Saturday, December 26, 2009

More Thoughts Popping In For a Mo'

A childhood friend is a sustainability consultant, I noticed recently. My friend and officemate's sister is in the joint business-Natural Resources program at University of Michigan. There are many arguments for why and how corporations must be involved in sustainability, and indeed they must be. However, I do not think they will like it--I can see no way that sustainability can be achieved without lowering consumption. From my time at a Fortune 500 company, I saw that their goals year-on-year were not just growth of the company, but increased rate of growth. That is, "This year we grew 5%; next year's goal is to grow 7% with a 'stretch goal' of 9%." As a recovering engineer, I thought this odd, as something growing at increasing rates is often called an explosion, and is to be avoided. And in any case, since I do think we are consuming much, much more than is sustainable, the only remedy for that is to consume less. Efficiency is not going to get us there -- we'll just be consuming too much more efficiently. Especially since efficiency gains are almost always overtaken by overall increases in consumption. If you increase efficiency by 5% but sell 10% more products, well, you've done pretty much nothing for sustainability.

I don't see any consultancies or other very market/business-oriented advice figuring out sustainable ways to decrease consumption--here I mean economic sustainability. I'm sure it can be done, but this is the challenge before us, at least those most concerned with corporate sustainability. We are going to need negative growth--and while theoretically that could be done while profits increase, it almost certainly won't be--decreasing consumption and proper internalization of externalized costs -- i.e. costs to the environment, to society, placed on us by companies that don't pay the full costs of their economic activities -- would both tend to rather decrease profits. I am certain this can be done while raising quality of life for many people (mainly people who have low quality of life, not those who already consume well and waaaaay above their "fair share" of resources), but when some people consume too much, some too little, and on the total the system is unsustainable, re-distribution is really the only game in town in terms of sustainability and justice. I haven't seen much talk of any of these things -- especially, say, within COP15 type circles -- which is why I view most of them as unserious in terms of actually helping avert continued and growing disasters for both humanity and our environment around us.

Related readings:

Steady State Economics:
Carbon trading (especially pertinent now):

In Other News

Back in my blog's primary activity (increasingly unfortunately I think), reading and criticizing Slate, this article ("Saying No to Obama: The U.S. president is popular, but world leaders are finding it easy to defy his wishes" by Shmuel Rosner) is not particularly worth reading, but that it produces a pretty damned good Fray response from Mutatis Mutandis. Highlight:

It is hard to say what the right course of action is, but Obama seems far more reticent and hesitant than a president with a majority in both chambers ought to be, even allowing for his need to find a strong majority for health care reform. I think it is time to seriously question whether Obama's interpretation of bipartisanship is wise. The US political system is an adversarial system, with distinct roles for majority and minority.

Read the rest here.

In COMPLETELY other news, aka Now for Something More Completely Different:
A montage of funny clips about supervillain weaponry, that, for some reason, popped into my head:

"You take that away and you are looking at a bunch of pissed off nutbags with ray guns and giant, I don't know, a giant octopus-slash-tank with laser eyes."
"I've seen one of those."
"I like the cut of this guy's jib."
"I like the cut of his hair."

And of course, the classic:

Race in America: Part the Next, A Partial Response to D

Continuing this conversation: Race in America: D responding to J responding to D

Wherein D owns what she says, smooths D-Fave J's ruffled feathers, and elaborates, possibly inciting deeper discussion or perhaps further division.

Sayings: owned. Feathers: unsmoothed. Further discussion: imminent. Further division: unknown.

(from my previous post): "Wow. I'm kind of surprised to read this from you at this point, D."

Ok, I'm just gonna say this. This sort sounds like I'm your pet project and I backslid or something. Am I supposed to be sorry for my comments? You should know by now that there is almost always deeper thinking behind my ideas. Rather than shame or disappoint one another, let's get right to them... [some time later] My culture is not the caricature that Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock present to great comedic effect. White America is not Buffy and Chip upset because their tee-time was pushed back half an hour because Obama's motorcade was going through town. Sure, the comedy is in the way white people are ignorant to their incredible privilege and have wackaloon ideas about what it means to be put out, but when this is the pole that I have to swing from, how can I be allowed to have a real voice in the race discussion? It has been my experience (and here I mean ME as an individual) that I am not allowed, outside of our conversations, to be taken seriously in any meaningful public discussion about race. Unless, of course, I concede to the default POC position. And in some ways, J, isn't that what your response to me tried to get me to do?

Horsehockey. This point is one that's repeatedly had my blood pressure rising. You have every right to your voice, to your process, to your indignation at caricature. And in no way was my response an attempt to get you to concede the "default" POC position (which would be questionable anyway because such a default is as contested as anything else one may care to name, and any given person of color you may talk to may have a different default). I wasn't present at these other conversations, so I can't characterize what happened there. But my response was critical and disappointed because I freaking WAS critical and disappointed. Does my mere reaction (or expression of it) deprive you of your voice? Does my disappointment in our difference in point of view mean I'm engaged in a ploy to "shame you" into line? I do see your point here, or think I do: you don't want your perspective to be sidelined or undermined by emotional valences attempting to get you to give up your point of view out of guilt, rather than engaging you on the points and convincing you, or failing to, on the logic. All well and good. But you hardly shy from expressing your emotions, clearly and strongly, on your own blog, and even when I feel somewhat besieged by a disagreement between us, I don't presume you're trying to undermine me with an end-run around logic. I felt disappointed in your perspective; maybe I'm wrong to, but I thought I understood you and you me better than this at this point, and I was surprised to read these viewpoints from you, that I've heard many times from others before and that I find disappointing. I may have been wrong every time up to and including now to be disappointed, but I don't think expressing it is an attempt to make you fall in line. It's just expressing what I feel. Whether or not you should be sorry begs the question entirely; I wasn't thinking about you, to be honest, when I said that, but about me: it was how I felt. Surprised. Because "at this point" I thought I understood where you were coming from better than I apparently do, and I didn't think we'd be having a conversation in this way on these points because, like I say, I've heard variations of what you say for years. And usually such a conversation takes place before the types of conversations you and I have had have been, um, had.

I can see how that might sound condescending, or shaming, but it's also true. And except that we have a personal relationship (that doesn't extend to having met in person =} and I don't think you have one of the same kind with the Field Negro) I don't see how my comments are different, and certainly aren't worse in emotional valence, than when you say of him "I have learned a great deal from the field and respect him immensely, I think this idea (if indeed he actually believes it) is preposterously naive." You do hedge it because you don't think he believes his own theory, or rather, that if he does perhaps it is more in the service of rabble-rousing than serious inquiry, but you surely know as well that HE "almost always deeper thinking behind [his] ideas." This applies even if his theory is serious rather than simply provocative. (I do wonder if you've taken this point up with him on his blog, I'd be eager to learn how he responds.) To briefly light on the relevant point from Field, as you summarize it, "That the black power elite are neither powerful nor elite because the real white power elite can jack-slap them back out to the fields the first time they forget their place. He usually suggests this idea after a powerful black person has fucked up royally... He violates common rules of logic when he applies his pet theory not to the broader community of high-achieving black professionals, but only to those who have fallen from grace." Insofar as I agree with this point, which is at least somewhat far, I would say it's true if stated differently. "The black power elite are neither [as] powerful nor [as] elite [because the risks, penalties to them when they do fuck up are much higher, at higher stakes than the white power elite]." This may or may not be true, but I hardly think it naive, and it doesn't violate rules of logic. If you command equal power to other elite, but only in a restricted set of circumstances -- that is, your power is equal in amplitude but much more tenuous and less stable and reliable -- than in a real way, you are less powerful. Now, one can argue many elements of that formulation, but I happen to think it's largely true. Whether or not this is the specific case of Tiger is rather like arguing whether or not Hurricane Katrina was specifically caused by Global Warming -- a direct correlation with the individual event may not be possible or valid, but it can be seen to fit into the pattern one would expect from the actions of the larger phenomenon.

Anyway. There is more to say, but I feel like we already have much to talk about. This is really a better conversation had over drinks I think--maybe we can do so some time and tape it for re-distribution on the respective blogs. There are too many nagging points, clarifications to be made, reconsidered, and remade to be an easy conversation taking place through large passages of writing, where seemingly the suite of points to be analyzed just grows continuously anyway.

