Saturday, October 27, 2007

Embarrassed by Democracy

I’ve spent the whole day thinking about democracy and its opponents. There seem to be several sets of attitudes on the subject.

I belong to the first category. I live in a fairly democratic society and feel grateful for the privileges and freedom that this system affords me. I want everyone in the world to have the same political freedoms that I enjoy. Within “,” I include the opportunity for free and fair elections; transparent and honest governance under a rule of law; freedom of assembly and of the press; and guaranteed basic rights for minorities. I tend to assume that everyone shares my high regard for democracy, but that is not the case.

The second category consists of the most vocal proponents of democracy today: . Oddly, these are people whose everyday social values are harshly reactionary. I am astonished, as someone partial to “,” to hear them express their incongruous ideas. Despite praising democracy, they believe that societies need bosses — heroes on horseback — just to keep the masses in line. Somehow these right-wingers have apparently appropriated freedom-lovers’ most precious ideal: democracy.

There is a third category: my political allies, who cherish their own freedoms and the human rights of others, nevertheless are reacting against the very word “democracy,” especially when it is followed by the term “promotion.” The “promotion of democracy” no longer refers to assistance given to politically repressed people so they can gain control over the conditions of their own lives. More often now it is equated to a military campaign to foist “our” political system on some reluctant society on the other side of the planet. Democracy promotion equals and the . No wonder liberals and leftists today cringe when the word “democracy” is used instead of championing it. “If George Bush is a democrat,” they say, “then I am not.”

So here we have three categories of incoherent opinions — (a) liberals who believe in democracy and generally practice it; (b) right-wingers who claim to be democrats and who promote for all people who do not enjoy democratic freedoms; and (c) left-wingers whose actual political behavior is democratic but who nowadays refuse to call themselves democrats. They are, in fact, embarrassed by the concept.

Yet there’s a fourth category — a second, but illiberal, group of people who oppose democracy: and their supporters. Among them we find such authoritarians or semi-authoritarians as the junta ruling (see photo) and the present rulers of China, North Korea, and Russia. The best one can say of them is that at least their views are coherent. In recent years, such countries have been requiring all civil society organizations and foreign pro-democracy institutions to obtain licenses simply to exist. In these countries journalists are being assassinated and dissidents are beaten or imprisoned. These are the natural enemies of democracy.

Nevertheless, these are not the people who worry me most. I am more troubled by my erstwhile “political allies,” the social democrats who won’t call themselves “democrats.” This group includes two sub-categories, whom I will call the and the “Marxists.”

The relativists are generous-spirited and egalitarian social democrats, but they may be altogether too egalitarian. They buy into the dictators' claim to be simply expressing “,” which happen to differ from ours. Relativists tolerate the violation of human rights, claiming that all cultures differ and we should not impose our standards on a different society. While they enjoy freedom in our own Western societies, they do not claim it is inherently better than any other political system. “Live and let live,” they say. “We must not violate the sovereignty of Burma by trying to free its people. They are accustomed to being tortured.”

(Believe it or not, I still hear statements like this. A week ago a friend of mine recalled that he had often traveled to the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years. “It wasn't so bad,“ he said. I didn't ask him whether he believes that female genital mutilation is okay in Muslim countries today.)

Finally, there's another type of social democrat who refuses to espouse democracy: the . They aren't necessarily relativistic, but can be quite fervent (even intolerant) in expressing their opinions. They simply place considerations ahead of all other values, and they also attribute the actions of others to materialistic, self-interested motivations. Thus they will discount any assistance or support that a capitalist country (especially the United States) has given to the pro-democracy movement in Burma. Such support is always attributed to financial interests, not human sympathy for the suffering of others. For example, I read today an e-mail essay describing the geo-political interests that are at stake in Burma — both the need for Burma's oil and gas, and the American plan to establish military bases in the region. If the US declares its sympathy for the monk-led demonstrations, a Marxist will explain this orientation entirely in terms of greed and the pursuit of global dominance.

There is a loss of innocence here that troubles me. I can understand dictators who hate democracy. That makes sense to me. It's the other four groups of people who baffle me.

Give the word “democracy” back to me, as a proper part of my political vocabulary. It isn't embarrassing. It's just about the best ideal I can imagine pursuing.


Friday, October 26, 2007

The Issues in Ottawa

Two or three times a year I come to – usually for a conference. But the encounters always inform me about more than the topic of my visit. Last time it was an annual meeting of the Group of 78, and besides listening to Flora McDonald, we revised the group’s obsolete mission statement to reflect its current commitments. During that meeting, the monks were marching in Rangoon – or perhaps they had already been crushed, though it did not yet seem decisive. My agenda was to evoke new ideas about how to help them win. What I was not prepared for was the widespread attitude of skepticism about the value of – especially since I had just been chanting with my friends in demonstrations, “What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now!” To my Canadian friends this word carried some kind of negative connotation, as if the only persons calling for democracy were right-wing ideologues. I spoke up, proclaiming my own appreciation of democracy, but then I put the idea aside when I returned home. There were too many other pressing matters to handle. I needed to priorize my concerns.

Now I am on the train again, returning to Toronto after another three day adventure in Ottawa. This trip was rather more enjoyable and pretty interesting. On the train from Toronto my seatmate was a First Nations woman of 46 with a long braid,. She was reading a thick book that I took to be scholarly, but later determined was a collection of stories about fairies – little people, in which she believes. She is a researcher, nowadays studying the use of programs for youthful offenders. Apparently the problem is that such services are not significantly available, either on reserves and rural areas or in cities. Those that do exist actually work well.

