Archive for the ‘hope’ Category

Troubling Heirarchy: (Rambling About) Sustainability, The Wire, and Chinese Politics

April 5, 2009

Sometimes when you spend a lot of time thinking about a set of topics they tend to bleed into each other in weird ways.

Julian Wong over at The Green Leap Forward has written a pretty good summary of eco-design principles. The gist is that we always need to use a holistic or systems thinking approach, taking the biosphere and the community into account — especially when designing stuff that will establish patterns of life and pathways for future design, e.g. infrastructure. This is not a new concept for environmentalists. But one of the reasons that Wong’s analysis is cool (and indeed his whole blog is excellent) is that he talks explicitly about the way institutions work to make eco-design next to impossible:

“If we think about the essential functions of a city, we would probably come up with a list including housing, food, clean water and air, electricity, mobility and access, education, jobs, recreation, and perhaps a few others. The problem is that these seemingly disparate functions are always designed, created and managed in silos. Occasionally, a master plan will envisage interactions between the various functions, but once such plan leaves the planner’s office and gets in the hands of the developers, operators and administrators, the sectoral boxes firmly take over. The result? A lot of waste, and policies and procedures working at cross-purposes with each other. A simple case in point is the food-water-energy trilemma–a lack of coordinated policies addressing these fundamental needs has led to narrow policies addressing each individually, but ignoring the resulting trade-offs.”

Thesis (that I won’t be able to prove): The kind of sectoral inefficiency that Wong is talking about is at the heart of any hierarchical structure. Special interests or individual actors will always seek to advance their own agendas from within, to move farther up the power ladder, and/or avoid descending a rung on said ladder. This makes community building difficult, stifles creativity, nixes any possibility of systemic change, and leads to unsustainable outcomes. Economic theory holds that people are rationally self-interested — I’m claiming that hierarchy exacerbates this, leading to undesirable outcomes.

Here’s a short video for color/flavor:

Evidence/Argument: Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Chinese government, an extremely rigid hierarchy. Each element within (be it ministry, interest group, individual, etc.) is paranoid, acting to secure their own position or advance it at all times. Local officials see themselves as being at the top of a little hierarchy and so they take advantage of their position via corruption, extortion, excessive taxation, and/or brutal suppression of those below them. Anyone who would oppose them will find their options very limited: usually they can only get their way by jumping to the next level of the bigger hierarchy i.e. using whatever means necessary to focus the central government’s attention on their issue. This is always a risky move.

(In Season 1 of The Wire, when MacNulty steps outside of the chain of command to pressure Major Rawls to initiate an investigation of the Barksdale drug outfit, he’s taking a similar risk.)

Now. The Wire is not only enthralling (on par in this respect with the good seasons of Gilmore Girls) but also unique: it is a frank presentation of hierarchy. The main locus of The Wire is institutional, rather than individual. Unlike most TV, the narrative doesn’t focus on the quandaries and triumphs of one or two protagonists. Sure, there are protagonists — but the story centers upon the way that folks negotiate the world, especially how they relate to the often hostile social institutions that pervade their lives. Characters who try to move outside of the hierarchy, who don’t take a realist approach to their work or who seek the moral high ground usually end up getting killed or marginalized (sent off to an undesirable post, for example.)

This doesn’t mean there’s no contention — otherwise why watch the show? Similarly, there has been a strong current of scholarship showing that the political environment in China is actually quite dynamic, rather than stolid. Social protests (and other extra-institutional actions) have increased across the countryside — and there’s also evidence that a lot of wrangling goes on *inside* China’s supposedly monolithic institutions of governance.

Brookings scholar Ken Lieberthal used a case study of energy bureaucracy to examine this type of infighting in China back in the 1980’s. In his recent book “China’s Water Warriors” Andrew C. Mertha builds on Lieberthal’s work to show that “policy activists” (elements strongly in favor of a particular policy or government action) continuously exert pressure on, and even within, the Party and government. Of course the system is weighted in favor of those “activists” who support the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a daily struggle going on or that the political winds might not shift.

In The Wire, each character must balance professional ethics with family obligations, ambition or career goals, and the desire to have an easy life. People are pulled in different directions in this way. For example, Lt. Daniels has to threaten his superiors with media exposure in order to get the Major Crimes unit running — a very risky move which is detrimental to his short term standing. (Ultimately, though, Daniels’ vigilante reputation becomes beneficial to his career when an activist Mayor comes to power circa season 4.)

