Satoyama – or How Things Should Be

Posted in Environment by Arasmus on January 30, 2009

Here is the first of six YouTube videos that relay a beautiful documentary by the Japanese broadcasting service (NHK) that recently aired on the BBC. Narrated by the great David Attenborough it looks at a particular landscape that the Japanese call “satoyama” (‘where the mountains give way to plains’). It is a gorgeous study of a pattern of human life that is harmoniously integrated with the systems and rhythms of nature.  Whereas for the last 20 years people have been commenting about how we are becoming a global village, I think that the recent financial crisis coming on the back of almost a decade of internet connectivity has moved us beyond the metaphor of a village to a much more delicate interconnectivity.  As our social networks get mapped through Facebook and ideas and observations are shared instantly through Twitter, I think of us sharing a common nervous system rather than a village.  And this awareness that we are each so interdependent on one another opens a door of humility that also allows us to consider the other systems that we are dependent on, nature herself of course being the most ignored and the most urgent.  I was quite touched by the value of ‘stewardship’ that was apparent from the outset in this documentary, for example you see a bird of prey taking a fish that the local fisherman had left out for it.  This was a value that my grandfather taught me as a child but one that I feel is quite alien to to the culture and mentality in which I have spent my adult years.  In thinking about this value of stewardship it is easy to get lofty and metaphysical but there is also something very tangible and matter-of-fact about it.  In some way the value is like when a man opens a door for a woman, it doesn’t really matter who the woman is, a man does it because of his own concept of honor.  Similarly, a man must protect the environment, as he must anyone who needs protection, because his honor requires it.  There is just no other way.


A Meaning To Things

Posted in Literary, Travel by Arasmus on January 24, 2009

When I was a young boy, my Uncle gave me his stamp collection as a gift.  He had spent much of his childhood in Africa and the album was full of stamps from exotic places and many more were over a hundred years old.  Sometimes I would open the collection and run my fingers across the embossed squares of paper and slip into day-dreams of times before my own and countries whose names had long since ceased to exist, like Aden, Ceylon and Sarawak!  These stamps had come from these foreign lands, and times before, smelled spices in the air and heard river-boats depart in the steamy morning.  They had been affixed to epistles by the banks of the Nile or had rubbed the coarse skin of an elephant along the dusty red-earthed road to a village.  They had borne Kings and Queens and dictators and freedom-fighters and, with equal bearing, their successors.  They had felt things I never knew and knew things I never felt.  They had smelled fragrances so pleasing and beautiful that those that have never known those flowers have never known the true extent of happiness.  In short, they were witnesses to great adventures and were respected as such.

How different it is today.  While traveling through Asia I blogged, Twittered and Flickrd my way through tropical islands, jungle, permafrost and palace.  I SMSd my thoughts to loved ones and these communications were received instantly.  I recall a friend of mine receiving a photo I uploaded in Northern Thailand while she was in an airport in Atlanta, Georgia.  That was amazing to me.  But while the content of the photo communicated the message that I am riding elephants in Thailand, the thing itself had no meta-data.  Indeed there was no thing – there was her cellphone and my photo on it but nothing else.  There was no frayed edge because someone in Singapore had thrown my letter roughly into a ship.  There was no bent corner where a customs official in San Francisco had stepped on the mail bag containing my postcard as he searched for contraband durian.  There was no thing.  It ceased to exist so that we could share a moment in an instant.  Yet something extra was lost.  And though I have saved the photos that I took and backed-up the Twitters that I sent, when I print them, they print on new paper. Ignorant, blank and stupid.

President Obama’s First Weekly Address – Transformation and Transparency

Posted in Economics, Politics by Arasmus on January 24, 2009

Here is the first weekly presidential address of Barack Obama. In this broadcast he describes the recovery plan in greater detail. You can see the text of this address on this page and you can stay up to date on the latest news from the White House by checking the new White House blog.