I asked her about such programs for adult offenders. People who perpetrate very serious crimes are not eligible for them, since they are mostly sentenced to maximum security prisons. The treatment includes a period of living in the bush, finding their own food and undergoing spiritual trainings with elders. The process reduces recidivism somewhat and – what is more dramatic – changes those who offend again into a less aggressive mode. If they had initially assaulted someone, the next offence night be, say, a theft. But they don’t get a second chance anyhow. The second offence will be met with the regular punishments prescribed by Canadian law.

Another fascinating detail: There are some aboriginal communities where is very common – up to 98 percent prevalence, In one place called Hollow Water the children took over and demanded change, There was a movement throughout the community to change this situation, and it worked. Now sex abuse frequencies are down to perhaps two or three percent. The psychology behind it is not the same as with many pedophiles elsewhere. It is a form of aggression, not sexual longing. The adults all went through a healing process where they acknowledged that what they were doing was wrong. I wonder whether that kind of transformation is possible for other pedophiles elsewhere. Pedophilia is considered almost intractable.

My seatmate shared her life story with me in some detail. She had been taken from her mother at birth, then kept in an institution for six months, then adopted by a British family who treated her very differently from their own children and from the two blond children they adopted. She started running away from home at age eight. Now she has reconciled with her adoptive parents but not those blond siblings. She and her biological siblings and grandmother have found each other. She says that the pathologies of aboriginal life in Canada basically began when the children were taken away from their parents – not just because the were harmful to the kids, but because in the communities the adults fell into despair when their children were taken away. That makes sense, though I never heard anyone say that before.

She spoke on the phone with her boyfriend, who also works in a government organization for Indians. They discussed what she called ‘Indianland” – the political goings on in the bureaucracies that are supposed to uplift aboriginal people. Listening to her concern about what kinds of projects are funded and which ones are not, I began to recall the theory of some sociologist, whose name I cannot recall, that the administration of justice and the supervision of difficult individuals becomes a permanent job, an entitlement, a role that one wishes to “own.” In a way, the officers acquire an interest in perpetuating the dependency of those whom they are helping. Then I felt a little guilty for allowing this right-wing thought to enter my mind. Still, I must admit that it has taken root here.

I stayed in a new bed and breakfast place on Besserer Street, near Heartwood House, where the meeting was held of CNANW – Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. I was representing Science for Peace. There were only ten or so of us present—mostly aging women. It was my first time in the group, though I did know almost everyone there. We heard presentations from a new fellow from DFAIT, who had only recently been shuffled into the job that David Da Silva had occupied this summer. He couldn’t answer many of the sophisticated questions posed by the group. Then in the afternoon we heard more congenial speakers – and (see photo), who was upbeat. He is a New Zealander of about 40 who spends about half his time in New York or Geneva, working on nuclear weap0ons issues.

Doug was discouraged, as usual, about the sharp turn toward militarism by the Harper government. As with most committed activists, he ended his speech by reflecting on the poor level of public awareness. Again, there was talk about how hard it is to stir up citizens. I said something about using TV dramas, and it seems to have awakened everyone there. They all supported what I was saying, which has come to be rather a common reaction lately.

At the end of the day we all took taxis up to Parliament Hill to help Alyn Ware launch his new organization, . It’s an international campaign against nuclear weapons, sponsored primarily by the physicians movement. Taxis are not supposed to be able to drive right to the door of the parliament buildings, except for MPs and Senators themselves. However, pulled rank, telling the guard that she is Peter Mackay’s mother. He let us through. Then, inside the building, she led me up to the office of her son, formerly the Foreign Minister and now the Minister of Defence. I was searching for a copy of the Hill Times, which I knew carried an article I had written about the Department of Peace idea. Peter’s legislative assistant gave us both copies of the paper. I had wondered whether they had changed anything beyond the title, but apparently not.

There was a two-hour long reception, attended by a fair number of parliamentarians. Setsuko Thurlow gave a talk about being a 13-year-old girl in Hiroshima when the bomb went off. She was in town to receive an Order of Canada ceremony today. I talked with Kim Kroeber, ’s administrative assistant, who is beautiful, effusive, and well-informed. I’m to contact her about Dallaire’s work for child soldiers and about a film on the subject. I spoke briefly with Jack Layton too, pointing out my article, which he said he would read. The Hill Times is delivered to each MP’s office, but is not widely available throughout the city except in a few magazine stores. It’s all about political issues. (Actually, I guess The Hill Times is available more widely than I just wrote; the fellow across from me on the train is reading it now.)

After dinner I was going to leave with Nancy Covington, the president of Physicians Global Survival, and Debbie Grisdale. was still there, perhaps because she had hosted the party, and we asked her where we could go for dinner nearby. She immediately invited us to join her in the parliamentary dining room. What a treat! I didn’t realize we were her guests, but it was an interesting conversation and a fine dinner (tortierre is French Canada’s great culinary invention).

Alexa is no longer NDP leader, of course, and no longer foreign affairs critic either, She has happily turned that role over to Paul Dewer, a new MP and the son of Marion Dewer, formerly mayor of Ottawa.. Now Alexa is in charge of development issues. She had just been to Honduras, so we talked about the Canadian mining companies there and how the government of Honduras is beginning to tell such companies that they may not come in, since the Hondurans don’t get any benefits from their activities. I am supposed to talk to Paul Dewer about SEMA, the international agreements that keep Canada from being able to discipline corporations that have destructive impacts on Third World countries. Dewer had been present at the reception and at the Group of 78 meeting last month, but I didn’t talk to him about these matters. I wanted to know the status of the legal situation so I can write about it I do intend to phone him.