My point about The Wire is that everyone on the show (even the dealers!) is well aware that the War on Drugs is horrible, wasteful, tragic, etc. — but each person keeps it going because they have to maintain their place in the system. Dreams of doing good or making substantial change are always compromised in the end. The quickest way to happiness in The Wire is to simply recede from the action and become a wise dimwit a la Shakespeare’s fools. (McNulty does go this route in Season 4 and much of Season 5, for example)

My point about Chinese politics is similar: it is a system that rewards conformity. This doesn’t mean that China, like the ailing city of Baltimore as portrayed on The Wire, doesn’t undergo political change — such a claim would be absurd given recent history. But it does mean that change is generally driven by whatever is perceived by folks on the top of the hierarchy as helping them climb even higher.

My point about sustainability, mostly stolen from Mr. Wong, is that calls for long term planning, community-based design and resource management, and conscientious group-oriented goal setting. None of these things happen very easily in hierarchical systems since one person/group’s priorities will always override those of the person/group below them — so short term benefit at the top of the ladder outweighs long term benefit at the bottom. This concept has been enmeshed in environmental thought for a long time because a core issue for us tree-huggers is that Nature is always at the bottom, and thus always getting thoroughly screwed by us.

Conclusion: If you were into po mo theory, you could argue that our preference for hierarchy stems from the prevalence of binary power relationships (gay/straight, black/white, humanity/nature, boy/girl, etc.) that reinforce themselves via our language and culture. Perhaps this is so. But I’m going to argue that the reason we find ourselves relying on hierarchy to organize so much of life is that it’s efficient, especially for top-down management on a large scale — the primary activity of powerful corporations and the state.

The problem with hierarchy is that it narrows each person’s field of interest, enhancing our (natural) selfishness while detracting from a) our view of larger social structures and their often deleterious effects and b) our concern for the long term effects of our actions.

So maybe we should empower organizations that don’t operate on such a large scale. This might engender community, moral action and awareness, as well as to make sustainability that much more feasible. Rambling finished!



March 27, 2009

Over 25,000 children die every day around the world.

That is equivalent to:

* 1 child dying every 3.5 seconds
* 17-18 children dying every minute
* A 2004 Asian Tsunami occurring almost every 1.5 weeks
* An Iraq-scale death toll every 16–38 days
* Over 9 million children dying every year
* Some 70 million children dying between 2000 and 2007


Various analyses indicate that the major causes of death are hunger, sanitation, preventable disease, etc.

Let’s say (and believe me, this is a hypothetical [to quote Office Space rather obliquely]) that you’re going through some kind of emotional turmoil about something, or someone. Simply pause, take a few deep breaths, and remember that the world is such an unbelievably fucked up place that nothing you do or care about really means much anyway. Sounds a little dark, I know. But that’s just the way things are.

On a recent trip to the majestic Pacific Northwest, I befriended a Buddhist nun who reminded me of the simple and profound pleasure of breathing. Ultimately that’s all you have to go on…and that too is transient.

Arundhati Roy has also provided some words of strength, life tips that I like to think about — which is why I placed them on the top right of this page. She’s witnessed and examined much more of the world’s general fucked-up-ness than you or I can imagine, and she’s analyzed the insidious structure and functions of our lovely global capitalist system to a depth that I can’t really fathom. And yet she retains an essentially positive outlook on all this gruesome reality. I have to respect that.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2009

Like last year, I have found that a New York New Years pretty much hits the spot.
I must issue an apology to readers of this blog (few as they are) that I haven’t been keeping up with the posts.
I do not in fact have an orangutan capable of expressing hope, and love…but if I did, I would post one on this occasion and send it out to all of you. New year shall always symbolize a new beginning and new hope (not confined to star wars).

Happy New Years all, and to all a good night.

What is this orangutan doing?

November 19, 2008


Give up?

He is doing WORK, he’s visibly CONTENT in doing it and he will continue to do it until it is FINISHED.

Or until a real person needs to use that computer…

Nevertheless, for the next several weeks until the end of the semester I must follow the example of this orangutan. No I’m not going to switch to Mac or start wearing those once fashionable big and shiny ties — but I AM going to WORK. While I work I will emulate this ape’s diligent attitude and placid demeanor. As a result, interesting and thorough research papers will be written and everyone involved will be happy.

That is all.


November 5, 2008

Given that its election night 2008 and I live in the nation’s capitol, I’m not sure that this post really requires content. But here are a few thoughts before I pass out:

1) Those Obama kids really do deserve that puppy.

