Sep 15

Remembering Colonialism’s Horrors

Burning of a Village in Africa, and Capture of its Inhabitants (p.12, February 1859, XVI). By Wesleyan Juvenile Offering [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The human costs of colonialism were staggering. Slavery was integral to the political economy of imperial powers from the 16th to 19th century, because of the huge profits that it generated. At times France received more wealth from slave production on the small colony of Haiti than from any other of its colonies, including New France. In King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild has described how perhaps half the population of Congo -roughly 10 million people- died during Belgian rule in the 1880s.

From Australia to the Americas Indigenous Peoples were dispossessed of their lands, and confronted by a cultural genocide that lasted centuries. Some native peoples of the Caribbean nearly vanished during a horrific period of epidemic disease, land loss, and overwork. The experience of the Spanish conquest was so terrible that many Indigenous families in the Caribbean simply chose to stop having children after the Spanish arrived (or were unable to maintain families), so that their populations declined with stunning speed. In Potosí, Bolivia thousands of Indigenous Peoples and African slaves died mining the silver that funded Spanish wars and palaces. While epidemic diseases devastated Indigenous communities, so did the entire structure of colonialism, which led to a demographic collapse throughout the Americas. This was so extreme that it lasted for centuries. Read the rest of this entry »

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Sep 15

The costs of drugs

A Cannabis plant. By Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Marijuana is being legalized in the United States and globally far more quickly than almost any observer could have anticipated. Canada will legalize marijuana nationally in 2018. Given the horrific violence associated with the drug war in Mexico, such steps will reduce the power of organized crime. As early as 2014 the price for Mexican marijuana was falling sharply, and this trend will continue. Still, all change comes with a cost, and Oliver Milman’s recent Guardian article points out one. In his piece,“Not so green: how the weed industry is a glutton for fossil fuels,” Milman argues that marijuana production in greenhouses uses a shocking amount of electricity, which is often produced with fossil fuels. I don’t doubt that the global discussion about drug legalization, at least for marijuana, will continue. As it does, countries will have to wrestle with many complex policy issues, including the environmental impact of this crop, as large corporations produce it at scale.

Ben Grenrock also has a recent article, “Colombia’s New Drug Problem” in Slate, which talks about the growing movement towards drug tourism in Medellin, Colombia. On the one hand, drug violence has plummeted in the city. Colombia, which endured horrific violence in the early 1990s, has recently signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. Medellin is a beautiful city, which has enjoyed spectacular growth. But tourists have also begun to come to Medellin in large numbers, partly because they view it as a place to experiment with cocaine consumption. Of course, cocaine has always been available in Colombia. But now the scale of drug tourism has increased substantially, which has strengthened the drug gangs that control its distribution in the city. According to Grenrock, many people in Medellin look with disdain on these tourists. In the case of Medellin, cocaine is illegal, but readily accessible because there is little effective enforcement. As both articles describe, a commodity chain links drug consumers to real environmental and social problems.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

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Aug 28

Trump’s Image in China

Mural on Hong Kong Building. Photo by Shawn Smallman

I’ve just returned from Hong Kong, where I’ve been doing fieldwork around public policy and avian influenza. I recently came across this mural, which is on the Xiu Ping Commercial Building at 104 Jervois Street. The mural shows a long line of people waiting for food at a restaurant or food stall. A smiling man is ushering away a threatening President Donald Trump, who is waving his finger in the air and scowling. What you don’t see in this picture is the very long line of characters waiting to receive their food. I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a picture of the whole line, but towards the end there was a figure whom I took to be former President Obama, and he was smiling broadly. President Trump’s administration -and the revolving door in the White House- is receiving constant news coverage in China. President Trump is described as a populist and economic nationalist, whose ideas threaten global prosperity and regional stability.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

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Aug 25

Typhoons and Hurricanes

Shuttered door in the front lobby of the Metropark Hotel, Hong Kong, before the arrival of Category 10 Typhoon Hato on August 23rd, 2017. Photo by Shawn Smallman

Like everyone else, I’m watching the news as Hurricane Harvey reaches category four intensity tonight. It will reach the coast of Texas around midnight, August 25th. My thoughts are with everyone in the affected region. I also hope that people are paying much closer attention to the news than I was when Typhoon Hato reached Hong Kong this Wednesday. I was staying at a hotel in Hong Kong, and was not following events, because I had been busy traveling back from Shenzhen. When I awoke in the morning I was surprised to see the rain coming down in buckets, but just thought it was a summer storm. I then went down the stairs, only to find myself confused by the shutters that had been installed on the main lobby doors at the Metropark Hotel. I went out another door, and was puzzled to see the sidewalks without pedestrians, the streets without cars, and businesses closed. When I saw that the windows up and down the street were taped with X’s, I realized what was happening.

