Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pollution, Poverty, and the Nano

The introduction of the ultra-cheap, Tata “Nano” car in India has prompted significant media response. Just this morning two articles appeared in the “Points” section of the Sunday Dallas Morning News: a reprint of Slate’s essay by Anne Applebaum, “The Nano Challenge,” and another (“The People’s Car”) by Mira Kamdar, author of Planet India: How the Fastest Growing Democracy is Transforming America and the World (Scribner 2007).

Now, the “Nano” is certainly not the first automobile to be introduced as “The People’s Car” (remember the Volkswagen and the Model T?), but this one is being hyped as the car that will transform the Indian economy. According to Robyn Meredith in Forbes, “it would herald the emergence of Tata Motors on the global auto scene, mark the advent of India as a global center for small-car production and represent a victory for those who advocate making cheap goods for potential customers at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ in emerging markets. Most of all, it would give millions of people now relegated to lesser means of transportation the chance to drive cars” (April 2007).

What’s particularly interesting to me is the promotional video hosted by Ratan Tata himself, in which he describes the evolution of his idea, inspired by seeing entire families precariously perched on motor scooters. The culmination of the research team’s efforts develops dramatically on-screen in the video, first as an engineering sketch, and finally as the fully-realized car—all to the haunting strains of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, better known as the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The future has arrived! At last!

Tata claims in the video that the car meets existing emissions standards—in India. But India’s pollution problems can only be exacerbated if more and more cars enter already-crowded city streets (most of them ill-suited to motorized traffic in the first place), adding particulates to already horrific air pollution. As Kamdar points out, adding millions of cars in India and China essentially dooms the planetprobably in the sense that it might produce a tipping point that finishes the job the West has already started. Despite the fact that most Indians will actually be unable to afford even the $2500 price tag, the growing middle class will be targeted, persuaded, and sold on owning one of these little status symbols.

Which brings up a central question: why not simply rely on human-powered local transportation (walking, riding bikes, taking pedicabs) for short distances, and on fuel-efficient, low-emissions public transportation for most long distances? Especially in developing countries where air quality is already miserable because of badly-designed factories, why are these people being persuaded that the only way to be “modern” or to “enter the twenty-first century” is to buy into the Western cult of waste and excess?

“Well, it’s okay for you to say,” some will retort. “You live in a comfortable house, drive a car, have plenty to eat. You already have all the stuff I want. How can you criticize my economic choices?”

I grew up in a country where we rode pedicabs and busses to get where we wanted to go. Merchants on bicycles carried crates of their wares all over the city, selling as they went; I remember buying everything from soba to a baby rabbit. These drivers and hawkers were mainly wiry old war veterans who didn’t fit into the emerging Taiwanese economy, but who needed to support their families. Taipei in the late fifties and sixties may not have been a shining beacon of cleanliness (it did, after all, sport open sewers), but the air was far cleaner then than it is now, with its streets choked with cars and motor scooters (despite the shiny new rapid transit system). When my mother returned to the States in the late nineties, she had emphysema, which doctors attributed to a combination of smoking and pollution.

This is not an argument to return to the stone age, as some technophiles would claim it is (not that a stone-age economy doesn’t appeal to my ornerier self). But before Big Capitalism starts foisting more pollution-generators on people who probably don’t really need them, shouldn’t we make sure that the quality of their lives improves first? Shouldn’t they be allowed to make a living that doesn’t require them to ingest toxic fumes all day in order to afford a bit of rice? Are people who grow enough food for themselves and their families, and who live in communities that carry on age-old traditions really poor?

These questions occur to me frequently, as I drive down the highway through suburban sprawl, past strip-malls selling millions of units of absolutely useless frippery, in my eight-year-old fuel- efficient car to a job I really enjoy. The admixture of pleasure and annoyance I experience is probably pretty typical of many liberal-minded, environmentally conscious citizens, even in this part of the world. I would love to live closer to work, but chose this town—thirty miles north, with its historic preservation district—so I wouldn’t have to anguish over the fact that great old houses like mine are being torn down in Dallas to make room for huge, tastelessly-designed, monster mansions. I would love to take the train every day to work (and get off at the station located less than a block from the college), but local voters seem reluctant to raise taxes in order to bring the train this far north, and the state itself makes raising local taxes difficult.

People like me are in no position to tell those in developing countries how to live their lives. But we also shouldn’t be foisting new technologies on them and demanding that they emulate our values and “lifestyles.” I fail to see how filling Indian streets with tiny little cars that cost ten times the annual income of an average Indian family will improve the general economic lot of the citizenry. It will certainly make Mr. Tata wealthier (although, in all fairness, he seems like a reasonable guy) and his corporation even more powerful.

