely remain unacknowledged and ignored until three other biologists replicated his work in 1900.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

While Mendel’s work is central to modern genetics, and his use of experimental methods and observation is a model for science, it also set off the dark side with which genetics has been inextricably linked: eugenics and racism. But eugenics was much more than race “science.” It was also used to argue the superiority of the elite and dominant races, and in countries like India, it was used as a “scientific” justification for the caste system as well.

People who believe that eugenics was a temporary aberration in science and that it died with Nazi Germany would be shocked to find out that even the major institutions and journals that included the word eugenics as part of their names have continued to operate by just changing their titles. The Annals of Eugenics became the Annals of Human Genetics; the Eugenics Review changed its name to the Journal of Biosocial Science; Eugenics Quarterly changed to Biodemography and Social Biology; and the Eugenics Society was renamed the Galton Institute. Several departments in major universities, which were earlier called the department of eugenics, either became the department of human genetics or the department of social biology.

All of them have apparently shed their eugenics past, but the reoccurrence of the race and IQ debate, sociobiology, the white replacement theory and the rise of white nationalism are all markers that theories of eugenics are very much alive. In India, the race theory takes the form of the belief that Aryans are “superior” and fair skin is seen as a marker of Aryan ancestry.

While Adolf Hitler’s gas chambers and Nazi Germany’s genocide of Jews and Roma communities have made it difficult to talk about the racial superiority of certain races, scientific racism persists within science. It is a part of the justification that the elite seek, justifying their superior position based on their genes, and not on the fact that they inherited or stole this wealth. It is a way to airbrush the history of the loot, slavery and genocide that accompanied the colonization of the world by a handful of countries in Western Europe.

Why is it that when we talk about genetics and history, the only story that is repeated is that about biologist Trofim Lysenko and how the Soviet Communist Party placed ideology above science? Why is it that the mention of eugenics in popular literature is only with respect to Nazi Germany and not about how Germany’s eugenic laws were inspired directly by the U.S.? Or how eugenics in Germany and the U.S. were deeply intertwined? Or how Mendel’s legacy of genetics become a tool in the hands of racist states, which included the U.S. and Great Britain? Why is it that genetics is used repeatedly to support theories of superiority of the white race?

Mendel showed that there were traits that were inherited, and therefore we had genes that carried certain markers that could be measured, such as the color of the flower and the height of the plant. Biology then had no idea of how many genes we had, which traits could be inherited, how genetically mixed the human population is, etc. Mendel himself had no idea about genes as carriers of inheritance, and this knowledge became known much later.

From genetics to society, the application of these principles was a huge leap that was not supported by any empirical scientific evidence. All attempts to show the superiority of certain races started with a priori assuming that certain races were superior and then trying to find what evidence to choose from that would help support this thesis. Much of the IQ debate and sociobiology came from this approach to science. In his review of The Bell Curve, Bob Herbert wrote that the authors, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, had written a piece of “racial pornography,” “…to drape the cloak of respectability over the obscene and long-discredited views of the world’s most rabid racists.”

A little bit of the history of science is important here. Eugenics was very much mainstream in the early 20th century and had the support of major parties and political figures in the UK and the U.S. Not surprisingly, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a noted supporter of race science, although eugenics had some supporters among progressives as well.

The founder of eugenics in Great Britain was Francis Galton, who was a cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton pioneered statistical methods like regression and normal distribution, as did his close collaborators and successors in the Eugenics Society, Karl Pearson and R.A. Fisher. On the connection of race and science, Aubrey Clayton, in an essay in Nautilus, writes, “What we now understand as statistics comes largely from the work of Galton, Pearson, and Fisher, whose names appear in bread-and-butter terms like ‘Pearson correlation coefficient’ and ‘Fisher information.’ In particular, the beleaguered concept of ‘statistical significance,’ for decades the measure of whether empirical research is publication-worthy, can be traced directly to the trio.”

It was Galton who, based supposedly on scientific evidence, argued for the superiority of the British over Africans and other natives, and that superior races should replace inferior races by way of selective breeding. Pearson gave his justification for genocide: “History shows me one way, and one way only, in which a high state of civilization has been produced, namely the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race.”

The eugenics program had two sides: one was that the state should try to encourage selective breeding to improve the stock of the population. The other was for the state should take active steps to “weed out” undesirable populations. The sterilization of “undesirables” was as much a part of the eugenics societies as encouraging people toward selective breeding.

In the U.S., eugenics was centered on Cold Spring Harbor’s Eugenics Record Office. While Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and its research publications still hold an important place in contemporary life sciences, its original significance came from the Eugenics Record Office, which operated as the intellectual center of eugenics and race science. It was supported by philanthropic money from the Rockefeller family, the Carnegie Institution and many others. Charles Davenport, a Harvard biologist, and his associate Harry Laughlin became the key figures in passing a set of state laws in the U.S. that led to forced sterilization of the “unfit” population. They also actively contributed to the Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas for races. The Nordic races had priority, while East Europeans (Slavic races), East Asians, Arabs, Africans and Jews were virtually barred from entering the country.

Sterilization laws in the U.S. at the time were controlled by the states. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the doyen of liberal jurisprudence in the U.S., gave his infamous judgment in Virginia on justifying compulsory sterilization, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” he ruled in Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck and her daughter were not imbeciles; they paid for their “sins” of being poor and perceived as threats to society (a society that failed them in turn). Again, Eugenics Research Office and Laughlin played an important role in providing “scientific evidence” for the sterilization of the “unfit.”

While Nazi Germany’s race laws are widely condemned as being the basis for Hitler’s gas chambers, Hitler himself stated that his inspiration for Germany’s race laws was the U.S. laws on sterilization and immigration. The close links between the U.S. eugenicists and Nazi Germany are widely known and recorded. Edwin Black’s book War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race described how “Adolf Hitler’s race hatred was underpinned by the work of American eugenicists,” according to an article in the Guardian in 2004. The University of Heidelberg, meanwhile, gave Laughlin an honorary degree for his work in the “science of racial cleansing.”

With the fall of Nazi Germany, eugenics became discredited. This resulted in institutions, departments and journals that had any affiliation to eugenics by name being renamed, but they continued to do the same work. Human genetics and social biology became the new names for eugenics. The Bell Curve was published in the 1990s justifying racism, and a recent bestseller by Nicholas Wade, a former science correspondent of the New York Times, also trot out theories that have long been scientifically discarded. Fifty years back, Richard Lewontin had shown that only about 6 to 7 percent of human genetic variation exists between so-called racial groups. At that time, genetics was still at a nascent stage. Later, data has only strengthened Lewontin’s research.

Why is it that while criticizing the Soviet Union’s scientific research and the sins of Lysenko 80 years back, we forget about race science and its use of genetics?

The answer is simple: Attacking the scientific principles and theories developed by the Soviet Union as an example of ideology trumping science is easy. It makes Lysenko the norm for Soviet science of ideology trumping pure science. But why is eugenics, with its destructive past and its continuing presence in Europe and the U.S., not recognized as an ideology—one that has persisted for more than 100 years and that continues to thrive under the modern garb of an IQ debate or sociobiology?

The reason is that it allows racism a place within science: changing the name from eugenics to sociobiology makes it appear as a respectable science. The power of ideology is not in the ideas but in the structure of our society, where the rich and the powerful need justification for their position. That is why race science as an ideology is a natural corollary of capitalism and groups like the G7, the club of the rich countries who want to create a “rule-based international order.” Race science as sociobiology is a more genteel justification than eugenics for the rule of capital at home and ex-colonial and settler-colonial states abroad. The fight for science in genetics has to be fought both within and outside science as the two are closely connected.

Author Bio: Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

How the World Trade Organization chose profits over vaccinating Earth's population against COVID-19

The health of all people is being sacrificed to Big Pharma profits and rich countries’ saber-rattling sanctions. Meanwhile, other countries are capable of meeting the world’s vaccine needs.

The UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima had appealed before the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva that the world would face a grim future if patent waivers did not take place. At a press conference, Byanyima had said, “In a pandemic, sharing technology is life or death, and we are choosing death.” During the 12th Ministerial of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which took place from June 12 to 17, the rich countries did precisely that. They blocked almost all possibilities of providing cheap vaccines, antiviral drugs and diagnostics to the world. After two years of the WTO “postponing”—or blocking—the India-South Africa proposal for a waiver on patents for COVID-19 vaccines and medicines, the club of the rich countries—the European Union, the United States and the UK—ensured that no worthwhile patent waiver measure was passed. The profits of Big Pharma once again trumped the lives and health of the people. This is also what happened during the AIDS epidemic.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The so-called “concessions” accepted at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) do simplify some of the cumbersome procedures that were agreed to under the Doha Declaration for issuing compulsory licenses for medicines. But it makes it much more difficult for countries like India and China, which have considerable manufacturing capacity, to supply vaccines under such compulsory licenses. So yes, countries wanting vaccines can issue compulsory licenses more easily—but to whom, if not the countries with manufacturing capacity?

In vaccine manufacture, it is not the formula of the vaccine that matters. Unlike many medicines, which are small molecule drugs and therefore easy to patent, vaccines are large molecules and belong to the group of medicines that are called biologics. The key to manufacturing biologics is not the formula of the compound but rather manufacturing it at an industrial scale and ensuring the production process of replicating the complex large molecules accurately. This know-how is guarded not under patents but under trade secrets. It is possible to duplicate these trade secrets or secure them by giving somebody who knows the process the job. But this opens companies that try to do this to costly legal action, including by the WTO. And there is also the threat of unilateral sanctions by the United States, the EU and the UK.

The upshot is that Pfizer and other Big Pharma companies will continue to make huge profits at the expense of people’s lives, even if this leads to new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerging and causes the continuation of the pandemic. Less than 20 percent of people in Africa, which has a population of about 700 million, have been fully vaccinated, while millions of vaccine doses are going unused and are going to waste in the United States. We have the vaccine production capacity to immunize the entire global population, thus saving countless lives and reducing the possibility of new, dangerous variants emerging. But doing so is not in the interest of Big Pharma, for whom profits matter far more than human lives.

Just to put it in perspective, Pfizer’s profits roughly doubled in 2021 from 2020, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine contributing to a significant part of those profits. If Pfizer were a country, its earnings of $81 billion last year would have placed it ahead of the GDP of countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya, according to an analysis of World Bank data by the organization Global Justice Now. Apart from vaccines, the monopoly over diagnostics and antiviral drugs also pushes up the costs for the people constantly battling the virus, while generating windfall profits for Big Pharma.

The only waiver in the MC12 was on compulsory licenses for vaccines. It did not address patents on diagnostics and antiviral drugs. It also did not address the other issue that had been raised that the WTO includes in its waiver other intellectual property rights such as trade secrets, which are essential to the mass production of vaccines.

The MC12 kicked the ball six months down the line on making a decision about doing away with patents for diagnostics and antiviral drugs, with very little chance that the rich countries would have a sudden change of heart on these issues, considering their continued stance on these matters over the course of the pandemic that has already killed millions.

