Various essays and extended pieces

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Something to think about 

The Hindu Saturday, Apr 01, 2006

Where India shining meets great depression
P. Sainath

In the village, we demolish their lives, in the city their homes. The smug
indifference of the elite is matched by the governments they do not vote in,
but control.

FARM SUICIDES in Vidharbha crossed 400 this week. The Sensex crossed the 11,000
mark. And Lakme Fashion Week issued over 500 media passes to journalists. All
three are firsts. All happened the same week. And each captures in a brilliant
if bizarre way a sense of where India's Brave New World is headed. A powerful
measure of a massive disconnect. Of the gap between the haves and the
have-mores on the one hand, and the dispossessed and desperate, on the other.
Of the three events, the suicide toll in Vidharbha found no mention in many
newspapers and television channels. Even though these have occurred since just
June 2 last year. Even though the most conservative figure (of Sakaal
newspaper) places the deaths at above 372. (The count since 2000-01 would run
to thousands.) Sure, there were rare exceptions in the media. But they were
just that -- rare. It is hard to describe what those fighting this incredible
human tragedy on the ground feel about it. More so when faced with the silence
of a national media given to moralising on almost everything else.

In the 13 days during which the suicide index hit 400, 40 farmers took their
own lives. The Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti points out that the suicides are
now more than three a day -- and mounting. These deaths are not the result of
natural disaster, but of policies rammed through with heartless cynicism. They
are driven by several factors that include debt linked to a credit crunch,
soaring input costs, crashing prices, and a complete loss of hope. That loss of
faith and the rise in the numbers of deaths has been sharpest since last
October. That's when a government that came to power promising a cotton price
of Rs.2,700 a quintal ensured it fell to Rs.1,700. A thousand rupees less.
When 322 of 413 suicides have occurred since just November 1, you'd think that
is newsworthy. When the highest number, 77, take place in March alone, you'd
believe the same. You'd be wrong, though. The Great Depression of the Indian
countryside does not make news.

But the Sensex and Fashion Week do. "There is nothing wrong," an irate reader
wrote to me, "in covering the Sensex or the Fashion Week." True. But there is
something horribly wrong with our sense of proportion while doing so. Every
pulse beat and flutter on the Sensex merits front-page treatment. Even if less
than two per cent of Indian households have any kind of investments in the
stock exchange here. This week's rise does not just mark the highest ever. It
makes the lead story on the front page. That's because the "Sensex beats Dow in
numbers game." The strap below that headline in a leading daily reads: "Dalal
Street's 11,183 eclipses Wall Street." It's moved to 11,300 since then.
On television, even non-business channels carry that ticker at the right hand
corner. Keeping viewers alert to the main chance even as they draw in the
number of deaths in the latest bomb blasts. At one point, the mourning for
President K.R. Narayanan was juxtaposed to the joys of the Nifty and the
Sensex. The irony does get noticed but it persists.

The great news for Fashion Week lovers is that this year will see two of them.
There's a split in the ranks of the Beautiful People. Which means we will now
have 500 or more journalists covering two such events separately. This in a
nation where the industry's own study put the Indian designer market at 0.2 per
cent of the total apparel market. Where journalists at such shows each year
outnumber buyers -- often by three to one.

Contrast that with the negligible number of reporters sent out to cover
Vidharbha in the depths of its great misery. At the LFW, journalists jostle for
`exclusives' while TV crews shove one another around for the best `camera
space.' In Vidharbha itself, the best reporters there push only the limits of
their own sanity. Faced with dailies that kill most of their stories, or with
channels that scorn such reports, they still persist. Trying desperately to
draw the nation's attention to what is happening. To touch its collective
conscience. So intense has been their tryst with misery, they drag themselves
to cover the next household against the instinct to switch off. Every one of
them knows the farm suicides are just the tip of the iceberg. A symptom of a
much wider distress.

The papers that dislike such stories do find space for the poor, though. As in
this advertisement, which strikes a new low in contempt for them. Two very poor
women, probably landless workers, are chatting: "That's one helluva designer
tan," says the first to the other. "Yeah," replies the other. "My skin just
takes to the Monte Carlo sun." The copy that follows then mocks them. "You'll
agree," it says, "chances that the ladies above rub shoulders with the
glitterati of the French Riviera are, well, a little remote." It throws in a
disclaimer, of course. "We don't mean to be disrespectful ... " But "this is a
mere reminder to marketers that a focus on customers with stronger potential
does help." That is an ad for the `Brand Equity,' supplement of a leading
newspaper group.

Nearly 5,000 shanties were torn down in Mumbai in the same eventful week. But
it drew little attention. Their dwellers won't make it to the French Riviera
either. Those in media focus, though, might. Mumbai's planned Peddar Road
flyover, seen by some of the metro's mega rich as hurting their interests,
grabbed yards of newsprint and endless broadcast time. There was barely a word
seen or heard from those whose homes were razed to the ground. Meanwhile, more
and more people flee the countryside for urban India. Candidates for future
demolitions. In the village, we demolish their lives, in the city their homes.
The smug indifference of the elite is matched by the governments they do not
vote in, but control. When the National Commission for Farmers went to
Vidharbha last October, it brought out a serious report and vital
recommendations. Many of these have become demands of the farmers and their
organisations. At its Nashik meeting in January, the All-India Kisan Sabha (a
body with 20 million members) called for immediate implementation of the NCF

Instead, both the Centre and the State Government have sent more and more
`commissions' to the region. To `study' what was well known and already
documented. It's a kind of distress tourism now. It just adds the sins of
`commissions' to those of omission.