Typhoon Hato skirted Hong Kong but hit Macau hard. Still, even in Hong Kong it was an impressive sight from the hotel’s rooftop. A burst of intense wind would pass through, whipping the palm trees back and forth. Clouds of leaves would hurl through the air, as they were sucked hundreds of feet into the sky. The rain would pour sideways. Then, I don’t know why, suddenly it would be dead calm. At one point I found myself watching a flock of birds, desperately trying to fly into the wind to avoid being sucked up into the hills. They would gain a little space, they be blown helplessly back. By late afternoon the worst was over, although heavy rains continued for hours. Read the rest of this entry »

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Aug 15

The Value of Lectures

I’m writing this post for my teaching colleagues. One of the things that I have loved about moving to entirely online teaching was that it has encouraged me to thinking deeply about pedagogy. Over the last two years I have become a passionate advocate of the negotiated syllabus and universal design, which I have incorporated into online classes. Still, for twenty years I taught primarily using the lecture format. I would break lectures up with small discussion groups. Perhaps students might read a historical document from Brazil, which they would discuss in their small group, then report out briefly. Or perhaps I would have them collectively draw a map of all the theorists covered in my theory class, and how these people connected. We’d then share these maps with the class. These assignments helped to create a sense of community in the class, and to break up lectures.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Aug 04

A very expensive poison, a book review

“The reception room in the building of the Federal Security Service.” RIA Novosti archive, image #98400 / Vladimir Fedorenko / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Luke Harding’s, A Very Expensive Poison, describes how Russian security services murdered dissident Alexander Litivenko in 2006. While the study of the assassination itself is detailed, riveting, and depressing, the true horror is the picture that the book paints of the Russian state. According to Harding’s detailed and well-sourced account, Russia’s senior leaders -including Vladimir Putin himself- are deeply involved in corruption and organized crime. As such, the book is not the story of one man’s death, but also an indictment of an entire government.

The FSB is the successor agency to the much feared Russian KGB. Litvinenko had served as an agent within the organization, and even briefly met with Putin itself. Disillusioned with the FSB’s criminality he defected to the West with the aid of a Russian oligarch, and began to work for the British intelligence service, M-16.

The Russian state had many secrets to keep. I’ve made an academic study of conspiracy theories related to everything from the 2009 H1N1 “Swine flu” pandemic, to (with my colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez) the death of Argentine prosecutor Nisman. This man died hours before he had been scheduled to testify before Congress regarding the 1994 AMIA bombing. Conspiracy theories are interesting, because sometimes conspiracies do happen. Whether a narrative represents an accurate depiction of facts, or is part of an irrational worldview characterized by paranoia, is always a judgement call. In the case of Russia, there are numerous examples of conspiracy narratives of uncertain validity. For example, Harding discusses (50-51) the apartment bombings that provided the justification for the Russian invasion of Chechnya. Litvinenko argued in a book, Blowing Up Russia, that the Russian FSB itself had undertaken this attack as a false flag event. To the best of my knowledge no important new information to support this argument has emerged since the book’s publication, and the truth of this assertion is unclear. Given the seriousness of this allegation, however, it’s unsurprising that Litvinenko would fear Russia’s security services. Still, what drew him to Russian attention, Harding suggests, was not his work with M-16, but rather Spanish intelligence services. The Spanish state was investigating Russian organized crime’s activities (money laundering, bank fraud, real estate purchases, etc) in their own country. The Spanish authorities found evidence of close collaboration between Russian criminals and government authorities in their home country. Read the rest of this entry »

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Aug 01

Afghanistan and despair

U.S. special forces troops ride horseback as they work with members of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom on Nov. 12, 2001. By Department of Defense employee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I love the War College podcasts, which consist of outstanding interviews with key thinkers in the area of security. If you want to understand the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, I highly recommend their podcast, “The Case for Leaving Afghanistan,” which showcases the thoughts of journalist Douglas Wissing. Spoiler alert: the picture is not good. The author of two books on Afghanistan, Wissing argues that our longest military commitment has endured because companies make money from it, while officers make careers. Wissing says that we have spent over a trillion dollars on the war to date, but the Afghan government is losing ground.

