Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad (overpopulated?) world

My somewhat indignant response to a post at "Growth is Madness" about how environmentalists avoid the "taboo" subject of overpopulation. Considering that some of the most prominent academic and NGO environmentalists have made overpopulation prominent in their discussions at various points (cf. Paul Ehrlich, Garret Hardin, David Pimentel, Sierra Club...) I'm not sure I see overpopulation as a "taboo" subject among environmentalists. Some feel its still neo-Malthusianist bent is problematic, like I do, but that's different than being unwilling to discuss it...

Anyway, the post is here, my response (here) being:

What I really don’t understand here is the disconnect between intensity of resource use and exactly where population is growing the fastest.

With the exception of the United States, most of the “1st World” has its population growth slowing or leveling off. Meanwhile, many of the areas with highest population growth are the poorest, and are people living well below their means.

Now, clearly, people rich and poor are consuming resources at some rate (both directly and in the form of consuming resources for waste disposal/redemption). However, based on per capita consumption/energy use, the United States and other 1st World countries are using (I’ve seen estimates) 3-5X our “share” of resources. Meanwhile, the poorest millions in Africa and Asia probably use somewhat less than a whole “share” of total human resource use.

Thus on one factor you have, say “4″ for mean per capita resource consumption in the US (or resource use intensity), vs., say, 0.8 in Namibia. This means that resource use intensity is 5X greater in the US. In other words, one “less” US or UK citizen is equivalent to 5 “less” Namibians in terms of resource use; yet we rarely hear the “taboo” subject of overpopulation brought up in terms of a primary emphasis on the 1st World, where growth rates are perhaps not the highest, but where changes in growth rates will have a 5X disproportionate impact on things. This gives us some initial reason to focus on the 1st World — perhaps what is meant here, but one must remember that the anti-growth discussion started with Malthus as an argument for *leaving the poor to their lot, and starving themselves into lower population sizes.* Not only doesn’t this work, it’s a reprehensible method to inefficiently reduce resource use. (Malthus said that the rich would consume “prudently” so as to keep the economy going but not overmuch so as to overtax resources. Poppycock.)

Making the problem all the more complex in poor areas and (technically) simple in the richer Global North, women in poorer countries often/usually have less choice in childbearing, and men still see it as an important sign of virility (plus, if you’re a poor agriculturalist, having more kids is individually rational for you). In the Global North, kids and number of kids is much more voluntary. Add to this the fact that population growth slows most in poor countries not with the introduction of contraceptives or draconian measures, but when women achieve some political equality gains and *increase* resource use somewhat such that they also gain access to education and sufficient health resources.

So taking the factors into account, it seems clear that we should certainly work on bringing both population and use intensity down in the 1st World, but the way to address population in the 3rd World implies “development” with substantive equality — a project involving at least short-term increases in resource use.

THESE are the items that seem taboo to me. When we talk about population problems, our problems in the 1st World start at home; the places where growth is the fastest require more complex solutions than a simple mantra or approach of population reduction or contraception can possibly achieve. Implying that the fast-reproducing food can’t have their fair share of food and water until they have less kids while Bill Gates races around on Lear Jets and procreates little mega-consumers unimpeded is the true madness.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Today's Best Thing Ever: Fun with Atheists and Fag-Haters

Overheard in the pretend virtual café where all the J-friends congregate together, from J-friend SYYS:
Maybe what I like about atheists is that, proportionally speaking, their beliefs are just as shocking as those of the faithful. I wouldn't be surprised if an equal number of believers and atheists would say that God is (or should be), in essence, them, but with virtually limitless power. The temptation to not challenge oneself is rampant on either side. For example, when I see people picketing with signs that say "God hates fags" I have this temptation to run over and say, "Isn't it incredible how you and God just happen to agree on EVERYTHING? That's such an amazing coincidence!" I feel like my beliefs are being challenged in a meaningful way by christians and atheists alike, and it's so rare for atheists to feel like their beliefs are being challenged in a meaningful way. Everyone deserves to have their beliefs challenged, right? It's the best! wunderbar!

Though I have to say, I think atheists have their beliefs challenged all the time, but only in that tiresome abstract way of politicians "WE'RE ALL CHRISTIAN HERE, RIGHT?" pandering. I think they/we are challenged less often in our day-to-day lives.