Why is immunizing the global population important? Simply put, the more people that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) infects, the more the chance of new variants emerging. There is a misguided belief among some people that the more the virus mutates, the more benign it is likely to become. This used to be a common opinion among a section of the medical community. However, today evolutionary biologists hold that there is no evidence that viruses mutate to become more benign. And even if it is held to be true in the long run, as John Maynard Keynes, the economist, put it, “In the long run, we are all dead.”

The longer we live with a pandemic that continues to infect around half a million to a million people every day, the more we are dicing with the possibility of a new variant emerging that can be as transmissible as omicron and can also lead to larger case fatalities than we have seen before. The transmissibility of the virus is maximum when the infected patient has only mild symptoms, is physically and socially mobile, and can therefore infect others. This is the window in which the virus spreads. Whether the patient subsequently recovers or dies has little impact on the replication of the disease in other people the patient might have infected. It may have an impact on our social behavior, but that has little to do with the virus becoming more benign with time.

Over time, people do tend to generate more immunity to the virus, but that is what then drives the future evolutionary path of the virus. If delta showed higher transmissibility, then omicron has a much higher immune escape. This means that omicron can bypass our immunity derived from earlier infections or vaccines. Of course, if the evolution of the virus leads to the patient being so sick right from the beginning that the person cannot move around at all, that will halt or lower the transmission of the virus. But that is not how the SARS-CoV-2 virus behaves.

How is SARS-CoV-2 likely to evolve over the next few years? As immunologists tell us, the evolutionary trajectory of the virus depends on the complex interplay of a number of factors that shape the response of our immune system to the evolution of the virus.

Waiting for the virus to turn more benign or a mythical herd immunity cannot be an answer to the current pandemic. The vaccines are crucial to any public health response to the pandemic as countries across the world fight to cut down the number of new infections and, therefore, the roots of new transmissions. And yes, for the foreseeable future, we will have to live with repeating our vaccine booster doses as we fine-tune the vaccines to newer variants.

While the patents on antiviral drugs as a cure for COVID-19 are important, and they will certainly help to cut down the deaths and complications of long COVID, again, patents come in the way of their use. The antiviral drugs are effective only within a small window of the first few days of the disease, which means that they have to be made available cheaply for the people so that they can buy them from a pharmacy. The high cost and the control over the patents of these drugs do not provide a large enough market. A small market and high prices lead to a Catch-22 situation: the prices are high because the market is small; the market is small since the prices are high.

Again, open licensing of the antiviral drugs might make it possible to create a large market for them. But this is what the WTO does not allow. The route of compulsory licensing under the WTO is cumbersome, and its relaxation in the MC12 means that countries like India, which were crucial in fighting the AIDS epidemic, are supposed to opt out as suppliers. They then cannot become antiviral suppliers for COVID-19 as they had been for AIDS antiviral drugs.

Why don’t countries that have the capacity to manufacture advanced vaccines—India, China, Russia and South Africa—come together to offer technology and supplies to the rest of the world? Why don’t countries collaborate with Cuba, a biologic powerhouse, to produce vaccines locally? Cuba has developed five such vaccines, two of which are already under large-scale production.

The answer lies in the “rules-based international order” propagated by the club of the rich. The rules include sanctions on many countries, including Russia, Cuba and China. For those not yet under sanctions, there is the threat of future sanctions by the United States, the EU and the UK—the gang of three that teamed up in the WTO to defeat the India-South Africa patent waiver initiative. The United States also has its domestic law, the U.S. Trade Act, Section 301, for “protecting” its intellectual property under which it threatens countries with U.S. sanctions. India and China figure prominently every year in the list of countries whose laws and actions do not conform to U.S. domestic laws. If the United States and its allies do not win in the WTO, they then use their “rules-based order” where they get to make the rules.

Welcome to our brave new world, where, to paraphrase Winnie Byanyima, death triumphs over life.

Author Bio: Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Ukraine and the global economic war: is this barbarism or civilization?

The West’s actions against Russia since the war in Ukraine could signal an emerging new order that shuns the U.S. for weaponizing the dollar and Western control over the global financial system.

Do the Ukraine war and the action of the United States, the EU and the UK spell the end of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency? Even with the peace talks recently held in Turkey or the proposed 15-point peace plan, as the Financial Times had reported earlier, the fallout for the dollar still remains. For the first time, Russia, a major nuclear power and economy, was treated as a vassal state, with the United States, the EU and the UK seizing its $300 billion foreign exchange reserves. Where does this leave other countries, who also hold their foreign exchange reserves largely in dollars or euros?

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The threat to the dollar hegemony is only one part of the fallout. The complex supply chains, built on the premise of a stable trading regime of the World Trade Organization principles, are also threatening to unravel. The United States is discovering that Russia is not simply a petrostate as they thought but that it also supplies many of the critical materials that the U.S. needs for several industries as well as its military. This is apart from the fact that Russia is also a major supplier of wheat and fertilizers.

Seizing Russia’s funds means that the faith in the United States as the world’s banker and in the dollar as the global reserve currency is in question. Why should countries maintain any trade surplus and bank it abroad if that surplus can be seized at will through sanctions imposed by the West? The promise of a dollar as the world’s reserve currency was that all surpluses in dollars were safe. With the seizure of the Afghan central bank’s $9.5 billion, and allocating $7 billion out of it, the United States has shown that it considers the dollar reserves of another country, held by the United States’ central bank, as its money. It may be an economic asset in the books for a country to maintain its currency reserves with the U.S. central bank. But it is effectively a political liability, as the U.S. government can seize this asset at will. The United States has earlier shown its capability of imposing sanctions against countries such as Iraq, Libya and Venezuela and seizing their assets that resulted in far-reaching negative impacts for these countries. The seizure of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves by a handful of Western countriesex-colonial and settler-colonial states—shows that the so-called rules-based order is now based on weaponizing the dollar and the West’s control over the global financial system.

Economists—Prabhat Patnaik and Michael Hudson—and financial experts such as Zoltan Pozsar of Credit Suisse are now predicting a new regime in which another currency or some other variant system will emerge as the world’s new reserve currency. According to Pozsar, “When this crisis (and war) is over, the U.S. dollar should be much weaker and, on the flipside, the renminbi much stronger, backed by a basket of commodities.”

What has led to these predictions? After World War II, the Bretton Woods agreement led to the dollar becoming the world’s reserve currency. It replaced the British pound and was pegged to gold at a conversion value of $35 to an ounce of gold. In 1971, then-President Richard Nixon ended the Bretton Woods system and removed the “convertibility of U.S. dollars to gold,” which meant that the dollar was now backed only by the U.S. government (or U.S. Treasury) guarantees. The dollar as reserve currency had three things going for it in the postwar years: It was backed by the United States, which was the world’s largest industrial producer; the United States was the preeminent military power even if challenged by the Soviet Union; and it was backed by West Asian oil, the largest traded commodity, being priced in dollars.

The denomination of West Asian oil, particularly of Saudi Arabia, was critical to the United States and was determined by its military power. The coup in Iran against then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, the 1958 coup in Iraq, and many other political events in West Asia can be understood more easily if the world understands the importance of oil for the United States. This was the basis of the Carter Doctrine, extending the Monroe Doctrine equivalent to the Persian Gulf region—and reflected the United States’ interest in the region and its lack of tolerance for interference by any outside power there. U.S. foreign policy in West Asia has been captured on bumper stickers and antiwar protest signs for decades with variations on the phrase, “Our oil is under their sand.” The United States’ control over West Asian oil combined with its industrial and military power ensured that the dollar remained as the world’s reserve currency.

The fall of the United States as the world’s industrial power has gone hand in hand with the rise of China. A measure of China’s industrial rise can be seen from a simple comparison provided by the Lowy Institute using International Monetary Fund data on global trade. In 2001, more than 80 percent of countries had the United States as their major trading partner as compared to China. By 2018, that figure had dropped to a little more than 30 percent128 out of 190 countries “[traded] more with China than the United States.” This dramatic change has happened in fewer than 20 years. The reason for this change is industrial production: China overtook the United States in 2010 to become the largest industrial producer in the world. (India is the fifth-largest industrial producer but manufactures only 3.1 percent of the world output as against 28.7 percent of the manufacturing output produced by China and 16.8 percent produced by the United States toward the world’s industrial production.) It is not surprising that world trading patterns follow industrial production.

Two recent events are important in this context. China and the Eurasian Economic Union consisting of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia seem to be moving toward a new international and monetary system. India and Russia also seem to be working out a rupee-ruble exchange based on India’s need to import Russian arms, fertilizer and oil. India had already created a similar system earlier for buying Iranian oil in rupees. This might also give a fillip to increasing India’s exports to Russia. Saudi Arabia has recently indicated that it might also designate its oil sales to China in yuan and not dollars. If this happens, this would be the first time since 1974 that Saudi Arabia would sell any oil in a currency other than the dollar. This would give an immediate fillip to the yuan, as more than 25 percent of all of Saudi Arabia’s oil is sold to China.

The United States dominates the services, intellectual property (IP) and information technology (IT) markets. But the markets for physical goods, unlike for services such as IP and IT, are based on a complex model of supplies and, therefore, have complex global supply chains. If the Western economic war means taking out Russia’s supplies from the global market, many supply chains are in danger of unraveling. I have already written about the energy war and how the European Union depends on gas piped from Russia to Europe. But many other commodities are critical for those sanctioning Russia and those who may now find it difficult to trade with Russia due to the West’s sanctions.

Strangely enough, one of the key elements in the supply chain for manufacturing chips depends on Russia. Russia is a major supplier of sapphire substrates (using artificial sapphires) that go into the manufacturing of semiconductor chips. The other critical item for chip makers is neon, of which the two major suppliers are located in the southern Ukraine cities of Mariupol and Odessa. They together produce “between 45 percent and 54 percent” of the global neon supply.

I have already highlighted earlier the danger posed to the EU’s climate change plans as a result of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, which could also jeopardize its plan to shift to gas as a bridge fuel. Using batteries as the key storage element in the renewable energy route also has a substantial Russian weakness. Nickel is critical for electric batteries, and Russia is the third-largest supplier of nickel in the world. With the United States and the EU imposing sanctions on Russia, this may lead to China, already emerging as the world’s largest battery supplier, rising to an even more dominant position in the world battery market.

The other supply chain issues that could come up as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war involve palladium, platinum, titanium and rare earth elements. All of these minerals are required by advanced industries and are likely to be caught up in supply chain bottlenecks worldwide. They are also on the list of 50 strategic minerals that the United States needs since they are critical to its security. A look back at how the global supply chains seized up during COVID-19 should provide the world with a sense of what the coming crisis could look like and why it could be a lot worse than what was witnessed during the pandemic. Sanctions are easy to impose, much harder to lift. And even after the lifting of sanctions, the supply chain will not come together seamlessly as it did before. Remember, these global supply chains have been incrementally configured over decades. Undoing them using the wrecking ball of sanctions is easy; redoing them is a lot harder.