In terms of development, the U.S. has spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan, which is more than the U.S. spent on the Marshall plan in Europe after adjusting for inflation. As Wissing notes this is a staggering amount of money for a nation of 30 million people. Worse, he suggests that a significant portion of those development funds were siphoned off to fund the Taliban itself. He argues that the projects that the U.S. has funded have been divorced from Afghan reality, and unsustainable for that reason. The entire history has been a textbook lesson in how not to do development, he suggests, in part because policy has been driven by the personal, career and institutional needs of those people dispersing the funds. Read the rest of this entry »

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Jul 28

Sea level, hurricanes and Tampa

“Hurricane Isabel from ISS,” Image courtesy of Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory , Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My parents lived in Florida for six months a year over nearly twenty-five years, and other family members have lived there for longer, so it’s a state that I love. I think that the West Coast is a particularly beautiful place, where you can kayak through a river with alligators in the morning, before finishing the day on the beach looking for the green flash.  As I’ve talked about before, though, I don’t think Florida as a state has sufficiently acted upon the reality of sea level rise. Florida is not unique, as cities like Jakarta and Shanghai wrestle with the same issue. Still, Florida has to deal with a double threat, because it has to worry not only about the rising waters but also the implications this has for hurricanes. The 1935 Hurricane devastated Key West. While people are aware of how vulnerable South Florida is to a hurricane, though, perhaps the greatest threat is in the Tampa Bay area. Darryl Fears has a new article titled, “Tampa Bay’s Coming Storm,” in the Washington Post. As Fears points out, the sea level may rise “between six inches and more than two feet by the middle of the century, and up to seven feet when it ends. On top of that, natural settling is causing the land to slowly sink.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Jul 18

Venezuela and Zimbabwe

“Food Insecurity in Zimbabwe,” By Mangwanani (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last weekend 7.6 million Venezuelans voted to reject a new Constituent Assembly called for by President Nicolas Maduro. Desperate to prevent the Assembly from taking place, the opposition’s leadership have also called for a mass strike this Thursday, and may appoint their own Supreme Court. The Venezuelan military is deeply tied to the current regime through corruption, including profits from controlling the distribution of food. All of Venezuela has been in an economic and social free fall, which has profoundly undermined the health care system. In this context, perhaps it is unsurprising that over 98 percent of the people who voted rejected President Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly, and called instead for free and transparent elections.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Jul 15

Devil’s Breath: the video evidence

Brugmansia sanguinea. By Paul K from Sydney (Brugmansia bicolor) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This spring I taught a class on the Global Drug Trade, and one of the students in the class shared a Vice News video with the class regarding a drug called Devil’s Breath. Please be warned that this video contains disturbing content, including discussion of rape and violence, as well as profanity. It is also an unusual video regarding drug usage, because Devil’s Breath (scopolamine) is unlike other drugs in that it is not consumed for pleasure. Rather, it is allegedly used by criminals in Colombia in order to take away someone’s will. The drug itself can be created easily from a common tree in Colombia, called the borrachero tree. There are seven trees in the Brugmansia genus, which contain the active ingredient scopolamine. These trees are common throughout northern South America, where they are extinct in the wild, but are sometimes used as ornamental trees because of their beautiful flowers.

According to Colombians who were interviewed in the video, criminals can ask someone to smell the powder, and the drug is so potent that it will take effect when they sniff. The video contains a series of interviews, including a taxi driver who seems to know all too much about the drug, and some people who were victimized using it. Still, the stories were so extraordinary that I couldn’t help but wonder, could this possibly be true? Can victims truly lose their will, so that they will assist a robber to burglarize their home? Or is this partly folklore? Vice’s reporter Ryan Duffy did not appear to be someone with a deep knowledge of Colombia. Nonetheless, the interviews with authorities, including the police and a doctor, were very convincing. Nonetheless, I wondered how to judge where reality ended and folklore began. After all, this drug is used in Western medicine to treat some conditions such as motion sickness? Wouldn’t this effect be familiar from this usage? Or are there differences between scopolamine and the the drug variant used Read the rest of this entry »

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