Talking Points

India is recording just shy of 100,000 new cases per day. PHOTO: AP
  1. India overtook Brazil with the world's second-most coronavirus cases
  2. Oxford's vaccine trials were paused due to a mystery illness
  3. Myanmar defectors admitted to the slaughter of Rohingya
  4. Hundreds were arrested in the latest Hong Kong crackdown
  5. Beijing nabbed the Laotian electricity grid with debt-trap diplomacy
  6. Disney's China push was left in disarray after a Mulan furore
  7. Refugees were stricken after Greece's largest camp burnt down
  8. More Belarusian activists were targeted by security forces
  9. Russian hackers were accused of manipulating the US election
  10. Victoria Azarenka knocked Serena Williams out of the US Open

Deep Dive

The US West Coast goes up in smoke. PHOTO: Mic

Blood-red skies over America's most-privileged cities. Mountains disappearing behind a wall of flames. The annual wildfires that scorch US West Coast have grown to frightening proportions in 2020. Eight people have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

We did start the fire

In California's forested ranges which rise up from the Pacific – some of the most tranquil countryside imaginable – an inferno rages. In late August hundreds of lightning strikes started 37 blazes across Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Tehama, and Trinity Counties. They merged to create an enormous conflagration. And by the time the fire line had joined up with another uncontrolled fire in Elkhorn, California was battling the largest fire complex in its recorded history. After two weeks of round-the-clock efforts by over 1,000 firefighters, just 25% of the fire has been contained so far. But there is no time to stop and gawp as the half-million-acre August Complex, as it is now known, has entered history books. Another 100 fires are burning across California, Oregon, and Washington. 2.6 million acres have been burnt so far – by far the most in a single season.

As one climate expert said this week, "I'm running out of superlatives".

Hundreds of thousands of Oregonians have been evacuated from the fire-front . The chaotic movement of people has been made nearly impossible by the restrictions placed because of the coronavirus pandemic . Since this is an election year (and Facebook is either unwilling or unable to moderate content), conspiracy theories have proliferated as to the source of the fires. Depending on your political alignment, you will either have seen messages blaming left-wing anti-fascist activists, or right-wing anti-progressive militias for the lighting of the Oregon blazes. This unchecked spread of misinformation does not bode well for the US election on November 3. It's true that 95% of wildfires in the United States are ignited by people, but the overwhelming majority are unintentional (see: the idiotic pyrotechnics of a gender reveal party ) – only 7% can be attributed to arson. One wonders how those consuming such politicised nonsense square it with the fact that California was struck by lightning 12,000 times in August.

Fracking useless

When asked why these wildfires are an order of magnitude larger than those last year, the answer from reputable scientists has been unequivocal: climate change. A record heatwave and widespread drought on the West Coast baked the fuel load dry. So dry, in fact that in just 24 hours this week, the Bear Fire expanded by 230,000 acres . Californian Governor Gavin Newsom stated, "Never have I felt more of a sense of obligation and a sense of purpose to maintain California's leadership not only nationally but internationally to face climate change head on". Fine words, or they would be, were they not coming from a governor who had issued more oil-well and fracking permits than his predecessor. Even in a state that trumpets progressive credentials, the reality is that more fossil fuels are being extracted every year. Given that five of the worst fires in Californian history have occurred in the last four years, this is rank hypocrisy.

Apart from climate change, there is also growing belief in the scientific community that the fires are intensifying because, counterintuitively, there are not enough of them. Prior to European colonisation, millions of acres of the West Coast were intentionally set alight annually. Indigenous controlled burning practices were fine-tuned over millennia and had the dual purpose of managing fuel loads and encouraging a healthy balance of species within the forests. That intimate knowledge was smothered and supplanted by the concept of fire suppression. But as we've seen in the colossal August Complex, wildfires in baked-dry forests cannot be suppressed.

2020 has traced the veins of history that run just below the surface of modern America. Under the slaying of African-Americans there is centuries of racist policing. Similarly, with these terrifying fires, we are reaping the seeds sown by centuries of environmental misuse in colonial America. If you'll permit us to lean on Faulkner's well-worn phrase, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

EDITOR'S NOTE: In dizzyingly-bad related news, emissions have soared back to pre-pandemic highs and a report has found that two-thirds of the planet's wildlife has been lost in the last 50 years.


Worldlywise

Holding back the Nile with sandbags. PHOTO: Ashraf Shazly / AFP

Floods from Dakar to Khartoum

The worst Blue Nile flooding in a century has pushed Sudan into a three-month state of emergency. Every year the river swells and spills onto the Sudanese flood plains. But this year, at its highest point, the river rose a staggering 17 metres. Three states have been inundated, killing over 100 and displacing (conservatively) half a million people . Aerial footage shows waist-deep water in the low-lying areas of the capital, but the worst damage happened further afield. Archaeologists are grappling with the prospect that the water may damage the extraordinary 2000-year-old Meroe and Nuri pyramids . Fortunately, the United Nations had moved food supplies sufficient for 250,000 people into high-risk areas before the rains started. Unfortunately, these stockpiles are already running low .

Last month we described the annual deluge that blankets the Ethiopian highland, the headwaters of the Blue Nile. That torrent snaked its way south then east, and was met for the first time by the newly-completed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Political tensions rose as water lapped higher in the reservoir. Those farthest downstream in Egypt are deeply concerned about equitable water flows, but Khartoum's response was comparably muted. The flood has revealed the calculation: the flood-prevention power of Addis Ababa's monumental dam might just offset the loss of control over the waterway.