The food supplies to the world will be hit even harder. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus produce a significant amount of fertilizers needed by farmers everywhere. Russia and Ukraine are among the biggest exporters of wheat. If Russian wheat is sanctioned and Ukraine’s harvest is hit due to war, the world will not find it easy to thwart a severe food shortage.

There is no question that the world is on the cusp of a major economic change. This turning point will either lead to the complete destruction of the Russian economy, even if Russia achieves a quick peace with Ukraine and there is no NATO-Russia war. Or it will reconfigure a new economic order that has been in the offing: a world order with cooperative solutions instead of military and economic wars for resolution.

Author Bio: Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Facebook's new name is more than a rebranding — could it herald a dystopian future?

On October 28, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched a new company brand, Meta, at the annual Facebook Connect event. According to Facebook, "Meta… brings together our apps and technologies under one new company brand. Meta's focus will be to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities and grow businesses."

Is the launch of Meta merely an attempt at rebranding Facebook after the considerable hit its image has taken with the revelations of Facebook whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang? Is it to move away from its sullied past and present to an alternate universe, the metaverse that Facebook will create in the future? Does the company want its users to forget about its hate-filled Facebook pages, which fuel the company's ad-driven business empire, by moving the focus away from the Facebook brand? Or is this move aimed at winning back the young viewers that it is "losing traction" with?

Facebook's internal documents, made public by Haugen, reflect this desperation to win back the young users, and they even talk about focusing Facebook's attention on preteenschildren in the age group of 10 to 12—who are viewed as a "valuable but untapped audience." More importantly, Facebook seems to follow the same logic as the cigarette companies do by targeting children and getting them hooked on smoking. Both Facebook and these cigarette companies seem to believe that once they hook these children onto their products, they stay hooked for life, providing these companies with captive, lifelong customers. Or, in the case of Facebook, this means selling the data of their users, those hooked on Facebook, to advertisers for the lifetime of these users.

The general reaction to Facebook's Meta—or its metamorphosis to the metaverse, described as "a hybrid of today's online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world"—has ranged from cold to bewildered. For most users of Facebook, their knowledge of science fiction is meager. So the universe as a metaverse that seamlessly transitions from the real world to the virtual world might be quite an alien concept for a majority of people. This is in spite of meeting during the pandemic on various platforms as boxed, talking heads.

Meanwhile, those with a serious bent of mind and knowledge of literature, who find Facebook's existing world already a dystopian one, are more likely to connect Meta to the prefix in the title of Kafka's Metamorphosis. In this dystopian novel, the protagonist wakes up one morning as a human-sized cockroach; seen another way, his avatar changes to a cockroach in his metaverse. This potentially Kafkaesque alternative reality has provided fodder for some of the many memes mocking Meta since Facebook announced its launch. This main selling point of the metaverse seems to be the creation of virtual spaces where users can "get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create." These experiences are made possible by using a variety of augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) devices. While Facebook's messaging seems intent on proving Meta's "cool" factor, it is the reception of the news that has been chilly.

Before we dismiss Facebook's Meta, we need to also remember that it comes with a major cash flow that Facebook has accumulated, combined with Meta's market capitalization of nearly $1 trillion. As a company, Meta is still a 1,000-pound gorilla in the metaverse of Wall Street. And Facebook alone has a user base of nearly 3 billion, with billions of users on other companies owned by Facebook, such as WhatsApp and Instagram. How many of them are unique users is a different question, but any company that captures the eyeballs of half the world's population, and has a mountain of cash, cannot be written off.

There are two questions for Facebook, and yes, I am going to call it Facebook for now and not Meta. What is the metaverse that it is planning to build? And does it have a business model? In other words, will it get the young audience it has lost? And can Facebook sell either virtual "properties" or "commodities" in the metaverse for real money, apart from AR/VR devices like Oculus, which the company launched in August?

Let us look at the concept of the metaverse itself. As Zuckerberg himself explains, the difference between playing video games on a keyboard or a gaming console and the metaverse is the immersive experience. With the metaverse, users can use different devices, including special glasses, haptic gloves or suits, and can see or touch objects in the virtual world and "are able to immerse themselves in digital content rather than simply viewing it" by using these AR or VR devices. And yes, there have been enough books and films made on such futures. Those interested can read Isaac Asimov's Robot series, which is focused on robots, but takes the metaverse of virtual/augmented reality for granted. The more recent iteration on this, and from where the concept of the metaverse as a virtual reality that is an expansion of the internet takes off, is Neal Stephenson's 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash.

There are two possibilities of the metaverse: one is to see it as a version of the real world where people can meet, work or play in the real world but with the help of augmented reality/virtual reality created by using different devices. That is, people will be able to visit different places in the world with their friends, meet in their offices, and even visit their doctors, all while sitting at home. The second is that a person can live as an avatar in an online virtual universe that has similar or different rules to the real world, a superior version of Second Life, backed by Facebook's huge earnings and market power.

Second Life, set up in 2003, had many of the same goals as Meta. It is still popular among a small set of users, numbering nearly a million. It is an immersive universe—which promotes interaction among its user avatars—that can have a number of worlds with their own different rules and subcultures. It even has a currency, called the Linden dollar, which can be used within this universe, but not outside it. There is still an ongoing debate about what the fundamental purpose of Second Life is: is it an immersive platform or a gaming world?

Both these possibilities exist in Facebook's Meta. An obvious driver of Meta as an immersive platform is the possibility of working from home. All tech companies are discovering that working from home is an attractive option for their workers. But the company loses the creativity that is available in the collective and controlled environment that an office space provides where employees meet and talk about their work. Zuckerberg's Meta could sell office property that allows people to "come into work," but in a virtual space rented or owned by the company as an office in Meta. This will force people to be in the "same space" as their colleagues while providing them with the luxury of avoiding a long commute or relocating to where the company offices are. Zuckerberg could sell or even rent space in his Meta and make a business model out of it. Or people themselves can rent such spaces, choosing where the space is a customizable virtual lounge to meet their friends, the same way people rent Zoom rooms.

The other business model that Zuckerberg can explore with regard to Meta is to have properties, gadgets, tokens, and a host of props that can be sold for Meta cash, which would be used in the various versions of the universe and still have value in the real world in dollars (or Facebook's money, Libra). This would be unlike the Linden dollar, which can be used only in Second Life.

Both spaces could fall prey to relentless advertising, Facebook's fundamental business model. In which case, the metaverse will be an immersive space for bringing people in primarily for advertisements. Given the immersive nature of the metaverse, there is a real possibility of Facebook building an even more dystopian world filled with advertisements and fake news, so that people's eyeballs can be captured and sold continuously to the advertisers.

The gaming world is more difficult for Zuckerberg to cash in on. The gaming industry has been decades in the making and has taken off during the pandemic in the same way that online platforms like Zoom and OTT platforms like Netflix have. There are more than 3 billion gamers in the world, who spend a huge amount of time on their gaming consoles. It is the gamers who have driven high-end PCs and laptops, which have then resulted in other technological evolution relating to high-end graphics, including video editing. This has driven Nvidia's graphic processing units and a range of Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications. For the gamer generation, Zuckerberg and Facebook are again not seen as cool. They are unlikely to be attracted to Zuckerberg's version of the metaverse.

Of course, with his bags of cash, it is possible for Zuckerberg to attract companies that can make these games for his brand. If Meta can attract a set of well-known gaming companies to the platform, will that power Zuckerberg's version of the metaverse? Will such gaming companies give up their independence to Facebook? That is not an easy question, as, after all, cash has its allure: of more cash!

The short-term goal of Facebook was to get away from this image of a sleazy company promoting hate and fake news. But it is also focusing on the new era of connectivity and AI tools that we are entering, which can help power game-like alternate universes intersecting with the real one. But here is the Achilles heel of the U.S. companies: the U.S. is far behind China and South Korea in the 5G race and much poorer in its broadband penetration from many European countries. Can the U.S. overcome this deficit with the state spending on its digital infrastructure?

Can Facebook also overcome its image as a toxic social media company and build a second life for itself with Meta? Facebook can still wield a lot of power and influence, but with its aging user base, it may slowly dwindle in importance. Society may punish Facebook for selling hate and fake news, but of course, only after it has inflicted enormous damage to the world's social fabric. The caution here is that virtual reality can also be a toxic space, as we know from the misogyny in a significant section of the gaming community. Will Facebook, with its history, add to that and build a dystopian Meta?

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

How Facebook’s algorithms promote hate and drive toxic content

Facebook has been in the limelight for two issues of late—both damaging from the company's perspective, but in terms of public interest, each has its own level of usefulness. The news item with less long-term significance but more sensational media appeal is that what was supposed to be a small configuration change took Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp down for a few hours on October 4. It affected billions of users, showing the world how important Facebook and other tech giants have become to many people's daily lives and even to the operation of small businesses. Of course, the much more significant news is the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former employee of the company, who made tens of thousands of pages of Facebook's internal documents public. These documents showed that Facebook's leadership repeatedly prioritized profits over social good. Facebook's algorithms polarized society and promoted hate and fake news because they drove up "engagement" on its platforms. That the platform is tearing apart communities, and even endangering teens, especially girls, for not having "perfect" bodies, apparently mattered not a jot to Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal has published detailed exposés quoting Facebook's internal documents and Frances Haugen, who has also appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and in congressional hearings. "The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Haugen told CBS correspondent Scott Pelley on "60 Minutes." "And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money."

The 37-year-old data scientist has filed eight whistleblower complaints against Facebook with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with the help of a nonprofit organization, Whistleblower Aid. These complaints are backed by hard evidence: tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents Haugen had secretly copied before leaving Facebook.

Why is this big news when these issues relating to Facebook have been raised time and again, and were more prominently highlighted after revelations regarding the data firm Cambridge Analytica and Facebook became public in 2018? Did we not already know how Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms have become powerful instruments today that help promote hatred and divisive politics? Have the UN investigators not held Facebook responsible for the genocidal violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar? Were similar patterns not visible during the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 2013 and 2017?

The big news is that we now have evidence that Facebook was fully aware of what its platform was doing. We have it from the horse's mouth: internal Facebook documents that Haugen has made public.

By prioritizing posts that promote "engagement"—meaning people reading, liking or replying to posts on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram—Facebook ensured that people stayed on its platform for much longer. Facebook users could then be "sold" to the advertisers more effectively, by showing them more ads. Facebook's business model is not promoting news, friendly chitchat among users, or entertaining people. It is selling its users to those who can sell them merchandise. And like Google, it has a far better understanding of who its users are and what they may buy. This is what provided Facebook with 98 percent of its revenue in 2020 and has made it one of the six trillion-dollar companies (as of September 2021) in terms of market capitalization.