For me the top level concerns that I am glad he underlined in this address are;

(1) that the transformation of the US economy should be the primary focus of the recovery plan with stimulation of the economy a secondary effect and not vice versa. At present the Republicans on the Hill are on the other side of this issue – seeking tax breaks for the wealthy (quel change?) rather than investing the money today to yield greater and more sustainable returns tomorrow.  This is not the oft-cited example of Friedman economists because in this case we must transform and stimulate, rather than merely stimulate the economy.  Whether it was the dawn of the nuclear age, the space-race or the internet, the history of the US economy demonstrates that the great leaps forward were initiated by the state and then developed and expanded by the private sector.  So it must be with alternative energy. The network effects of the current out-dated means of energy supply and usage are so large that only the state is powerful enough to point the market in the right direction.  It is vital that the state do this in the right way, but do it, it must.  It must not pick its favorite candidate for the energy of the future, but it must offer rewards and incentives for whatever source achieves the metrics that it defines.  I believe that one important element in creating this fertile environment is to introduce a cap-and-trade carbon market so the real cost of pollution can be assigned to dirty-industry and clean-industry rewarded.  By contrast, the alternative favored by the Republicans, giving people cash, will not lead to solar panels on roofs, it will not lower our dependence on oil and it will not lead to better schools. We must make this transition at some point between now and when oil runs out. As time passes the pain of climbing energy costs will increase. We are peculiarly fortunate that if we effect the stimulus that we require by making this transformation today we will kill two birds with the one stone and position ourselves to lead the next phase of global economic growth. The consequence of a stimulus package that is in the majority composed of tax breaks to the wealthy, will be that at some point in the future we will still have to transform our economy to alternative energy but at that point we will have to do so with less money, more debt and an economy drained of its vigor after a decade of high energy prices. Its always better to bite the bullet when you still have teeth!

(2) transparency and accountability are not preferable – they are essential: without transparency and accountability there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the taxpayer will be cheated and robbed by immoral private-market partners. The behavior of contractors during the Iraq War offers shocking support of this claim (see The Three Trillion Dollar War by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes). Indeed, one only has to look at the behavior of individuals like ex-Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain (spent $1.22 million redesigning his CEO office last year while at the same time failing in his role of steward so badly that the company had to lay off thousands of workers and was eventually bought out by Bank of America) to realize how callous and clueless powerful individuals can be when they are not supervised, even in times of grave national emergency.

So far, so good. We move forward.

The Battle Begins – The Cleaner, Greener and Smarter Act of 2009

Posted in Alternative Energy, Environment by Arasmus on January 7, 2009

Yesterday, the United States Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the top 10 bills of the new session of Congress. Among them is the bill below, the Cleaner, Greener and Smarter Act of 2009. The purpose of the bill is to improve the economy and the security of the United States by reducing the dependence of the US on foreign and unsustainable energy sources and the risks of global warming by;

  1. encouraging significant investment in green job creation and clean energy
  2. diversifying and rapidly expanding the use of efficient and environmentally-friendly energy supplies and technologies
  3. modernizing the transmission grid and electrifying the transportation infrastructure
  4. reducing the emission of greenhouse gases in the US and abroad
  5. providing enhanced energy efficiency standards and incentives
  6. eliminating unnecessary tax breaks that fail to move the US towards a cleaner future

At present this bill is just a placeholder and so, as you can see from the current language, it merely contains general statements of purpose. This bill is of immense importance, not just to the United States but to life on this planet. If the politicians live up to their responsibility, this bill will lead the United States, and by effect the rest of the world, to a new stage of economic development based on renewable energy. To date, the history of the human race has been that of economic growth coupled with an often violent struggle for limited resources and unconscionable environmental degradation. This Faustian pact will become all the more lethal as the franchise of economic development expands to include several billion new consumers.  I believe that this bill has the capacity to save the lives of millions by securing new energy supplies that will obviate the likelihood of future resource wars.  It has the potential to fundamentally change the way we live on this planet and beyond. It is of immense longterm significance to the human family. Given the short-term incentives of our political structure, and the influence of incumbent businesses on the US political machine, it is unlikely that this bill will realize that potential. However, it is our best opportunity to effect change in the right direction. We the people, must keep a steely focus on the passage of this bill through Congress. We must ensure, by an intense predisposition to outrage, that this bill, the hope of the world, does not become a whore to conspiracy, compromise and concession. This is why I supported the Presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Now is the hour.