At dinner we talked about two other issues: the exclusion of Americans from Canada on the basis of a list of criminals kept by the US government, and the fact that “democracy” has become a concept that only the right-wingers want to use.

Alexa had been out at the airport for several hours that afternoon, trying to meet Ann Wright, a former US Army Colonel who had quit the army in protest against the Iraq War and who was invited to speak in Ottawa. It seems that this woman was on a list of dangerous persons and therefore the Canadian immigration authorities would not let her in. They also refused to tell Alexa whether she was present in the interrogation room or not, giving “privacy” as their grounds, although Wright had specifically told them that she was waiving her right to privacy and wanted Alexa to be informed that she had arrived. The immigration officer promised to tell Alexa, but did not. Then he told Ann that he had told Alexa – a barefaced lie. She was deported.

Later I found out that the woman did have a criminal record for having demonstrated on the White House grounds, contrary to the law. To me, that slightly offset my mounting objections. I think that demonstrating on the White House grounds can be properly considered illegal. Surely there must be other places where one can demonstrate, just a little distance away. Still, it seems weak of the Canadian government just to accept whatever the US says about a person seeking admission to the country. There is apparently no way to find out whether one is on that list except to try to enter Canada and find out what they say. And they don’t always give the same answer. Some people get in on one occasion but not on other occasions.

The conversation turned to democracy again, with a peculiar result. At first Alexa sounded surprised that there are people who don’t like to use the word democracy,. She had been present at the Group- of 78 meeting last month, but had not heard the objections to the use of the term in the new version of the mission statement. She wondered what people want if not democracy and I had a hard time answering her, since it puzzles me too. But then she recalled a dispute that had arisen in the Foreign Affairs committee of parliament (I think that’s what she referred to) between the Conservatives and the left-leaning people. The Conservatives had gone along with the extremely reactionary policies of some organization that promotes democracy. Suddenly she declared that she didn’t like the notion of “promoting democracy.” Apparently she thinks that many countries – notably in Eastern Europe – have had democracy imposed on them by the Bush administration.

This conversation took place quite late, when we were the last diners in the restaurant, so I didn’t want to prolong it. I wish I’d had sufficient time to contest her assumptions that countries had become democratic under duress. Iraq, yes. But there’s a huge difference between fighting a war against a country in the name of democracy and, on the other hand, supporting a democratic opposition movement such as in Burma. She pointed out that the US itself is not democratic, but I said I’d certainly rather live there than in Burma or North Korea. Democracy is nowhere perfect, but always an excellent ideal to pursue. I hope I can get down to work writing that up in an op ed piece this week.

Today we met in Heartwood House again. The main attraction to me was a talk by Gordon Edwards, I’ve heard about him for thirty years but never heard him speak before. I learned a lot about the nuclear fuel cycle.

The group also had another conversation about the importance of cultivating contacts with the media. I said I have trouble getting published in newspapers, and couldn’t get CBC's Ideas show to accept the proposal by Sergei Plekhanov and me to do a series on nuclear weapons. They suggested that I submit it again and ask Romeo Dallaire to write a letter recommending it. That’s a good idea. They also said they want someone to take special responsibility for cultivating some media contacts. Ann Gertler suggested that every one of us should make friends with at least one person in the press. Someone mentioned Olivia Ward, who in fact did write a profile of me for the Star; I can easily contact her again. I promised to do so, since some of the other organizations have wanted me to do it and I can handle them all at once, if I can do the job at all. I can call Olivia up. I said I will take on the job if someone else will join me, and Macha Mackay offered to do so. We’ll plan an approach by telephone. Maybe she can call a former assistant of mine who lives in Halifax and works for CBC.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Calling All Green Carnivores

Are you trying to be greener? Are you an immutable carnivore? Me too.

Struggling intermittently with my conscience, I am trying to take account of two factors that should have some bearing on my dietary decision-making. I assume there’s some connection between the two factors, but I don’t know what it is.

First, there’s the efficiency of the meat production. How much food must the animal consume per pound of meat that it produces for people? In a situation of food scarcity and high human population density, it makes no sense for a person to eat meat from animals that themselves consume a great deal of food fit for human consumption. We should eat the corn, for example, instead of feeding it to the pigs. However, I’m not about to become a , so the best sacrifice I’m willing to make is to limit my meat to efficient types. The conventional definition of fed utilization is “the body weight gain per units of energy intake.”

So far, I haven’t found a source on the Internet giving the comparative efficiencies of the whole list of animals. I assume that fish are okay, unless one takes account of the fuel necessary to maintain fishing fleets, freezers, and the like — which I’m not taking into account here. (A thorough green researcher would come up with a single equation that would combine all these factors and give a single efficiency number for each animal that human beings consume, but that hasn’t been done yet, apparently.)

One article looks just at poultry, comparing the efficiencies of chickens, turkeys and ducks at 7 weeks of age. The turkey broiler is most efficient in feed use, but there are other costs that make it less attractive to farmers. The chicken broiler edible meat is cheaper to produce than meat from turkeys and ducks. However, turkeys have less body fat, so some people would prefer their meat for reasons of health.