Testifying before Congress on October 5, Haugen said that "Facebook uses artificial intelligence to find dangerous content," Ars Technica reported. "The problem is that 'Facebook's own research says they cannot adequately identify dangerous content. And as a result, those dangerous algorithms that they admit are picking up the extreme sentiments, the division[s].'"

That this was happening is widely known and has been discussed, including in my own columns. Facebook's response to this criticism was that they were setting an independent supervisory board for oversight and employing a large number of fact-checkers. This and other processes would help filter out hate posts and fake news. What they hid was that all these actions were simply cosmetic. The driver of traffic, or what a person sees in their feed—or, in Facebook's terms, what they engage with—is determined by algorithms. And these algorithms were geared to promote the most toxic and divisive posts, as this is what attracts engagement. Increasing engagement is the key driver of Facebook's algorithms and defeats any measure to detoxify its content.

Haugen's congressional testimony also highlights what the real problems with Facebook are and what governments around the world must do in order to protect their citizens: to make Facebook accountable, not by censoring hate speech and fact-checking misinformation posted by individual users, but rather by targeting their algorithms' tendency to enable the dangerous high-engagement content. "This is not simply a matter of certain social media users being angry or unstable, or about one side being radicalized against the other," she said. "These problems are solvable… Facebook can change, but is clearly not going to do so on its own." While addressing the U.S. Congress about what can be done to regulate Facebook nationally, Haugen also acknowledged the problems Facebook's algorithms have caused worldwide. The solution, therefore, must also be global. In her testimony, she said that Facebook's meager proposed self-reforms would be insufficient to making the company accountable for its actions until they are made fully transparent. Facebook is hiding behind "safe harbor" laws that protect tech companies like Facebook, who do not generate content themselves, but provide their platform for what is called user-generated content. In the U.S., it is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows these tech companies to "moderate content on their services"; in India, it is Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. Both countries are considering reforms.

In the U.S., "a Section 230 overhaul… would hold the social media giant responsible for its algorithms," Ars Technica reports. In Haugen's words, "If we had appropriate oversight, or if we reformed [Section] 230 to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions, I think they would get rid of engagement-based ranking.… Because it is causing teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content, it is pulling families apart, and in places like Ethiopia, it's literally fanning ethnic violence." The key problem is not the hateful content users generate on Facebook; it is Facebook's algorithms that drive this poisonous content to a person's Facebook feed continuously to maximize the company's advertising revenue.

Haugen added:

"Facebook wants to trick you into thinking that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 alone will be sufficient. While important, these will not get to the core of the issue, which is that no one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook except Facebook. We can afford nothing less than full transparency. As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change Facebook will not change. Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good, our common good."

Of course, the widespread prevalence of toxic content on Facebook's platforms is helped by its willful neglect of not having language classifiers—the algorithms used to detect hate speech—for content that is not in English and is created in other languages. Even though Hindi is the third most spoken language in the world and Bengali is the sixth, according to Haugen, Facebook does not have enough "hate speech classifiers" in these two languages.

I have previously written why divisive content and fake news have more virality than any other content. Haugen's documents confirm what analysts including myself have been saying all along. The algorithms that Facebook and other digital tech companies use today do not directly code rules to drive up engagement. These companies instead use machine learning, or what is loosely called artificial intelligence, to create these rules. It is the objective—increasing engagement—that creates the rules that lead to the display of toxic content on the users' feeds that is tearing societies apart and damaging democracy. We now have hard evidence in the form of the leaked documents that this is indeed what has been happening. Even worse, the Facebook leadership and Mark Zuckerberg have been fully aware of the problem all along.

Not all the harm on Facebook's platform, however, was caused by algorithms. From Haugen's documents, we find that Facebook had "whitelisted" high-profile users whose content would be promoted even if they violated Facebook guidelines. Millions of these special users could violate Facebook's rules with impunity. I had earlier written on evidence provided by the Wall Street Journal about how Facebook India protected BJP leaders in spite of repeated red flags relating to their posts being raised within Facebook itself.

This is not all that Haugen's treasure trove of Facebook's internal documents reveal. Reminiscent of cigarette companies research on how to hook children to smoking, Facebook had researched "tweens," who are children in the age group of 10 to 12. Their research was on how to hook the "pre-teens" to Facebook's platforms so that they could create new consumers for its platforms. This is despite their internal research showing that Facebook's platforms promoted anorexia and other eating disorders, depression, and suicidal tendencies among teens.

All these facts should damage Facebook's image. But it is a trillion-dollar company and one of the biggest in the world. Its fat cash balance, coupled with the power it wields in politics and its ability to "hack" elections, provides the protection that big capital receives under capitalism. The cardinal sin that big capital may not tolerate is lying to other capitalists. The internal documents that Haugen has submitted to the SEC could finally result in pushback against social media giants and lead to their regulation—if not strong regulation, at least some weak constraints on the algorithms that promote hate on these social media platforms.

A decade-old quote is at least as relevant now in light of these recent Facebook developments as it was when then 28-year-old Silicon Valley tech whiz Jeff Hammerbacher first said it: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." This has long been the beating drum driving the march of social media giants to their trillions.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Are Bezos and Musk launching a new space age — or just a U.S. space grab?

The space race was once between two countries—the Soviet Union and the United States. It is now (at least on the surface) between three billionaires—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Two of them—Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, and Bezos, founder of Blue Origin—recently rode their respective companies' suborbital flights (meaning that they cannot be considered proper spaceflights, as they did not reach a stable orbit around the Earth). Branson's space ambitions seem to be limited to developing a market for the exotica of space tourism. Elon Musk and his company SpaceX have been playing for the long haul, with a series of rockets and launches already to the company's credit, including to the International Space Station. Bezos and Blue Origin also fall into the latter camp.

Behind this apparent show of rich kids playing with their expensive space toys, there are bigger forces at play—namely, that big capital is entering spaceflight, hitherto the exclusive domain of nation-states. While it appears that three men with deep pockets are funding their respective space ventures, the reality is that it is the U.S. taxpayers who are funding these space efforts. In this new space age, the U.S. is also proposing to ride roughshod over the space agreements that space is a "global commons." The U.S. would like to convert space into its "final frontier," under the premise that space belongs to any country that can mine its riches.

Many people take for granted that the U.S. was the winner of the space race against the Soviet Union, since they beat the Soviets to the moon. But what is overlooked in this narrative is that the space competition is not simply about who sent the first man to the moon, but also about who built the better rockets.

Strangely enough, it was the fall of the Soviet Union that brought forth information that Soviet technology produced rocket engines that had consistently outperformed the American ones. Today, the Russian-produced rocket engines—RD-180 and RD-181—still power U.S. rockets. The Atlas rocket line, which is the mainstay of U.S. heavy-lift launch vehicles, uses RD-180 engines. Atlas is owned by United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. When Orbital Sciences (now a part of Northrop Grumman) was looking for launch vehicles for its Antares program, they used Soviet-era 40-year-old, mothballed NK-33 rocket engines. After one of them blew up due to cracks in the aging engines, Antares switched their rocket engines—to yet another engine designed and produced by Russians, the RD-181.

In 1992, just as Russian rocket engines were becoming the mainstay of the U.S. space program, the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Russia's Glavkosmos. Glavkosmos was Russia's space marketing arm for selling cryogenic rocket engines and technology. These sanctions were only withdrawn after ISRO developed its own cryogenic engine technology. Russia's contribution to India's rocket program was the seven cryogenic engines that it sold to ISRO, a part of the N1 upper stage of the Soviet Union's moon mission.

Why did the Soviet-era rockets perform better than the U.S. rockets? It is because the Soviets had mastered what is called the closed-cycle rocket engines well before the Americans. For any rocket capable of spaceflight, it needs both fuel—e.g., kerosene, hydrogen, or methane—and a burning medium, such as oxygen. Meanwhile, in an open-cycle engine—Saturn V of the Apollo program was an open-cycle design—a part of the fuel does not reach the main combustion chamber. It is used to power a turbo-compressor pumping fuel and oxygen and exits directly into the atmosphere. This results in a loss of efficiency for the engine, which then has to be compensated by carrying more fuel.

In a closed-cycle engine, or what is called "staged combustion," the products of the first-stage combustion powering the turbo-compressor are fed to the main combustion chamber, avoiding any loss of fuel. The Soviet engineers had solved the problem of materials that had to withstand the extremely harsh conditions of injecting the products of oxygen-rich combustion into the main combustion chamber. The U.S. engineers thought that this was simply not possible and were shocked when, while visiting Russia in the '90s, they were shown the mothballed engines of the ill-fated N1 project, the Soviet attempt at the moon shot. These were the engines that Orbital Sciences tried to use for their Antares program, christening them as AJ-26, before they switched to the more advanced Russian RD-181 engines.

Following the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on many Russian companies. However, it still uses rocket engines sourced from Russia for its space program, both civilian and military. After the U.S. space shuttle program was shut down in 2011, taking U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station and bringing them back was left to Russian Soyuz rockets. It was only after SpaceX developed its space shuttle that the U.S. again had a spacecraft for carrying its astronauts to the International Space Station.

The U.S. Congress has decreed that U.S. companies will have to phase out the Russian engines from their military launches by the end of 2022. This is where Bezos and Musk come in, as both are vying for the future launches that the U.S. military and NASA are planning. Though it appears as if Musk and Bezos are developing the rockets using their own money, it is still NASA that is footing the bill. NASA pays upfront development costs and, later, price per launch.

If the rocket engines are the key to any serious space program, where does the U.S. stand in this new space age? ULA has had to switch to the U.S.-made engine as per the new NASA requirement. It has chosen the BE-4 rocket engine from Bezos' Blue Origin, though ULA is reportedly unhappy with delays by Blue Origin and the lack of "attention and priority" the company is putting on the engine. The other rocket engines in the fray are from Musk's SpaceX. Orbital Sciences still appears to be tied to Russian engines for its cargo services to the space station. So the U.S. rocket engines seem to be restricted to BE-4 from Blue Origin and SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket/Raptor engines. The American space race is essentially a two-horse race between the two super-rich billionaires.

How do Bezos and Musk fund their space ventures? The public believes it is with money that the 'visionary' billionaires have made as a result of their acumen for entrepreneurship—they represent a version of Ayn Rand's 'heroes' from her novels. The brutal truth is that Bezos as a capitalist has squeezed his workers, increasing their workload so much that they are unable to even take bathroom breaks. Amazon pays its workers wages that are "close to the poverty line for a family of four" and need to be supplemented by social welfare. The company has destroyed the small retail sector, and it competes with its own suppliers with Amazon-branded products and is "crushing them with competitive pricing."