It inexplicably reminds me of a quote I can't find a source for -- from a review of the move "Contact" based on a book by Carl Sagan and starring Jodie Foster. This world body asks Foster why she should represent Earth to aliens, since 75% of the world believes in some kind of God and she doesn't. The reviewer summarized this as: "Inexplicably, all the world's religions got together and got over their differences in order to annoy Jodie Foster."

That's all.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Clinton Family Fun-Time Minstrel Show

This is my fawning response to a great Slate article here by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton. The title is "The Clinton Fallacy: Black Americans' love for Bill Clinton is built on a fallacy -- Did blacks really make big economic gains during the '90s?" (The answer is not really.)

A money quote:
In many ways, the scandal-marred, deeply partisan years of the Clinton administration proved disappointing in the face of such early optimism. Welfare reform, the growth of black imprisonment, and the public abandonment of progressive African-Americans like Lani Guinier are some of the most memorable racial disappointments of those years... But there is evidence that Clinton's unmatched popularity among blacks confused many about the true economic impact of his presidency. In a 2005 article I co-authored in the Journal of Black Studies, I analyzed five national surveys from 1984 through 2000. The data show that nearly a third of black Americans held false understandings of black economic conditions during the Clinton years. By the time Clinton left office, many African-Americans incorrectly believed that blacks were doing better economically than whites. In the '80s, barely 5 percent of blacks believed blacks were economically better off than whites. By 2000, nearly 30 percent of African-American respondents believed that blacks were doing better economically than whites. This belief is simply wrong. There is no evidence to suggest that African-Americans were in a better economic position than whites at any time in American history, including during Clinton's presidency.

Damn straight. I was young during the Clinton presidency -- but even when I liked him, I never got why he was "the first black president" -- other than that he possibly did the best job of pretending/showing that he cared about black people than any other president. JFK's "Boston Brahminism" was never the personal touch that Clinton brought, plus his sax-playing and modest beginnings showed a president a little less... Upper-class white (despite that being what he is now) than we'd seen in a while.

Said another way: Clinton was probably the President least like Richard Pryor's impersonations of white people, which can't but have helped his popularity.

This is my slightly less informal response to the article on Slate's Fray:

It was over-time to start discussing Clinton's honorary "blackness" and what he did to deserve it. Identity politics are misunderstood, misused, and unjustly maligned in today's United States, where there are real and profound racial disparities stemming from past and present circumstances. Beyond the inherited disadvantages of lesser wealth and savings from the African-American slave and then underclass, blacks in the US suffer from a system that's convinced itself it's fair when Jim Crow is still in living memory. Many people are alive today who lived under segregation, yet we pretend that it's a past and best-forgotten phase in the US at that.

All this is to say that there are real disparities between races, and adoration of Clinton, who did nothing real to change this, and abandoned black progressives like Gunier and Elders, is as misplaced as the belief that blacks are equal to or better off than whites -- a perception too common among whites, as well, breeding some of the dissatisfaction with affirmative action and related programs. (After all, if black people are equal or better off, why should they get the breaks?) Eric Alterman rightly pointed this out as, in part, a failing of the media to accurately portray reality in the US, dividing blacks on TV news into criminals and stars. Clinton's stardom is part of this syndrome, and he of course has done nothing to correct it.

One can argue about Clinton v. Obama v. abstention or a third party, but one must do it from the knowledge that neither Clinton can lay claim to honorary blackness outside a bubble of hype and misperception -- they stood for business as usual. Indeed, sadly, these misperceptions are what led people like JFK to be revered, when Nixon and Ford did more substantively for civil rights. They were forced to do it politically, but did it all the same -- while people like the Clintons and JFK and perhaps even Obama get a free pass.

Clinton wasn't the first black president. He was the first BLACKFACE president.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Solidarity, on a belated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day note

Brought to my attention by J-friend Becky:
“It's one of the strangest things that all the great military geniuses of the world have talked about peace. The conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, were akin in seeking a peaceful world order. If you will read Mein Kampf closely enough, you will discover that Hitler contended that everything he did in Germany was for peace. And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”

MLK Christmas Eve Sermon, 1967 .

That about says it all.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Obama's Deep Gooey Substance

I've got your audacity, right here.

A GREAT article by Slate's John Dickerson, on Barack Obama: "A Few Inconvenient Truths. Is Obama as much of a straight talker as he claims?"

Another election year must-read, in my humble opinion.