(This is part of the reason I've been reluctant to return; it seems like one of those conversations like getting tangled in parachute silk, it just gets the more tangled the more you move. For example, when I try to deal with this: "I would suggest that white people are forbidden from giving explicit thought to race--at least since the 1960s. Sure, as a group, white America has a lot to make up for after 150 years of cross-burnings, lynchings, fire bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, water hosing of freedom marchers, George Wallace attempting to prevent the integration of the U of Alabama, and promotion testing that favors white applicants. I am the first to admit that white America showed its ass. But that doesn't mean we should have to give up our voice entirely. If anyone, anywhere tries to stand up and say something about the white race these days, they are labeled a Nazi sympathizer and white supremacist as a matter of course." Is so far from comporting with my experience as to be hard to rationally address. I'm surrounded by white people who give explicit thought to race; you can read white people giving explicit thought to race in any of our nation's major publications; you can see it happening in classrooms I myself have taught and attended. Talking about "the white race" may be fraught, but I have never personally been present where a black person tries to shut someone down for saying it. It's a squeamish topic, it's one someone may be attacked for, but being attacked for your point of view in no way counts as not having a voice. Attempts to shut someone down by guilting them, criticizing them, even defaming them may make people dread to speak, but is emphatically not denying them a voice. The first and latter are, of course, not cricket, but to imply that these tactics are limited to use against those who speak of a "white race" is simply incorrect. And I would further maintain that it's not the concept of a white race which is viewed as sketchy, but rather the phrase "the white race," because of its associations with, say, neo-Nazism. Well, unfortunate connotations also don't constitute an unfair tactic by themselves.

To try to get back to big picture, what I'm trying to say is that I don't doubt you've had experiences where people have tried to guilt, shame, restrict, and condescend to you rather than addressing your actual points. However, in comparison, my experience has been that such worries have almost always been exclusively internal in conversations I've been present for. That is, white people worry about being seen in a negative light, or guilted, shamed, or unreasonably dealt with for expressing honest opinions, but never have I seen a black person in a conversation such as this try to do any of these things. There is simply an uncomfortableness and lack of easy ability to communicate; having a voice doesn't mean having a voice that doesn't require being uncomfortable. I can believe your experiences are different; that doesn't make them more, or less, representative than mine.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Race in America: J's Manties in a Bunch, responding to D

This post responds to a post by J-Fave Daktari here.

Wherein I kind of lose it a little bit, and hope that it's still clear that I hold D in the utmost regard, it's just an issue that got my goat, and then got my goat's panties in a bunch. --J

Wow. I'm kind of surprised to read this from you at this point, D. Sooooo many things. I agree with you that Carmen VK's racial identification is imprecise, but racial identification is by nature (as you point out) imprecise. Many, many countries have considered themselves to be races unto themselves, and they can't be said to be wrong any more than they're right.

"There have been times when I have thought that these shifting ideas about what to call POC was merely a way to prevent white Americans from having any sort of voice in the race discussion. As long as you can shout down the majority group by making them feel prejudiced for daring to open their mouths, you own the direction and tenor of the discussion. Bad form, I say."

My jaw HIT the floor here. Let us say, at best, I think you over-estimate the extent to which "People of Color" think/care about what the majority does. That is, while "proper" identity terms have been at times used quite certainly to make others feel prejudiced, I would basically scream out loud that that is not why they were developed. They were developed, in my educated amateur-ish opinion, because after black Americans finally got a fucking VOTE in what we would be called by majority culture, which was only 40+ years ago, we had and have trouble figuring out what it should be. It shifts constantly as we try to find our identity constantly, and debate what we want to emphasize, own, spurn, celebrate, face up to in terms of the willy-nilly thing that is "black culture" in the US. Race, and culture, are impossible to precisely define, but I would definitely say there is a "pole" around which the African-American/black culture centers, and a "pole" for majoritarian culture, primarily the culture of those who don't necessarily have to give explicit thought to race. (There are of course many other poles, especially for the other large racial minorities, but let's confine ourselves for the moment.) That is to say, and I'm trying not to be shrill here, but honey, the terms black, Negro, Colored, African American, Afro-American, Black-American and others are not about you. We're not shifting around to annoy you (the bulk you--majoritarian culture), we're shifting around because we want a term that will do the impossible.

Let me give you a brief parallel: so, I work on food. I recently listened to a talk by the fantastic manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Wayne Roberts. He pointed out that the term "food security" lacked an immediacy and confused people, especially post-9/11. The accepted definition of food security is something like "access by all people at all times to enough and appropriate food for a healthy and active lifestyle", but post-9/11 people think more in terms of "secure from attack." Hunger and malnutrition are neither sufficient because they don't inherently entail the issue of access (the prevalent, by far, cause of hunger/malnutrition/food insecurity); food sovereignty is a growing term but lacks common currency in the Global North, over-emphasizes an ideal of the nation-state, isn't clear as to what group is the appropriate unit of "sovereignty", etc. Similar problems evolve from "food democracy." All this is to say, there is no one term that can encompass what we need to encompass within food justice circles. We can't all agree, and the terms in favor shift all the time. We're not doing this, certainly, to keep people from understanding or speaking about food. We're doing it because it's impossible to have the "one right term." The same is true, if not more so, for terms for racial groups.

Then you go into the "we're all human" and "we're all mixed race" and "we're all out of Africa." Well, those things are all true, but the years of research debunking a deep biological meaning for race simply mean that its primary importance and meaning comes from the social. And just because something is socially defined doesn't mean it's not real, it's just different in kind than a strict biophysical property. "Race" is a social construct; but then so are the identities "Christian", "Hindu", "Atheist" "Agnostic" "Democrat" "Republican" "Anarchist" "Bat-shit Crazy Follower of Ayn Rand's Fucked Up Ideas." Yet we'd never argue that "there's no such thing as Christians", or "look, all religious beliefs and lack thereof originate from humanity's inability to know and understand everything; I'm going to say we're ALL agnostic because all faith or conviction against faith hinges on the problem of 'a-gnostia' (the word I think I just made up meaning "a state of not-knowing")".

I mean, yes, of course it's important for us to emphasize, identify with, realize and cherish our shared humanity. And race is not all-defining and should not be; even under slavery, race was not *all* that a human being was, master or slave (though it did determine, if you were a slave, nearly all of how you would be seen by others one could argue). The fact that we share a common ancestor is relatively immaterial to all this, because as you imply the biology of it all is a red herring.

By debunking the red herring, you haven't really said much about the actual import of the situation I'm afraid. Tiger's deal is a complicated one, and the race aspect originates in a combination of internalization/indoctrination and earlier solidarity. That is, the rules under slavery were "one drop of black blood makes you black". Impossible to enforce in real life, of course, but certainly true in terms of if a black ancestor could be reasonably identified for you, you were automatically not white. If you were fair-skinned and, say, had some kind of social status, and it wasn't your father or mother but perhaps grand or great-grand that was black, you might hold onto not being a slave or total second-class citizen. But first class was closed to you.