We turn now to mammals. It seems that animals fed from their mother’s milk costs at least fifty percent more energy than that made from forage. This is why are highly efficient; they eat forage quite early, even before they are weaned. Jackrabbits are 1.82 times more efficient than the range sheep and about 2.04 times more efficient than the range .

C. Wayne Cook writes: “It has been determined that beef, lamb, and domestic rabbit have an average of 1316, 1040, and 792 kcal per pound of body meat, respectively.” His paper tries to figure out how efficient rabbit-meat production would be, given specified conditions of feeding, rates of reproduction, length of lactation, etc. This is too complicated for me to work out. However, it is comforting to realize that rabbits as livestock are about 2.2 times more efficient than sheep and about 2.8 times more efficient than cattle. (Comforting, I say, because I have already figured out that I’ve got to stop eating beef.) However, I have not bought and cooked a rabbit for many years and wouldn’t know where to obtain one. Maybe I’ll start looking.

Second, there’s the matter of , a far more serious form of than even carbon dioxide. produce methane by digesting a forage-based diet through rumen fermentation. They belch and fart, with the belching accounting for most of the methane emissions. In the world, between 15-20 percent of the methane in the atmosphere comes from animals – mostly ruminants.

A good deal depends on the quality of the forage, and according to R.A. Leng,

“The majority of the world’s ruminants depend over their lifetime on forages that can be described only as poor quality, in which the limitations to production are a low protein supply from the microbial ecosystem and a virtual absence of dietary bypass protein.”

Fortunately, it is possible to improve the microbial growth efficiency and therefore the protein content of animal feed. Doing so on a big scale would markedly influence the amount of methane in the atmosphere.

However, I am not going to wait. I must adjust my right away, taking account of the comparative amounts of methane produced by various domestic . I am pleased to list here the estimates of methane emissions from animals, taking account of the different types of forage available in developed and developing countries. Here are figures from a table Leng has produced, showing the methane produced in kg per head. These numbers in absolute terms may mean little, but their relative size tells me a lot:

Cattle: developed countries 55
Cattle: developing countries 35
Buffaloes 50
Sheep: developed countries 8
Sheep: developing countries, Australia 5
Goats 5
Camels 58
Pigs: developed countries 1-5
Pigs: developing countries 1-0
Horses 18
Mules, asses 10
Humans 0- .05
Wild ruminants and large herbivores 1-50

Well, that tells me a lot. I will eat fish, poultry, sheep, goats, rabbits, and pigs. I will not longer eat beef, bison, camels, horses, or most wild ruminants (deer, moose, boar, or elk). Bear that in mind when you invite me over.

Unfortunately, milk cows apparently produce methane as much as cattle. What do I do about dairy products? Soy milk, I guess. And goat and sheep cheese. I already eat a lot of chevre, so I'm halfway there. But I'll miss the Limburger.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Today’s Swell Op Ed Page

The Globe and Mail has gone downhill, over the years. But today, October 17, its comments page is full of excellent, stimulating articles.

tells us that is becoming a regular, pragmatic political party in Lebanon.

and tell us that Stronach’s company and Hargrove’s union, the , are going to start cooperating instead of regarding each other as adversaries. Instead of strikes they will have conflict resolution processes and, if it comes to that, arbitration. Very nice. As someone brought up in the dust bowl instead of a city, I’ve never had a particular fondness for strikes. Surely there has to be a better way, and I hope Stronach and Hargrove have found it.

offers an interesting analysis of the differences between the Liberals and Conservatives with regard to . The Liberals used to be the bridge between the Quebecois and the federal government, but they are terribly out of favor these days. Simpson shows them a place to stand in what may be an imminent federal election.

They cannot out-national the nationalists in Quebec, says Simpson. Besides, Mr. Harper has stepped over the line, occupying some of the middle ground that the Liberals used to hold; the Conservatives now basically accept the nationalist’s view that Ottawa do nothing in provincial areas or, if it does, just hand the cash for the program over to Quebec.

How can the , therefore, find an attractive way of opposing the position? Simpson advices them to pick a social program — say national — and

“stand on the other side of Mr. Harper’s line by insisting Ottawa use its constitutionally affirmed spending power to negotiate a federal-provincial deal in an area of direct concern to all citizens.
“It would be a fine national debate. On one side would stand the Conservatives opposing pharmacare as (a) an expensive, unnecessary program, ªb) an intrusion into the sacred provincial jurisdiction over health, ªc) a further expansion of government into the lives of Canadians, and (d) an insult to Quebec.
“On the other would stand the Liberals proposing pharmacare as (a) a necessary extension of medicare, (b) a program once supported by at least five premiers during Mr. Martin’s time as prime minister, (c) an affirmation of the federal government’s relevance to citizens, and (d) the best way to restrain soaring drug costs.”

Brilliant, Mr. Simpson. I hope Mr. Dion send you roses or a box of chocolates – or whatever men send each other in gratitude. A bottle of cognac? A box of cigars? I don’t know.

Finally, the best column on today’s Globe and Mail op ed page is ’s. Surprisingly, I don’t much care for his conservative perspective, nor do I read either of the two writers whose books he compares in this fascinating column: (see photo) and . Greenspan lost me when I heard him declare his admiration for Ayn Rand and Donald Rumsfeld. Klein never attracted me from the outset, since I regard globalization as more beneficial than harmful, and wouldn’t know what to replace capitalism with – or why to try.