Favouring corporates

The damage is not only in Vidharbha but across the land. Why is the Indian
state doing this to its farmers? Isn't farming, after all, the biggest private
sector in India? Because being private isn't enough. Ruthlessly, each policy,
every budget moves us further towards a corporate takeover of agriculture.
Large companies were amongst the top gainers from distress sales of cotton in
Vidharbha this season. The small private owners called farmers must be
sacrificed at the altar of big corporate profit. The clearest admission of this
came in the McKinsey-authored Vision 2020 of Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra
Pradesh. It set out the removal of millions of people from the land as one of
its objectives. Successive governments at the Centre and in many States seem to
have latched on to that vision with much zeal. In some ways, the present United
Progressive Alliance takes up where Mr. Naidu left off.

Where are those being thrown off the land to go? To the cities and towns with
their shutdown mills. With closed factories and very little employment. The
great Indian miracle is based on near jobless growth. We are witnessing the
biggest human displacement in our history and not even acknowledging it. The
desperation for any work at all is clear in the rush for it at just the start
of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme. Within a week of its
launch, it saw 2.7 million applicants in just 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh.
And close to a million in 12 districts of Maharashtra. Note that the Rs.60 wage
is below the minimum of several States. Know, too, that many in the lines of
applicants are landed farmers. Some of them with six acres or more. In the
Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, a farmer who owned eight acres of paddy
fields was a person of some status 10 years ago. Today, he or she, with a
family of five, would be below the poverty line. (If that's the case with
landowners, imagine the state of landless labourers.)

If the State Government's role in Vidharbha is sick, that of the Centre is
appalling. Making sad noises is about as far as it will go. As the NCF report
shows, much can be done to save hundreds of more lives that will surely
otherwise be lost. But it avoids that path.

Its vision of farming serves corporates, not communities. And the media elite?
Why not a Vidharbha week? To report the lives and deaths of those whose cotton
creates the textiles and fabrics that they do cover. If just a fourth of the
journalists sent to the Fashion Week were assigned to cover Vidharbha, they'd
all have many more stories to tell.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Andy Young - The Shameless Son 

Black History Month 2006 ended on a jarring note. Andrew Young, a
former member of Dr. King's inner circle at SCLC, who went on to serve
three terms in Congress, a stint as UN ambassador and two terms as mayor
of Atlanta before cashing out his Freedom Movement chips for a lucrative
career as an international "business consultant," decisively spat upon
the movement for human rights and economic justice that he spent his
early career helping to build. Young announced
on February 27,
2006 that he would chair Working Families for Wal-Mart, a media
sock-puppet for the ruthless multinational firm. The cynical misuse of
his stature as an icon of the Freedom Movement, preacher, former elected
official, and honored elder in black America to mask and obscure the
crimes of his corporate client marks Mr. Young as nothing more nor less
than a corporate whore.

When Atlanta's WAOK -AM radio gave Young several
minutes of live air time the morning of the 27th to justify himself to
an African American hometown crowd, the response was overwhelmingly
negative. How could he do this, one caller after another wondered
incredulously. Wal-Mart does more to depress the wages of working
people on both sides of the Pacific than any other single player in the
game, listeners called in to say. Other callers reminded each other
that Wal-Mart relentlessly discriminates against women and minorities,
ruthlessly crushes unions, and dumps its health care costs onto the
public sector while receiving millions in local government subsides and
tax abatements for each of its thousands of US stores. Andy Young used
to walk with Dr. King. He used to be on our side, more than one
observed. Why, they asked, is this happening?

To get at the answer we need to understand what an international
"business consultant" is. Andy Young is co-founder
, with Carlton
Masters of Good Works International. Stephen Glass's 1997 New Republic
article "The Young and the Feckless
" succinctly spells out what
Andy Young's firm did for its first client, Nike. Public outrage in the
US was building over Nike's outrageous business practices including
child labor and forcing employees to work as many as 65 hours per week
for only $10. Incensed citizens disrupted the opening of a Nike Town
superstore in San Francisco standing in front of the store chanting,
"Just don't do it!"

Two days after the San Francisco incident, Nike CEO Phil Knight
announced that his company was taking swift - and, it would turn
out, savvy - action to shore up its meticulously maintained but
suddenly threatened public image. Nike was commissioning an
independent investigation of its Asian operations: it would make all
facilities and internal documents available to a team of inspectors,
and it would then allow the inspectors to make their findings
public. "Nike has always been a business about excellence and
achievement," Knight proclaimed. And, to prove it, Nike would hire
not just any old corporate hack to lead the investigation into its
overseas operations, but a man of famous independence and renowned
stature - a man who had first gained recognition as a civil rights
hero, who had won wide acclaim as the mayor of Atlanta, who had
served his country as ambassador to the United Nations and who had
co-chaired the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The
honorable Andrew Young, Knight said, would get to the bottom of this.