Well, a couple hundred years of that attitude, and African Americans/black (which I use interchangeably for blacks within the US) internalized a lot of it. Self-policing means that if you have, let us say, "some drops", and (primarily these days) some subset of typically black phenotypes, you are considered "black." There is/has been a lot of push-back from mixed race people, but let us remember that openly mixed-race kids has only stopped being of some significant degree of social note in your own lifetime, I'd think.[Addition: Outside of this internalization, "claiming" mixed race individuals as black was in part solidarity and strategy, I think, as also until relatively recently, being identifiably mixed race was almost as much of a problem/stigma as being black. So mixed race children were forced to live the social experience of their black parents to some extent, both while they were raised and to an extent as adults I would think; identifying as black was a statement of solidarity, and a strategy in coalition-building to fight all racial prejudice. Beyond that, claiming mixed race people as "black" allowed blacks to point to many successful African Americans as role models and counter-examples for our supposed inferiority. But many, many of the early successful African Americans were mixed -- their success came in part from either "passing" as white, or from advantages gained from, say, a white father who supported his mixed-race kids with one of his slaves. But once they had achieved great things, through either mechanism, it was useful and quite sensical to say, both for the sake of our own role models and to "prove" something to majority culture -- "See! You see! Black people CAN do that; we ARE as smart, as capable! Your own standards say one drop of black blood makes you black; well look at him/her! Black, powerful and proud!" The rhetorical usefulness of this quite drops if you start talking about mixed race explicitly, beyond which, since race *is* more social than biological, it makes perfect sense in that atmosphere to claim mixed-race people, who would've been equally discriminated against where they could be identified, as black. Since it's socially constructed, they were black, because they were treated as such.-end Addition]

As far as "I read a recent blog post on Feministing wherein people say that if a minority calls me an epithet, it's just being rude, but if I call a minority an epithet, it's a hate crime, I wonder how f*#@'d up our ideas about race have really become", I thought we'd already had this conversation. But in any case, something well reflecting of my opinion of this is here and I address it directly here. I'm heavily indebted to this essay by Stanley Fish. I disagree with much in the article, but not with the overall point here: "The hostility of the other group is the result of [racist] actions, and whereas hostility and racial anger are unhappy facts wherever they are found, a distinction must surely be made between the ideological hostility of the oppressors and the experience-based hostility of those who have been oppressed." The details of this formulation may be more arguable in a world where oppression is more subtle, but its substantial truth, I think, remains.

It seems to me your panties got rightly in a knot over some of the foolishness around Tiger. That foolishness, however, doesn't invalidate all race, just as the East Anglia data set debacle doesn't invalidate Global Climate Change. We may be much closer to a world where "Money and fame make everyone colorblind", but we are not there. Money and fame makes a lot appear colorblind, and we are perhaps closer to that than the world of the joke
Ques: "What do you call a black, Harvard-educated bank president?"
Ans: "A nigger";
but we are no more wholly in the wealth & fame colorblind world than we are wholly in the one of the joke.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

In defense of Meat

An interesting viewpoint here. I say "interesting" I guess to be purposely milquetoast; I largely agree with what Harvey Ussery has to say, but of course, there are boatloads of critiques, glossed-over points, retorts to critiques and counter-critiques to be had, as seems to happen all the time with food. (This is my impression right now of what seems to be the "local-food-backlash", that is, a flurry of academic and popular articles on how local food actually may be worse, from energy efficiency, causing smugness and related moral turpitude, etc. etc. I was flabbergasted when a mathematician shook her head at me when I maintained that, ceteris paribus (all things being equal), local should be more efficient. I think it's pretty much definitionally true that local food is better, all things being equal; a separate question is whether and when they in fact are equal. But I feel like the local critique is as much founded in a backlash as it is in the fact that local is, of course, not an unconditional universally-good free panacea. I still think the science bears out that more local food systems are a better idea, on average, than a far-flung food system. But I digress.)

Worth a read; not necessarily a new argument but a passionately and clearly phrased one, and one that I think I'm on board with (but can't be sure because my mind has been quite hijacked by work for the past several days and is not all with me). Ussery seems like an interesting guy in the Joel Salatin mode (so much so that I was looking askance at his website to see if he shared some of Salatin's more, um, iconoclastic political views); worth looking more into.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Real World: Rachel Larrimore

Slate-slash-Double-X writer Rachael Larrimore joins much of the rest of the world as she moves from "Wishing I could quit you" to "Ok, I'm quitting you" with Sarah "WTF?" Palin. I've previously accused Larrimore and her XX compatriots as being "increasingly gormless", which I pretty much still stand by (despite liking many of them as writers in other contexts), but let us be gracious here and welcome Rachael to the fold. Or rather, not welcome her to the fold because that sounds patronizing and as a Republican woman on a Neoliberal webmagazine, she doesn't need it.

Long story short, her statement that "I realize now that what I most liked about you was an idealized image of you that I created" rings so very true, and is certainly something I think Dems are familiar with [fake sneezes while saying "Obama"... and then fake sneezes and says the names of 99% of all politicians ever]. When she goes on to say "I like that a woman can have a political career while raising a bunch of kids, that one could succeed without having the right pedigree or giving those kids country club names, that you were unabashedly pro-life," well, then her defense of Palin makes sense, a theme I explored last year as part of a more general realization about why wanting a president you "can have a beer with" (or skin a moose with) actually fits within a progressive worldview better than you might think.

So I really want to be snarky about this, but one thing I do respect about Larrimore has been her willingness and bravery in reasoning through her center-conservative politics out loud, in a left-ish forum, and I think such exchanges of earnest views are important and too uncommon. So, I'll stop here before I say something patronizing AND snarky.

Reasonable words on GM Foods

I'm rather skeptical of genetically modified foods myself, both on grounds of safety and efficacy in addressing hunger (and I realize these are heavily contested points and I'm just not going to venture back into them now), but an article at The Guardian maintains that the new synthesis is in, and it's one I largely agree with:
On Wednesday night a debate on GMOs at the illustrious Royal Society of Chemistry HQ in London suggested a breakthrough. Afterwards the feeling was that it was a win on points for the GM sceptics... But [GM proponents] can take heart: the debate was less a defeat for GM than for the way it has developed. The corollary is that if the government really believes that the only way to increase yields is through GM technology, it will have to fund this itself.

The winning argument on Wednesday was not really about science at all, but about the ethics of a method of increasing yields that delivers such power into the hands of the multinationals... GM may be a small part of the answer. But it has a mixed record in Asia, where it has tended to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor, and it is unlikely to be any part of the answer to food security in Africa for the foreseeable future. As the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation pointed out last year, there is enough food for everyone. It just isn't available in the right places... globally the need is for publicly funded science to investigate sustainable agriculture in the widest possible meaning of the word: better farming practices, a viable pricing system and, for the global north, a radical change in patterns of consumption.

The "consensus position" (of three or four people I've talked with) is that a reasonable position genetic modification includes a much larger public sector involvement and relative decrease in blockages from Intellectual Property Regimes (if not directly challenging established patents, then developing GM products in the public domain via universities and government funding; many have pointed out that whatever the pluses and minuses of the "first" Green Revolution, a key component of it was the public rather than proprietary nature of a significant portion of its technologies), AND most (of the three or four I've had an extended discussion with) agree as well that large-scale public epidemiology trials should be conducted. GM proponents often proclaim that it's the most widely tested, heavily regulated technology, yet there have been no systematic human feeding trials that I've ever heard of, and certainly no longitudinal ones. Since we're already eating them anyway, seems to me it only makes sense to do large-scale trials taking some people "off" GMs to the extent possible (this would pose a challenge but could be done in part using organic foods) and comparing to a paired sample of people maintaining a GM-diet (not hard since most corn and soybean in the US is already GM). Such trials would be complicated, but there seems little reasonable rationale for not doing them, and doing them would begin to settle much between proponents and opponents (not all, not by half, but much, and would be a substantial improvement on the status quo).

Of course, the thing about the consensus over making GMs:
a) publicly funded/public domain
b) widely, openly and long-term tested
is that it seems quite unlikely to happen, whatever we agree to. GM companies and most governments have no intention of vigorously supporting either position... making articles like that in the Guardian all the more important. If all those of good intent can agree on these two propositions (or something like them) and bridge the divide between people legitimately concerned with hunger and justice but with different evaluations of GM, we can force the hand of governments and companies. Arguing between ourselves has produced more heat than light; hopefully the event reported by the Guardian can be the foundation of a new direction?*

*Rather reminds me of an article a friend recently posted: Let's All Agree: Factory Farming is the Real Evil, Not Vegans. Which I can rather agree to, if one adds the corollary that "factory farms are the enemy, not meat-eaters. Even unconscientious meat-eaters aren't the enemy; we don't want to wipe them out, we want to convince them. Vegan/vegetarianism is threatening and foreign to many people, and trying to shock and shame them into better behavior seems to more commonly generate anger than conversion. Surely, vegans have as much a responsibility as small-farm omnivores to promote co-operation and reasonable discourse, and all of us have a responsibility to convince others. In looking to do so, we should evaluate what's most effective, not necessarily what seems most morally satisfying, most extreme, or most attention-getting. All of those have a time and a place, but it's not always the time and place for all of them. I don't read a lot of vegan writing, but it seems to me there's responsibility on both sides for toning down rhetoric and looking to work together against factory farming, rather than against each other. (Especially because I think consumer activism is severely limited and mainly symbolic by itself, without political agitation and structural change, anyway.)