Musk claims to be the other visionary by developing Tesla, the electric car of the future. While the existing automakers were slow to develop electric cars, Tesla has an edge of being the early mover and cashing in on the environmental regulations in various countries that demanded that automakers earn carbon credits by selling a certain percentage of their output as electric cars. For example, in the first quarter of 2021, almost all of Tesla's profits came from carbon credits it sells to other automakers. Since Tesla makes only electric cars, it has surplus carbon credits that it sells for a profit to other automakers. The crucial component of electric cars is the batteries, which Tesla outsources to others. One of the key battery suppliers to Tesla is Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL), which is the largest lithium battery manufacturer in the world. Its owner, Zeng Yuqun, has a net worth more than that of Jack Ma of Alibaba. What Musk has is a huge social media presence, which he has leveraged in hyping up his auto, and now space, ventures.

The other disturbing aspect of the new space age ushered in by the space billionaires is the U.S. policy of grabbing space for its private companies. This violates the Outer Space Treaty. The U.S. position is that whether or not outer space is a global commons, its commercial exploitation is open to all. This is a position the U.S. had on seabed mining in international waters as well. Such a policy privileges the powerful and technologically advanced states and is another way of blocking the essence of the global commons.

Behind this hype of a new space age is the reality of a new space grab. This is what Bezos and Musk represent: a new space age in which the billionaires can leave this world they are destroying in the hope of discovering new lands to conquer and again destroy.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

The great scientific crusader who debunked the biological myths about race

On July 4, Richard Lewontin, the dialectical biologist, Marxist and activist, died at the age of 92, just three days after the death of his wife of more than 70 years, Mary Jane. He was one of the founders of modern biology who brought together three different disciplines—statistics, molecular biology and evolutionary biology—that mark the discipline today. In doing so, he not only battled crude racism masquerading as science, but also helped shed light on what science really is. In this sense, he belongs to the rare group of scientists who are equally at home in the laboratory and while talking about science and ideology at a philosophical level. Lewontin is a popular exponent of what science is, and more pertinently, what it is not.

Lewontin always harked back to what being radical means: going back to fundamentals in deriving a viewpoint. This method is important, as it makes radical inquiry a powerful tool in science, compared to lazier ways of relating positions to certain class viewpoints. What is the relation between genes and race, class, or gender? Does social superiority spring from superior genes, or from biological differences between the sexes? As a Marxist and activist, Lewontin believed that we need to fight at both levels: to expose class, race and gender stereotypes as a reflection of power within society, and also at the level of radical science, meaning from the fundamentals of scientific theory and data.

Richard Lewontin and the population geneticist and mathematical ecologist Richard Levins shared a passion for biology, social activism and Marxism. It is not so well known that Lewontin's close friend Stephen Jay Gould—the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and popular science writer—was also a fellow Marxist. All three of them fought a lifelong battle against the racializing of biology and, later, sociobiology, which sought to 'explain' every social phenomenon as derived from our genes. Evolutionary biologists E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins—and many others—believed that humans are programmed so that society merely expresses what is already embedded in our genes. Through their eyes, white races are superior because of their genetic superiority; as are the rich. In India, there is also a genetic theory of caste to explain the supposed differences between caste groups. And as long as there are significant differences between groups of people—based on class, race, gender or caste—biological 'explanations' for these differences will be offered.

One of Lewontin's pathbreaking works was to find out how much genetic diversity exists within species. This was at a time when we did not know how many genes humans had. Lewontin's inspired guess was 20,000, far smaller than what most biologists thought then and remarkably close to what is known today. Most biologists then also believed that races had significant biological differences, which was one of the reasons why they thought that there was a much larger number of genes carrying different traits. Lewontin and geneticist John Hubby used a technique, protein gel electrophoresis, developed by Hubby, to quantify the genetic diversity in fruit flies. At that time, fruit flies were the favorite target for testing genetic theories in the laboratory. This pathbreaking exercise traced evolution at the species level to changes at the molecular level—a foundation for the field of molecular evolution—using statistical methods. The result was startling. Contrary to what most biologists believed, the exercise showed a surprising amount of genetic diversity within a given population and further revealed that evolution led to stable and diverse populations within a species. Later on, Lewontin used this method on human blood groups, to show that the result of stable genetic diversity held true for humans as well. The other result of the human blood group study was that it showed that 85.4 percent of the genetic diversity in humans was found within a population, and only 6.3 percent between 'races.' Race was not a biological construct but a social one.

Lewontin went on to co-author a paper along with Stephen Jay Gould on how evolution is not directed to develop every feature that we see in an organism today, but is also the result of accidental offshoots accompanying a specific genetic change that occurs due to evolutionary pressure. Gould and Lewontin likened it to spandrels in architecture. When an arch is carved out of a rectangular wall (say, a door), the triangular part left between the arch and the wall is called a spandrel. This is also what happens when domes rest on rectangular structures. That these spandrels are then carved and decorated is not the reason for their existence, but once created, they can be used for other purposes. Similarly, in species, nature makes use of accidental offshoots of an evolutionary change, just as those who built arches or domes do with spandrels.

What distinguished Lewontin's popular and scientific writings were his ability to connect the larger issues of science to society and his critique of the crude reductionist understanding of biology. He called it the Cartesian fallacy: that if we can break up the parts of a whole into its constituent parts and find the laws of the parts, we can then assemble the whole and understand it fully. Of course, this Cartesian viewpoint is no longer viable even in physics, let alone to explain chemistry from physics, biology from (organic) chemistry, or society from biology.

Why, then, does this view recur, particularly in understanding inequalities in society? Lewontin traced this repeated attempt to give biological explanations for inequality to the deep structural inequalities within society. This hydra-headed monster will rear new heads again and again as long as structural inequalities exist in society. This was the battle that he and his close colleagues fought against, racism, the fallacy of putting stock in IQ tests, and sociobiology, which sought explanations for all social inequalities in biology, i.e., that inequalities were preprogrammed in our genes.

This was the lifelong battle that he carried out not only in his specific field of biology but also in the larger domain of sciences. His ideological struggle against racism, class and imperialism was not separated from his science. He saw it as an everyday struggle within sciences as well as outside them, to be fought at both levels: at the level of society as well as at the level of science. He did not simply argue that race was a wrong way of looking at societal differences but showed it with hard experimental data and a theoretical framework to explain that evidence. This was his integrity as a scientist and as a social activist.

A large number of progressive scientists in the United States came together in the late '60s and early '70s, forming an organization called Science for the People. It has been revived recently. The organization was a reflection of the anti-racism and anti-war movements in the United States of that time. Their discussions on science and society paralleled what science and social activists were experiencing in India that led to the people's science movement, and resulted in the formation of the All India People's Science Network. In the U.S., Science for the People decided to become more of a movement within the scientific community, while the movement in India decided that it should be a larger people's movement not only on the issues of science and society but also by building scientific temper in society.

The recent Netflix film "The Trial of the Chicago 7" depicted the '60s struggle against the Vietnam War. Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, was one of the people who was charged in the trial by the U.S. government with "conspiracy charges related to anti-Vietnam War protests in Chicago, Illinois, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention." (A much better film is the older HBO movie "Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8," which is available on YouTube.) During the trial, the Chicago police assassinated Fred Hampton, an important Black Panther leader there who was helping with the defense of Bobby Seale. I will let Lewontin and his close comrade Levins, co-authors of Biology Under the Influence, tell us in their words how they related to these movements:

"We have also been political activists and comrades in Science for the People; Science for Vietnam; the New University Conference; and struggles against biological determinism and 'scientific' racism, against creationism, and in support for the student movement and antiwar movement. On the day that Chicago police murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, we went together to his still bloody bedroom and saw the books on his night table: he was killed because of his thoughtful, inquiring militancy. Our activism is a constant reminder of the need to relate theory to real-world problems as well as the importance of theoretical critique. In political movements we often have to defend the importance of theory as a protection against being overwhelmed by the urgency of need in the momentary and the local, while in academia we still have to argue that for the hungry the right to food is not a philosophical problem."

Biology Under the Influence, a collection of essays by Levins and Lewontin published in 2007, was dedicated to five Cubans—the Cuban Five—who had infiltrated Cuban American terrorist groups in Miami that were actively supported by U.S. agencies. They were then serving long prison sentences in the United States.

Lewontin and Levins were both Marxists and activists and fought a lifelong battle against racism, imperialism, and capitalist oppression. They brought their Marxism to biology and its larger philosophical issues. They dedicated their 1985 book, The Dialectical Biologist, to Frederick Engels, "who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted." This also applies to Lewontin, who also got race, class and genetics right where it counted.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

How Modi’s privatization agenda fueled the COVID disaster in India

While the incompetence of the Indian government is starkly visible in its handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis, its performance has been far worse on the vaccine front. The BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which seems to believe in the ideology of free-market capitalism, thinks that the market will magically produce the number of vaccines the country needs. This would explain why it has starved seven public sector vaccine manufacturing units—according to an April 17 article in Down to Earth—of any support instead of ramping up much-needed vaccine production.

The rights to produce the public sector vaccine, Covaxin, which has been developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, have been given to the private company partner on an exclusive basis. The Indian government also believed that Serum Institute of India, another private sector company and the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, which has tied up with AstraZeneca for producing Covishield, would make vaccines according to the country's requirements without any prior orders or capital support. The government did not even see the necessity to intervene and prevent India's new Quad ally, the U.S., from stopping sending India supplies of the required raw materials needed by India for manufacturing vaccines.

The sheer negligence by the government is further highlighted by the fact that even though India has about 20 licensed manufacturing facilities for vaccines and 30 biologic manufacturers, all of which could have been harnessed for vaccine manufacturing, only two companies are presently producing vaccines. That too is at a pace completely inadequate for India's needs.

India has a long history of vaccine development, which can be traced back to the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, in Mumbai, in the 1920s. With the Patents Act, 1970 and the reverse engineering of drugs by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories, the country also broke the monopoly of global multinationals. It is this change, fought for by the Left, that led to India emerging as the largest generic supplier of drugs and vaccines in the world and becoming the global pharmacy of the poor.

Bill Gates recently spoke to Sky News in the UK regarding India and South Africa's proposal to the World Trade Organization on the need to lift intellectual property (IP) protection for COVID-19 vaccines and medicines during the pandemic. Gates claimed that IP is not the issue and that "moving a vaccine… into a factory in India… It's only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all." In other words, without the white man coming in to tell India and other middle-income countries how to make vaccines and provide them with his money, these countries would not be able to make vaccines on their own.

This is a rehash of the AIDS debate, where the Western governments and Big Pharma argued that developing generic AIDS drugs would lead to the manufacturing of poor-quality drugs and theft of Western intellectual property. Bill Gates, who built his fortune on Microsoft's IP, is the leading defender of IP in the world. With his newfound halo as a great philanthropist, he is leading Big Pharma's charge against the weakening of patents on the global stage. The role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of the World Health Organization, is also to dilute any move by the WHO to share patents and knowledge during the pandemic.