...Young had recently founded a firm in Atlanta called GoodWorks
International... Nike was GoodWorks's first big client; its first
chance to send corporate America evidence that GoodWorks did, from
the businessman's point of view, good work. And when, four months
after Knight's announcement, Young's firm published its
seventy-five-page, full-color report on Nike's Asian operations, the
client certainly had reason to feel it had gotten its money's worth.
There was, Young had concluded, "no evidence or pattern of
widespread or systematic abuse or mistreatment of workers" in the
twelve operations he examined. To hammer home the point, GoodWorks
packed the report with photographs - many taken by Young himself -
of smiling workers playing a guitar on their break and relaxing
around a television in their dorm.

As depictions of the actual conditions faced by the real working humans
in Nike sweatshops, Andy Young's photos of contented guitar strumming
Nike workers on a porch had about as much integrity as pictures of
harmonica-playing happy-go-lucky darkies in a 1909 Alabama chain gang or
cotton patch. But integrity is not what international "business
consultants" do.

Only weeks behind Andy Young's cotton patch tour auditors from the
accounting firm Ernst & Young visited some of the same locations, and
detailed the unsafe, inhuman and abysmal conditions. This report
promptly leaked by a gutsy company insider with a human conscience
flatly contradicted Andy Young's lies.

Still, the Nike job put Andy Young's Good Works International on the
map, and over the next few years lucrative contracts walked in the
door. Young cynically rented his "civil rights hero" and philanthropist
image out to oil and mineral extracting corporations in Africa, to
bankers in the Caribbean and other interests on the Asian continent to
paper over their atrocities.

In Nigeria, where every sensible person expects the nation's vast
treasure of easily extracted oil to be pumped dry in a few decades with
little or no lasting benefit to the masses of its people, Good Works
International is widely credited with introducing the Nigerian president
to thievery, American style. Andy Young and co-founder Carlton Masters
helped engineer the creation of the first Nigerian Presidential Library,
and one or both sit on its board. Fifty million naira
in corporate donations poured in the
first day, with Texaco and Chevron thought to be among the major
contributors. By early this year the library had netted billions of
naira from Nigerian and foreign firms that do business with government,
generated a storm
controversy over the ethics of such legalized bribery, and sparked an
official investigation by Nigeria's Ethics and Financial Crimes
And along the way, Good Works landed the lobbying contract to represent
Nigeria in the US. The motto of Good Works International is after all,
to do good by doing well.

While most callers to the Monday morning Atlanta radio station
excoriated Young's willful treachery, the most interesting response came
from one of the show's co-hosts who spoke in Young's defense. The man
was a civil rights leader, he declared, a former congressman and mayor.
Andy is a philanthropist, he went on to say, whose good works help set
up scholarship funds, endow university schools of public policy, send
kids to summer camp and much, much more. He knows things we don't. He
sees things we don't. It's time to shut up, to wait and see if the
benefits outweigh the prices. Though Young's defender is dead wrong,
his stance reveals the one asset upon which corporate whores like Andy
Young can and will always trade. That asset is our slavish and
uncritical deference to elected officials, to civil rights icons, to the
clergy, to established authorities. This is what Andy Young's clients
count on, and it's what Young himself counts on

As the National Black Peoples Unity Convention
Gary, Indiana, begins this March, we are well served to bear this lesson
in mind. When is it time to listen to leaders, to icons, to elected
officials? When is it time to ignore or criticize them, or cast them
aside altogether? How many more times will other Andys and Amoses of
our black business-class leadership betray us in the name of what they
say is economic development? Will Gary make a difference at all?

The Gary convention can make a difference, if we don't allow the icons
to work their show, for their own benefit. In that sense, every black
event can make a difference, if we do not allow ourselves to be
hoodwinked and bamboozled by whores like Andrew Young, who have sold us
out to the corporate world - but yet expect us to worship at the altar
of their own prosperity.

Show up at Gary. Show out at Gary. Get crazy at Gary. Let the luminaries
know what you think, and don't allow any of them to get away with the
kind of con game that Andrew Young has run on us. Demand action, and
refuse to provide a pleasant forum for those who betray us, as Andy has

We should never give up on our people. Each venue is another opportunity
to correct ourselves. Let us take up the challenge. Raw and blatant
betrayal cannot be tolerated, and it is up to us to make it extremely
uncomfortable for the betrayers. They cannot sit among us, much less in
elevated positions.

Andrew Young voluntarily surrendered that privilege, years ago. We must
now take it from him. Cast him out of our house. Let him camp out in
Bentonville, Arkansas, with his Wal-Mart benefactors.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Venezuela using its oil to benefit Latin Americans 

ZNet Commentary
The Failure of Hugo-Bashing April 04, 2006 By Mark Weisbrot

It was yet another public relations coup for Venezuela: Vila Isabel, the samba
club sponsored mainly by the Venezuelan government, won the parade competition
in Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval last week. A float with a giant likeness of Simon
Bolivar, combined with thousands of ornately costumed participants parading
down the avenue, trumpeted the winning theme: Latin American unity.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just last month called for "a united
front" against Venezuela, continuing a long-term policy of trying to isolate
the country. But Washington has been spitting into the wind. Venezuela's
influence in the hemisphere has continued to rise while the U.S. has succeeded
only in isolating itself more than at any time in at least half a century. It
might be worth asking why.