2) The Obama campaign was the most elaborate and expensive campaign machine in history — and Obama himself displayed an intuitive grasp of how to go about it, kind of like a Federer on the tennis court. Just because McCain made it to the finals didn’t mean he had a chance at the championship.

3) This man makes it really difficult to be cynical!

If Paulo Freire was a Brit…

October 29, 2008

and a goofy one, this is pretty much what he’d say:

Good stuff.

Of course Sir Ken’s critique can be extended to hierarchy as a form of social organization in general, not just within the education system…

The Boys in Green

October 24, 2008

So I’ve been furrowing my brow upon this Green revolution stuff, not only because of the strong capitalist bent to it and the glaring lack of political feasibility, but also because I hear about it so much — and as a rule, whenever something crosses that threshold of being in my face all the time, I start to find it annoying.

HOWEVER last night in class I saw a terrific presentation by the incomparable Scott Sklar of the Stella Group which executes renewable energy projects for industrial and commercial interests worldwide. This man gave me a much needed positive vibe about the notion that possibilities exist for our future.

Check it out: the military is always on the cutting edge of new technology, and they’re *great* at getting public funding in this country. So I thought what Mr. Sklar had to say about current military projects particular interesting — since they tend to end up in the public sphere and thus the market for consumer goods (like our fair internet).

Did you know that 80% of combat deaths in Iraq are due to soldiers traveling in convoys, hence making easy targets of themselves? And of course what are they carrying in the vast majority of these convoys? Fuel!

Did you know that the military has been one of the prime movers in the development of PV-nanotechnology that can be used in dyes? You will be able to generate energy for your house by painting it with this stuff — they’ve even been able to print it on paper to make little flexible polaroid-sized solar cells. Absolutely insane.

Did you know that they make portable solar powered water purification systems? (These will come in handy in the battlefield as well as in turmoil following natural disasters, the incidence of which we can expect to go up!)

Did you know that there are also a lot of folks within the DOD who are advocating for the strategic importance of “distributed energy” — finding ways to generate energy in a de-centralized, renewables based way?

There are the same people (though military man McCain is obviously not part of this group) who worry about nuclear power and our insanely inefficient power grid as national security risks! Our energy grid needs to be more flexible, like the cell phone network — which, by the way, depends on cell towers 20% of which operate off of solar energy!

Did you know that they already sell backpacks with little solar panels embedded in them, so you can charge your laptop while you walk around?

And finally: Did you know that the solar and wind industries are the third largest employers in Germany and Spain? You can’t keep military prowess and hence global hegemony while the economy suffers…so I think there’s a faction in the Pentagon pushing for this move towards renewables. And these people tend to have quite a bit of political clout. And hell, if there’s anything that People’s Liberation Army over in China likes to do, its try to get our technology…

Here I am a peacenick quasi-anarchist and its *the military* that get me excited about the move to green energy…absolutely insane!

There is hope

August 1, 2008

This just in: MIT researchers, up to their necks in old fashioned Yankee ingenuity, may have revealed an elegant solution to our energy problem!

What’s really interesting about this is that the process is described as “artificial photosynthesis” i.e. Nature already figured out the best chemical solution to the energy problem, all we had to do was imitate her.

The question remains whether we can transmit this insight to other global crises as well.

Check out this video for yet another breakthrough from the folks at MIT, published in a recent issue of Science. It’s about “a sophisticated, yet affordable, method to turn ordinary glass into a high-tech solar concentrator.”


June 27, 2008

What is the point of the Supreme Court? Is it to push political ideology down people’s throats? Or to interpret and uphold the Constitution?

Recently the Court struck down DC’s ban on handguns. All of the press coverage on this centered around the question of whether this decision was morally reprehensible — which is not the right question to ask.

Is it a good idea to have a special law against handguns in the murder capital of the nation, my hometown? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “Yes.” (Feel free to disagree.) Does the supreme court have the right to erase that law from the books if they find it to be unconstitutional? Also, “Yes.” Will that have negative effects? That’s not really an appropriate question for this particular judicial apparatus to be asking! (Think: “Did you have sex with that woman?”)

Recently Justice Scalia wrote (falsely, as it turns out) that Guantanamo detainees tend to end up back on the battlefield if they get released, hence it is a bad idea to grant them habeus corpus. That’s not the point! The question is not whether more Americans will die as a result of the decision. The question is whether denying habeus corpus to suspected terrorists is constitutional.

Today the NYTimes came out with an editorial that starts off like this:

“Thirty-thousand Americans are killed by guns every year — on the job, walking to school, at the shopping mall. The Supreme Court on Thursday all but ensured that even more Americans will die senselessly with its wrongheaded and dangerous ruling striking down key parts of the District of Columbia’s gun-control law.”

Again, that’s not the point. Neither side is addressing the issues in a straightforward way. I suppose that when crazy judges do stupid crap, the press is bound to react in a stupid way…but this only serves to feed the endless cycle of political bullshit.

I have as much loathing for the arch-conservative and famously failed Reagan SC appointee Robert Bork as the next liberal type — but in his book The Tempting of America (which I was forced to read in high school) Bork comes out against judicial activism and I wholeheartedly agree. Judges shouldn’t push their political agenda. That’s what Congress is for. When abortion activists march in front of the courts rather than rallying their local legislative assembly, something is definitely askew.

Obama is a former Constitutional Law professor and his book The Audacity of Hope addresses these issues pretty clearly. I’m not saying that I want to have Obama’s babies or anything (he’s nowhere near progressive enough for that kind of adoration…) But I can’t help it! In all my cynicism I’m holding out a tiny, timid ounce of hope that maybe having a reasonable person in the White House will increase the likelihood that sensible judges will be appointed to the highest court in the land.

This in turn might give the NYTimes editorial board less incentive to spew their brand of ultimately distracting middle class polemic quite so often and we’d all be slightly happier! 🙂

Politics and Rashomon

June 22, 2008

By now you all probably know that Obama pulled out of public campaign financing:

Stories are enormously important and so far I’ve heard two stories about this.

Story 1: Obama, seeing a strategic opportunity to humiliate his opponent and raise unparalleled dollar$, which he claims he will need to survive the blistering attacks which destroyed Gore and Kerry, renounces public funding.

Story 2: Obama, seeing a way to break with politics as usual and enliven his populist grassroots support, renounces public financing.

I say there are elements of the truth, of what “really happened”, in both stories. Obama has thus far proved to be extremely good at managing his image, and he’s done well with this potentially volatile campaign finance thing. NYTimes columnist David Brooks wrote very astutely that the Obama video, “made a cut-throat political calculation seem like Mother Theresa’s final steps to sainthood.”

Now the role of the political press, no less than the candidates themselves, is to fit complex issues into easily digestible narratives. The genre of these narratives usually varies along with the medium — compare talk radio political analysis with op-ed pages and you’ll see vastly different storytelling strategies at work. But the goal is always the same: tell a story that people will understand and believe.

Brooks likens BHO to a split personality sociopath, which is much more common as a Hollywood trope than as a real psychological condition. It was immortalized in Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and later found many more incarnations in Hollywood film.

Now this whole good/evil split personality thing may be a good way to tell a gripping story, but it is way too simplistic to encapsulate this kind of politics. If, like Brooks, I wanted to use what is essentially a cinematic metaphor to explain the situation, I’d turn to Rashomon, the classic Kurosawa film in which a murder is retold from different perspectives and nobody can figure out what really happened.

Both Story 1 and Story 2, if repeated enough times, will become the truth. As the Commoner points out in Rashomon, “we all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.”

I’m no Kurosawa scholar, but I can point to a few facts: Japanese movies of the 1950’s tended to attack more difficult topics, using more puzzling and engrossing storytelling techniques than their Hollywood contemporaries. Plus Japan in 1950 was still reeling from the insanity of WWII. Appropriately, then, most all of Kurosawa’s films from this period blur the boundaries between truth and fiction, dwelling instead on how it’s really impossible to get to the root of things, on how human existence is ultimately futile.

Rashomon is set in 12th century feudal Japan, the classic Samurai movie setting, a time when the island was divided into many warlord states with complex inter-related power relationships. You can’t trust anyone, samurai have all sworn loyalty to their masters and yet everyone has a price, real power is largely hidden. Today’s political landscape is a lot like this!

Obama calls the public financing system “broken”, which the NYtimes editorial says is “only half true.” He calls his system of getting funding “public” even though its made up of private donations. But the “public” system which is in place allows for donations from corporate interests and so-called 527 “shadow groups,” so how can it be considered “public”? Who knows what the “real” story is?

The Brooks article definitely called my attention to the fact that by refusing to play by the rules, Obama has outed himself as a political trickster. But then that’s a good thing! (especially if you’re trying to survive in feudal Japan.) Like I said, he has shown an amazing capacity for managing his image so far. So it’s encouraging that unlike Gore or Kerry, Obama may be able to weave a compelling counter-narrative for himself when the general election rolls around and the smear ads really start to fly.