Indian companies are the largest manufacturers of existing vaccines by volume in the world, according to the WHO's Global Vaccine Market Report 2020. When it comes to measuring vaccine manufacturing by value, however, the global share held by multinational corporations or Big Pharma is much bigger than that of India. For example, as per the WHO report, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), with 11 percent of the global market by volume, generates 40 percent of the market by value, while Serum Institute with 28 percent of the market by volume has only 3 percent of the market by value. This shows that the patent-protected vaccines with monopoly pricing get much higher prices. This is the model that Bill Gates and his ilk are selling. Let Big Pharma make the big bucks even if it bankrupts the poorer countries. The Western philanthropic money of Gates and Warren Buffett will 'help' the poor Third World to get some vaccines, albeit slowly. As long as they get to call the shots.

The Modi government's approach to vaccines is based on the central pillar of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology—which serves as the ideological parent of the ruling BJP—that the task of the state is only to help big capital. Anything else including planning is seen by the right wing as socialism. In the case of vaccines, it means not to make any attempt to get the companies, both in the public and private sectors, to make necessary preparations for a quick vaccination program: to put in the money and provide the necessary supply chain. Instead, the government believed that India's private pharmaceutical industry would do all of this on its own.

It forgot that the Indian pharmaceutical industry was the product of public domain science—the CSIR institutions—the public sector and nationalist companies like Cipla. They all came out of the national movement and built India's pharmaceutical industry. It is institutions like the Haffkine Institute under Sahib Sokhey's leadership and the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) built under the leadership of Dr. Pushpa Bhargava that led to India's vaccine and biologics capacity. It is on this base that India's vaccine manufacturing capacity rests.

It is not niji (private) companies that built the vaccine capacity in India, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims. The private sector companies rode on the back of public sector science and technology that was built in the country between the 1950s and the 1990s.

The Indian government recently opened up vaccinations for all adults in the country on May 1. To vaccinate all the eligible population—above 18 years of age—India would require about 2 billion doses of the vaccine in order to give the required two shots per person. To plan for the production of an order of this size, apart from technology and capital support, India also needs to plan for the complex supply chain that is required for production. This includes raw materials and intermediate supplies such as filters and special bags. There are at least 37 "critical items" that are currently embargoed by the U.S. from exports under the Defense Production Act, 1950, a relic of the U.S.'s Korean War.

On April 16, Adar Poonawalla, head of the Serum Institute of India, had taken to Twitter to ask U.S. President Joe Biden "to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up."

If India puts together the production capacity of the Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, Biological E, and Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, and the five other companies that have signed up to manufacture Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology, India could have planned for an annual production capacity of more than 3 billion doses. If it also included the public sector units idling under the Modi government, India could have easily boosted its vaccine manufacturing capacity to 4 billion doses and produced the necessary 2 billion doses and more in 2021. It would then have made it possible for India to completely vaccinate its target population and yet have enough left to meet its export commitments including for the WHO's Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator program and its vaccines pillar of COVAX. What is missing is a planning commission that could plan this exercise and create the political will to carry it forward. Not a vacuous Niti Ayog—the public policy think tank of the Indian government—and an incompetent government.

Instead, the Modi government did not even bother to place an order with the Serum Institute until January 11, and that too for a measly 11 million doses. The next order of 120 million Covishield and Covaxin doses was placed only in the third week of March when the number of cases had reached a daily caseload of nearly 40,000, and India was well into its deadly second wave. The government seemed to bank on its belief in the magic of the capitalist market, which it thought would solve all its problems, without any real effort on the center's part.

India and South Africa have asked the WTO to consider waiving the rules relating to intellectual property during the pandemic, and further sought that knowledge, including patents and know-how, should be shared without restrictions. This proposal has been backed by the WHO and has huge support among most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The holdouts predictably are from the rich countries that want to protect the global vaccine market for their Big Pharma companies. Under pressure from the global community and the bad optics of the U.S. hoarding vaccines, the Biden administration has finally just decided to accept South Africa and India's initiative of a temporary patent waiver, after stonewalling it in the WTO until now. But this waiver is restricted to vaccine patents only and does not extend to other patents or associated intellectual property as South Africa and India's proposal had suggested. This is still a victory for the global public health community, though only a first step.

While India is spearheading the need to share know-how with all companies capable of manufacturing vaccines, it still has explaining to do as to why it has given an exclusive license to Bharat Biotech to manufacture a vaccine developed with public money and in public institutions like ICMR and NIV. Why is it not being shared under a nonexclusive license with both Indian companies and those companies outside India? Instead, ICMR is receiving royalties from Bharat Biotech from sharing its know-how exclusively with Bharat Biotech. Under public pressure, ICMR is now sharing its know-how with the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra's public sector Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, while giving Bharat Biotech six months' lead time with financial support money from the central government.

Modi had dreamed that India would be the vaccine arm of the Quad. He forgot that in order to compete with China, India needs a vaccine production base that not only takes care of its vaccination needs but also fulfills all its external commitments. China can do this because it has developed at least three vaccines already—from Sinopharm, Sinovac, and CanSino—that have been licensed to others. Their production is now being ramped up, and China is the largest supplier of vaccines to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And it has also managed to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, unlike India.

This is where the Modi government has failed and failed badly. An incompetent, vainglorious leadership, combined with the RSS belief in magical capitalism, has led to the disaster that we are now facing.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

As India gasps to breathe, Modi abdicates responsibility

The COVID-19 pandemic continues its brutal march across India. Figures of new infections reached 355,828 on May 3—which accounted for more than 62 percent of the world's new infections on that day. As hospitals run out of beds, ICU capacity, and even oxygen, these factors have been contributing to the already skyrocketing death toll in the country. Dead bodies in mortuaries, crematoria and burial grounds speak of the awful toll of the pandemic.

India's daily numbers of COVID-19 cases have outstripped infection rates in other countries like the United States and Brazil. The end of the surge is nowhere in sight as more states and cities slip into the grip of the pandemic. The new confirmed cases are rising quite steeply in states like Karnataka, Bihar and West Bengal even as numbers in cities like Mumbai and Delhi are beginning to flatten. What is more worrying is that the positivity rates are rising quite steeply, indicating that the actual number of infected people is even higher.

After the first wave subsided in December 2020, the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory against the pandemic. Perhaps it truly believed in its own propaganda. At any rate, it was busy, chest-thumping on its great success. At the World Economic Forum in January, Modi said, "In a country which is home to 18 percent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively." The BJP's National Office Bearers meeting in February applauded the Modi government's performance in keeping the first wave of the virus under check. "The party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID," said a press release issued by the BJP. This pyrrhic victory and these vainglorious claims are doubly painful as India grapples with a second wave that makes the first wave seem like a trailer.

The BJP was focusing on how to convert this so-called success into electoral victory in state elections when the second wave struck. As the numbers began to rise, the BJP decided that if it could not control the pandemic, it would try to control the narrative. It went on the offensive, with its troll army amplifying the message that the state governments have failed; people are to be blamed for abandoning the safety norms of masks and social distancing; everyone is to be blamed but the Modi government. This, notwithstanding the central government's signal of a return to normalcy by holding public rallies, election campaigns and huge religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela. If people did relax their adherence to the COVID-19 norms, they were only following the example of the leaders—Modi and others—on the dais during political rallies and roadshows, who appeared maskless while addressing large crowds during these events.

The first COVID-19 wave in India peaked around mid-September in 2020, touching nearly 100,000 new infections per day. It had gone down to about 10,000 by mid-February. This period should have been used to strengthen the public health system: increasing the numbers of hospital beds and ICU facilities, stepping up oxygen production and building a supply chain for delivery of medical oxygen. Tragically, the central government, which has centralized all powers under the Disaster Management Act, refused to prepare itself, or the states, or the public, for this second wave.

The worst failing in the current crisis is the lack of oxygen supply. When the lungs of patients are affected due to the virus, the most important medicine is oxygen. This shortage of oxygen has added to the rising death toll, as patients requiring oxygen are unable to get admissions in hospitals; they are dying as hospitals run out of oxygen; and oxygen cylinders are not available for home treatment. During the last week of April, several hospitals in Delhi reported that they had only a few hours of oxygen left. Failed oxygen supply has resulted in the deaths of patients in various hospitals, even in elite hospitals in the capital. If this is the situation in the nation's capital, and that too in elite hospitals, one can only imagine the plight of hospitals elsewhere in small towns and rural India.

That is the core of the current crisis. The major reason for deaths during a pandemic is when the number of serious patients outstrips the availability of hospital beds and the supply of oxygen. That is when fatalities start mounting. This is the case now in India.

In the first wave in India, the spread was limited to a few states, and to certain densely populated areas. This time, it is spreading across almost all states, and affecting a much larger cross-section of people.

Why didn't the government prepare for a rise of this magnitude? This government is, unfortunately, completely centralized; only the prime minister and his trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah, the home minister, can act. The other ministers are harnessed only to dismiss any criticism, even constructive criticism—from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example. Modi's sights were set on winning the elections in the east, particularly West Bengal where the BJP recently faced a decisive defeat. Modi continued to hold political rallies and only stopped when he realized the poor optics of being in electioneering mode amid a major pandemic. By then it was too late, and his poor handling of the situation on the ground led to his party's defeat in the West Bengal elections.

The central government has also failed to ensure a smooth vaccination rollout and has provided misleading information about vaccinations, which might not address the immediate crisis, but will help with controlling any future waves that may follow by creating herd immunity. The government's announcement about having vaccinated 157 million people as of May 3 is misleading. While 157 million vaccine doses have been given, only about 27 million people have received the two required doses as of May 3.

At the beginning of April, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab were complaining about their vaccine supplies running low. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan dismissed these complaints by states as politicizing their "failures to control the spread of pandemic." The figures of vaccinations, however, reflect a different reality than the one claimed by the health minister and show that the number of vaccine doses given per day has indeed fallen drastically in mid-April in comparison to what it was in early April.

With the vaccine supply still constrained, the Modi government has failed to explain why it is now proposing that everyone above the age of 18 be vaccinated under the third phase of its vaccination drive. No explanation has been offered, nor a plan announced on how the country will ramp up its production and delivery to meet the expanded target.

The central government has mostly abandoned its responsibility to ensure that vaccines are available for the entire population, after its initial push to inoculate health workers and people above the age of 45. The government said that it will continue to provide 50 percent of the country's vaccine production to states and union territories for free under the third phase of the National Vaccine Strategy. The rest of the 50 percent will, however, have to be acquired by the state governments and the private hospitals from the two vaccine suppliers in India—Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. The center has also removed all price controls on vaccines, creating a competition for scarce vaccines among the states, which will ultimately benefit the private suppliers. Instead of a well-thought-out plan to increase vaccine production, distribute it centrally and vaccinate all the people, this appears to be a cynical exercise in abandoning the central government's responsibility and shifting the blame to the state governments for failing to vaccinate the people.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, had developed Covaxin. There is no reason why ICMR-NIV should not have given licenses to other vaccine manufacturers, including half a dozen public sector units that are idling today, to ramp up production of this vaccine. Instead, the Modi government granted the rights to produce the vaccine, which was created with public-sector technology and public money to Bharat Biotech only. And no explanation has been given about why the Modi government refused to take issue with the United States on its denial to provide vital supplies for the production of vaccines in India until it reached the current crisis.