Thursday, December 03, 2009

No relation to anything: GET OFF MY LAWN YOU DAMNED KIDS!

The World is Going to Hell, and Always Has Been.

Nice bit here from commenter "Barefoot Bum" on PhysioProf's blog:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

– Socrates (apocryphal)

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.

— Hesiod, Eighth Century B.C.E.

The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of
today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for
parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”

– Peter the Hermit 1274 CE (apocryphal)

I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.

– G. K. Chesterton

Organic Agriculture can feed the... Africa.

"UN report concludes organic farming offers Africa the best chance to feed itself"

The report is over a year old (news reporting on it can be found here, the report here), and it seems largely based on pre-existing methodology and links by University of Essex's prominent agroecologist Jules Pretty and colleague Rachel Hine.

It seemingly belies the trope that the case of food security in Africa is too desperate, too urgent, and too important to leave to something silly like organic agriculture, though I'm sure the argument will continue in earnest, despite the apparently growing evidence mostly on the side of organic agriculture. (Though the evidence is not unequivocal, perhaps.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

More on Sustainable Futures: Further thoughts on why the "Tragedy of the Commons" needn't be

I've posted on Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" before (and reprinted a money quote from the article linked in that post below), but reading Paul Robbins' excellent Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, I was reminded of recent Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom once again and came across this well-done article on her work and common property research in Forbes, of all places. Elizabeth Eaves writes:
That's where Elinor Ostrom comes in. While many economists continued to assume that collective action just didn't work, several decades ago the Indiana University, Bloomington, political scientist began to study when and why it did work. On Monday, her efforts won her the 2009 Nobel economics prize.

"What Ostrom showed was that a lot of ordinary, not very well educated people who'd never read about free rider problems basically developed institutional arrangements," says Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Groups of fishermen figured out how to limit their catch, while farmers collaborated on irrigation problems. "Sure there's a free-rider problem, but people turn around and find ways to solve it," Folbre says.

Continuing a theme I've read several times in recent weeks, Eaves goes on:

Why did other economists miss this part of the picture? "Economists didn't pay attention to ethnography," Folbre says--that is, they didn't observe actual people at work. "Why go out in the field when you have a nice theory?"
I have some respect for economics, or at least, the idea that the study of markets is a useful one, but the idea that where theory and reality conflict, reality is wrong is one repeatedly and disturbingly voiced.*

Going back to my previous post on this area, an extensive quote from Ian Angus's piece is appropriate here:
A Politically Useful Myth

The truly appalling thing about "The Tragedy of the Commons" is not its lack of evidence or logic -- badly researched and argued articles are not unknown in academic journals. What's shocking is the fact that this piece of reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of the causes of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted as a basis for social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists and environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies.

Despite being refuted again and again, it is still used today to support private ownership and uncontrolled markets as sure-fire roads to economic growth.

The success of Hardin's argument reflects its usefulness as a pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an explanation that doesn't question the dominant social and political order. It confirms the prejudices of those in power: logical and factual errors are nothing compared to the very attractive (to the rich) claim that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. The fact that Hardin's argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus.

I think the concept of the inherent unsustainability of humans and our inability to create a better future (or simple extreme unlikelihood) falls rather into the same area, though not out of maliciousness of desire to maintain the status quo, at least not on D's part, to be sure. Rather, as I alluded to in my post on "Limits to Know(th)", I think the evidence and the science just don't line up so simply as to be able to say with any certainty that we can't pull this off (any more than to say with certainty that we can; my point is that the evidence is equivocal, so we may as well agitate for sustainable and equitable change presuming that it is possible, however likely or not it may be).

Ending off, I quote Robbins in regards to the Tragedy of the Commons, in the passage that inspired this post, and helps maintain my inspiration that the venality and doomedness of the human race has been greatly exaggerated. Like the reports of Mark Twain's death, it's too early to call, but unlike his death, it's not necessarily inevitable.


But empirical evidence compiled for the last three decades shows less support for [the Tragedy of the Commons model], and time and again evidence of collective stewardship appears in the management of resources ranging from fisheries from Maine to Turkey, pastures from Morocco to India, and forests from Madagascar to Japan. While "tragedy" theory suggested failure, the literature was filled with "exceptions", locally organized techniques, rules, and decision-making structures that organized extraction, defined user communities, and maintained harvests and yields. The empirical record on common property management is far too large to survey here, but the accumulated case material is impressive (see National Research Council 1986; Feeny et al. 1990; Burger and Gochfeld 1998)... Success of collective management, theorists maintained, is a result of the fact that such commons are not unowned (legally, res nullius but are in fact commonly held property (legally, res communes) (Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop 1975). Failure of collective management, by contrast, merely represents failures in the specific structure of rules that govern collective property... Recovery of sustainable management is a task of crafting new and better rules, not one of slicing up the commons into private bits, nor imposing strong-arm central authority (Ostrom 1990, 1992; Ostrtom et al. 1993; Hanna et al. 1996)..."

*From John DiNardo's review of Freakonomics:
"June ONeill, [then] Director of the Congressional Budget office, the agency charged with credibly assessing the effects of government policies, reminded [her] audience at an American Enterprise Institute meeting [about the effect of the minimum wage] that theory is also evidence.” [DiNardo's emphasis] A more ironic illustration from Deaton (1996): That evidence may have to be discarded in favor of “science” could hardly be better argued than in Nobel Laureate James Buchanans words in The Wall Street Journal: “no self-respecting economist would claim that increases in the minimum wage increase employment. Such a claim, if seriously advanced, becomes equivalent to a denial that there is even minimum scientific content in economics, and that, in consequence, economists can do nothing but write as advocates for ideological interests. Fortunately, only a handful of economists are willing to throw over the teaching of two centuries; we have not yet become a bevy of camp-following whores.”

David Harvey has similarly quoted location theorist/economist August Lösch as having said if "the model does not conform to reality, then it is reality that is wrong," although Harvey seemingly places this in the context of Lösch ascribing a normative role to theory, that is, science should serve to create a better, more equal and more rational world. Nonetheless, with the "Politically Useful Myth" of the tragedy of the commons in mind, Hardin was rather practicing the inverse, using "science" to maintain a status quo of rampant inequality.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sustainable Futures III: Limits to Know(th) II

J-Fav Raj Patel posts something relevant to the recent talk of sustainability here on Anekantavada:
One of the latest nuggets comes from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows both that communities can manage forests with restraint and sustainability, and that leaving resource management to people who live with the consequences can sequester much more carbon than handing resources over to a government far away, and run by the rich.

Haven't read the original article; the abstract is available here. It's co-written, incidentally, by a former professor of mine and edited by the recently-Nobel-Prize-winning (and J-research-based-fav) Elinor Ostrom.

Response to D: Limits to Know(th)

(This responds to the post from J-fav D here responding to my previous blog post.)

Wow D, you are way too certain of your own premises for my comfort =o

For one thing, despite your pessimism on people and the ability to control ourselves without top-down (or other external environmental) regulation, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, Elinor Ostrom, has made her career of showing examples of precisely this. There is also a not-insignificant number environmental historians who believe that there are examples of this in the past. There are certainly examples of both groups that have exercise sustainable management of common pool resources, and of groups that have exercise population control (i.e. with the use of various plants that could be used to terminate pregnancies). One can definitely argue that the tendency of other human groups, perhaps the majority, to expand often or inevitably wipe out smaller pockets of sustainable living, but now one is arguing something rather different. That is, if sub-groups of the human population have managed to live sustainably over long periods (and I would maintain the evidence strongly supports that some groups have), then they are indeed examples of biological populations not controlled by “natural limits” but rather self-imposed social limts. To then say that this is wholly disproved by other groups that don’t live by limits is to essentially say that one (albeit significant) set of groups of the human population represents the one “true” nature of the entire human population.