First, Venezuela is a democracy -- despite the best efforts of the Bush team to
use President Hugo Chavez's close relations with Cuba's Fidel Castro as
evidence to the contrary. Its elections are transparent and have been certified
by observers from the Organization of American States, the Carter Center and
the European Union. Freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and of
association prevail, at least as compared with the rest of the hemisphere.

In fact, most of the media remains controlled by the opposition, which attacks
the government endlessly on major TV channels. It is the most vigorous and
partisan opposition media in the hemisphere, one that has not been censored
under Chavez.

Like all of Latin America, Venezuela has governance problems: a weak state,
limited rule of law, corruption and incompetent government. But no reputable
human rights organization has alleged that Venezuela under Chavez has
deteriorated with regard to civil liberties, human rights or democracy, as
compared with prior governments. Nor does the country compare unfavorably on
these criteria with its neighbors in the region. In Peru, the government has
shut down opposition TV stations; in Colombia, union organizers are murdered
with impunity.

> From a Latin American point of view, Venezuelans should have the right to
choose their own president -- even one who sometimes insults the American
president -- without interference from the United States. And Chavez's anger at
Washington, from Latin Americans'point of view, appears justified. U.S.
government documents released under our Freedom of Information Act indicate
that Washington not only supported but was involved in the military coup that
temporarily overthrew Venezuela's elected government in April 2002.Here in
Washington, there is a "Monty Python" attitude toward the coup: "Let's not
argue about who killed who." But in Latin America, a military coup against a
democratically elected government is still considered a serious crime. To top
it off, Washington continued to finance efforts to recall Chavez and, having
failed miserably, still regularly presents him as a threat to democracy in the

With oil at nearly $60 a barrel, Venezuela has used its windfall proceeds to
win friends in the hemisphere, providing low-cost financing for oil to
Caribbean nations. When Argentina needed loans so that it could say goodbye to
the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela committed $2.4 billion. Venezuela
bought $300 million in bonds from Ecuador. Washington has historically had
enormous influence over economic policy in Latin America through its control
over the major sources of credit, including the IMF, the World Bank and the
Inter-American Development Bank.Venezuela's role as a new "lender of last
resort" has reduced that influence.

Chavez's opposition to the "Washington consensus" on economic policy has fallen
on sympathetic ears in a region that -- since 1980 -- has suffered its worst
long- term economic failure in a century. Over the last 25 years, income per
person in Latin America has grown by a meager 10%, according to the IMF. This
compares with 82% from 1960 to 1980, before most of Washington's economic
reforms were adopted. And Venezuela's government has kept its promise to share
the oil wealth with the poor. The majority of the country now has access to
free healthcare and subsidized food, and education spending has increased

Meanwhile in the U.S., while Vila Isabel was winning the Rio Carnaval,
Connecticut became the eighth American state to participate in the program by
which Citgo Petroleum Corp. provides discounted heating oil for poor people.
Citgo is owned by the Venezuelan government. In the contest for the hearts and
minds of the hemisphere, Venezuela is clearly winning.

[Mark Weisbrot is co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research,
in Washington, DC.]

Center for Economic and Policy Research, 1611 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 400,
Washington, DC 20009Phone: (202) 293-5380, Fax: (202) 588-1356,Website:

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Think Piece 

This article was written by Rafael D. Frankel and published in Farang Magazine in December, 2004. He took many of the ideas and thoughts that I've had lately and put them into a discernible form, unlike the crap in my head. I don't agree with everything he says, but I do agree with his basic premise.

Please: read it with an open mind, get thru the entire thing, and take some time to think a bit before attacking and crucifying him and/or me. The tough part is, many of the thoughts and ideas he puts forth were not very clear to me before we started traveling. And it's taken a bit of time for me to drop the defensiveness and allowing myself a clearer view of what's going on and .

I am typing this up, copying from the magazine it was printed in. I was unable to find the article online which is why I am doing this. Any spelling/grammatical/general flubs are a product of my typing. If someone has legal issues with me over this, let me know. I'd gladly link this article instead of typing it up. But I think the message is important enough for me to take the time to do this.

Any italicized or bold sections are my emphasis.

Later, I'll expand more of my own ideas and recent thoughts. Don't worry. And these last few days in Uzbekistan are only serving to bolster and improve my thinking and embolden me in how I'm thinking lately. So be ready.


Even the Roman Empire fell, overrun by a band of "barbarian" Visigoths undaunted by the power they were tackling. But they were just the final instruments of Rome's demise. The real fall befan centuries earlier when a bloated empire became arrogant and hubristic. Sound familiar?

I honestly don't know what the future hold for the United States of America, but after a five-week visit back to my home country and the presidential election, it appears that my vision for the USA is far off track. I am not a self-hating American, nor do I want to be a mouthpiece for the intransigent Europeans who feel so culturally superior to their trans-Atlantic counterparts. I hoped I would not be writing this article and yet here I am forced to confront the fact that my country isn't just in a rut, it's diseased.