But as Ibbitson points out, Klein and Greenspan’s new books have some points in common. Both agree that moving manufacturing offshore to low-wage countries has depressed wages at home. (Okay. That much is probably true, I’ll admit.) But Greenspan goes further, arguing (as I believe) that “globalized trade is good for the planet because living standards are steadily rising in the developing world, and equilibrium will be reached in a few decades.”

Still, Greenspan apparently does worry about the prospects for the United States (and by extension, I’d include Canada). His answer is a remarkable theoretical account depending entirely on structural factors. The basic answer: mathematics! The argument goes like this, as Simpson puts it:

“The solution to the wage gap, Mr. Greenspan asserts, is not to increase taxes on the rich and raise tariffs, as Ms. Klein and her allies favor, because that would damage the economy and lead to greater long-term misery. Instead, the US needs to increase the pool of skilled workers, which would reduce demand for their services and depress their wages, even as the wages of those entering the pool increased.”

(I believe this because he says so, and as ex-Chairman of the Fed, he should know, but I wish I had a real feel for this kind of economic causality.) But he goes on to explain why this is not happening.

“America’s public schools are failing to properly teach math and science. No math, no skills. Simple as that.
“Why are they failing? Because teachers’ unions depress math teachers’ salaries. Forty per cent of math teachers in American high schools did not major or minor in math while at university. That makes most of them unfit to teach math. But schools can’t recruit qualified math teachers, because the unions insist that teachers be paid according to seniority rather than skill.
“Since the financial opportunities for experts in math or science outside teaching are vast, and for English literature teachers outside of teaching limited, math teachers are likely to be a cut below the average teaching professional at the same pay grade. ...
“The solution is obvious: Allow market forces to dictate the wages of teachers. Math and science teachers will make six figures; English and history teachers will have to take weekend jobs to make ends meet. Students will get a better education, the labor pool’s quality will rise, the wage gap will shrink, and the expanded base of knowledge workers will stimulate growth.
“But politics being politics, and unions being unions, this is unlikely to happen overnight. As a quicker fix, Mr. Greenspan advocates dropping the tariff on labor.
“If the market demands shoes but government bans shoe imports, shoe manufacturers get rich, but everyone has to pay more for shoes. If Microsoft needs software engineers but the federal government limits immigration, then software engineers earn fabulous salaries, but we all pay more for software, less software gets developed, and productivity and the economy suffer.
“That’s why immigration policies should be open to skilled labor...”

That chain of reasoning must be impeccable. I don’t follow it 100 per cent, but I am impressed. Those causal relationships would never have occurred to me, but they illustrates a point that I consider important. A change such as these two proposed amendments (open to skilled labor, and allow market forces to dictate the wages of teachers) are institutional changes. They do not involve preaching to individuals and getting them to change their ways. Personal changes are actually irrelevant to the solution of this problem.

I know this is true because I, personally, could not simply decide to pull up my socks and study the that I evaded in school. I could not learn calculus if my life depended on it. I couldn’t even understand basic algebra – nor high school physics nor high school chemistry, nor elementary geology at university. I am not talented along those lines so don’t waste your time preaching to me about it. Personality or commitment cannot be adjusted, except very marginally.

But there are lots of people who do have uncultivated math and science aptitudes. They are the ones who would benefit from better math instruction. And to get better math instruction, using a market system to set wages is a very good idea. And changing the immigration system could be done with very little political controversy. A stroke of the pen will handle it. are easier to change than individuals.

Next challenge: How can we get the Globe and Mail to offer an op ed page every day that’s as good as this one? There should be a Nobel prize in economics for the person who comes up with a market system that will give us all the best that human beings can produce.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Prisons With and Without Walls

The against the junta have been crushed and more people are continuing to be arrested. I am thinking about how these extraordinary people will cope with their imprisonment, and I’ve been reading a book by , Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics; Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. 1999. I downloaded it from ghoutman/chapter_09htm

It wasn’t a great day for me. I’m physically somewhat ill (nothing grave) and emotionally in the dumps. I was supposed to meet my friend Ann Swidler at her hotel, go to dinner, and drive her to the airport, but nausea prevented this. The body is my prison.

That notion is precisely what has allowed many Burmese dissidents, and even true, hardened criminals, to transcend the misery of their confinement, according to Houtman. This particular chapter “Transcending boundaries: Samsara, the State, the prison, and the self,” reviews the way in which the notion of the “prison” is a central concept in Buddhism.

“The most common word for in Burmese is htaung. As a verb this means to “set a trap,” “entrap,” or “catch,” in the sense of animals. Alternatively it means to “erect” as in the walls of a house or a marriage....

Even such groups as a family or a nation can be implied in the notion of a prison. Building a nation is setting up a house, which is creating a trap. ... This resonates with the Cambodian concept of a “prison without walls.“ Living in the repressed country is the same as being a prisoner. But the concept extends even further.

“This concept of imprisonment of the entire community resonates with Burmese interpretations of the entire world-system (loka) as a form of prison, having its locus in “I”ness and embodiment. According to Buddhist interpretation, the ultimate form of imprisonment is neither family, prison, nor country, but it is inherent in the concept of “I” which maintains “mundane existence“ (loka) or the samsaric life cycle itself. Craving makes one attain new lives (houses) within samsara, and by uprooting this one becomes truly homeless.”