Further, the whole argument that it’s not going to happen pains me almost physically, because it reminds me so vividly and precisely of the arguments that, for example, slavery (especially its “peculiarly American institution”) would never end, or that women would never achieve a more equal place in society, or contribute to science. Go back 75, 100 years, and you could find no doubt thousands of people, perhaps millions, people as smart as you, who would say “Not. Gunna. Happen.” Slavery is here to stay; women are biological incapable of becoming plant ecologists; blacks cannot handle freedom. We know this for a fact.

And they were wrong as the day is long. As wrong as we may be to say that humans can’t/won’t be sustainable; as wrong as we may be to say that humans can/will be sustainable.

The point to me is that I don’t know. Immanuel Wallerstein has pointed out that we’re in a unique juncture in history (though someone since pointed out to me that you could say that about almost all important junctures of history). Be that as it may, I think it’s only scientifically honest of me to say I don’t know. Oh, sure, we can extrapolate from other biological populations, from human history, from so-called first principles, from whatever you like, but since we all admit that both ecological and social systems are more complicated than their underlying phyisco-chemical constituents, it seems nonsensical to me to then essentialize the larger system down to anecdotes of dumb people we’ve seen, met, and heard of and known and believe exist, the biological destiny of unsustainability, and wrap it up and call it a day. It is, to me, an amazing amount of hubris that I’m not willing to take on, nor think it is productive or useful to do so. To me, saying the we can’t/won’t be sustainable is equally preposterous and hubristic as saying we absolutely will be. Who the fuck knows? Besides which, I think most people agree that the complete extinction of the human race in the near-to-medium term is unlikely, almost no matter what we do to the world. To maintain that we will simply rinse & repeat our mistakes ad nauseum is to ignore the possibility of culture and biological evolution shaping us otherwise. It would take an incredible holocaust to wipe out all the humans on earth; barring that, assuming we achieve something like the average species lifespan (what is it, a couple million years?—ah, wikipedia says for mammals it’s one million) it seems hopelessly facile to me to presume that humans 500,000 years from now will be essentially the same as humans today (and to argue that we will, with certainty, find a way to destroy ourselves before then is equally empirically weak). Any given projection of what humans will be like in the (evolutionary) long term is incredibly flawed, given that predicting this for even the simplest of organisms is wildly dicey, to say the least. Doing this for the most socio-ecologically complex organism on earth is lunacy.

Now, most people respond implicitly or explicitly to this by clarifying that they mean the short-term: they're not concerned with the long-term of the human race in terms of millions of years, but rather, can we avoid disaster in the next 50-200. Who the fuck knows? I certainly hope so. I certainly think study of environmental history gives us reason to think it's possible, as much as it gives us reason to be pessimistic that it's likely. I certainly hope we do not have massive depopulation events and tragedy. But I take solace in the idea that it seems almost inevitable that we will change towards a more sustainable way of being. (One can view this as being of a cloth with what my mom calls my abnormal comfort in rationality, inspired by a trip to Ireland 2 months after 9/11. She was worried about my safety, to which I responded "Well, there are something like 37,000 flights per day in the US, so even if I was flying ON 9/11, the chance that I would've been hurt is overwhelmingly unlikely." There was a pause before she told me I was not like normal people and I should just reassure her that I would be careful and call her when I landed.) And if it is possible to reach in the long term, I think it is only sensical to believe in it and try for it in the short.

The point of my post on the Continuum was that if one believes it is physically possible that we will stave off disaster, it makes no sense to go around emphasizing only that it is unlikely or near impossible. If it is physically possible, it is so in some large part because of our will and ability to learn and organize. Or ability and will to do so is negatively affected by emphasizing its implausibility. So if one cares about pulling it off, one needn't be Pollyannish about it, but why persist with dwelling in negative examples and unlikelihoods?

In my work, I've already seen countries and people accomplish things I never thought possible; feeding a city of 2.5 million people, switching a country as a whole to urban and peri-urban and organic agriculture. If humans found a way to fly when it was said it couldn't be done, if we could get to the moon, split the atom against all odds--why not believe and invest in our ability to break the "scientific" laws of human unsustainability?

"Oh, that's different" people say. Possibly, I say. But equally: Bullshit. We knew women were inferior (though I suspect a number of women all along knew they weren't). We knew slavery was forever. We knew that humans flying was ridiculous. We knew that the sun would never set on the British Empire, that agriculture could never be improved to produce more food, that Rome would never fall, that Monarchies were ordained by God--as Tommy Lee Jones said in Men in Black, imagine what we'll know tomorrow. In all of those cases, there were all the reasons in the world, and all the dumb/racist/misogynist/scientifically informed people you could want to say it wasn't possible. I'd rather be one of the ones saying it is and turn out to wrong, but I hardly think I'm in bad company to assert that another world truly is possible.

My mentor's mentor, biologist Dick Levins, has said that we know from history that the vast majority of today's "scientific fact" will turn out to have been wrong in the future. The challenge is not, therefore, in simply finding science today that is wrong. It is in finding science that will stand the test of time. I think the same applies to this situation; so many of us know it can't or won't be done. I find this attitude to be a fine way of combining hubris, cynicism, and counter-productiveness. I'm not smart enough to say we can't do it. So I spend my time trying to figure out how we can--what facts will allow us to stand the test of time. To me, to do otherwise is self-indulgence almost equal to that of avoiding vaccinations. It may seem fine for an individual to indulge in, but really, we can't afford it.

J's Reasons Why Maybe... We Can Do this: An abbreviated list

Prugh, Costanza & Daly's "The Local Politics of Global Sustainability" (ISBN 978-1559637442)

Elinor Ostrom's "Governing the Commons" (ISBN 978-0521405997)

The City that Ended Hunger (aka Belo Horizonte)

None of these mean or guarantee that we can do this, but I'll tell you what. If in any case I believe in the slogan "Yes We Can!" it is in this arena. No, We Might Not. Yes, It'll Be Hard. No, It Won't Happen Tomorrow. No, It's Not Wildly Likely, A Fait Accompli, or Inevitable. But: Yes, We Can.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Strategicallly Optimistic

I've been reading materials on subsistence food systems, sustainability, environmental problems, and "human nature" well, for a while now but also several as of late. A speech Bill Rees gave at the Ecological Society of America meeting this summer, along with one of his articles and numerous comments by pretty much every ecologist ever (with the exception of certain Marxist ecologists of my acquaintance and likely a couple others) speak of the problems of human nature in achieving sustainability. Humans have an inherent tendency to expand; humans are inherently selfish; etc. etc. Rees, who has a PhD in population ecology, claims in one of his articles that ecologists are reluctant to treat humans as ecological beings and to deal with their population ecology scientifically--and concludes that our "nature" is to expand.

I think this is problematic in a bunch of ways, but there is one that I'm going to address right now that makes reference to a couple of the others. [? -- ed.] Having talked to Prof. Rees in person, he says that we might (he's not very optimistic) be able to head off absolute disaster by constraining human nature through culture; his example was the rituals and efforts towards monogamy overruling our non-monogamous nature. This is a weird mental exercise to engage in, because it puts human culture in the position of being "unnatural." That is, if our nature is to do one thing (expand/consume more, have random hookups) and our culture constrains it, then you're defining our culture out of our nature. This is some extreme mental yoga if you are, as Rees claims to be doing, treating humans scientifically because nothing about humans can be unnatural in a materialist sense: everything that exists is natural, and more to the point, culture, being derived from our biology, must also be natural and hence "part of our nature." Now, intuitively what he says makes sense because the dichotomy between nature and culture, impulse and impulse control, id and superego, nature and nurture go deep, deep, deep into our culture (however natural or unnatural it is). But I would say this dichotomy is not only unscientific but unhelpful twice over: it obscures the nature of the relationship between our "nature" and our "culture", AND I find it extremely unhelpful rhetorically.

Having wandered around for awhile without getting to the point, I'll skip discussing why obscuring the nature of the relationship (or rather, obscuring the fact that culture and biological impulse go hand in hand, and are not clearly distinct; at the very most, they are like water and cold in the analogy of snow: you need both to create snow, and you can't assign priority to one or the other, snow only makes sense in terms of their interaction) is bad science in my opinion, and move on why the splitting of the two is bad strategy in my opinion.