It's easy to point out where America has gone wrong over the last four years: the Iraq War, abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, failing to push for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, insulting ourallies, and making enemies out of people who once looked to us for hope and inspiration. But these are just the outward and most recognisable symptoms of the cancer running through American society-the actions the rest of the world sees without truly understanding the root causes of all of this. If these were isolated incidents, caused independently of one another and without a clear tie into the fabric of what American society has become, then I could optimistically opint out to the rest of the world that there were 55 million of us that voted for John Kerry. Unfortunately, those numbers belie a much greater and insidious affliction in the vast majority of my countrymen.

Jerry Springer not withstanding, American TV (the only form of entertainment many AAmericans can afford and/or have time for) continues to paint a rosy picture of life in "the greatest nation on earth". That message, delivered by the media, is only reinforced (not the other way around) by a goverment which continues to tell its people the "American dream" is alive and well. And though that message obviously conflicts with what the average American sees in his own life, when it is delivered forcefully, ad nauseum, throughout every medium of communication he knows, he eventually believes it's his own deficiencies which rightfully condemn him to working 80 hours a week at Wal-Mart (my parents recently met such a person) for wages which can barely sustain an individual, let alone a family.


Much has been made of the resurgence of religion in America, where more people now believe in the virgin birth than evolution. Coming from a society that was originally built upon its desire to escape the binds the Christian church placed upon them in Europe, this is a shocking statistic. But when one considers the quality of life so many Americans now endure, rather than enjoy, is it any wonder so many are now turning to religion for personal salvation from their daily grind?

Religion is nearly as old as humanity itself, and when not shoved down people's throats or imposed at gunpoint is a meaningful part of many of our lives, myself included. It has the power to help people rise to causes greater than themselves and make us truly more than the sum of our parts. But religious fundamentalism, which is flourishing in the United States, is another story.

Across the world, religious fundamentalism wins the greatest number of converts among the poor, and those who have little to look forward to in this life and thus dream of the heaven that awaits them if they suffer patiently through this one. This is true for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Jews alike. So it is no wonder that religious fundamentalism, historically and presently the greatest threat humanity has known, is as rampant in Kansas as it is in Afghanistan.

Despotic leaders often draw their support from such people even though they act against their economic interests because they are seen to share the same "values" which supersede all other considerations. So when evangelical Christians see a born-again Christian in the White House, the fact that his tax and budget policies clearly do not favour them is nearly irrelevant, and many go so far as to instill the utmost trust in him by sending their sons and daughters off to fight a modern-day crusade he portrays in messianic terms as nothing less than a fight between good and evil. Thus the belief in a higher poower originally meant to inspire purpose and kindness in mankind is once again twisted into a tool of violence and oppression.

I am not a pacifist. When the last recourse is violence, then so be it. That was the conclusion that I, like nearly all Americans, came to in regards to Afghanistan after 9/11. But Iraq, like most of the wars America has fought, did not meet that standard of provocation. And I shudder when I think that it was also initiated as a religious war pitting the armies of Christ against those of Allah as American Army Lt. General William G. Boykin suggested when he said: "My God is bigger than his God [Allah]. I knew my God was a real God, and his was an idol."


Those that do not choose religion as their coping mechanism largely escape via the American mass media. An entity of its own, the media has spun so far out of control it now exists as a post-modern beast which actually manipulates its own creators. Much has been made of reality TV and rightly so. Programs like The Swan in which the unusual and 'ugly' publicly debase themselves for the amusement of millions by undergoing plastic surgery in order to be more accepted has ventured. But though they make the racy soap operas look conservatively quaint in comparison, such programs are easy fodder and are more a symptom of the disease rather than the sickness itself.

Indeed, what is far more damaging than entertainment programming is the lack of serious discourse in American media today. It says a great deak about the state of journalism (and I say this as a journalist myself) when the best reporter of the entire 2004 campaign was the comedian John Stewert of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. For the duration of the campaign, Stewert drew more viewers than any of the network news channels, and not just because he is funny. Stewert's biting social commentary, not focused on the individual candidates alone but more broadly on the "system" as he puts it, resonated with many Americans who long ago realised the mainstream media had failed them.

It speaks volumes about the state of American journalism (and Stewart himself acknowledges this) that his brand of political satire does a better job of contextuializing American politics than the vast majority of serious news programs and periodicals. Though Americans may be ignorant as a nationality, we are not "dumb", as the Daily Mirror headline, funny though it was, proclaimed. Rather, the mass mainstream media has created a culture more in-line with Orwell's thought-controlled 1984 than the revolutionary, individualistic ethos my country was originally built upon.

"I trace the current outbreak of droid-like conformity to the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when groupthink became the official substitute for patriotism, and we began to run out of surfaces for affixing American flags," wrote best-selling American author Barbara Ehrenreich in The New York Times last July.

"Groupthink has become as American as apple pie and prisoner abuse....Our standardized test-driven schools reward the right answer, not the unsettling question. Our corporate culture prides itself on individualism, but it's the 'team player' with the fixed smile who gets to be employee of the month. In our political culture, the most crushing rebuke is to call someone 'out of step with the American people'. Zip your lips, is the universal message, and get with the program," she said.