(Deep gooey substance? What the Eff? This the Eff. Though I'm toying with the alternative descriptive phrase for Obama and (to a lesser extent) Edwards, as having the politics of the "gooey nougat center". Opinions?)

Courage, Audacity -- and the vain hope that the candidates will read this Time article

This is awesome.

I'm quite sure I don't agree with Joe Klein on everything, and indeed, I don't agree with his whole Time article, but I'd so I'm on board for most of it.

Frankly, it's the most intelligent center-progressive agenda I've seen from anyone in the US that I can think of. Maybe I'm just overwhelmed by someone, somewhere, writing something sensical about the election, but there you have it.

Go, read.
...a Presidential election would seem a perfect moment for laying out an ambitious new goal or two, especially at a moment when 70% of the public thinks the country is moving in the wrong direction. The problem is, politicians hate having to talk about anything remotely adventurous in the midst of an campaign. They prefer safe recitations of conventional wisdom... The candidates owe us answers, whether they want to give them or not... you can learn a lot from the character of their evasions—how their minds work, how much they know, what their basic principles are. Occasionally, they might even say something courageous. And very occasionally, there comes an election where the ability to be courageous, to tell the public things it may not want to hear, is the most important quality we need in a leader. I suspect 2008 will be that sort of election. [Ok, good luck with that one, Joe-boy -- J] The public has come to understand what market-tested political blather sounds like, and it may be ready to reward a politician who tells some inconvenient truths, to coin a phrase, who asks for the sort of sacrifices, in pursuit of specific goals, that President Bush refused to do. But which sacrifices, which goals?

Energy independence.
Universal health insurance.
Education reform.
Mandatory national service.

Solutions are possible, but they will require drastic changes in the way we go to school, get our health care, serve our country, live our lives. No politician with any sense would attempt to join all these battles, all at once, in the midst of a presidential campaign. But in 2008 a candidate who refuses to show some courage on at least one of these issues probably lacks the character to be President.

True enough, man.

Go, please, read this.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Big Brother is Watching, Listening, and Reading... for Bootlegged Britney

In a potentially light-weight return to blogging, I would like to call your attention to this Slate article about AT&T's apparent desire to start monitoring all their electronic traffic from their customers for illegal content.

In what may end up being nothing or may end up being, as author Prof. Wu calls it, the beginning of a privately-run police state (though likely without a young Red Forman heading Detroit crime syndicates under the table for OCP). He rightly points out:
No one knows exactly what AT&T is proposing to build. But if the company means what it says, we're looking at the beginnings of a private police state. That may sound like hyperbole, but what else do you call a system designed to monitor millions of people's Internet consumption? That's not just Orwellian; that's Orwell.

This may be nothing, as I think Wu's right that it would be corporate disaster for AT&T: "AT&T's new strategy reverses that position and exposes it to so much potential liability that adopting it would arguably violate AT&T's fiduciary duty to its shareholders." But as the sole poster as of 10 minutes ago points out, AT&T was known as The Death Star among telecom peeps in-the-know in the old days. "Mandycat" goes on to point out: "They persistently and diligently bought up well-run and profitable companies like NCR and proceeded to destroy them. They even took the extra precaution of changing NCR's century-old name to something idiotic like "GIS" just in case there was any residual goodwill left intact. It was like a sickness."

Hmm... a plausible explanation has popped up here, claiming that perhaps this is just a pretext for remaking the internet hierarchically so that they can indeed get around network neutrality and discriminate service quality between high-payers and average joes and joanns (guess who gets higher quality). Seaturnip says: "I don't think AT&T at all wants to analyze HTTP connections for pictures, as you suggest. That would indeed be horrendously inefficient. They are probably mainly interested in stopping bandwidth-guzzling movie piracy via peer-to-peer protocols such as BitTorrent."

What say you, oh people of the internet? Is the idea that AT&T will go through with what it announced last week, that "it is seriously considering plans to examine all the traffic it carries for potential violations of U.S. intellectual property laws" indeed, as Wu says, "[A] prospect ...too totalitarian for my tastes"? One would think, but of course, I would've said not too long ago that a different prospect would be too totalitarian for most Americans' taste: "AT&T [is] already accused of spying on our telephone calls."

J. Edgar Hoover, eat your heart out.

(ps: what the hell is "eat your heart out" supposed to actually MEAN, anyway?)