Photo credit: Aerosol pollution over India, Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Muddling Toward Frugality

It recently occurred to me that “frugality” might offer a nice substitute for the over-used and ill-understood notion of “simplicity.” People who talk about “simple living” these days don’t really mean it the way I do (simplifying life by making quicker dinners and spending less time cleaning house seems to miss the point), but maybe what I’m really talking about is being frugal: not wasting stuff, cutting down on excess, using time carefully, saving resources.

I stole the title for this post from Warren Johnson’s 1978 paean to decentralization and the inefficiency of the adaptive process. I’m sure that many of my ideas about utopia come from reading this book and others like it when I was coming of age and needed something to do while I was nursing babies. The only problem is that it may be a bit late now, thirty years later (with things going worse than many of us ever imagined back then), to rely on muddling—as a species, at least. But I think that ultimately most of my ideas about frugality as a laudable approach to life were gleaned from sources like my grandmother (whose father, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, drove a stagecoach) and M. F. K. Fisher—whose book How To Cook A Wolf (about surviving the Depression) was the first book I ever read that could be described as a philosophical approach to cooking.

The chapter I remember best is “How to Have a Sleek Pelt,” which considers the ethics of pet ownership in trying times, and allows for fellow-feeling between human beings and animals that’s not circumscribed by notions of human primacy. While feeding animals when people were having a hard time obtaining enough for themselves to eat might have seemed sentimental (or even problematic) at the time, it simply seems generous to me at this point in history.

My grandmother learned frugality the old-fashioned way—at her own mother’s knee—and she practiced it throughout her life. I find myself thinking of her frequently these days, as I rinse out a plastic sandwich bag or carefully fold lightly-used aluminum foil for later re-use. The standard recycling mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” seems to have been born among people of my grandmother’s generation, who did so out of necessity rather than choice, and then later did so out of habit. And I’ve survived in meager enough economic circumstances during my own life to appreciate what she taught me, and to make use of her lessons even in times of relative plenty.

Being frugal, of course, is not the same thing as being stingy. Frugality implies a sort of wisdom, knowing where things come from, what they mean, where they end up. If you have a fair idea about the origins of aluminum foil and how long it takes to disintegrate, you’re more likely to be careful about how you use it; plastic is even more pernicious, so a frugal person will avoid using it in the first place, and then make damned sure that it’s re-used and at least recycled. I will admit to a certain amount of smug pleasure when I set out the single blue trash bin (my city’s recycling container), on Fridays when all but one other house on the block puts out one or two of the big green bins whose contents are destined for the landfill. But I’d be a better, more frugal person if I could further reduce the number of times the blue bin goes out per month.

In fact, recycling programs, laudable as they are, are something of a sop; they probably give us a false sense of security about our contribution to planetary destruction, when much more drastic measures are really called for. In truth, individual frugality is almost meaningless when the West is on a consumptive binge that shows few signs of letting up, but which cannot go on forever if we, or any other species on the planet, are survive. Not only that, but we’re teaching the Third World to be just like us, so that whatever frugality they’ve learned from poverty will be subverted by newer, profligate economies.

Out of curiosity, I just googled the word “frugality,” and now I’m sorry I did. It, like “simplicity,” has become what I’ve started calling a “lifestyle buzzword”—a bandwagon flag that promises a more fulfilling life if we save our Christmas cards and reuse them to make more crap. “Frugal living” is now also a synonym for “simple living” with its accompanying emphasis on saving money, and making more time for the family by cooking meals more quickly.

None of this, of course, is necessarily bad. But it is misdirected. What we need to save is the planet, not a few pennies on a loaf of bread so we can spend them on gas. Way too many people on this earth can’t afford to have “lifestyles.” It’s all they can do to stay alive.

A truly frugal approach to meals would involve growing as much of one’s own food as possible, to avoid wasting fossil fuels and other forms of energy. It would entail careful planning instead of “quick and easy” menus, and slow, deliberate, thoughtful cooking that involves the entire family rather than mom’s slapping something together so she has time to sit down with dad and the kids to eat before they rush off to the next planned activity.

A frugal approach to time would also involve deliberation: choosing carefully how one spends one’s time, so that learning, community, and communication take precedence over competition and consumerism. Families could play informal games of soccer rather than join organized teams, and stay home to play music instead of going shopping “for fun.”

I am thankful that I don’t have to prepare my own cats’ food, as Fisher once did; but at least I still know how, because her book owns pride of place on my shelf, and I read it whenever I need to be reminded of how easy—if only temporarily so—our lives are today, compared to what things were like in the decade before I was born. They didn't have "lifestyles" then, either.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Unlike many of my fellow bloggers, I find it difficult to comment on events immediately. For one thing, doing so smacks of knee-jerking, so I'm rather loathe to jump in too quickly. As I age, I also find it necessary to stew longer in order to form a cogent response. So although news of the recent polling debacle in New Hampshire is shortly to be overshadowed by whatever comes out of Nevada and South Carolina, I'm still miffed about the roll of polls in the so-called "democratic process," and about the way statistics are currently being used and interpreted, and I'm just now getting around to posting about it.

Benjamin Disraeli, who provided the title for the post (through Mark Twain for many of us), probably had little experience with polls, since Victorian England was short on instantaneous media outlets (although there was that enviable twice-a-day mail service and lots of messengers running around). But I am becoming increasingly angry at the intrusiveness of proliferating numbers-gatherers, whether for political or commercial purposes. I remember being called by a Gallup rep once when I lived in Chicago and possessed more patience than I do now. I can't remember the initial question, but it offered three possible answers, none of which even came close to describing my opinion. When I complained about this to the pollster, he proceeded with some gibberish about how the questions were designed to take that into account and that whatever came closest would provide a statistically valid sample within an acceptable margin of error. That's when I hung up. Now I always hang up, after loosing a few choice words about what I think of polls and the people who take them.

Perhaps this is why I have developed such a suspicious nature and have lost so much of my faith in human intelligence. I don't care how many people you survey; unless you get every one of us, your "margin of error" is not going to reflect what's actually going on in peoples' minds. It might give you a range of possibilities, but if the choices are very limited and specific, errors will creep in, and the fewer people asked these questions, the greater the possibility the poll will contain significant errors. I have no statistical basis for saying this. I only have experience and common sense on my side--having lived in several locations on this planet, among a large number of divergent cultural influences, for a long time. Democracy is not about numbers; it's about people. Focus groups pretend to be about people, because they're composed of small, face-to-face "samples" of "target audiences" in specific "demographics" (since when did "demographic" become a noun?)--but they're even worse, precisely because their numbers are so tiny. They do not really represent me; but then, being older than the preferred 18-34 age-group, I apparently don't deserve representation.

The trouble is, thanks to indoctrination by Madison Avenue through every medium that provides us with news, "we the people" have become extremely malleable and stupifyingly gullible. Folks who can be persuaded that they need to buy dish-washing liquid with air freshener pellets in the bottom of the bottle (probably the topic of a later blog) can be persuaded of any uncritical claptrap that shows up on the telly--from the presence of UFOs in Stephenville, Texas, to unsuspecting twins' marrying one another in England. And I'm certainly not convinced that exit polls conducted during primaries or general elections and reported on while the elections are still in progress don't affect what later voters do.

What I truly do not understand is why we just can't simply sit back, have a beer, and wait for the bloody results! It is in no way important to the outcome of any election for voters to know who won until after the polls have closed and the votes have been tallied. Most ballots are now cast electronically (thanks to previous disasters), and can be counted almost instantaneously. But our addiction to "breaking news" and instant gratification--or at least the perception by news media that we just can't wait--has led us to the point where people are accosted right and left, fresh out of the voting booth, and asked to answer intrusive questions which will be gathered into a spurious database, the numbers crunched, and then reported by the polling agency to the newspapers and television outlets as the Word of God.

It's not that I think numbers themselves are useless or all statistics baseless. In fact, I've only recently discovered some very interesting websites and material of a statistical nature that seem to be responsibly and helpfully constructed. I started looking into the topic when my son (who was in town this week doing a statistical audit of Star Wars Pocket Model packets, which are manufactured locally) suggested that I locate some of Edward Tufte's books on design. When I did so, I was intrigued by the fact that Tufte writes not only on the visual delivery of information in general, but on effective (and, it seems, ethical) delivery of quantitative information as well.

As it turns out, I was already familiar with Tufte, because he authored one of my most oft-quoted truisms: "Power Corrupts; PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely"--the title of an article he wrote for Wired magazine (September 2003). Since I'm known for my bipolar relationship with the technologies I use (at once loving them and hating them), I frequently seek out critical assessments so that I'm aware of both the benefits and problems associated with tools like the internet and varieties of software. In a later article, "PowerPoint Does Rocket Science: Assessing the Quality and Credibility of Technical Reports," he provides an in-depth analysis of how this particular software is constructed and used--often badly, and on occasion disastrously--and how its use can be improved. At the end of the article he lists some examples of well-designed presentations, which led me to Gapminder.

According to its information page, "Gapminder is a non-profit venture promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels." So here we have (finally), an organization dedicated to gathering statistical information, but which (using clear, engaging presentations) actually helps the general public understand what all the numbers mean. It even features a PowerPoint presentation--one that doesn't participate in the software's implicit hierarchy--to help viewers understand why interpreting statistics is important in the first place. And this brings me to something of an epiphany: numbers can be illustrative; they actually can tell us something about what's going on in the world. But they have to be sensibly presented and thoughtfully interpreted in order to be meaningful and/or useful.

In fairness to political pollsters, I did run across an interesting blog, Prof. Charles Franklin's Political Arithmetik, which keeps track of election poll results, presidential approval rates, etc. I'm not convinced that this stuff really means anything, but if you want to know what's going on, he's got links and charts galore. In my utopia, however, there are no polls. That's mostly because in my utopia, we'd all know what had to be done, we'd work through consensus, and we wouldn't have to vote. But since we live here, on our imperfect planet earth, what we can do when confronted with pollsters is what the anti-drug campaigners are always urging: just say "no."

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Seeds of Change

Metaphors are funny critters. You get too friendly with them, and they turn into clichés, but a really clever analogy, model, example, simile, similarity, or other such trope can provide a wealth of connections among disparate aspects of human experience.

Take, for example, the title of this post. It was suggested, as was the general topic, by the arrival of my new “Seeds of Change” garden catalogue. It’s about the only one I get now, because I’m trying so hard to become a gardening purist. But since the phrase itself has become such a cliché—if you don’t believe me, do a Google search—I thought I’d look it up. As something of a classicist, I should have known that it comes from Ovid, in book XV of Metamorphoses (ll. 177-79) , but I was unable to locate the translator who composed these lines:

There’s nothing constant in the world,

All ebb and flow, and every shape that’s born

Bears in its womb the seeds of change.

From these:

nihil est toto, quod perstet, in orbe.

cuncta fluunt, omnisque vagans formatur imago;

The closest translation I could find (and I looked through at least six, both prose and poetry) was that of “Shakespeare’s Ovid”—Arthur Golding, whose 1567 translation is similar but doesn’t mention seeds:

In all the world there is not that that standeth at a stay.

Things eb and flow, and every shape is made to pass away.

The tyme itself continually is fleeting like a brooke. [ll. 197-199]

The lines follow closely (and interestingly, I think) on the heels of Pythagoras’s diatribe against the carnivorous habits of “modern” human beings, and his description of the Golden Age when men feasted only on veggies and were, thus, much more content.

Now, “Seeds of Change,” the organization whose catalogue I await eagerly each winter and dream over until planting time (and whose tasty salad dressings make me feel much less guilty when I’m too lazy to make my own vinaigrette), is more aptly named than any of the films or other enterprises emerging and using the phrase as a tag line or title. The company collects, propagates, and sells seeds of heirloom plant varieties, in hopes of changing the way we grow our produce. It’s not, of course, the only group doing so (Seed Savers comes to mind as well, and even the standard commercial seed-sellers are offering heirloom varieties more and more frequently; and local wildlife/nature organizations often offer native plants for sale).

This, it seems to me, is the direction things should be taking: salvaging and ensuring the survival of non-GM, non-patented seeds for plants that have survived the onslaught of modernity. We should certainly be taking a closer look at those plants whose properties can help save us from ourselves, such as high protein and antioxidant content and other nutritional attributes. As much as possible, we should leave behind the empty calories of the bleached or colorless varieties we’ve been growing that have been “designed” to withstand the effects of too-early harvest and the rigors of long-distance transportation.

As large a section as I can manage of the garden this year will become much less accidental than it has been. I will, of course, maintain the stands of mullein and inkberry that have volunteered in various corners, and rake over some wildflower seeds in spots that show less promise for food-cultivation. But this year’s garden will become purposeful in more than one way. Not only will there be vegetables and fruits planned for consumption and preservation, but they will be much more carefully purchased. Instead of waiting until the last minute and then popping over to Calloways to buy scraggly examples of limited offerings (north Texas suburban gardeners are sadly unimaginative), I’m going to mark my SoC catalogue carefully, order early, and make sure the beds are ready when the plants arrive.

These seeds will provide a symbolic bond, I think, between my garden and the Pythagorean landscape of flow, change, and variety—aspects of being that are painfully scarce these days, in this world of globalization, monotony, and entropy.

Photo: Mullein has volunteered in our garden for the past three years. I transplanted some lambs' ears last summer, to keep it company.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Rethinking What It Means to Be Poor

A couple of recent television and radio programs reminded me that I had long wondered why people who live off the land and produce everything they need to survive are thought of as “poor”whether they are economically well off or notby folks who live in industrialized communities.

I was listening to the local public radio station’s afternoon talk show on the way to work not long ago, and the featured guests were talking about living simply and about voluntary poverty. I didn’t catch the names, so I hit the search engines later to find out who was currently talking about this stuff. What I found, on voluntary poverty, at least, was that it was something I had been familiar with decades ago when I was at Penn and heavily involved in conversations about religion and justice. Many of my Catholic chums were deeply committed to a kind of neo-Franciscan effort to shed the trappings of material life in order to concentrate more fully on the spiritual. But there was a practical element to it, as well, that had to do with helping to relieve poverty in the inner city, because Penn is an urban university that was then bordered by near-slums occupied by starving grad students and the genuinely poor.

I was pleased to notice that the conversation is still going on. One blog, in particular, Katerina Ivanova’s Civilization of Love, seems to carry forward the concerns that many of my friends voiced back in the seventies. Plus ça change . . . The blog is not focused on voluntary poverty per se (although there are a number of posts devoted to it), but on the kind of peace I was taught about by my mother’s missionary friends in Taiwan, particularly Fr. Bernard Druetto, the parish priest on Quemoy during the shelling of the island by the mainland Chinese in the late ‘50s.

What becomes apparent, though, if you search through the web for articles on the topic of voluntary poverty, is that 1) it’s primarily a Catholic movement and 2) not a lot of poor people appear to be involved. So these days it seems to be more about reducing materialism, and is more akin to the “simple-living” phenomenon, than to the radically idealistic efforts afoot when I was in college. I don’t mean to denigrate it, because I’m gratified to see people rejecting commercial capitalism for any reason. But it does seem to be different.

What really prompted this post was a News Hour rebroadcast on January 1 of an interview with Vandana Shiva (originally aired last March), the Indian physicist-turned-ecofeminist activist. It’s clear that I don’t get out nearly enough, because I hadn’t even heard of her, despite the fact that she is truly one of the most articulate voices against globalization that I’ve encountered in all of my travels around this topic.

In November of 2005, Ode magazine published Shiva's article on “Two myths that keep the world poor.” In it she notes that the myths (that poverty causes environmental destruction, and that if you only produce for yourself, you’re not contributing to the economy) lay the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor, rather than on the root causes—industrialization and economic colonialism. She goes on to describe an almost utopian picture of self-sustained living, which industrialization and growth-focused economics have made increasingly difficult to accomplish.

If we in the West persist in seeing small-scale, subsistence-level economies as “poor” simply because they don’t produce stuff for the rest of us to buy, or because they don’t have to buy stuff we produce in order to survive, there is little hope that we can save the world from environmental catastrophe. Things will just keep getting worse if we continue to seek technological fixes, and insist on spreading our own destructive habits to ameliorate “poverty” where it doesn’t really exist. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to deal with true poverty—bequeathed upon countless people by greedy corporations that make their money by degrading landscapes and water supplies, exploiting women and children, etc.—but we should certainly not require that everybody become just like us.

The irony, of course, is that in the West we have people seeking simplicity and a rather modest version of poverty (doing without excess), while the companies we work for and buy from are making it impossible for countries like India to maintain traditional subsistence economies. The situation reminds me of the mythical American dream of small-town life, family farms, and Sunday afternoons on the porch. We bemoan the demise of the dream while giant corporate farms, supermarkets, and discount stores are steadily obliterating it, and mourn the loss of what’s left of the rural landscape, but we chalk it up to progress--and then drive our SUVs over to the Wal-Mart to save 15 cents on a loaf of gummy white bread.

The trouble is, too many Americans (and other Westerners) think that we are living in utopia, and that everyone would be happier if they were just like us. This is the worst kind of evangelism, and evidence of a cultural blindness that will only be overcome if our children start learning more about geography, culture, and economic sustainability at an early age--before they've been taught that anybody who doesn't own the latest XBox is irredeemably poor.

Photo credit: Terrace Rice Fields in Yunan Province, China, by Jialiang Gao.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 4, 2008

At Last

Well, I've done it. I've cobbled together a website on which to house my love-child (the one that was supposed to be a dissertation, but decided to become illegitimate instead), More News From Nowhere.

The process has taken an inordinate amount of time (nearly ten years), but I hope those of you who read this blog (which was designed to augment the website) will find some time to read the story--which should sound familiar if you've been along for the ride to any extent.

I had planned to have it finished by 2006, when Morris's story takes place, but (if you'll pardon the already-exhausted metaphor) the labor lasted longer than expected. However, it truly has been an example, for me at least, of "useful work" as opposed to "useless toil."

And so it goes.