The Modi government believes in centralizing all political power in its hands and letting the "free market," led by big capital, solve the problems of the country. And if this policy fails, it can always blame the state governments, the anti-national forces and, finally, the opposition for its own failures.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Why Google is facing serious accusations of monopoly practices

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google-Alphabet (Alphabet is Google's parent company) on October 20 for a range of anti-competitive practices using its monopoly power in the search market. It is the only major action in the U.S. against tech monopolies in recent years, the last one being the 1998 action against Microsoft. Eleven state attorneys general have joined the Department of Justice suit, with more expected to follow.

Google's current market share in online searches globally stands at about 92 percent and rises to more than 98 percent in countries like India. The only market in which it has virtually no market share is in China, where it shut shop for its search engine in 2010.

The four major tech companies—Google-Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple—are globally on the radar for their monopoly power and their ability to drive out competition. The recent hearings in the U.S. Congress relating to the Big Four were followed by a staff report of the subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law that recommended appropriate legislative action to Congress to either break up or limit these companies.

Facebook has additionally come under the scanner for being an instrument of hate speech, helping the formation of violent militias, and promoting conspiracy theories, including COVID-19 conspiracies. A Delhi assembly committee—Committee on Peace and Harmony—is investigating Facebook's role in Delhi's communal riots that took place earlier in 2020 (full disclosure: I also deposed before this committee).

Meanwhile, Google faces the following charges in the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice:

  • Creating a web of exclusionary and interlocking business agreements to shut out competitors
  • Paying mobile phone manufacturers and web browsers to make Google as their preset, default search engine
  • Controlling the online ad market with its selling and buying tools to ensure that web publishers are locked in
  • Using its control over the Android operating system to position its Chrome web browser and search engine as the default for mobile platforms

Much of these sound like legalese and beyond our ability to understand what Google is doing. The simple issue is that Google uses its monopoly over the search engine and its other Google properties to grab more than 30 percent—$103.73 billion in 2019—of the global digital ad revenue pie. Facebook has a little more than 20 percent, but today's story is Google and not Facebook.

Google and Facebook have one similarity. Neither of them generates any content; they show users content generated by others. Their entire business model is capturing our eyeballs so that we, or our attention, can be sold to advertisers. Those who create content may get a small fraction of the ad revenue that Google generates, but the bulk of the digital revenue is appropriated by Google as the major gatekeeper of the digital world.

How does Google get so much of the ad revenue? Does its search engine not show other sites that a person searching on Google would also visit? And would these sites also not get a share of the online advertisements?

Visiting other sites via Google searches is decreasing year by year, as pointed out by Rand Fishkin, a leading expert on search engine optimization. During the House hearing on July 16, 2019, the chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law, David Cicilline, said, "In 2004, Google's cofounder Larry Page said the purpose of Google is to have people come to Google, quickly find out what you want and to get you out of Google and get you to the right place as fast as possible." Fishkin shows with figures that this is not the case anymore; if it ever was. Today, the majority of searches on Google lead to no further clicks on the links in the displayed search pages (zero clicks).

In the browser search market, more than 50 percent of searches generate zero clicks on the search result page links. If clicks do occur, a significant share of such outgoing clicks is only for other Google sites such as YouTube, Google Maps, etc. Clicks on search pages leading outside the Google universe are dwindling every year.

The situation is worse with mobile searches than for the desktop market, where Google has a more dominant position. It might seem that Apple mobile phones should be independent of Google and, therefore, non-Google websites might fare better in Apple's ecosystem of iPhones, iPad, etc. That, however, is not the case. Google pays an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion, nearly 20 percent of Apple's annual profits, for Apple to carry Google search and maps as the default setting for Apple phones and Siri.

These figures relate to the search engine outputs and the resulting clicks. What about the proportion of web traffic referrals that sites receive, meaning when sites are visited from other sites, where do they come from? Seventy percent of such web referrals on any site still come from Google properties. If a website gets on Google's bad side, the site could fall into a deep black hole, which only the faithful will visit.

So, if a website owner wants to generate traffic for a site, the owner will have to configure the site in a way that Google can catalog all the content on the website easily. If Google makes changes, the website owner will have to adapt; otherwise, the site will not show up on Google searches, Google Amp pages, and Google News. All sites have to spend money to make Google's task of crawling the web for content easier. If people want their videos to be viewed, the only realistic option is YouTube. And there is no way to fight with Google even if that means a dwindling share of ad revenue for a website owner. Google holds all the cards!

How does Google ensure that most search queries on Google lead to zero clicks? Zero clicks happen because Google increasingly curates the results of the queries, displaying the required information on the search result page itself so that most searchers do not go further. Even Wikipedia is worried, as its clicks from Google are dwindling.

Even when queries lead to other sites in the list of results, they also still lead to Google properties as they promote either the sites or the content of such sites—for example, YouTube videos on the search page are curated in such a way that people do not visit the world outside Google.

The rules of ranking that Google imposes on others do not apply to Google properties and sites, which have consistently higher rankings on Google searches than searches on other search engines like DuckDuckGo, Bing, etc. As Fishkin puts it, the answer to the question of how to be ranked number one on a Google search is an easy one: be owned by Google!

The European Union regulators have penalized Google on occasions, but Google has been happy to pay the fines, as the monopoly it has achieved through its anti-competitive action cannot be reversed. It is like license fees that telecom companies pay to secure the monopoly of the airwaves. In India too, Google has been fined, but the amount of the fine was a paltry $21 million. It does not even count as a rap on the knuckles for Google.

These tech monopolies are also facing action in the European Union and Australia and even in the UK. In the UK, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (now renamed as the Competition and Markets Authority) was replaced with a weakened Competition Commission in 1999, a step which India quickly copied in 2002. Even with a weaker regulatory framework than the earlier anti-monopoly regulations, the UK's Competition and Markets Authority stated in its recent report that these companies "are now protected by such strong incumbency advantages—including network effects, economies of scale and unmatchable access to user data—that potential rivals can no longer compete on equal terms… We need a new, regulatory approach."

India has been charting a very different course. Not only have the government and its regulatory agencies sheltered Reliance Jio in controlling the national telecom monopoly, but they have also 'blessed' huge investments from Google and Facebook of $4.5 billion and $5.7 billion respectively, helping cement all three of their monopolies. While all other technology partners bring in their technology tools and platforms, Jio's key to success is its old-fashioned monopoly over India's telecom network. India is slated to be the world's biggest market after China in the coming decades.

The global anti-monopoly actions show that what we are witnessing is a tectonic shift in the way big tech companies and their owners are being viewed. Not as Ayn Rand's imaginary captains of industry, who through superman-like powers are creating a new world, but simply as venal and predatory monopolies. Even in the fractured politics of the U.S., there seems to be a bipartisan consensus that monopolies are inherently dangerous to consumers and competitors alike. Otherwise, why would a Justice Department under Trump file a case against Google-Alphabet, in which, according to its spokespersons, nothing—presumably even breaking up the monopolies as advocated by Senator Elizabeth Warrenis off the table.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Why 2020 is the year of black holes

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The Nobel Prize in physics for 2020 has been shared by Roger Penrose, the mathematical physicist, for his work on the theoretical basis of black holes, and astronomers Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, who led independent teams, for verifying the existence of such a black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Penrose showed that the consequence of Einstein's general theory of relativity is the formation of black holes, not only in collapsing stars but also in certain dense regions of space. Such black holes capture everything: nothing can come out, not even light. Genzel and Ghez and their respective teams independently showed by tracking the trajectory of a star that a superheavy object — around 4 million solar masses — exists at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Ghez is the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, the first one being Marie Curie, who won in 1903.

The Nobel Prize has assumed a halo that it does not deserve. Alfred Nobel was paying blood money for creating dynamite, which magnified the horror of war. But in sciences, it is still seen as the touchstone of greatness, even as its value is going down in peace and literature, which are seen to be far more guided by politics. How else do we explain Kissinger's peace prize in 1973 and Churchill's literature prize in 1953?

There are two Indian connections to black holes. The first is through physics. It was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an Indian physicist, who had shown in 1930 that if a star was larger than 1.4 times the solar mass, it would not stop collapsing. Chandrasekhar was the nephew of C.V. Raman, who was India's first Nobel laureate in physics. Chandrasekhar received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1983. He moved to the United States in 1936 and assumed American citizenship in 1953. Below the mass now known as the Chandrasekhar limit, the star would become a white dwarf. If the mass of the star was higher, he did not speculate on what would happen.

We now know that it would blow up in a supernova, and then collapse with its atoms squeezed into the nucleus-sized spaces forming a neutron star; or not stop collapsing at all, thereby creating a black hole.

The second Indian connection, and an unhappy one, is how the term black hole came about. It is now established that Robert Dicke and John Wheeler, both physics professors from Princeton University, were the first to coin the term black hole for the gravitational collapse of a star creating a singularity. And Dicke's family remembers his use of the phrase black hole whenever he could not find something in the house, asking whether it had disappeared into the Black Hole of Calcutta. Black Hole of Calcutta was, as we know, was a grossly overblown myth about a number of English soldiers and East India Company European employees being shut in a small prison room with two small windows, killing a number of them due to suffocation. The numbers that were claimed then by the East India Company have been disputed by a number of historians, but provided the justification of wholescale killings, plunder and the seizure of lands that finally became the British Empire in India. It overshadowed—in English minds—the innumerable colonial massacres that the British carried out and the devastating famines that accompanied British rule.

Einstein's general theory of relativity, formulated in 1915, led Karl Schwarzschild, an astronomer serving in the German Army in World War I, to publish a solution to Einstein's field equations, which showed that if matter and energy exceeded a certain bound, it would cause space-time to collapse on itself, producing a singularity—or a black hole. The external world would feel its gravitational effect, but no mass or even light could escape from such a black hole.

Though Einstein's general theory predicted the possibility of black holes, even Einstein did not really believe that they could exist. One major objection about the formation of black holes was that it demanded the collapse to be symmetrical, and it was argued that no collapse could be perfectly symmetrical, and therefore the formation of a black hole was a remote possibility. Penrose showed, using a mathematical topology that he developed known as the Penrose transform, that unlike other derivations for black holes, his approach did not require perfect symmetry of the collapsing matter. Applying the general theory of relativity, Penrose showed that the only requirement was enough density of matter in a given space, and this condition was enough for the formation of a black hole.

Such a theoretical derivation is not enough for physicists; physics needs experimental evidence to confirm a theory. Or at least theory alone is not enough for the Nobel Prize and the Swedish Academy that privilege experimental physics over theory. This was the argument against giving Einstein the Nobel Prize, though the reasons ran far deeper.

Einstein had become world-famous for having turned the familiar world of Newtonian physics upside down. But despite his worldwide fame, he had his enemies both in Germany and in academia because of his opposition to World War I, his radical views including socialism, and the fact that he was Jewish. The prevailing orthodoxy of physics, including the Nobel Committee, dismissed Einstein for all these reasons and argued that Einstein's theories were only theories, and lacked experimental proof.