Gautama taught a methodology of “mental culture” that is politically important in Burma, not least by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, during her imprisonment and house arrest. The jail can be considered an opportunity to practice meditation, and many political dissidents have viewed it in that way. As Houtman notes,

“collective freedom in the Buddhist tradition is thus necessarily preceded by practised to first liberate oneself....The Buddhist concept of true freedom is about the encouragement of certain mental dispositions that must be attained by oneself before it can be encouraged with others....Vipassana is the ultimate instrument for liberation, for it liberates from the prison within, in relation to which freedom is attained from all other conditions of imprisonment.”

I had heard that Aung San Suu Kyi spends hours every day in Vipassana meditation, but I had not realized until today that many, many other political leaders, even in the repressive years of British colonialism in 1823, have also followed that practice. In King Mindon’s reign, the state sponsored lone reformist forest dwellers who emphasized mental culture. Houtman described the spiritual/political discipline of five individuals who applied it to imprisonment: U Hpo Hlaing, U Ba Khin, Ledi Sayadaw, Accountant-General U Ba Khin, and .

During his tenure as prime minister, U Nu erected meditation centres throughout the country. By 1981 in Burma alone there were 293 centres, plus others in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Britain, the United States, Japan, France and elsewhere. In 1957 U Nu made Vipassana practice a precondition for promotion in government office, and he commuted the sentences of prisoners who studied Buddhism. Though this sounds to Western ears like an inappropriate mixing of religion with , it may not be considered as such in Burma. Vipassana is not partial to any one culture because it is “a-cultural.” However, there are ethnic communities in Burma that practice other religious traditions, and I do not know how they regard this official promotion of Buddhist practice.

In any case, I am impressed by some anecdotes about the equanimity of “mentally cultured” prisoners facing death. I presume that it is too late for me to cultivate such spiritual insights. Vipassana would be the right kind of meditation for me to take up next, since I have discovered in myself zero aptitude for single-pointed concentration. I have never taken instruction in insight meditation, so that may still be a possibility. Also, I like the idea of practicing , since lately I have been unable to summon up any feelings of loving-kindness.

One has to choose. Long ago I chose to try to make a difference in the world, rather than to attain inner peace and freedom. Today I’ve almost been regretting that choice. This body is my prison. So is my mind. And so is my closing capacity for loving-kindness. Metta is inaccessible to Metta.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Good News: I was Wrong About Global Dimming

Yippee! There’s great news. The TV show NOVA scared me a few weeks ago by describing the phenomenon called “.” I blogged about it basing my story on the presentation. Three smart readers, Manuel Rozental, Gary Boyd, and "Anonymous" entered useful comments on my blog. I’m not sure who “Anonymous” is, but he pointed out that some recent discoveries have disconfirmed much of the NOVA thesis, and he directed me to his web site, (This seems to have been written by one (AKA “Leebert”) His argument, which I presume is well-founded, though I have not sought further evidence, is that the atmospheric pollutants are of two types: (a) regular water-vapor clouds and (b) – and that contrary to NOVA, the soot element does not contribute to global cooling but rather to global warming. Such soot emanates from industrial , and is especially conspicuous in Asia, where it is described as the “” (see photo).

Whereas according to NOVA, clouds generally shield the earth from the sun’s rays and offset some of the global warming effects of the greenhouse gases, Rodgers’s web site argues the contrary: that the soot element actually accounts for a large part of the effect.

This will be very welcome news if it is established, since soot is easier to remove from the atmosphere than . Whereas NOVA implied that we should avoid removing particulates too rapidly, since that would even intensify global warming, Rodgers’s web site calls for the opposite, arguing that a quick reduction in soot will slow down the GHG effects and give us longer to fix that problem.

Rodgers argues that soot from Asia is the main factor behind the melting of glaciers, for soot impairs the (reflectivity) of the white surface. Citing Professor V. Ramanathan (one of the main researchers cited by the NOVA program too), Rogers claims that the deglaciation of the largely results from the effects of airborne soot in the region. The sooty brown clouds seem to inhibit the formation of low-altitude cumulus clouds that provide a true net cooling benefit. Much of the soot comes from Asian and Pacific-region coal-powered industries and cooking fires, possibly accounting for up to 12 percent of global warming, worldwide. Add to that the melt-off of the ,

“we might readily account for 33 percent of all human-caused global warming being due to soot.

“Were another 10-15 percent of all global warming found to result from other sources of soot in the industrialized West and in the tropics and subtropics (wood burning, slash and burn agriculture), we might be looking at a net 45-48 percent of global warming thus far being due to readily-mitigated soot....

[If the soot is eliminated] “We could observe tangible, meaningful results in addressing climate change, with the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets regenerating and the monsoon cycles in Asia resuming their normal patterns.“

So where does this soot originate? I found a brief article and map in the September 2007 issue of New Scientist (page 15). The Blacksmith Institute in New York, has released its annual list of the world’s most . They created a database of 600 polluted sites, then pared it down to the worst ten places on earth, in terms of the number of people harmed by the emissions. Six of these were in Asia, India, and Russia. The list includes Linfen, the heart of China’s coal industry; Sukinda, in India, which affects 2.6 million people with its chromite mines; and Dzerzhinsk, Russia, where people are exposed to the toxic by-products of chemical weapons. This list of 400 sites would provide a good list of the major sources of soot in the world. It will give us an excellent starting point for solving a big part of Earth’s problems.

Thanks to you, Lee Rodgers.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Small and Inadequate — or Big and Risky?

There’s a profound conflict going among today’s . To some extent it’s internal—within each person’s heart – but mainly it’s between different individuals who take opposing sides. The dispute has barely been articulated, but it is implicit in several familiar debates. I myself have been in a painful conflict with one of my dearest friends over precisely this issue, and I will try once more now to identify the issue that divides us.