Given that Rees, and many others, thinks it is at least possible for humans to learn/think/choose our way out of this, a key part of doing this is mustering the social movement, structures, and education to support it. Clearly, people of the "humans are naturally unsustainable" camp don't think it will happen "by itself", ex nihilo. If you think the solution is "culture" or some other self-maintained restraint, then seemingly people have to believe that humans are at least capable of said restraint. That is, if restraint is cultural it seems necessary that people think it possible in order for it to be possible. (I'm sure one could argue this is not strictly logically necessary, but I'm not going to.) Certainly it seems to undermine your effort if you convince people that they CAN'T control themselves to be sustainable. Yet this is exactly what the rhetoric of "humans naturally expand/consume" does. People who don't believe self-control is possible certainly seem unlikely to exercise it. People also (understandably) don't usually view saying that human nature is unsustainable to mean that humans can learn to be sustainable; nature is viewed as immutable, insurmountable. To then claim that we can control ourselves through culture plays into a societal narrative that tends deeply towards vulgar biological determinism, i.e. that if something is part of our "nature" we can't control it. So it seems both unwise and unscientific for Rees and others to say our nature is one thing but we can (theoretically) get beyond it through culture* because in our deterministic narrative, we tend to view such attempts to get beyond nature as noble yet doomed (cf. monogamy).

If cultural change can lead us to sustainability and such a cultural change is possible according to the laws of reality, such a cultural change is as "natural" as expansion. Expansion may be easier, or more likely, or our inertial course, or whatever, but if we can stop doing it, then the ability to stop doing it must also be natural, no?

If you think we can control ourselves and successfully achieve sustainability (at least, before the worst of the worst disasters happen) then it behooves you to promote this idea. If culture is the vehicle, surely a culture that believes its objective is possible will be more likely to embrace & achieve said objective. If you're not of the camp that believes it is physically impossible, it makes little sense to contribute to that point of view because you can only fulfill your own prophecy.

This isn't as deep as it seemed to be in my own head, but nonetheless, it seems not to be grasped by people like Rees. It makes one think he doesn't believe his own statements of the possibility, because if you believe in it, why constantly discourage people from thinking it may be? It would be like Civil Rights leaders showing up at rallies 40 years ago and saying "there's really no way we can ever achieve our objectives. Now--let's go do this thing!" You don't have to say it's easy--that's hardly what, say, MLK did--but nor did he say "I may not get there with you, but it doesn't matter, because you won't get there anyhow." I study what I do -- successful or partly successful examples of sustainably providing human rights -- because my analysis is that hearing about and learning and believing in positive examples is more important to a productive solution than talking about their improbability. Talking about the challenges has its place. Scaring people may have its place. But if your very success depends on your belief in its possibility (more so than usual--you know, when it literally depends on it), pessimism seems almost like a selfish indulgence.

*If you aren't materialist about it, that is, believe in the soul or spirit, or some other higher being or place beyond nature, you could be consistent in an argument that our non-material being/spirit/consciousness/soul must get beyond our nature to save ourselves. But outside of this viewpoint, it doesn't make sense, because our nature is all of us that exists; if we can do it, it too is part of our nature and therefore the characterization of our nature as expansionist but controllable is at the very least, imprecise language. Understandable and sensical in a certain context, where one might mean "basic drive" rather than "immutable trait", but certainly imprecise.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Babbling, hopefully in an interesting way, about veganism

This responds to this article on the HuffPo by Ari Solomon.
Despite agreeing with much behind what Solomon says, I think he undermines himself in this article that is, basically, a screed on vegan's rationality. Yet, he clearly has feelings about veganism that go beyond the rational or "logical." There is nothing inherently wrong about this, but from a rational/logical perspective, I find this sentiment ill-formulated:

"All animals deserve to be free from unnecessary pain, fear, and suffering at the hands of humans."

It may be morally hard to disagree with that, but it *is* a statement on morality, a value statement, not a logical proposition. I wouldn't argue that working to help fellow humans or, say, broad secular humanism are purely "logical" systems. For example, I myself choose to work in an area pertinent to social justice because of my relevant beliefs, not because it is in some unassailable way "logical." And of course, one cannot actually practice what Solomon is talking about literally, because the growing of vegetable crops takes an undoubtedly huge toll on animals as well, from their production (i.e. pest elimination, exploitation of pollinating bees) to their harvest (i.e. threshers killing field animals; tractors crushing soil fauna), their processing (even vegan and vegetarian processed foods tend to be made in plants, where there again will be pest control and likely "maximum allowable" animal parts from processing plant mishaps with resident rodents, say), and their transport (I'm sure we could cut down the number of insect deaths and roadkill if we demanded all food transport took place at low speeds, i.e. not interstate highway speeds.)

This is not to critique veganism as inherently flawed, and heaven forbid that someone think I'm defending careless or thoughtless eating. Local food, ethically produced food, organic food, food where you personally know the farmer, and yes, vegetarianism and veganism all help address numerous problems in our food system, that threaten our ecosystems and ourselves. But come on--addressing many of these issues is a moral choice, verging on a choice of "faith" in how the world should be run and for whom.

"...if we say we care about cruelty to animals then it's time we start caring about all animals. Yes, dogs and cats are companion animals but in terms of suffering our canine and feline friends feel the same as a pig, cow, chicken, lamb, or turkey. To pick and choose species in terms of whose pain we care about is incredibly hypocritical and inconsistent."

There is much, *much* to agree with in veganism. But this article sets out to talk about its logical premises, and then leaves numerous logical holes, filled in with values. Values that may be noble, or righteous, or just, but nobility and righteousness verge on what one could call spiritual choices.

Solomon seems to aspire to the intellectual rigor of, say, a Peter Singer, but seems unwilling to fully embrace utilitarianism or a similar system where there is consistency, but as with any system, absolute consistency or certainty leads to counter-intuitive or extreme results. An absolutely consistent veganism along his lines would lead to conclusions way beyond what most would consider reasonable or, dare I say, "rational". For Singer's utilitarianism, this comes in often with his famous equating of animals with humans without higher reasoning/brain functions; in Solomon's case, the inescapable conclusion that "consistency" would demand could be, for example, not eating almost all crops in the US, considering the animals killed in the production of almost all plant-based products, especially those processed or transported for any significant distance. By the same consistency, one could similarly critique and therefore conditionally ban the use of, say, wind power, airline travel, and tall city buildings that, even with technological advances, will likely inevitably kill significant numbers of birds, etc.; one could conditionally ban non-emergency speeds above, say, 30 or 40 mph to avoid killing insects or inadvertent roadkill.

I don't disagree with the aspirations of veganism; but seeking to avoid the "exploitation" or unnecessary pain on all animals is a *value decision*. It must be discussed as such, especially if you wish to talk about all meat and all animal products; veganism has no special claim on logic, and to appeal to such a claim is not only inconsistent, verging on perhaps hypocritical, but also counterproductive. Just like telling religious people that they can't possibly be religious and care about logic, telling everyone that they can't possibly care about animals unless they follow vegan rules generates far more self-satisfaction and (illogical) righteousness than it does converts or reasoned discussion.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

HoYay! brought the Visigoths at the Gates

"I wanna be noted for the fall of your Civilization! At the Gay Bar, Gay Bar, Gay Bar, Woo!"**