To end this argument, the English astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1919 proposed an experimental verification of the theory of relativity. If a massive object curves space around itself due to its mass, it should be possible to observe this curvature by measuring starlight passing close to the sun during an eclipse. Eddington did this during a solar eclipse of 1919 and was able to show that the results closely agreed with the predictions of Einstein's general theory of relativity. The Times of London declared, "Revolution in Science: New Theory of the Universe," a New York Times headline wrote, "Lights All Askew in the Heavens." Einstein became a rock star in physics, a stature unmatched by any scientist.

But even that did not get him the Nobel Prize in 1920 and 1921. The science historian Robert Friedman wrote in his book The Politics of Excellence that the Nobel Committee could not stomach a "political and intellectual radical, who—it was said—did not conduct experiments, crowned as the pinnacle of physics." The 1920 prize went to an eminently forgettable discovery of an inert nickel-steel alloy, and in 1921, the Nobel Prize was not awarded. By then, denying Einstein was possible for the committee even if it meant not bestowing the prize on anyone at all. Finally, in 1922, Einstein was awarded the held-over Nobel of 1921, not for the theory of relativity for which he was most famous, but rather for the discovery of the photoelectric effect—the discovery that light also behaves as a particle—that Einstein had made in 1905. It was also the same year that he had published the first of his relativity papers, on the special theory of relativity.

Penrose's work had laid a firm mathematical basis for black holes and, in the heart of such a hole, a space-time singularity. Stephen Hawking developed this concept using the general theory of relativity to show that if we project time into the past, we would find that the entire universe started with such a singularity in time, or a Big Bang. Penrose and Hawking worked together in the 1960s, and their work has been widely hailed for unraveling the origins of the universe. Although Hawking achieved iconic status, as perhaps the most famous physicist after Einstein, he never received the Nobel Prize. Penrose's Nobel Prize for the space-time singularity is perhaps a shamefaced bow to Hawking for the Nobel Prize that he never received.

Theories in physics open up possibilities to understand our universe. But without experimental verification, there is still a nagging doubt in the minds of the Nobel Committee that some new phenomena could contradict the theory. So the search for experimental verification is viewed as the supposed gold standard of physics. And when it comes to astrophysics, it is a daunting task to prove theories with experiments on stars that would have to be observed from light-years away. This is why Chandrasekhar's Nobel Prize took more than 50 years, Penrose's 55, to be awarded. And as Nobel Prizes are not given posthumously, physicists like Hawking are never awarded for their remarkable contributions.

An observation that confirms the existence of a superheavy object that does not emit any energy would provide verification of Penrose's prediction of a black hole. This is what Genzel and Ghez achieved, finding that the Milky Way galaxy, like most galaxies, hosts a massive black hole at its center. Dr. Andrea Ghez is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Genzel the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. Ghez's team used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, while "Genzel's group used telescopes in Chile operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO)." Both the teams have been in "competition" for some time and have jointly received many honors. In this case, it was over tracking stars close to the galactic center of the Milky Way. Both teams tracked the same star, called S02 by Ghez's team and S2 by Genzel, which had a very short orbiting period around the center of the Milky Way of only about 16 years compared to the sun's orbit of 200 million years. Both teams' results, using different telescopes and data sets over decades, have shown that they are in close agreement that a superheavy object, with a mass of about 4 million suns, lies at the center of our galaxy. In the staid language of the Nobel Committee, "A robust interpretation of these observations is that the compact object at the Galactic center is compatible with being a supermassive black hole."

We have come a long way from Einstein's theory of relativity and Chandrasekhar's stellar collapse. Let me end with Chandrasekhar's Nobel speech, where he quoted the only Nobel laureate in literature from India, Rabindranath Tagore:

"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Into that heaven of freedom, let me awake."

Often quoted, perhaps overused, but nevertheless appropriate for our dark times.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

We’re a long way away from COVID-19 immunity — even with vaccines

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

As the pandemic continues to spread throughout the world, many countries seem to have given up the fight against COVID-19 and are now waiting for a vaccine to protect against the virus. With cases exceeding 32 million, and more than a million dead, the world economy has taken a bigger hit than at any other time since the end of the Great Depression of 1929-39.

The U.S. and India are now showing the highest numbers of total and new cases of COVID-19. Both have stopped talking about how to stop the pandemic, and are only focusing on reopening—or as India calls it, "unlockdown."

Giving up on containing the COVID-19 pandemic is an admission that public health systems have failed. India, with a poor public health infrastructure, has one of the most privatized health care systems in the world. The U.S. has the most privatized health care system among wealthy countries, with poor outcomes. It is not surprising then that both these countries have failed in facing what is essentially a public health challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic shows the contradictions between the needs of capitalism and the health of the people. Capitalism requires ill-health for making profits: selling patented medicines, costly stays in hospitals, and expensive procedures. The objective of the public health system is to ensure that people stay healthy, robbing capitalists of the opportunity to make profits.

The good news for the world is that 41 vaccines—more accurately candidate vaccines—are currently under different phases of clinical trials, and another 151 are in the pipeline. Two of the vaccines currently in Phase 1/2 trials are being developed by Indian companies—one from Cadila Healthcare Limited and the other from Bharat Biotech—and are set to start their Phase 3 trials soon. Bharat Biotech is also working with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis on a nasal route for delivering a vaccine.

Normally, vaccine development and testing take from five to ten years, so it would be a significant achievement if we succeed in making effective vaccines available by the end of 2020 or early 2021. The progress so far also shows that we have the scientific capacity to develop a large number of vaccines for infectious diseases. The reason we have not done so for diseases other than COVID-19 is that such infectious diseases were thought to be the diseases of poor countries, and do not provide enough profits for global big pharma to invest in vaccines against infectious diseases. It required a public health emergency in the rich countries for vaccine development to take a front seat in medical science again.

As immunity may not be permanent, unless we have herd immunity at the global level, we will continue to see outbreaks in different countries. The virus will not respect national boundaries. And while large parts of the global population have no guarantee of a vaccine, the rich countries with 13 percent of the world's population have reserved more than half the vaccines from the leading vaccine manufacturers.

India may be luckier than most other developing countries as it has a large capacity for manufacturing vaccines. If a vaccine from AstraZeneca-Oxford comes through, Serum Institute of India, Pune, which is partnering with AstraZeneca, has earmarked a significant part of its output for India. Cadila's and Bharat Biotech's vaccines are currently in clinical trials. They also have a significant capacity for vaccine manufacture. Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, an Indian company, has partnered with Russia's Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology for distribution of the Sputnik V vaccine. Contrary to some news reports, Russia's Sputnik V was never authorized for the general population and is currently undergoing Phase 3 trials since August in various countries—Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Mexico and possibly India.

After the disaster of U.S. President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic, he is desperate to claim success in some way or another before the November elections. He has been pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to give emergency authorization to some of the vaccines that the U.S. has invested in through its $11 billion Operation Warp Speed program. These vaccines have to provide evidence that they are safe and provide sufficient immunity by either preventing the disease or limiting it to a mild form. As some of these vaccines are two-shot vaccines and need at least two months after the final shot to be effective, there is no way that such an exercise can be done by the U.S. presidential election on November 3.

After public criticism of the FDA's earlier emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma therapy, both of which turned out to be of little value, the FDA is cautious about making a third mistake, especially as vaccine skepticism is strong in the United States. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., has termed the anti-vaxxers as a part of the anti-science movement that has gained significant influence in the United States. Anti-science, racism and a deep distrust of the government are driving the rightward shift in U.S. politics. A misstep on vaccines can cause significant damage in protecting people in the long run.

We have also seen similar missteps in India, where the Indian Council of Medical Research's (ICMR) director general issued a stern directive in his letter in July to 12 hospitals participating in trials for Bharat Biotech's vaccine Covaxin, demanding that all trials—Phase 1, 2 and 3—should be completed within six weeks so a success could be announced on August 15, which is India's Independence Day. After an outcry, the ICMR claimed that it was not a directive but a suggestion, with no explanation about why such a harebrained suggestion should have been made in the first place.

Once a vaccine is found to be successful in the Phase 3 trials, it might appear that our problems would be over quickly. Not so fast—we then have the formidable challenge of making it available to at least 4 to 5 billion people for creating herd immunity. This means producing about 8 to 9 billion doses, as a number of these vaccines are two-shot vaccines. We then have the even more challenging task of setting up supply chains to provide vaccines to centers all over each country before people can be vaccinated. The CEO of Serum Institute, the largest generic vaccine manufacturer in the world, has already flagged that India will need about $10.7 billion to procure and deliver the vaccine, a further challenge to the government's finances.

Several manufacturers in India have ramped up vaccine production capacity, so they may be able to produce the vaccines, even though they may not meet the requirements quickly. But an even more daunting task is to create the entire cold chain (temperature-controlled supply chain for all the elements of storage and distribution) for supplying the vaccines to the vaccination centers.

In case of the old-fashioned inactivated viruses, or the more recent use of adenovirus as vector, the cold chain required is between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the cold chain requirement for most commonly used vaccines including those for the flu and polio. For Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, both of whom have developed mRNA vaccines, however, the temperatures required are between -94 and -112 degrees Fahrenheit, a far more difficult task even for countries like the United States. If the mRNA vaccines are the ones that prove to be the successful ones and the others are not, building up a supply chain for the vaccines that can provide the colder range of storage for most of the world will take far more than a year.

The other challenge is that we have never vaccinated such large numbers in such a short time ever. In India, the pulse polio program uses oral drops and immunizes about 170 million children per year. This is still well below the required 1.5 to 2 billion vaccine shots for India, whether the AstraZeneca or the Gamaleya vaccine, both of which are two-shot vaccines. And for a two-shot vaccine, we have the added difficulty of tracking the people who have received the first shot so that they do not miss their second.

Even if the major economies can solve their problems of procuring the vaccines by jumping the queue with money or captive production capacities, what about the rest of the world? For them, the only major alternative is the WHO-Gavi-CEPI's Covax platform, which requires at least $2 billion by December 2020. It has raised $700 million, and has commitments from 64 major countries for funds, but is still short by $700-800 million.

The U.S., having pulled out of WHO, is not a part of any global effort for vaccines and says that it might help others only after it has helped itself. Russia and China are not a part of the Covax and are working out bilateral programs along with clinical trials for sharing their vaccines.

If vaccine development was simply a scientific exercise, we should have been able to address the questions of when we should consider the clinical trial results satisfactory to start mass vaccination and which section of the people should get the vaccine and when, and at what cost. We would also have been able to discuss how to create the global and national infrastructure for all countries and all people to be safe. Instead, we see the ugly face of "vaccine nationalism," with each country for itself, which will protect neither the nations nor their people. We've seen tech and trade wars; here come the vaccine wars.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

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