There are two antithetical perspectives on the confronting us today. I continued defending my own analysis in most of the blog entries of September. Let’s call my approach “technological.” I believe that the only way we can move forward, rather than collapse into a preindustrial-level way of life, is by fostering radical technological innovations.

My friend, on the other hand, is horrified by approaches. Instead, she believes that the so-called “” reflects certain fixed, immutable limitations imposed by nature itself. It is not only the impending loss of new sources of oil that worries her — though she and other Peak Oil believers do expect that the earliest threat to human survival will not result from climate change but from the decline of cheap fossil fuels.

However, even if oil were endlessly abundant, she believes that the delicate and wonderful balance of nature is being destroyed by human activities of all kinds. Whatever we do, we do on such a scale that nature can no longer repair itself. Everything that human beings produce requires the “through-put” of material resources. If there were only a few million human beings, our economic productiveness would not exceed the capacity of nature, as a self-sustaining system, to regenerate itself. But now we are killing the biosphere, and we can’t even predict the dire consequences of our risky new technological innovations.

In her opinion, the only way to protect the Earth is to simplify our way of living. We can survive only in small, rural communities, confining ourselves to the homespun lifestyle that uses the least possible amount of natural resources. Thus she and her husband are going to one of the most remote areas that they can find, where they will build “cob” houses from pounded earth, with dirt floors and building materials that are available on the spot. A already exists where they are going, and they will join it and live “humbly,” in harmony with nature, raising their own food and working with their hands.

This “experiment,” my friend believes, will invent new solutions to the problems that the remaining members of humankind are bound to encounter within a few years, for most of us must perish as cheap energy is depleted, as the ecosystem is disrupted, and as global climate change brings the inevitable collapse of urban civilization. But their experiences will provide a legacy for the few who survive.

Who dares criticize this touching, romantic vision of ? After all, hundreds of other remarkable persons, including Thoreau, Rousseau, and Gandhi, have also pursued wisdom by periods of rustic living, or by emulating an imaginary “Noble Savage.” Still, their insights, however great, were not derived from nature.

As for more ordinary people, countless utopian farming communes have been founded in the past, usually by a visionary preacher or social theorist. So far as I can discover, these rural have contributed no new innovations that humankind at large has deemed useful, and few of them have survived more than a couple of decades. Perhaps the communards’ souls were purified by the experiments, but no one today feels grateful for what they have given us.

Many people half-share the perspective that my friends have so fervently accepted. There is surely much truth to the notion that human beings on this planet are stumbling around blindly, doing things whose implications we cannot foresee. Everyone would prefer to know clearly when we are about to harm — or, for that matter, when we are about to make any irreversible mistake whatever. Unfortunately, such is the human condition. We cannot be sure of the outcome of our actions. We must act as responsibly as we can, and if we make a mess we must try to clean it up. But with the best will in the world, we will inevitably make mistakes. Living more simply will not keep us from moral catastrophe.

Indeed, on the contrary, the choice to leave modern urban society and live with less material complexity is likely to have more harmful effects than staying at home and working on the same issues that we city dwellers must address. There’s no escaping our challenges. Human evolution proceeds as a ratchet; every time it moves up a notch, built-in constraints arise, making it impossible to return to an earlier level of development.

This ratchet-effect primarily results from the tendency of populations to expand insofar as the means of subsistence permit it. And the means of subsistence increase whenever the population increases. Historically, technological innovations have taken place only when it has become necessary because of population pressures. As Malthusians claim, we run into the limits of the land’s “carrying capacity” – i.e. we may briefly even exceed our “ecological footprint.” And then someone has to get clever and invent a solution.

My friends have reified the “” idea – treating it as a fixed, finite limit that cannot be exceeded very long. In fact, the concept is meaningless except in relation to a particular level of technology. It is precisely when a human population is in dire straits that innovation takes place. For example, hunting and gathering tribes never took up farming voluntarily. They hated it, by and large, because of the hard labor it required. Only when the game and wild food became scarce did societies resort to farming — and in doing so they increased the carrying capacity of the land by orders of magnitude. was probably the first scholar to establish the power of as a prerequisite for .

My friends are going back to the land, planning to reduce their living conditions to a level that they could sustain by themselves after urban civilization no longer exists from which they can obtain convenient goods. In effect, they will return to the developmental level of our grandparents and previous ancestors.

But all our grandparents had very low levels of productivity. With luck and good health, my Oklahoma sharecropper grandfather was able to support his wife and children, if they worked hard too, but there was no surplus with which to fund universities, hospitals, theaters, publishing houses, or foreign travel. If his radio broke down, Grandfather could not have repaired it. The carrying capacity of his farmland was far less than it is today – but vastly more than it had been at the outset of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the human population has multiplied six times since the mid-1700s, while the living standards have also multiplied many times over. , education, access to food, water, shelter, and medical care are all vastly higher because of the technological changes that were prompted by the expanding population.

So the ratchet effect is this: we cannot go back to simpler technological levels because we really would exceed our “ecological footprint” if we stopped growth and development. The land would not support more than a few million human beings at such a level of technology — possibly up to one billion, but no more — so that five out of every six human beings would die. The only way to support us all is to move forward, developing technological innovations even faster than before.

And this we are doing. I am thrilled to be alive at this moment in human evolution, when we are on the verge of enormous breakthroughs beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. Life forces us to be courageous and inventive. Hallelujah!