Interesting article on the otherwise-annoying-me-quite-a-bit-recently Slate today, reviewing James Davidson's "The Greeks and Greek Love." Author Emily Wilson goes over Davidson's "fascinating, meandering, funny, and thought-provoking study of how ancient Greek men loved one another." Observing the current state of things vis a vis gay marriage and the status of same-sex relationships, Wilson calls it
"a central problem for modern Westernized societies. Many countries allow same-sex couples the right to a "civil union" but withhold from them the name of marriage. The Netherlands was the first modern nation to legalize marriage proper for gay people, in 2001. Since then, seven U.S. states have also legalized gay marriages, although one, California, has just backtracked. On May 26, Californian lawmakers upheld a ban on same-sex marriages in the state... The ban is based on the idea that there is—or should be—something fundamentally different about sexual and romantic relationships between people of the same sex and those between a man and a woman. Since history is so often invoked, either implicitly or explicitly, on both sides of the debate, now is a particularly good time to look back at the history of same-sex relationships."
She goes on to say that the book
"ought to be required reading for anybody curious about the antecedents of the current impasse. [It] is a landmark study that challenges earlier historical interpretations of the evidence. For instance, [some] scholars... have argued that the Athenians were obsessed with anal sex, which they saw as an act of domination and humiliation. Davidson brilliantly shows that this interpretation is largely a projection on the part of modern historians, who have been reluctant to imagine a world where gay relationships could be expressions of love, affection, and appreciation, rather than deeply skewed power arrangements."
Observing Davidson's arguments on the Athenians ("same-sex relationships—which seem to have generally taken place between youths in their late teens and young men in their early 20s—were an important part of a boy's journey to manhood... [and] many men continued to be interested in "boys" even after marriage; happily married poet Sophocles and unhappily married philosopher Socrates both flirted with young men at drinking parties and caused no scandal in doing so. (The amazing thing about Socrates' sex life, according to Plato's Symposium, was not that he fancied the gorgeous Alcibiades but that he resisted having sex with him, even when snuggling under the same blanket"), Cretans ("Cretan rituals were equally strange, from an Athenian perspective..."), and Spartans ("In Sparta... a curious kind of sex seems to have been the custom between well-behaved men and chaste teenage boys. Apparently the lover was supposed to relieve himself only by rubbing against the boy's cloak: The cloak had to remain on at all times, as a sort of all-body condom"), I realized that I must have missed that part of The 300.

Of course, the funniest thing to me about the article (and somewhat exemplifying Slate's more-than-occasional breathtakingly tone-deaf and dumb contrarianism) is that it reminds me of a typical Slate contrarian years ago who was all "can't we have just ONE uber-violent movie with mainly manly men battling, oiled and sweaty, without just ASSUMING homoerotic tones?" To which I thought, sure, go ahead, but if I were you, I wouldn't take my stand on HoYay's inappropriate over-application and tie up the end of my mediocre article on the (lack of real) homoerotic undertones in action movies by talking about "The 300" and fucking SPARTA, where there actually WAS homoeroticism, you know, in the form of HOMOSEXUAL SEX. Not explicitly in The 300 itself, if I recall, but in that silly thing called "real life."

This being, after all, the same real life where two of Western Civilizations's most influential cultures, Greece and Rome, had common and rather accepted forms of gay love and managed to, oh, form the rhetorical and historical basis for much of modern Western society. (Not to mention the many celebrated philosophers we so often cite in our paeans to reason or democracy who, at the very least, batted for both teams, and of course that historical war juggernaut, Alexander the Great.*) But, I'm sure Rome's eventual fall was probably due to a lack of heteronormative "family values."

*"Alexander the Great, just steaming through Persia; took out Darius the 3rd as we all know. And then he ran on... and after a while his army's going, 'Hang on. Alex, I think we lost 'em. You know, I don't know where we live any more, and we've killed most of the people we've met. So would you just like to chill out.' And Alex is going, 'Look, I'm 32, I'm gay, I'm on a roll. Let's go!' On you go."


Monday, September 21, 2009

Brilliance: "Obama Administration Statements On The Public Option or A Nervous Boyfriend Trying To Talk His Girlfriend Into Anal Sex"

From J-Fave Fire Mickey Kaus:

Which is it?
Obama Administration Statements On The Public Option


A Nervous Boyfriend Trying To Talk His Girlfriend Into Anal Sex

"I’d be happy [if we didn't] do it ... and if there was a way of doing it that [was okay with you], I’m happy to do it that way, as well."

"I'm just kinda talkin' about how it might be okay to do. If you're into that sort of thing."

"No-one is being forced to [do] it."

"I see nothing wrong with having [it] as a choice."

"Whether we have it or we don’t have it, is not the [issue]."

"It's certainly not a deal-breaker."

"Only if you're cool with it."

"These are legitimate concerns, but ones, I believe, that can be overcome."

“I just want to figure out what works.”

"No, I'm just kidding! Unless you were serious ..."

I can't top or add anything to that, except to say that these all seem to be Obama, except the last and fourth-to-last. And the second... ok, so it looks like there are 3 examples that are, as far as I can tell, "Nervous Boyfriend Trying To Talk His Girlfriend Into Anal Sex", and 7 "Obama Administration Statements On The Public Option (That Could Feasibly Double As 'Nervous [and Overly Officious] Boyfriend Trying To Talk His Girlfriend Into Anal Sex')".

Thursday, September 03, 2009

*Addendum to previous post (Genetically modified Crops: Critics of the GM Critics Gone Wild?)


I'd already half typed this out and then accidentally deleted form the copy'n'paste clipboard... argh.


Let's give it another go...

----begin digression----
*One may ask how this fits with my and others generalized critique of corporations, especially as relates to their role in food and GM crops. That is, you could fairly argue that I tend to paint them with a broad brush, rather categorically. Firstly, I wouldn't really consider corporations a "side" the same way I consider "pro-GM" as a "side." Corporations are not equivalent to a point of view, and my point was that you can't (or shouldn't) dispute a point by dismissing everyone advocating that point as cynically motivated. Corporations are far from everyone advocating GMs; you have food activists, university researchers and even researchers within ag. corporations who cannot be uniformly assumed to be irrational or motivated by, say, greed over the welfare of others. (Of course, I don't really accuse corporations of being irrational in their pursuit of objectives I think are often detestable, or at least questionable.) Indeed, I have friends and colleagues who believe in the potential and need for genetic modification, and I don't presume that they are irrational, motivated by greed or other ulterior motives, or anything but, in most cases, genuine concern for others and an intellectual belief in the need/utility of GM crops. This is more what I was referring to. One shouldn't, of course, categorically dismiss *groups* OR *sides*, but besides pointing out that corporations aren't, to my mind, a proper "group" in this sense (in that they're made up of people with a wide diversity of opinions, even some that dispute the primary positions of their own company) and insofar as they are a group, they're a group that as a matter of record and fact are committed to profits and not to social welfare; when the two conflict, they have and do argue that the former must come before or even at the expense of the latter due to the rules of their constitution and "personhood." This is a topic for another time, but is a primary component of what I see as problematic with corporations.
---------end digression-----------

Genetically modified Crops: Critics of the GM Critics Gone Wild?

See this story in Nature on the backlash against an article published finding that
"...[caddis-fly larvae] fed only on Bt maize debris grew half as fast as those that ate debris from conventional maize. And caddis flies fed high concentrations of Bt maize pollen died at more than twice the rate of caddis flies fed non-_Bt pollen. The transgenic maize "may have negative effects on the biota of streams in agricultural areas" the group wrote in its paper, stating in the abstract that "widespread planting of Bt crops has unexpected ecosystem-scale consequences.""

I've said much on GM before, but as far as this article about the swift and forceful critical attacks--as attacks they can be described, when the scientists are charged of scientific misconduct by critics, as we were in an article on organic agriculture, when most would admit that the "misconduct" is usually, at most, from strident but perhaps valid disagreement on wording or analytical approach, my challenge to the types critiquing the GM crop critiques is:

1) Find studies that *find negative effects from GM crops* that you feel are well-conducted. The probability that all studies that critique/find negative effects of GM are poorly done is exceedingly low.
2) If you actually feel all the research finding negative effects are poorly done, for the sake of science and balanced analysis, point out how this is similar/dissimilar to problems in "pro"-GM articles. That is, while it's unlikely all "anti"-GM science is badly done, the probability that all of them are badly done and all of the studies supporting GM are well done (back of the envelope calculations here...) zero point zero percent. A synthesis of the methodological flaws in each body of literature would be far more helpful than systematically decrying all articles with contrary findings and pointing to all positive findings.

In essence, it would be nice for those advocating GM to stop pretending all the evidence against it is bunk, bad science, or politically motivated. The feeling that those opposing GM accuse you of the same is not an excuse, especially considering the attitude in the Nature article of some critics that "That's just science." Accusing people of intentional misconduct is not an everyday reaction, or it shouldn't be, and anyone categorically insisting that their side is rational and the other sides aren't (or otherwise assumes bad faith on an entire side of a discussion and not on the others*) shouldn't really be listened to.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Starving during surplus; surplus of starving

Another bit here reinforcing the importance poverty/lack of socio-economic power in causing hunger and malnutrition (a topic J recently got in an extended discussion with J-friend NP; to be re-posted here eventually).

Quoting Ms. Nierenberg of the WorldWatch Institute,
One of the most interesting things Thurow explained was how the success of African farmers became their failure-in 2001, the Ethiopian harvest was the best most farmers had ever seen. They had record yields and had more food than ever to feed their families, as well as to bring to market. But that surplus caused prices to collapse more than 80 percent. Farmers couldn’t pay their debts and they cut back their expenses the next season-they planted less, they used less inputs like fertilizers and hybrid seeds, and planted just enough to (hopefully) feed their families. When the famine hit hard in2002-2003 , the same farmers, write Thurow and Kilman, who had carried their surplus grain to market the season before, were now carrying their malnourished and starving children to food aid centers. And at the same time, Ethiopian grain traders had warehouses packed to the ceiling with surplus food because foreign aid agencies were buying foreign-mostly U.S. grain-instead of from local suppliers. As a result, while millions of people in Ethiopia went hungry, more than 300,000 tonnes of grain rotted either in fields or in storage.

This is rather similar to a story that was formational in the J-career related to food issues, from a 2002 NYT story, Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots (original article is here, but I wanted to make sure readers weren't blocked by a possible NYT subscription wall). Not to pick another debate with NP, but these articles reinforce the pivotal role of poverty/lack of political power in hunger, as in both cases, there are surpluses that are going to waste rather than feeding people (although the details seem reversed, with farmers getting high, possibly inflated prices in one circumstance but underpaid in another, although J highly suspects that the farmers benefitting in India in 2002 were primarily large farmers). Fortification or yield increases or self-generation of pesticides (through genetic modification or other means) would none of them address the problems of hunger confronting the millions of people in these cases, because neither production nor nutrient content were the problem. (The argument with NP to be reprinted here revolved somewhat over Golden Rice (yes, again); one of his points was the fact that it might not solve "the" problem is not a reason it can't solve "a" problem; we'll leave it here by saying that is at least plausibly true, even if I think it to not be the case in the overwhelming majority of the time that genetic modification can solve hunger problems when market/governance problems are at root in the examples given, so even granting his point it appears like it may not be generally applicable solution, beyond potential safety and health problems J sees with GMOs... BID (but i digress)). One certainly can't make the point that production could have a secondary positive effect by lowering food prices in the Ethiopia case as in that case, low food prices (and a reliance on agricultural sales rather than self-sufficiency) contributed to hunger via farmer poverty; in the Indian case it appeared that the government was controlling the distribution of surpluses based on international and domestic political pressures, so price and supply themselves weren't necessarily prime factors there either.

Great quote from J-friend JCR, in response to a quote from another J-friend (""Americans are a stupid people by and large--we pretty much believe whatever we’re told.” -- Det. Norris, Baltimore PD, "The Wire"):
We have a very long history of mistrusting the government and believing in the importance of the individual over the community. We're steeped in it, and we don't often question it. This fundamental attitude is easy to manipulate, so that health care for everyone is bad (because you need more government investment to do it), while tax cuts for the rich are good (on the assumption that someone who is rich got that way by individual merit).

We're no lazier or dumber than the rest of the world, but our basic beliefs don't serve us as well as they could.

For the record, JCR partly credits this blog post by Frank Schaeffer for what he calls a not "completely original" sentiment. (Of course he's right; "There's nothing new under the sun", but then again, genius is, in a way, saying what others have thought but perhaps did not realize: "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.")

Friday, August 14, 2009

Oh, for fuck's sake


Apparently, the US is a criminal sex offender. So be on the look-out should this country move into your neighborhood.

I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise... I've found myself rather in agreement with critiques of recent years observing that we've come to accept prison rape as an informal additional punishment, a nonchalance which can't help but be reflected in the actual approach of the prison-industrial complex to investigating and stopping it. There's a good point to be made that we shouldn't accept rape as an informal punishment any more than we would accept it as a formal one -- I can't imagine (or I can, but'd rather not) it would pass Constitutional muster as a NON-"cruel and unusual" punishment, but our being so blase about invites it to stay part of our system.

Speaking, unfortunately, of rape, there is the continuing and seemingly worsening wave of sexual violence in the Congo, where apparently we're (the US and UN) helping to mentor other countries' armed forces in sexual violence:

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what about this issue of the US-, the UN-backed Congolese army in the area now increasing the rate of rapes? And we’re actually not just talking about women and girls, but also of men and boys, as well. Is that right, Christine?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: That’s totally right. I have to say, since they started like with the new operation called “Kimia II” with the Congolese army and supported by the UN forces, the situation here on the ground is terrible, terrible, because now we have the militias just—not just going and rape the women, they are burning villages, they are killing the people, they’re raping men. They are like—they already use the same methods like Janjaweeds in Darfur. So now the level of violence in both North and South Kivu is just incredible. There’s no more words to describe what’s going on. And we still, like—we all, like—like the international NGOs, the local, the national NGOs, all of them made reports to alert the world that there’s a tragedy going on with this operation. But they’re still continuing, and we don’t understand that.

I... have nothing else to say, really. This has sort of sapped the pithiness right outta me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Hell?

There's an at least plausibly accurate survey out there showing that most Americans think women should be required to take their husband's name when they get married. The hell?

The J Continuum: Anekantavada has aspirations of doing some sort of Latin America-thingy with the future Mrs. J Continuum: Anekantavada where perhaps he adopts her last name as his middle and vice versa (making her prospectively more accurately named as the "Future Mrs. J Continuum: Anekantavada-Hyphen-Her-Name-Here") or some such other compromise; as a fan of some small amount of ritual and symbolism, I like the idea of reflection of a union of people in some sort of union of names. But a) I wouldn't even WANT her to simply replace her last name with mine, b) legally REQUIRED? c) the HELL?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Being a world-renowned professor while black

Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. -- Harvard University Professor, editor of the Root, etc. etc. -- was arrested on his own front porch after it was determined that he was, indeed, the legitimate homeowner as far as I can tell. Writer Samantha Henig of Slate and the Double X Factor comments on this and links to some other good commentaries:

Just as upsetting to me as the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest, Emily, is the way that so many people have been responding, including in our own comments section. There’s this reflexive defense mechanism that so often kicks in with white people (of which I am one) in situations like these; an urge to stand up for the white person accused of discrimination because hey, I’m white, and I’m not racist. I’ll admit, I feel that pull too at times—I cringe at people who fling around groundless accusations of racism [and other hot-button issues].

But this is not a case where people should get all smug about being “brave” and “honest” enough to question whether race was a factor; to suggest that maybe it was Gates who was out of line, not the cop. In all the steps of this story—the neighbor who called the cops, the way the officer spoke to Gates, the fact that the kerfuffle between them, no matter how much it was instigated by Gates, led to an actual arrest—it is just so hard to imagine that not one of them was influenced by Gates (and his driver) being black.

Blogger Kate Harding has a thorough explanation of why declarations that race isn’t a part of this arrest are coming from a position of white privilege. And to “people are trying to be all devil’s advocatey about it and suggest that Gates bears responsibility for making matters worse,” she offers this: “I’m sorry, who wouldn’t be a belligerent prick after getting off a long flight, coming home to a jammed door, then finding a cop in your living room accusing you of trying to steal your own shit? I sure would.” Ditto that.

Read the rest here.

Obama and Cheney, together in bed, giving H-E-A...

With apologies to The Coup.

But; srsly?

The Obama administration asserted a legal argument that a federal judge called the Jon Stewart “Daily Show exemption,” as the Justice Department continued a court fight to protect ex-Vice President Dick Cheney from disclosures about his role in the leak of a CIA officer’s identity six years ago.

At a federal court hearing Tuesday, Jeffrey Smith, an attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Division, argued that the transcript of Cheney’s 2004 interview with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about the CIA leak should remain secret for as long as 10 more years.

Last month, Smith cited the possibility that the transcript’s release might discourage future vice presidents from cooperating with criminal investigations because their words could become “fodder for The Daily Show.”

When Smith revived that argument on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Emmett Sullivan said, “You’re getting back to the Daily Show exemption. You’re not going back there, are you?”

Read the whole thing, "Obama Lawyers Shield Cheney on Leak" by Jason Leopold, at Consortium News.