The second story I found telling the state of America came from the New York Times and said that America alone, which accounts for roughly 4.3 percent of the world's population, consumes 52 percent of all illegal drugs. More than simply hypocritical (considering our draconian drug laws) it speaks to the quick-fix preferences of most Americans. Most of us do not like to confront complexities so when challenged with a personal problem, Americans increasingly resort to drugs. My mom, a social worker, confirms this saying she is often "shocked" by how many of her colleagues prescribe drugs to quickly and allow patients to take them without undergoing simultaneous counseling.

Transferring that mentality to a national and intetrnational level, it is understandable how so many Americans identify with George W. Bush's version of a black-and-white world where people (even those within America) and other countries are "either with us or against us". It is the simple solution to a comlpex problem that works for those who are moral absolutionists or those induced into short attention spans by the aforementioned media and rigours of life in 21-st century America.

So what is the prognosis?

Like our current attitude toward the environment, this life is not sustainable. The toxic build-up of stress, media, religious fundamentalism, economic greed, war, and even the very food we put in our bodies will eventually implode. As the athor John Burdett speculates in the highly nuanced detective story Bangkok 8: "There will be TV news pictures of people fleeing from supermarkets and pressing their hands to their heads, unable to take the banality anymore."

From my view, that implosion started November 2nd with the re-election of President Bush. The fact that the election was free, fair and undisputed only makes me more pessimistic about the future of my country. If Bush had cheated like he did last time, at least I could say most Americans were still against him.

That so many people (voter turnout was a record high even though it was still small in percentage terms compared to other democratic countries) willfully and by all accounts proudly cast their ballot for W. acts as an endorsement for the current direction the USA is taking both at home and abroad. That after all the events of the last three years since September 11, 2001; after knowing how Bush views the world; after seeing more than a million jobs evaporate at home; after seeing over 1,100 of our soldiers not come back from Iraq; after a minimum of 14,000 to a maximum of 100,000 Iraqis have died since the war began (although that statistic is conveniently absent from the American discourse); after all this, that close to 60 million Americans still voted for him confirms my worries that there is a cancer in American society that is spreading with impunity.

American chef, historian and philosopher Jon Beckman puts it more succinctly: "So Bush won. I wish the record to show that I have lost faith in my nation to date from Nov. 2, 2004. The US deserves him. The comfort we have demanded is now mandatory. Urine samples will be collected in the morning.

"The Democratic Party is no longer a contender in electoral politics. They had everything going for them-the righteous 'throw the bums out' posture; an imbecilic, draft-dodging, election-stealing incumbent engaged in a tragic, unjustified war during a tepid recession, causing a listless economy with massive layoffs; [an administration] without any real accomplishments during [its] tenure; a mobilized, angry constituency. And they not only didn't win the presidency, they lost the equally divided Senate and dropped further in the House. It's over. The Wal-Mart Evangelicals have already out-bred the small-thinking minority in this country for years and will continue to do so ad nauseum until they have their treaseured Hell on Earth that they have so desperately desired," he said.

Some Americans reading this article will tell me that I'm being too pessimistic; that I'm just shell-shocked at the election results and that I'll get over this gloom and doom; that things will get better with the 2008 election when we very well may elect our first female preisdent in Hillary Clinton. I'm sure I'll also be accused of being a self-hating American, European apologist, and probably a poopy-head (labels are so easy). But the problem ist that I started writing this article two weeks before the election, convinced there is a problem much deeper in American society than the colours of the federal government.

Some Democrat (not, I think Hillary) probably will win the 2008 election, and I myself may be working on that campaign. But unless we usher in a new era in America, with a radical overhaul of the way our society-government, media, the economy, the social structure all taken together-functions, it will only treat the symptoms of the cancer for a spell without curing the patient.

All empires fall. And the fall of ours-barring a radical course correction is only a matter of time. Though the descent America takes in terms of its military, economic, and social dominance over the world will no doubt require decades before it come to full fruition, I believe history may likely look back on this moment as the beginning of the end of that hegemony; when a combination of internal stresses, slow realisation by the rest of the world that they want no part of our influence, and the resurgence of China finally conspired to turn the tide of history against the United States of America.

Even though I voted for him, I share no part of John Kerry's dogma that caused him to say, in his concession speech, that "in an American election, there are no losers. Because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning, we all wake up as Americans. And that-that is the greatest privelege and the most remarkable good fortune that comes to us on earth."

Bullshit. For those of us who are not wealthy, white, religious fundamentalists gun-lovers, we lost big time in this election. And when John Kerry has the gall to say otherwise, he only prostrates himself before the beast that is gobbling up Americans by the millions.

So it is this "light at the other end of the tunnel is a freight train" situation that Americans like me now find ourselves mired in. And what to do about it all? Some strong critics of the US government are calling upon the opposition to buck up and try harder than ever now, while others feel resigned to defeat.

While I view the prospects for Americans like me as seriously dim, I am still an American, and almost as a rule we never give up. We love the underdog story; the hero who fought against all odds to become champion while captivating the nation during his rise to glory. How else to explain such an outpouring of emotion from the whole country over the Boston Red Sox?

After laying low for a while, I'll once again use this laptop to write and communicate ideas that subvert the dominant paradigm in the hopes that the great fall of America that I foresee can be avoided. If I'm going down, damnit it, I'm giong to go down swinging.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Do We Need Nature? 