On the other side of the country, Senegal is experiencing its own flooding crisis. Over a seven-hour period last Saturday, the skies over the African mainland's easternmost nation opened up in spectacular fashion. Senegalese water minister Serigne Mbaye Thiam put it best, "This is an exceptional rainfall. We registered 124mm of rain. This is the cumulative rain we get during the whole rainy season from July to September". Some neighbourhoods of Dakar received almost double that. The same clouds poured rain on countries further east all the way to the Niger Basin , affecting nearly 750,000 people.

Believe me. PHOTO: Stefan Rosseau

Brexit velocity

And now for our quarterly check-up on Britain. Unfortunately for all involved, the reduced frequency of Brexit updates has not made them any more palatable. This week the UK Internal Markets Bill appeared before the House of Commons. The bill is, in theory, a backstop that will allow lawmakers to continue passing regulations on trade and state aid "nonwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be inconsistent or incompatible ". In practice it is, quite nakedly, an attempt to override its own European Union withdrawal agreement in specific regard to – you guessed it – the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In the last four years successive Tory governments have occupied every possible position (and some impossible ones) on the frontier and found that none of them quite work.

It appeared as though a new page had been turned when Boris Johnson had torched his junior partners in the DUP by agreeing to a customs check in the middle of the Irish Sea. The internal markets bill throws all that into disarray, in effect telling Brussels that "we'll abide by our agreement unless we decide not to". This, as you may surmise, would be a breach of international law. Unsurprisingly, the European Union didn't buy what Northern Ireland's secretary Brandon Lewis was selling with his attempts to minimise it as only "[a breach of international law] in limited and specific ways". Brussels has threatened legal action and suggested that such duplicity may preclude them from signing any future trade deal . And Britain is once again hurtling back towards a no-deal Brexit , which the prime minister has either denied or suggested would be good, actually.

There is a convention in some newsrooms that discourages journalists from describing the falsehoods of political leaders as lies. This has led to some delightfully contorted headlines in the Trump era. At inkl, we rely on the historical record and scientific consensus to guide us. So, to the historical records: leaving his personal life to one side, Boris Johnson's professional life has been riddled with half-truths, mistruths, and outright lies. His newspaper columns were ram-packed full of fabrications (indeed, he lost that job for making up a quote). He was sacked from important positions within the Conservative party in 2004 for lying about an affair. His Brexit campaign was built on a whopper (remember the big red bus and the extra-£350m-a-week extra for NHS?). Why does any of this matter? It matters because Johnson is asking his country, and dozens of others, to trust him.


The Best of Times

The New York Philharmonic: al fresco. PHOTO: AFP

Pandemic art

After the Bubonic Plague, we had the Renaissance. In the First World War, we had poetry. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we have classical music. Or, at least, New York does — with its Philharmonic filling New York’s quiet streets with beautiful melodies. With (socially distanced) crowds emerging to watch the impromptu performances, it’s a win-win for all involved.

Lost and found

Just as we use art for escapism, we also use it for understanding. This week, the British Museum acquired 103 drawings from Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘Great Picture Book of Everything’. The drawings resurfaced following 70 years in a private collection.


The Worst of Times

The man who set off a forever war. PHOTO: AFP

Mission creep

A new report has found that, conservatively, 37 million people have been displaced by America's forever war: the war on terror. Some estimates range upwards of 50 million. Generations of families have had to leave their homes and risk everything to escape - not simply the major invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but also the devastating drone wars, special forces operations, and proxy conflicts in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, the Philippines, and dozens of other countries.

If the drones don't get you, the climate will

Up to 1.2 billion humans could be displaced by climate change between now and 2050.


Weekend Reading

The image

Adrenaline junkie Jason Liversidge sets a new land-speed record for the electric wheelchair (95kmph). Paralysis from the neck down due to motor neurone disease has not gotten in-between him and his need for speed. Photograph supplied by Evening Standard.

The quote

" I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic. "

US President Donald Trump tells Bob Woodward, well, everything . Now the veteran journalist himself has come under fire for withholding the vital fact that Trump did not believe his own nightly assurances that coronavirus wasn't a big deal.

The numbers

30%

- By 2024, all candidates for the Oscars’ Best Picture award must have 30% of their cast and crew from underrepresented groups of women, POC, LGBTQI+, and disabilities. That’s on top of a handful of other targets surrounding the cast, crew and opportunities in film production. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it — so make these targets a reality.

15

- Since September 5th, 2001, an organ in Halberstadt, Germany has played only 15 notes of John Cage’s ‘Organ/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible)’ — completely on purpose. At a more sane speed, the eight-page song goes for an hour, whereas this version will be playing until the year 2640. So if you’re ever in Halberstadt and something sounds like a broken record, just leave it.

The headline

"You can plan murder on Facebook but you can't die with dignity on livestream" Input .

The special mention

The bear M49 goes by many names. Sometimes Papillon. Sometimes Europe’s ‘most wanted bear'. He was captured this week after 42 days on the run. M49 earned his moniker after committed a series of daring escapes over the past two years, including a nine-month outbreak last year. Don’t let the system hold you down, Papillon.

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting