Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Is Al Gore Right?

Keywords: Al Gore; The Assault on Reason; democracy; reasoning ability.

Every day now I see on TV being interviewed: Larry King, Charlie Rose, McNeil Lehrer – you name it. He’s promoting his new book, , and I respect the man enormously now. On the other hand, what he is saying does not square with some of the things I think I know – or at least used to think I knew. So I’m trying to put it together to make a coherent picture.

He certainly makes a strong case that the American mind has become too shallow to support democracy. But it’s not just the – it’s Canadian too, and if I were living abroad I would probably see the same things: the fact that and Anna Nicole Smith get so much media coverage, and that the general population doesn’t know beans about the things they should be concerned about. They believed (and many still do) that had caused the events of 9/11. That’s pretty ignorant, considering that the correct evidence was perfectly available. Anybody could have found out the truth if she or he had tried.

But on the other hand, it’s not just the average citizen who was clued-out. It was the members of too, just to mention a few. So if professional politicians don’t take responsibility for finding out what is so about world affairs, the problem lies deeper and cannot be solved just by goading people into reading the newspaper.

Judy Woodruff today asked him whether he thought that and his staff had been lying. He said that it was either that or they were extraordinarily . And that gullibility is a big part of the mental torpor he is trying to pull us out of.

He has succeeded somewhat with me; I am at least watching the now instead of CBS news with Katie Couric — and feeling more virtuous, but not very interested in the discussions.

There are two parts of the argument and I’m not sure I am convinced of either one. First, he says we are dumber nowadays than we used to be. Is that true? is raising. The reading scores of school children keep improving. I am still convinced that Steven Johnson is right when he says that people are capable now of following more plots in a TV story than in the 1970s. I think people are actually gaining intellectual skills, so maybe there's something missing from Gore's argument.

The other part is his claim that is somehow antithetical to . I believe that he could get people interested in issues if he embedded the discussions in dramas that stirred up emotions. I don't think emotions interfere with reasoning, but that you can't reason properly without involving feelings. They should and usually do work together. The West Wing stimulated genuine political debates among viewers. Talking heads do not.

But then, all these pieces of the puzzle don't fit together. I'm not sure what my opinion is tonight. I just don't think Gore has got it together either. He does say that we need a new form of multi-party discourse, and that the is making that happen. That analysis seems promising. I will just have to defer judgment until I see the larger picture somehow.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Friendship and its Decline

Keywords: friendship; attachment; Michel de Montaigne; Etienne de la Boitie; Wayne Booth; fictional friends; love; respect

Apparently it used to be normal (possibly even common) for people of the same sex to have passionately intimate but — attachments that psychoanalysts used to call “cathexes.” This might involve hugging, kissing, and even sharing a bed without implying that there was anything erotic about it. These friendships were far more intense and important than quotidian affections.

I have never experienced such an obsessive craving for a female friend (loving a man is, of course, a different matter) nor have many of my women friends, who are mostly aging heterosexuals. My friendships are as different as the personalities of my friends themselves and I value them all — but not equally so, and commonly not to the same degree over time. Even when a dear friend moves far away or when we can only meet once a year or even once a decade, we can ordinarily pick up immediately as if there had been no interruption. There are certain friends whom I would visit regularly if it were convenient, but in practice that does not happen and I don’t feel that our is diminished by the absence when we do get together.

On the other hand, relationships occasionally do end, and I have been discovering some unnoticed aspects of amity by experiencing such a loss lately — or rather, several such losses, for there are many different ways in which relationships may run down or break.

Thinking about this issue, I turned to (1533-1592 — see his photo) today, reading his essay about his intense, four-year-long friendship with . A good deal was lost in the English translation provided by someone named Florio in 1603. Still, it was possible to compare my relationships with his extreme one, which was of a kind that he declared only occurred about once in three hundred years. He specifically distinguished it from the commonplace kind:

“As for the rest, those we ordinarily call friends and amities, are but acquaintances and familiarities, tied together by some occasion or commodities, by means whereof our minds are entertained.

“In the amity I speak of, they intermix and confound themselves one in the other, with so universal a commixture that they wear out and can no more find the seam that hath conjoined them together. If a man urge me to tell wherefore I love him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering: Because it was he, because it was myself....It is I wot not what kind of quintessence, of all this commixture, which having seized all my will, induced the same to plunge and lose itself in his, which likewise having seized all his will, brought it to lose and plunge itself in mine, with a mutual greediness, and with a semblable concurrence...”

All these “plunging” references left me doubting the non-erotic nature of the friendship but I put my skepticism aside, remarking instead how lucky these two guys had been: Their intense feelings had been reciprocal. Most friendships are not. My friend studies professionally. For example, he might ask you to list your top five friends, and then he would go to each of them and ask them in turn to list their own top five friends. It is unlikely, he says, that you would be on their lists — not because there’s anything wrong with you but only because friendship is not necessarily symmetrical. When I share this fact with others, they usually consider it a sad revelation. Personally, I don’t think it’s particularly regrettable. That’s just the way friendships are. It would, however, be painful if you couldn’t name five friends at all.

Montaigne recognizes that the essence of friendship is ease of . When he and la Boitie met, they immediately understood each other perfectly and began interacting “greedily” and as perfect equals. (He says that parents cannot be friends with their children because there must always be some asymmetrical ‘respect’ between them.) His friendship with la Boitie certainly indicates the importance of mutual interaction, at least in an extreme type of friendship. However, we can ask how far to insist upon that principle. Can a relationship be asymmetrical or lacking interactiveness, yet nevertheless be important?

I think so. Take as an extreme example, one’s relationship with a writer, a celebrity, or a public figure whom one has never met. It is entirely possible to form intense bonds with such personalities on the basis of their writings or actions in public. Indeed, it is possible to be profoundly influenced by a . This bond is still based on communication, but it is not interactive, mutual, or even “real.” The late literary critic studied the moral impact on our lives of reading fiction. He wrote a wonderful book called The Company We Keep, which described fictitious characters as our “friends,” and this term is more than a metaphor. My own opinions, values, and lifestyle have been influenced more by watching plays and reading than by conversations with my acknowledged “friends” — the living persons who would name me on a list for Barry Wellman. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that Booth is unusual in applying the term “friendship” to this kind of relationship.

But Montaigne is surely correct about the magic of discovering oneself in another person, and having the discovery confirmed as mutual. He’s also correct in pointing out its rarity, for each fully-formed adult person has interests and opinions that are unique and unlike the thoughts of others. An ongoing project of every thinking person is to create coherence among his/her ideas, and then to apply that new synthesis to newly emerging human problems. Ordinarily this makes for an irreversible trend toward complexity — at least until we lose some cognitive ability in old age. The discovery of congruences between our thought structures and those of another person can indeed mark the thrilling onset of intense friendship.

Montaigne frequently uses the word when describing friendship. He barely mentions , and then not with any suggestion that it can involve equality or mutuality. To me, it seems that both love and respect have to exist in any true friendship, though in combinations that vary immensely. The nature of the friendship is largely determined by the nature of the love and respect composing it. Both of these attitudes are limited by . To be authentic, they must arise as spontaneous responses to the other.

Yet even this generalization can be questioned. People often do “work,” sometimes successfully, to keep their love alive.

In the , asks whether we love something because it is lovable or instead call it lovable because we love it. In general, I vote for the “objectivist” answer: We love another being because we recognize special qualities in it; we don’t confer those qualities by loving it. This should be the case with any response. We laugh at someone who is funny. We feel sexually attracted to someone who is sexually evocative. We obey someone who is authoritative. But it is possible to be “corrupt” by responding inappropriately to another person’s qualities. We may laugh at someone’s unfunny jokes or even sleep with him to curry favor because he has power, and so on. These are not honest responses.

Love is a recognition of charming, generous, or beautiful qualities in the other person. If it diminishes, it remains possible is to find for other grounds for love, thus cognitively sustaining a basis for at least some type of genuine tenderness. For instance, if the beloved has become hard, or bitter, or mean-spirited, perhaps one can appreciate her courage in standing up for what she believes.

There’s a wonderful example of this re-construction in the film . The populace and even ’s staff have withdrawn their affection for , now a dried-up, pitiless woman who manifests no regret about the . But Blair reviews the whole of her disciplined, selfless career, and manages to summon up tender affection for his monarch. It is still love, but it is a different kind of love. There is creativity in his transformative insight.

is as essential as love in a friendship and it, even more than love, it must arise as a response to objective qualities perceived in the other. Indeed, it is harder to repair respect than love by a cognitive reinterpretation of the other. There must be considerable consonance between one’s values and beliefs and that of the friend. Respect cannot be conferred, but must be . Indeed, nor can it be withheld when it has been earned. Even if the other is an enemy whom you hate and don’t want to respect, you will be compelled to do so if his behavior is exemplary. You cannot be sure of getting justice (nature and human laws are often unfair) but by exercising you can be sure of winning respect.

Except for such wholehearted friends as Montaigne and la Boitie, respect and love are contingent, variable, and transient. Therein lies the tragedy. Even friendship may not be sustained indefinitely but may diminish over time. Where there had been perfect congruence of ideas, jarring incompatibilities may arise. Even so, it is often possible to sustain some version of the previous love by finding new qualities that evoke tenderness.

Respect, on the other hand, is almost entirely a response to the other. If the friend’s judgment fails, or if his or and commitments constrict, as often happens to old people, pity or even contempt replace respect. Whatever love can be sustained may not make up for the reduction of respect. The loss is an objective fact. You may exercise forbearance, but you cannot revive respect.

But fortunately, we remain capable of forming new friendships. Sadly, sometimes you win a few, and lose a few. That’s life.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Evading Internet Censorship

Keywords: Hossein Derekhshan; President Ahmadinajad; blogs; Iran; Facebook; Mel Watkins; Keele University; Ron Deibert; OpenNet Initiative; censorship of Internet; China.

Well, blow me down! I was astonished to learn from , an Iranian guest on Steve Paikin's talk show “The Agenda,” that about 95 percent of all Iranians (including President ) keep . Even more surprising is the fact that the government stimulated the whole movement and pays for it. Apparently domestic Internet messaging is pretty free and uncensored, though material from abroad is filtered. Hossein Derekhshan says that his own blog is excluded. He can help certain people get around the blocks, but cannot just set up alternative sites and expect them to function very long. The popularity of Iranian blogs and their official encouragement by the state seems completely contrary to the image I had formed of that regime.

But there are two other news items about the Internet today. One noted that , which started as a student social networking tool in North America, has spread around the world very recently. Not only are students using it, but prominent persons as well. My friend now communicates with me through Facebook instead of regular e-mail. But at in Britain, there is a crackdown against it. It seems that virtually all students there are on Facebook, and some of them have been sharing rude comments about their professors. How far should university administrators be able to go in curtailing such comments? I have mixed feelings about the matter. In Toronto recently a high school enacted some new rules against Facebook after it was used to convene a violent confrontation after school.

Someone forwarded me a “watchdog report” by of the National Post. (see photo), a University of Toronto professor who monitors Internet censorship stated that the handful of regimes (notably China) that impede Internet freedom has expanded. Deibert’s organization, the , has been following 26 countries to catch the ones that filer certain Internet addresses or key word searches.

Most countries do not want to acquire bad reputations for perpetrating infringements of this kind, but some of them — including Western — nevertheless do so for short periods during crucial events. Deibert said,

“There’s a recognition among authorities that while these tools are very important for economic development, they can also unleash a lot of unforeseen consequences on the political spectrum and so they’re looking for ways to control them with ever more fine-grained methods.”

For example, is remarkably restrictive, regulating the availability of offensive content, issuing takedown notices for Internet content hosted within the country, and maintains filters to block content from outside the country.

Even in Canada, at least once a major telecommunications company blocked access to union sites during a labor dispute, says Deibert.

Because regimes recognize the strategic importance of cyberspace, Deibert says they are developing “information warfare methods and doctrines. So I think that has effectively unleashed what I would call an arms race in cyberspace.”

What can be done to protect our freedom of expression on the Internet? I’m not sure, but I met a Chinese fellow a couple of years ago who was living in Hong Kong and playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese censors. He would set up a new system for spreading messages throughout , and within a week the state would have figured it out and found a way to block it. But by then he’d have the next plan ready, and set it up well enough to function throughout the following week. I don’t know whether that contest is still going on.

In any case, Deibert himself has developed some software that can be used to get around filters in countries where the Internet is regularly blocked. It’s called “.” I checked his web site and found out that it has to be done between individuals. As the web site explains,

"Psiphon is not designed to solve all secure Web browsing dilemmas. Rather, it is a means by which those in uncensored countries can assist specific individuals in censored countries access blocked Web content -- without placing any technical (or personal security) burden on those individuals."

In other words, they can’t catch you doing it — but on the other hand you cannot use Psiphon to broadcast information to the public at large.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Corruption and the World Bank

keywords: Paul Wolfowitz, World Bank, development, corruption, Grameen Bank

It’s past one o’clock AM on a train someplace in the US South, heading toward Penn Station - but three hours behind schedule. I’m certain to miss my connecting train to Buffalo, where my car sits in a parking lot. So I’ll miss Anatol Rapoport’s memorial service on Sunday.

Despite having both seats to myself, so I can curl up, I’m not comfortable and not sleepy. Instead I have the World Bank in my head. I ought to be able to figure out its problems, shouldn’t I? At a Borders bookshop near the Atlanta train station I bought World Affairs, a think journal published by Brown University. While waiting for my train I read the several articles on corruption in the World Bank.

Today the newspaper said that Paul Wolfowitz (see photo) has agreed to resign in June. His poor judgment has been the main topic of news lately, though the poor judgment of Albert Gonzales is a close tie in the world of pack journalism. The angle every news story pursues is that he was corrupt for promoting his lover to a high-paid position. There are four articles in the World Affairs journal, but the girlfriend nepotism issue was not mentioned in any of them. They did, however, dwell on the corruption angle.

It seems that when Wolfowitz was chosen to head the World Bank in 2005, at least 90 percent of its employees disapproved of his appointment. They regarded him as a proven ideologue. However, he did not immediately confirm their worst fears about his neo-con orientation. Nothing showed up as remarkable for a year or so. Then he did demonstrate his fixedness of mind about, among other things, dams. There was an expert panel that looked over the successes and failures of the bank’s projects, and produced a review that was almost as tough as the other critics — especially about the funding of dams in the Third World. It has been known for a decade or more that dams do more harm than good for poor rural populations. Wolfowitz ignored the criticism and forged ahead with yet more emphasis on funding dams. A bad sign, one might reasonably conclude.

Next he got exercised about corruption in the bank’s recipient countries. He made it clear that no further loans would be granted to countries where governments have a record of siphoning off large amounts of money. Now this is a real problem. Some dictators, in particular, have stolen as much as $15 billion — money that can never be recovered. Yet oddly (or at least it seems odd to me) the staff of the bank regarded it as an outrage for Wolfowitz to make a fuss over this matter. For one thing, that’s not supposed to be their business, reforming bad governments. It’s up to the countries themselves to throw thieves out and keep their governments honest. The bank’s business is simply to try to overcome poverty in the less-developed countries. He should focus on that goal alone.

Well, okay, maybe so. But it does seem appropriate to me for a lending agency to make sure that it’s not funneling money into the pockets of crooks. On the other hand, if he’s going to make corruption into a huge issue, then he’s got to be immaculate about his own behavior, which explains why he left himself open to such criticism over his lady-friend’s high salary.

But there were other grounds for more serious criticism. First, it seems that the record of the bank is very poor on the reduction of poverty. There are only about eleven countries that have received substantial loans from the bank and they tended to be fairly prosperous countries, not the poorest of the poor. Besides, when loans were given to eradicate poverty, there is no evidence that they have succeeded. Something very fundamental is wrong in the whole process. This goes beyond any personal criticism of Wolfowitz and seems to call for a change in policies at a basic level. The poor are not benefiting from the World Bank’s largesse. Instead, it is funding projects such as the development of Bangalore, which will actually increase the gap between rich and poor Indians.

There was also a second critique that impressed me. What about the illegitimate lending practices of the bank itself? It seems that in many cases, the bank lent money to corrupt governments though they knew full well that the money was being stolen. Now the people of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Rwanda are having to pay off these odious debts. A bank is supposed to investigate the credit-worthiness of anyone to whom they lend money. It is immoral, even illegal, to hold the citizens of a poor country responsible for debts incurred illegally in their name. They should not have to pay back those debts, for it was the fault of the bank itself for allowing the transaction to take place in the first place. To me, this is a far more serious type of corruption than the hiring of a lover at a high salary.

But if the loans, even when legitimate, are not helping to relieve poverty, that’s the most serious problem of all. I am forced yet again to think about William Easterly's critical work about foreign aid. He is the fellow who so fiercely opposes Jeffrey Sachs. He does say that there are some kinds of investment that work: notably expenditures for health and infrastructure. These loans do not undermine the initiative of poor people. Presumably the Grameen bank-type micro loans are also beneficial to the whole population of a less-developed country.

So instead of just making a personal attack on Wolfowitz (who deserves it, to be sure) journalists should be making a more serious criticism of the World Bank itself. In the World Affairs journal there’s an interview with Joseph Stiglitz about the matter. He says that the goal should be to democratize the World Bank. Having the US President appoint an American as the head is an improper way to run an international organization. The countries themselves should have serious input into the selection. There are excellent economists in the Third World who could manage their own projects, but the bank specifies that the top decision-makers should be from the Western countries. There are even economists in poorer countries who are qualified to head the World Bank itself. It’s time to change some fundamental processes in the working of the bank.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Poor Serbia

Keywords:Serbia; Kosovo; elections; Radical Party; Kostunica; Seselj; Security Council; Russia; European Union; Trusteeship Council

Poor . In its heyday, it was the dominant force in a Yugoslavia composed of 24 million souls. Today it is a rump state with some eight million disgruntled citizens. Economically it is worse off that other formerly-socialist countries in the region, and it has been excluded from talks about joining the because of its failure to extradite General Ratko to The Hague for a war crimes trial. Some misguided Slavs have brought inordinate misery on themselves and still haven't sorted out their problems.

There was a Serbian national in January, but no government had been formed, mainly because no party wanted to accept the blame for a looming national disaster — the acceptance of the probable independence of . So far, all the Serbian politicians are denying that Kosovo will be independent, though there is a strong chance that Kosovo will declare its independence in a matter of weeks. The UN. Special Envoy to Kosovo Martti has acknowledged that independence is practically inevitable.

According to the Serbian constitution, the various parties must form a government by May 14 or call for fresh elections. Until yesterday it seemed probable that this deadline would pass. However, during the past week there have been some advances — or at least some flip-flops indicating change. President Boris named caretaker Prime Minister Vojislav (see photo) as premier-designate, and on Friday three pro-Western parties had reached a power-sharing agreement to form a government.

All this seems to reverse the ominous signs when the nationalist, Radical Party leader Tomislav was elected to the post of parliamentary speaker — the second highest position in the government. The Radicals had supported Milosevic's aggressions. Kostunica’s own allies had supported Nikolic, but only four days later, more than half of the parliament’s 250 deputies demanded Nikolic's ouster. He will step down instead of being voted out of office. The US and some influential Europeans warned that relations with the West would be harmed if the Radical Party came back to power; its real leader is Vojislav , who is in The Hague, awaiting trial for war crimes of his own.

So at least a government will exist in Serbia, and will create a new defence ministry and foreign ministry — the first functioning bodies since the departure of Montenegro from its former union with Serbia. This should amount to progress, but in fact the future of Kosovo remains extremely fraught. Kostunica, for example, has declared that “Serbia may never be one millimeter smaller than it is today.” And the Russians have supported Serbia in this matter, so they may conceivably block any decisions in the Security Council that would recognize Kosovo’s .

So the Kosovo matter continues to drag on. After the Kosovo war, the Europeans did not like to establish the precedent that independence would establish: the creation of a breakaway state. Some states were ambivalent about the war, which had been waged by NATO without the approval of the UN Security Council. In effect, NATO had fought the Kosovar Albanians’ war of independence for them. No clear decision could be made about the future of the region at the time, so everyone (especially the Serbian government) simply stalled. It is uncertain how much longer this stalling can continue. Unless Russia blocks the decision, probably the Security Council will call Kosovo independent, yet keep troops there to supervise the transition and curb the violence that would otherwise be inevitable.

What would I do if the decision were up to me? I think I’d call Kosovo a “trusteeship state,” and have its governance supervised by the virtually defunct UN Trusteeship Council for an indefinite period. No independence, but no subordination to Serbia either. And I wouldn’t wade into another fight of that kind again, waging a war of independence for any movement. If in doubt, I’d declare any such contested region a trusteeship, and keep it as safe as possible until a stable government could be accepted all around. Separatism has dangers of its own, even when it's directed against a nasty regime.

But they haven’t asked me.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Privacy, Embarrassing Memories, and Identity Theft

Keywords: privacy; identity theft; syphilis; cancer; secrecy; dissidents

I’ve been thinking about today — especially why I don’t have much of it and never missed it. But that involves thinking about what it is good for. Let me see.

Well, there’s . Absolutely, you should not share passwords and widely. I don’t have a paper shredder but that’s what they are supposedly for and they sell briskly. My sister-in-law was charged for stuff she had not bought and had a hard time proving that she was not a dead-beat. I suppose that if I don’t talk about my ID numbers very much, that’s not likely to happen to me. I am circumspect. Indeed, please don’t ask my mother’s maiden name or who was my kindergarten teacher.

If I had syphilis I would not tell many people. Yes, I would feel obliged to tell anyone whom I might have infected, but I can see why one might be diffident about sharing such information widely.

Some people are bashful about other diseases as well: , for example. They say that whenever you announce that you have cancer, then every conversation for the rest of your life is about your cancer — or about why you are avoiding talk about cancer. Still, if I have cancer I will let you know, even if you’re not very interested. In fact, it’s rather like , isn’t it? announced last week that his son had died of AIDS — and this was a shocking revelation. But Mandela said that it’s an essential step toward solving the epidemic. It has to be mentioned in the same way as every other disease — as a normal illness, not as a shameful revelation.

governments. Actually, I am not afraid of the , though I have my doubts about and (since Bartleman’s new revelations) about the RCMP as well. I will try to deceive them about any topic if I expect them to use the information against me. However, I can’t imagine what they might do.

I was deported from the Soviet Union once for hanging around with dissidents. Fortunately, these dissidents turned out to be very famous and under Gorbachev they all emigrated to the United States or Israel, so they are doing well nowadays. Their main strength was their . They tried to have their cases known as well as possible, so they would send information out to the BBC World Service or Voice of America, which would broadcast all kinds of details about them. People throughout the USSR listened surreptitiously to these newscasts, though the Soviet authorities tried to jam them so they could not be heard. But one dissident told me he had been exiled to a village in Siberia and the men went out on the lake to fish, but really to listen to the BBC. He went to a house to borrow a hammer and the woman answering the door told him she had known his name for many years. She and the other high school girls in Novosibirsk had listened to BBC about him in the girls’ washroom. Those famous dissidents mostly survived. The ones whose identities were secret often did not. Nobody spoke up, asking about them. I think there's a lesson there.

. The fact is, posting information on a site such as MySpace or will allow people to collect data about your tastes in music and books, so they can figure out what ads to pop up in front of you. If that bothers you, maybe you shouldn’t have a computer. It doesn’t bother me. Even most spam doesn’t bother me. I delete almost everything without opening it.

Having my mistakes publicized. I have mis-spoken a few times in ways that I regretted, and I have even done unethical things more often than I like to admit. I am overcome by shame in the middle of the night sometimes. Once in Grade Three I peed on the floor when I was in front of the class trying to answer the teacher's questions. That was pretty embarrassing. I have a few more stories like that, but this one should suffice. I will not put that information on my Facebook entry. However, if you are interested in the more respectable aspects of my personal identity, I invite you to look up my new Facebook page and guess at the other bad things that may happen to me as a consequence of my reckless self-disclosure. Thank you.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Count on it: The World is Getting Better

Keywords: Indur N. Goklany; Malthus; economic development; technology; environment; population; affluence; hunger; education

A friend recommended a new book by one (see photo) called The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet. I’ve spent the last few days with it, and now I heartily recommend it to you too. It’s not light reading, but that’s not the point. This book should not be necessary in this day and age — but it is. What the author tries to do is pin down with hard data some facts that run counter to prevailing — extremely dangerous — neo-Malthusian assumptions.

Goklany’s argument no doubt has a hole or two in it but, bless his heart, he’s clearly more right than wrong. And the world is full of people who are promoting harmful policies because they tragically lack a grasp of basic facts that he establishes here with such meticulous care.

(Sometimes I get a cold chill thinking about the potentially horrible consequences of holding a mistaken, but crucial, belief. Imagine, for example, being a Marxist, leading one of the revolutions that took place throughout the twentieth century. Or imagine being a well-meaning but foolish fascist, dedicated to “the cause.” Or becoming a devout suicide bomber, flying into the World Trade Center. Imagine the terrible mistakes that I could make with my life if I don’t hold onto reality! Brrrrr!)

Possibly the most grievously misleading theory still on offer today is the one created. Goklany has served humankind by disproving its main assumptions, which unfortunately are still assumed by many who acquired university degrees without taking Sociology 101 or a economics or demography course. (You don't come out of those courses as a Malthusian.)

Malthus believed that the natural inclination of human beings was inevitably to reproduce, almost without limit, inevitably running up against the finiteness of food and natural resources, which might be increased somewhat, but never as much as the human population. Only would bring our numbers back into balance with nature.

Today we see contemporary versions of the same theory in the notion that humankind is “living beyond the limits of the earth’s .” The predicted outcome of this is catastrophic; indeed, the more that economies develop, the faster and more devastating will be the catastrophe. This is because every economic act supposedly uses up nature’s resources and disturbs the pristine beauty of the natural environment. In particular, destroys the natural ecosystems that we share with other creatures.

As a corollary of this theory, Malthusians see human beings as ethically obliged to reduce their consumption to a minimum. Indeed, though the human population now numbers 6.5 billion, this is supposedly and most of us must, therefore, perish. Nature itself will thin us out, after which the few human survivors must scale down their “ecological footprint” to a much smaller size. We should begin now by consuming, per person, only a small fraction of amount we use today. (I agree that living simply is a virtue, but it does more for the soul than for the preservation of the environment.)

There is a formula that expresses this Malthusian theory: . Here, I represents the impact on the environment, P represents the size of the population; A represents affluence (production or consumption per capital), and T represents technological development.

All of these variables have unfavorable meanings to Malthusians, for the impact is supposedly a bad outcome resulting from the combination of population size, affluence, and technology. The Malthusian challenge is to minimize all these factors. However, it is supposedly far too late to bring humankind back into a sustainable relationship with nature. Perhaps, these theorists hope, a million human beings will survive the coming disaster and begin civilization again, living in harmony with nature. Already, right-thinking citizens who care about the planet will seek to halt and bring the economy into a “steady state.”

Goklany does not believe any of this. He shows the tragic effects that would come to the poor of this planet if economic growth were halted. Numerous graphs display the changes that have taken place in human well-being over time — all of which disprove Malthus’s predictions, as well as the of his like-minded successors. In Malthus’s day, the human population numbered about 900 million. It has multiplied seven times over, while vastly improving the food supply per person, along with the average life expectancy, material well-being, educational level, political rights, and overall human development index of humankind.

Whereas Malthusians claim that economic development and technology regularly harm the environment and deplete , Goklany shows that the impacts are not linear, but almost always take the shape of an “.” In the early phases of an economic and technological development, the effects do tend to be harmful. But then — usually as the public comes to perceive the pollution or depletion of resources, there are new measures that reduce the damage and the population. As a result, modern urban, technologically advanced societies are healthier, richer, longer-lived, and more comfortable than any other societies that ever existed. There is every prospect that these patterns will continue in the future, unless economic and technological development are unwisely curtailed.

All these variables interact, supporting each others. For example, as Goklany points out,
“wealthier is more educated, less hungry, and healthier. But the converse is also true: more educated, less hungry, and healthier is generally also wealthier. Less hungry and healthier people are more energetic, less prone to absenteeism, and, therefore, more productive in whatever economic activity they undertake.”

Elsewhere Goklany notes that
“as societies have become more affluent, their economies have generally followed a common path growing, first, from an agricultural to an industrial economy and, then, to a knowledge- and service-based economy. ... Affluence also helps establish conditions that moderate population growth rates, and, predictably, the richer nations have lower population growth rates.

I cannot begin to summarize the tables and graphs that Goklany has compiled in this extraordinary work. I can only promise this: a thorough reader will come away with a restored confidence in the unlimited potential of our civilization to feed the hungry, heal the sick, provide political and social rights and freedoms to individuals, educate, protect, and inspire. When we run short of one natural resource, we are capable of replacing it with another. Technology is not our enemy; it is vitally necessary as a way of providing for our collective future. As Goklany writes,

“The richest countries are also the cleanest environmentally, because they have gone past their environmental transitions for most of their environmental problems. The richest countries are returning land to the rest of nature. They have the cleanest air in populated areas both outdoors and, more important, indoors, as well as the cleanest waters. ...
“I contend that one of society’s critical choices is its attitude toward and openness to technological change.”

I agree. Read the book. It may keep you from making the worst mistake of your life.


Monday, May 07, 2007

Iran and US: Too Proud to Talk

Keywords: Condoleezza Rice; Sharm El Sheik, Egypt; Mottaki; Ambassador Javad Zarif; Nicholas Kristof; Hooshang Amirahmadi; grand bargain; Iran; United States; Neo-Cons.

It happened again this weekend, apparently. Secretary of State and Iran’s foreign minister and deputy foreign minister were brought together at an international conference in , Egypt. They even attended the same party, but this elaborately casual occasion did not bring about any diplomatic conversation whatever, apparently to the disappointment of their Egyptian hosts. As usual, both sides expected the other to take the initiative. There had even been plans for a conversation to emerge; the U.S. had said that only Iraq could be the subject of any conversation. In the end, Rice said, “The opportunity simply didn’t arise. I would have taken that opportunity but it didn’t arise.”

Probably she was miffed by the speech she had just heard Iranian Foreign Minister deliver, in which he had said, “The United States must accept the responsibilities arising from the occupation of Iraq, and should not finger-point or put the blame on others.”

“You can ask him why he didn’t make an effort,” Rice later said. “I’m not given to chasing anyone.”

The sad thing is that this kind of coy approach-and-avoid dance has been going on for years between Iran and the United States — at least sporadically. At other times the countries have come close to war, as may have been the case even a month ago. Even Rice’s appearance in the same room as Iran’s top diplomats is a relatively cordial gesture compared to the threats of bombing that we heard a few weeks ago.

(see photo) has recently described in his New York Times column a period two years ago when the US and Iran were going through a similar proud vacillation between flirtation and ostracism. In his April 29 column, Kristof described a secret proposal that Iran sent to the US to solve their disputes in a “grand bargain.”

It seems that for a period in 2001-2 the two countries were cooperating rather well in defeating their common enemy, the . Even some “track two “ diplomacy began to occur, with the diplomats Thomas Pickering, Frank Wisner, and Nicholas Platt representing the American side, while the Iranian ambassador to the US, being the main Iranian negotiator, along with an Iranian professor at Rutgers University, Hooshang Amirahmadi.

Important contacts took place over dinner at Ambassador Zarif’s home in September 2002. At a follow-up meeting at Mr. Zarif’s home, Iranian foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with man of the same people, reports Kristof. A document was drafted and sent to the State Department and, through an intermediary, to the White House. In it Iran offered “full transparency” to assure that it would not develop . It offered to cooperate actively in stabilizing , and to end its material support of opposition groups, and to pressure Hamas to stop violent actions against civilians in Israel (though not the occupied territories). would support the transition of Hezbollah to become a “mere political organization within and endorse the Saudi initiative for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet at that time too, each country wanted the other to seem to take the initiative. In another column, Kristof described the situation: “For political reasons, doves in both the US and in Iran prefer to present the grand bargain idea as originating on the other side, for neither wants to signal any political weakness. So this document arrived in the Iranian Foreign Ministry and purported to come from the US; it was described as a US initiative, but I can’t find anyone in the US who acknowledges having prepared it. In any case, this was the starting point.”

But it was also almost the ending point. The White House apparently focused on the paraphrased version of the document sent by the Swiss ambassador to Iran. They rejected it and even reprimanded that Ambassador for even forwarding the proposal to them. (The Swiss document was published on the Washington Post web site earlier this year.)

After hesitating about the implications of the proposed “grand bargain,” Foreign Minister Kharrazi finally said, “Yes! We are ready to normalize relations” with the US and prepared to discuss problems that exist between us, but for that to happen we must be able to trust the US and this requires some initial positive gestures in the part of Washington, particularly a change in tone.

Apparently that “change in tone” was too great a concession for the Neo-Cons to make, after having classified Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” And so the deal fell through.

Kristof argued cogently, “It seems diplomatic mismanagement of the highest order for the Bush administration to have rejected that process out of hand, and now to be instead beating the drums of war and considering air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites.”

Yet Kristof retained a little optimism that new talks might emerge for normalizing US-Iranian relations, since “Condi Rice seems more willing to negotiate with Iran than other principals in the administration, so let’s hope she pursues this path.”

That was his blog entry of April 28. As we have seen from the reports of last week’s meeting in Sharm El Sheik, Kristof’s hopes were again dashed. And mine as well.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Hospital Story

Keywords: storytelling; hospital, Richard Handler; envy

tells a story every couple of weeks on his CBC web site. In his April 20th column he tells a personal story about his stay in hospital. It reminded me of another one about a hospital stay. I don’t know where I heard it, but it comes back to me quite often. I don’t know a better way than this story to tell its message. Here goes:

Two guys shared a room as in a . The one near the window was expecting to die, but he was a great observer. He reports to his roommate about the goings-on he could watch in the park and street outside: wonderful observations about the passersby and what they were doing as they met down below — the children and dog-walkers, the middle-aged frisbee-players, the old woman who bought flowers every day from the vendor, the lovers necking on the park bench each evening until one night when they appeared to be having a spat, the competitive roller-blade kids with ever new stunts. That window revealed a world of heart-warming activities, told by a raconteur who knew he was dying.

The other patient began to his sicker roommate for that view of the life outside the window. As he listened to the stories, he began to wish, ever more keenly, for a chance to observe all this for himself. Eventually an idea began to take shape in his mind.

The guy near the window would die anyhow eventually and vacate that bed. Why not just speed up the process a bit? It would be easy. At night, one could just reach over and switch the pills. Probably no one would guess what happened.

And so he did. It was a simple matter, and — just as expected — the sicker patient expired during the night. The nurses found him the next morning, shut the curtain around his bed, and quietly took away his body.

Now was the moment. The surviving patient requested to be moved over to the vacant bed, and the nurses agreed. After changing the linens, they helped him move over and plumped his pillows. Then they pulled back the curtain surrounding his bed, and the patient got his first good look through the window.

What lay beyond was only a solid .