The question of whether or not we need nature is the basis of heated debate. The simple answer is yes, though complications arise in attempting to quantify how much is needed. Developed countries must accept their reliance on other countries, differing self-interests from developing countries, accepting the need for compromise so that the needs off all can be met.

All will concede that a certain level of nature is needed. However, it is impossible to define a universally accepted quantity of “need”. What's more, “need” can be actual or perceived. Among countries, a general working definition of nature and base consensus on use must be reached to allow exploitation of our natural resources without jeopardizing the self-interests of our progeny.

We are affected by the “nature” existing in the other countries of the world. As such, the natural world is a global system. The different ecosystems are as interdependent as they are intra-dependent. Choices made regarding natural resource use in other countries will affect our own natural resources; Developed countries must essentially “pick up the slack” for natural resource abuses that are unavoidable in developing countries.

Americans, the most rapid consumers in the world, have become mega-consumers due to poor education and the marketing industry perpetuating the mega-consumer mindset. We must expand the nation’s worldview and realize the interconnectedness amongst the nations of the world and the importance of working together for a common solution.

A global consensus on laws and regulations regarding natural resources is needed in order to maintain a “sustainable” amount of nature, and the approach to reaching this consensus must be site specific.

Once an understanding of differing needs is reached, we can better answer the question of how much nature we need and reach a stable level of consumption that meets the needs of all.

Do we need nature? This simple question is the basis of heated debate between those who want to preserve nature and those who want to exploit it. The simple answer is yes, though complications arise in attempting to quantify how much is needed. We, the developed countries, need nature to maintain our self-interests, which entails maintaining our current standard of living and preferably improving on such. The problem we face is the need to adapt less destructive consumption levels since the standard at which we now live leads towards a cataclysmic end. Part of this adaptation is the realization of our reliance on other countries to maintain our standard of living. The self-interests of developing countries, however, differ from those of developed countries. This idea of differing self-interests must be realized and accepted so that compromises can be made, resulting in all needs being met.

Deciding how much nature is needed requires an established definition of nature. Developed countries tend to define nature as natural resources needed to maintain their self-interests, such as wood or petroleum. As such, this definition does not consider the needs of developing countries. Therefore, a general working definition and base consensus must be reached among the stakeholders involved: politicians, ecologists, the industries that rely on the forests and oceans for their livelihood, etc. These stakeholders will concede that a certain level of nature is needed, as the absence of nature in any definition leaves us bereft of the ability to actualize our self-interests. However, it is impossible to define a universally accepted quantity of “need”. What's more, this “need” for nature can be further broken down into two subgroups: actual needs and perceived needs. An actual need is a need for without which life cannot perpetuate, such as potable water or oxygen. A perceived need is the desire for something we feel we cannot live without, such as indoor plumbing. Perceived needs make defining a quantity impossible. The following example illustrates the two types of need and the potential conflict that arises. It also illuminates the call for a general consensus in order to stave off loss for all.

A small town in rural Uzbekistan relies on a local river to irrigate crops and stave off dehydration. These needs conflict with the large international mining company located upstream from this village. Most of the mineworkers are in Uzbekistan temporarily from developed countries and are used to a higher quality of living. Thus, to appease their employees, the company supplies indoor plumbing and decorative fountains (the latter an aesthetic often used as a testament of affluence). These are wasteful, perceived needs of a very scarce natural resource in an environment that provides a very limited supply. Being downriver and having no strong voice, the actual needs of the small local village lose out. If attention is not drawn more closely to the scarcity of water, the river may be run dry and there will be no water left for anyone’s use. Thus actual and perceived needs contained within the same geography do battle, and without a consensus amongst the stakeholders, disaster is not inconceivable.

Reaching a consensus is mandatory to allow exploitation of our natural resources without jeopardizing the self-interests of our progeny. Exploiting natural resources will continue, but we must ensure their use is both sustainable and consistent with our current and/or desired quality of life. Unfortunately, the criteria for what qualifies as a sustainable use of our natural resources and quality of life is both a subjective and variable measurement. We are treading on dangerous ground when we attempt to make long-term predictions about a dynamic system such as nature, and we must move forward carefully so as not to make rash decisions that will have long ranging negative effects on any group of people or nation. Regrettably, it is impossible to know how badly a resource is needed until it is gone. If current natural resource usage continues to surpass the regeneration rate of nature, our descendants may find themselves incapable of sustaining a quality of life remotely similar to what we have had in our lifetime. More drastically, we may find ourselves unable to maintain our current self-interests in our own lifetimes. Furthermore, whether we realize it or not, we are affected by the “nature” existing in the other countries of the world. Underdeveloped countries provide a majority of the natural resources that we exploit. If these countries were to lose their natural resources, we would need to find a new location to exploit or place more reliance on our own resources. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of natural resource locations on this planet and once we run out of new locations we have nowhere else to turn.

As such, the natural world is a global system. The different ecosystems are as interdependent as they are intra-dependent. Choices made regarding natural resource use in other countries will affect our own natural resources; e.g., Americans’ use of imported petroleum precludes them from depleting as much of their own petroleum reserves. Likewise, choices made in other nations affect our quality of life; e.g., South American countries using rainforest trees for cooking fuel contribute to the greenhouse effect that diminishes the amount of clean, breathable air for the rest of the world. While developed countries tend to focus only on how their use of natural resources affects them locally, they must realize that developing countries, knowingly or not, rely on developed countries’ responsible use of natural resources. Developed countries must essentially “pick up the slack” for natural resource abuses that are unavoidable in developing countries. The following example illustrates how this should work.

