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February 2008 (Volume 59, Number 9)

Notes from the Editors

Twenty years ago climatologist James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, widely considered to be the world’s leading authority on global warming, first brought the issue into the public spotlight in testimony before the U.S. Congress. Recently, Hansen published an article entitled “Climate Catastrophe” in the New Scientist (July 28, 2007), There he presented evidence suggesting that under “business as usual,” in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase unchecked, a rise in sea level by several meters during the present century due to the melting of polar ice sheets is a “near certainty.”

A sea level rise of this extent (up to five meters or sixteen feet) would mean the loss of land areas on which much of the earth’s population lives at present (10 percent of the world’s population live less than ten meters above the mid-tide sea level.). Yet, most scientists, even glaciologists, still downplay the full extent of the danger, failing to acknowledge probable nonlinear processes associated with climate change, and are especially reticent when it comes to making public statements in that regard.

Why? Hansen calls this the “John Mercer effect.” In the 1970s John Mercer, a glaciologist at Ohio State University’s Institute of Polar Studies, drew attention to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is separated from the bulk of Antarctica by a mountain range. Ice shelves floating on its rim put it in a delicate balance so that global warming, Mercer claimed, could within a mere forty years cause it to disintegrate and slide into the sea, raising the sea level by five meters.

Other glaciologists looked into Mercer’s model and decided based on the data collected that what he described could indeed happen. But most climatologists and geologists publicly dismissed the idea that an ice sheet as big as Mexico could disintegrate in less than a few centuries (Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, pp. 79–80). According to Hansen, although it was not obvious at the time whether Mercer or his critics were correct, “researchers who suggested that his paper was alarmist were regarded as more authoritative.” Hansen believes that Mercer lost funding opportunities as a result. This discouraged other scientists from speaking out.

The John Mercer Effect then stands for the fact that scientists (in this case glaciologists) are wary of being similarly characterized as alarmists, particularly because of the impact that this may have on future funding. “Scientists downplaying the dangers of climate change [or other threats to the status quo] fare better when it comes to getting funding.” Hansen points to his own experience. In 1981, based on the first reliable estimates of average global temperature by NASA, he pointed to the dangers of global warming from fossil fuel use. The result: his research group had some of its funding pulled by the Department of Energy, which specifically criticized aspects of that paper. Hansen argues that such economic/funding constraints have the effect of inhibiting scientific criticisms of the status quo: “I believe there is pressure on scientists to be conservative.” To be sure, scientists are trained to be skeptics, but “excessive caution also holds dangers. ‘Scientific reticence’ can hinder communication with the public about the dangers of global warming. We may rue reticence if it means no action is taken until it is too late to prevent future disasters.”

Hansen’s description of the John Mercer Effect reflects the way in which a system devoted to what Rachel Carson called “the gods of profit and production” (see the Review of the Month in this issue) constrains scientists (along with everyone else), whenever issues arise that potentially threaten the vested interests—even when it is a question of protecting human life and the planetary environment. In the United States, where so much of the scientific funding comes from the Pentagon and the large corporations, the John Mercer Effect is especially strong in limiting what scientists are willing to say and do. As Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin have written “the irrationalities of a scientifically sophisticated world come not from failure of intelligence but from the persistence of capitalism, which as a by-product also aborts human intelligence” (Dialectical Biologist, p. 208; see also their Biology Under the Influence [Monthly Review Press, 2007]).

The theme of this year’s Socialist Register, 2008, edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys and now available from Monthly Review Press, is “Global Flashpoints.” It focuses on the two “flashpoints” that in different ways are currently challenging global capitalism: the Middle East where there is massive resistance (albeit much of it taking the form of Islamic fundamentalism) to the intrusions of the global empire centered in the United States, and Latin America where a socialist-inspired revolt against the neoliberal economic order is taking place. Hence, six essays consider the Muslim world and its “incongruous anti-imperialism,” while seven essays look at the potential for a socialism for the twenty-first century in Latin America.

In addition, three essays examine neoliberalism/imperialism in Eastern Europe and the West. A symposium on neoliberalism by three political economists closes the volume. Those wishing to learn more about the complex, explosive changes occurring in the world in our era will therefore find the Socialist Register, 2008 of enormous interest. It can be ordered online at or by calling 1-800-670-9499.

The journal Critical Asian Studies sponsored a roundtable by its editorial board members in 2005 on Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett’s China and Socialism (Monthly Review Press, 2005). A number of the commentaries questioned China and Socialism’s critique of Chinese “market socialism,” and argued, contrary to Hart-Landsberg and Burkett, that China still constituted a progressive model of economic development. Hart-Landsberg and Burkett responded with a lengthy argument.

All of the articles in this exchange on China and Socialism were gathered together with an introduction by Hari Sharma and the collection was published in 2007 (in English) in India under the title: Critical Perspectives on China’s Economic Transformation: A “Critical Asian Studies” Roundtable on the book China and Socialism by Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett. MR readers who are interested in Hart-Landsberg and Burkett’s China and Socialism (first published in the magazine in July-August 2004) may wish to obtain this new book.

Arrangements have been made for regular North American distribution in the near future. But those wishing to purchase the book now can write to SARR, Box 435-552A Clark Road, Coquitlam, BC, Canada V3J 0A3, or phone (778) 867-2972. Checks should be made out to SARR. The costs are the same in Canadian or U.S. dollars: $15.00 in paperback or $35.00 for hardcover, plus postage and handling: $8.00 in the United States or $4.00 in Canada. Those wishing to obtain copies of China and Socialism itself can do so by contacting Monthly Review Press (see the information at the end of the previous paragraph).

The sad, horrible, heart-breaking way the vast majority of my fellow countrymen and women, as well as their counterparts in most of the rest of the world, are obliged to spend their working lives is seared into my consciousness in an excruciating and unforgettable way [as a result of reading Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital]. And when I think of all the talent and energy which daily go into devising ways and means of making the torment worse, all in the name of efficiency and productivity but really for the greater glory of the great god Capital, my wonder at humanity’s ability to create such a monstrous system is surpassed only by amazement at its willingness to tolerate the continuance of an arrangement so obviously destructive of the well-being and happiness of human beings.

Paul M. Sweezy, “Foreword” to Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital

The Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), with which MR has had a close association since its birth, is turning forty this coming year. Celebrations are scheduled to take place at the meetings of the American Social Science Association (ASSA, of which both the American Economic Association and URPE are a part) on January 3, 2008, in New Orleans. Speakers will include MR and MR Press authors Lourdes Beneria, Arthur MacEwan, and Howard Wachtel, among others. Congratulations URPE!

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