Sunday, July 30, 2006

zero sum game?

I want to respond a little bit about this comment. I certainly don´t
want to argue that technology does not and could not make a difference
about the total amount of goods being divided up among people of the
world. Goodness knows that the agricultural technology that was
introduced in the 1970s, which made possible a doubling and tripling
of the yield of many food crops, would be enough to clinch any
argument about that. But I also don´t think that the changes we´ve
seen over the last couple hundred years are enough to invalidate a
hypothesis of zero-sum.

Picture the world economy as a single system, within which goods and
people circulate. Picture it being subject to entropy: it tends
towards a state of even distribution of wealth. However, due to the
application of energy via more or less coercive economic/political
relationships, most of the wealth flows to just one part of the
system. (There are a number of problems with this metaphor which I
won´t go into now.) Another dynamic of the system is that there is a
constant demand for growth in the rich parts of the system. There are
two ways this can happen: first, more wealth is taken from the poor
parts, leaving them even poorer. Second, the total area encompassed
by the system grows.

This system has only recently reached its current size. Preiously,
say 600 years ago, the "world economy" may have only encompassed the
metropolitan centers of Europe and the Middle East. During this time,
there was less total wealth encompassed by the system, so although the
rich centers were rich compared to the poor ones, they weren´t all
that rich compared to current standards. Over the next centuries,
however, as technology improved (under the favorable conditions of the
concentration of wealth in the rich places) more and more places were
incorporated into the system, partially due to the application of that
technology. Now the wealth is still flowing towards the rich parts,
but there is a lot more of it, so the rich parts are better off. And
technology is advancing even faster.

What´s the difference between now and a few hundred years ago? We´ve
hit limits in two directions. First, there are very very few places
left on this planet which are not incorporated into the world economy.
(Nicaraguan peasants, for example, are very very completely
incorporated. That´s a big reason why they´re so poor.) So since the
system is still demanding growth (read stock market analyses if you
don´t believe me) the only alternative is to get more and more wealth
from already-incorporated places. And there are limits to this sort
of thing. Even if it doesn´t provoke a revolution which directly
opposes the rich countries, people die out... from plague (think HIV),
or from other, easier-to-fight wars (think the Congo), for example.
Second, we´re rapidly approaching an environmental crisis, if we
aren´t already in it. (My husband´s uncle and aunt strongly recommend
a book called The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler. I haven´t
read it yet myself, but I very much respect their endorsement.)

Frankly, I think that the one way we could really get out of this
without a total break with the system (which would probably involve a
lot of human death, unless we´re way luckier than we deserve to be),
is space colonies, both to increase the area encompassed by the
economic system and to have an environmental safety valve. So maybe
I, too, am a believer that technology can be a way out.

In any case, now that I´ve made myself sound like a total radical, I
want to say that I´m not a nihilist, I´m not terminally depressed
about the immediate future of the human race, and I don´t rule out a
non-violent solution. I´m not arrogant enough to think that I can
forsee what will happen in the next 100 years. I just firmly believe
that we won´t be able to proceed the way we´ve been going on.
"Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" -Antonio Gramsci

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

voluntary simplicity

July 25, 2006

Dear friends and family,

I'm typing this entry from the plane as I fly back to Nicaragua after
about a month in the U.S. I visited family, got an old friend
married, and accompanied Tom as he started his clinical rotations
(during the third year of medical school they send the students into
the hospital wards to experience the nightmare-ish schedule and begin
to learn how to do doctoring.)

As I expected to, I had a lot of culture shock on my return.
Fortunately, this is a familiar thing for me, so I knew what to
expect. When I get culture shock, I alternate between intensely
loving and intensely hating the things that are different. I love hot
water from the tap! I hate cars and the lack of alternative
transportation! I love the wide variety of food! I hate how much
stuff people feel they need!

It is perhaps this issue of overconsumption that I have continued to
think about most after getting over the first couple of days of the
emotional rollercoaster. The amount of spending and using up of
resources that we do in the U.S. is both environmentally and
economically unsustainable, even if we are the only ones who do it.
(The least controversial reason why it is economically unsustainable
has to do with the huge amounts of debt that we currently take out to
maintain our levels of spending.) And the object of development
programs, even sustainable development programs, is to raise the level
of consumption of poor countries up to that of the U.S. The idea of
reducing the consumption of rich countries is never on the table in
any powerful forum, although you do hear about it in alternative
venues like the World Social Forum (which meets at the same time as
the World Economic Forum).

Why do the policy makers of the world continue to pursue such
unsustainable strategies? I think it has a lot to do with the scale
that they think on. Mainstream economists and policymakers think on
the level of the nation-state: the economy of the United States or
the economy of Nicaragua, for example. They might also think in terms
of the economy of a particular sub-region, like the economy of New
Hampshire or of Matagalpa. But they almost never think on the level
of the world economy. From the perspective of the nation-state,
economic development looks possible and attainable. Taiwan and
Singapore recently moved from being poor countries to being rich
countries via a process of economic development beginning with export
assembly manufacturing, for example. So why not Nicaragua?

Anthropologists in the theoretical tradition that I belong to, on the
other hand, tend to think on the level of the world economy (maybe we
have this luxury because we are not often called upon to participate
in economic decision-making.) From this perspective, we see that the
system, as it is set up, depends on their being both rich countries
and poor countries. (Where were your clothes made? Do you think they
would have cost the same if they'd been made in your hometown in the
U.S.?) We see that yes, Taiwan and Singapore moved from being poor
countries to being rich ones. But this doesn't much matter to the
system as a whole, because there continue to be plenty of poor
countries, so we're not destabilized. But wealth seems to be, in the
long term, a zero-sum game. From this perspective, I can understand
the efforts of any given poor country to compete with other poor
countries and try to get out of poverty. But the efforts of the World
Bank, for example, which has the mission to work for the development
of ALL the poor countries in the world within the confines of the
current system, seem futile at best, hypocritical at worst.

This is all very disempowering and depressing. Sure, even if it's
true that our wealth depends on the poverty of others, what should we
do about it? Even if we gave up all worldly possessions, the world
economic system would stay the same, right? Well, I've been feeling a
renewed commitment to lower my consumption levels, for example
thinking about how we might be able to avoid acquiring a car when we
move out of New York City (it's easy to be an environmentalist when
the subway system is way easier than driving anyways). Maybe our own
efforts won't make any difference at all, but I feel like it's at
least a morally defensible position. And it's also comforting to find
that we're not the only ones in the U.S. thinking along these lines: is one example (if I'm remembering the URL
right—I'm on a plane and can't check. If this is wrong, try googling
"voluntary simplicity".)

Ursula LeGuin has a short story called "The Ones Who Walk Away From
Omelas" which I first read in a high school literature text book, and
I think it's very relevant to the current discussion. It's only four
pages long, and I would absolutely love for everybody reading this
entry to read the story, if you haven't already. I found it a while
ago in a number of different places on the internet, so I assume it's
in the public domain. You can read it by clicking here .
And let me know what you think.