The majority of the population in Central American countries is poor and landless. An overwhelming majority of the land in these countries is owned and exploited by the wealthy population to produce exportable products. This leaves the majority with no way to provide themselves with consumables as they have no money and no land of their own on which to grow food crops. Consequently they have an actual need to slash and burn sections of the rainforest to expose the only available arable land for food crops. To counteract the environmental damage caused by the destruction of the rainforest, developed countries such as the United States, which produces the worlds’ greatest amount of greenhouse gasses in large part due to automobile exhaust, need to establish and enforce more aggressive means to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses they produce.

Unfortunately, American consumers have developed self-interests not conducive to a global consensus. Their consumption rate has been gaining momentum and will eventually create critical issues with natural resources the world over; their consumption rate has become too rapid to provide adequate time for natural resources to replenish. The following statistics support this claim:

· “Developed nations annually consume about 80 percent of the fossil energy worldwide, while developing nations, which have about 75 percent of the world’s population, consume only 20 percent.”1
· “Fossil energy use in different US economic sectors has increased 20- to 1,000-fold in the past three to four decades, attesting to America’s heavy reliance on this finite energy resource to support its affluent lifestyle”. 1

The authors of this book are among those who believe that natural resources are being exploited to our eventual detriment. “The world supply of oil is projected to last for 50 years at current pumping rates. The supply of natural gas is adequate for 20 to 35 years, and the coal supply for about 100 years. However, these estimates are based on current consumption rates and current population numbers. If all people in the world enjoyed a standard of living and energy consumption similar to that of the US average and the world population continued to grow at a rate of 1.5 percent, the world’s fossil fuel reserves would last a mere 15 years.” 1 These statistics illuminate the mindset of the current consumer-based American society-a society of consumers has become a nation of mega-consumers. They further emphasize the need for a worldly consensus on natural resource use rather than adoption of the American consumer based mindset.

Myriad reasons encourage the mega-consumer lifestyle. The marketing profession and the media play an enormous role in promoting our “need” for material goods. Starting at a young age, marketers target children in order to instill in them a lifelong consumer mindset. As these children grow into teenagers, marketing methodology changes. No longer do techniques merely focus on having children cajole their parents into making a purchase. Marketers take advantage of teenagers by focusing on their insecurities and providing an entrance into “popular society” through stylish clothes and current trends. As teenagers face a torrent of emotions and desires to belong, this scheme lashes them to their fate as a consumer.

A lack of a quality education in the US also contributes to the mega-consumers mindset. A poor education creates a citizen insulated from the problems of the rest of the world, the needs inherent in these problems, and the essential differences between countries. One aspect of this poor education is the average education garnered from public schools in the US. The following statistics illustrate the plight of the country’s schools:

· Proper supplies are essential to providing quality educations. As a result of aging, outdated facilities or severe overcrowding, 75% of the nation’s schools are inadequate to meet the needs of school children.2
· The United States trails many other countries in the quantity of resources they devote to public education. A study of 30 democratic countries ranked the US as 15th in the amount of total direct public expenditure for education as a percent of gross domestic product. 3
· Reading as a child creates a foundation for creative and critical thinking skills as well as the ability to adopt a separate point of view. The ability to analyze a situation from a different point of view becomes crucial when dealing with other cultures. However, a recent comparison with 38 countries ranked US 8th graders last in the number of hours per day spent on reading for enjoyment. 3

Lack of desire to experience other cultures is another aspect of education gaining popularity in the US. The popularly held notion of America as the most powerful nation on Earth facilitates a feeling of complacency and promotes the illusion that we are capable of operating completely independent from other countries. Consequently, fewer people see merit in leaving their home country to experience the multitude of differences among cultures. The lack of these experiences adds to the difficulty in identifying with and finding empathy for the plights and needs, actual or perceived, of other countries.

The compounding effect of poor education and the skills of those in the marketing industry perpetuate the mega-consumer mindset. To overcome this downward spiral of mega-consumerism and help ensure the preservation of our self-interests, we must expand the nation’s worldview and realize the interconnectedness amongst the nations of the world and the importance of working together for a common solution.

A global consensus on laws and regulations regarding natural resources is needed in order to maintain a “sustainable” amount of nature. The general approach taken must be site-specific. As mentioned in the previous examples, different cultures and places have different real and perceived needs. The real needs of societies must be used as the basis for these decisions. Furthermore, concessions must favor developing countries, as their quality of life is inferior to that of developed nations.

Once an understanding of differing needs is reached, we can change self-interests to be more global in scope, better answer the question of how much nature we need, and reach a stable level of consumption that meets the needs of all. We can then end the debate on how much nature we need and begin the debate over how much nature we want.


1 Environmental Integrity. Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health, Pimentel, David. Washington, D.C., 2000. p.126

2 American Society of Civil Engineers. 2001 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

3 National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics 2000. February 2002.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Book Reports 

In time, I will be adding some reviews on books I've recently read. I haven't written a book report in a while, so it may take me some time to get back into it. Bear with me

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