My friends realize that their rural “experiment” cannot be useful to the billions of people who now inhabit cities. They acknowledge, when pressed, that they do not believe a population of this size can be sustained. Premature death, in one form or another, is in the cards for most of humankind. But they are not thinking about how to prevent that catastrophe. Instead, my friends have apparently given up any prospect of making a difference to those of us who are alive. They seek instead, only means of subsistence that can be handed on to the few who survive the looming disaster. What a terrible prospect!

However, there will be certain satisfactions for my friend. Though she does not look forward to the hard work and deprivation of her new lifestyle, she loves the beauty of nature and likes to believe that she can protect some part of it. And she tells herself that her experiment will benefit humankind as well, for our high-tech creations will destroy us all, and she will be saving a little haven for a few of our descendents.

That’s her choice: to sustain something small that is totally inadequate for humankind. My choice is to foster big innovations that will enable humankind to survive and prosper — even though they entail unknown risks.

Most urban people are not curtailing their polluting habits voluntarily. I doubt that they will, as individuals. Yes, they will change their light bulbs, but much more is required. Only structural changes can save us – legislation that impose carbon taxes, for example, or that refuse to build new runways at airports, so that air travel cannot grow. But there are wonderful new brilliant proposals as well — ways, for example, of removing the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The BBC has been showing a series of visionary technological innovations —“five ways to save the world.”

One is ’s “” that removes CO 2 from the atmosphere for storage underground permanently. I love this idea. For $1 trillion or so, we can reverse the worst of the greenhouse gas mess for good. Lackner is building a prototype already.

A second idea is ’s plan to enlarge the areas of the ocean where can live, for they, like trees, take carbon dioxide out and give us back oxygen. Jones would spread granular urea over the desert areas of the ocean that lack phytoplankton, fertilizing them so they can be great carbon sinks.

A third proposal is ’s idea: to put a million thing glass flyers into space where they can block about two percent of the sun’s rays, thereby reducing global warming. (Unfortunately this scheme would cost $4 trillion and take thirty years to complete. It’s not my favorite proposal among the five, mainly because it sounds completely irreversible. )

Fourth, there’s ’s idea of launching rockets to create a high in the stratosphere to counter global warming. Crutzen already won a Nobel Prize for helping to explain how the ozone layer is formed and depleted. His new plan is based on the notion that aerosols block the sunlight (e,g. the eruption of ) and cool the planet somewhat. Launching hundreds of sulphur rockets into the stratosphere would do the same thing. Unfortunately, no one knows what other consequences might result from this. Only in thirty years or so, when the crisis of global temperature becomes critical, are we likely to attempt such a project.

Fifth is ’s plan to pump fine sea water up, making clouds and thickening them to reflect more of the sun’s rays. This idea, like Crutzen’s, is based on the notion of “.” If we can increase the reflectivity of clouds by about three percent, the cooling will balance the global warming called by greenhouse gases.

All five of these plans offer potential ways of saving the world. They are all expensive. No one knows how risky they may be. To my friend, these wild ideas are abhorrent, but to me they all offer potential partial solutions to the worst crisis facing humankind. I would definitely support experimenting with these ideas on a small scale. Do a little of each while there is still time, for otherwise — as in the New Yorker cartoon where the prophet wears a sandwich board — “The End is Near.”

My friend would prefer a small, inadequate solution that basically writes off the opportunity to save six billion human beings. I prefer taking certain unknown risks that may move humankind forward into a new era.

Oddly, my preferences seem to resemble those of (see photo), the ex-hippie New Age guy who founded the . In the September 8 issue of The Economist, there’s an article about Brand, whom they describe as a “pioneer of both environmentalism and online communities.” Decades ago he was the popularizer of small-scale technologies to enable individuals to reduce their impact on the biosphere. Yet today he supports several “environmental heresies.” For example he accepts genetic engineering, urbanization, and nuclear power. He claims (and I agree with him) that mega-cities are increasing the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans. Surely it is easier to save energy by living in high-rise buildings near subways (as I do) rather than in the countryside. Cities are also the sources of innovation.

Brand believes in genetic engineering because that’s how to feed humankind. I interviewed recently, the father of the Green Revolution for India, and his slogan is: “.” He is developing such plants as rice that can withstand salt water (they contain genes) so that when southern India is flooded by the rising ocean levels, food can still be grown. He needs to make haste, since climate change is coming up quickly, but he needs to go slowly enough to check for potential negative effects.

That’s a good suggestion in general. Make haste slowly! Because human evolution is a ratchet system of progress, we have to move forward by developing ever more and better technological inventions. Yet there are always possibilities with each new innovation that we will make a mess.

That’s life. You move ahead because you can’t stop unless you’re willing to let humankind perish. Yet you have to expect mistakes — maybe big ones — and plan to clean them up as you go forward. What a marvelous adventure! I’m a real coward about physical risks. I won’t ski or even roller-skate. But this kind of thrill is magnificent. We have to take chances because life requires it of us.

I don’t know that all these risks are equally worth taking. I wouldn’t send a million glass disks into space to shade the sunshine, and I am not ready to accept nuclear power. (In ten years, if the other technologies aren’t working well enough, I may accept nuclear energy temporarily.) Brand’s friend is not willing to take the nuclear risks yet — and he, more than anyone else, has shown how far we can go in developing more efficient new technologies that can enable all six billion of us to fulfill our long life expectancies.

But the other ideas sound worth exploring. Big and risky is better than small and inadequate. Definitely.