What we’re seeing in the Middle East / North Africa today and of recent is likely a glimpse into the future of human history. Our fate: hegemony over survival?
The era [of civilization] opened almost 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, stretching from the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates, through Phoenicia on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to the Nile Valley, and from there to Greece and beyond. What is happening in this region provides painful lessons on the depths to which the species can descend.
The “internet of things” surpassed the “smart grid” in December 2013 as the more popular search phrase. That following month, in January 2014, Google coincidentally announced their acquisition of Nest Labs for $3.2 billion in cash. Now let’s see what major deals will accompany GE’s “industrial internet”–if it ever takes off.
Hundreds of millions of people across India were left without power on Tuesday in one of the world's worst blackouts, trapping miners, stranding train travelers and plunging hospitals into darkness when grids collapsed for the second time in two days.
India’s electricity distribution and transmission is mostly state run, with private companies operating in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Less than a quarter of generation is private nationwide.
A member of the U.S. Navy watches the USS Roosevelt as it passes the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, while arriving for the 25th annual Fleet Week celebration in New York, May 23, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
The U.S. Navy angered Republicans by spending $26 a gallon for biofuels for this week’s Great Green Fleet demonstration, but the Air Force received little attention when it paid twice as much per gallon to test synthetic jet fuel last month.
Despite all the heat Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has been receiving from the more fiscally austere members of Congress, I think it would be insightful to remind ourselves of the high costs and risks the federal government placed on building out the interstate highway system or the infrastructure for the Internet and the social/economic benefits we’ve accumulated since they days when a dial-up connection once cost $35,000 a month.
The research coming from the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) this month reflects previous concerns I’ve made in earlier articles,,,, about the relationships of biofuels and commodities market speculation with food prices and the mechanisms driving these prices upward. Although the evidence doesn’t unequivocally confirm these concerns, this NECSI research paper is a stepping stone toward a general theory of what I’d like to call “ecodynamics”: namely, the study of the interactions of capital flows with natural resources. The abstract of the paper summarizes the fundamental argumentative thread which is worthy of peer-reviewed investigation:
In a previous paper published in September 2011, we constructed for the first time a dynamic model that quantitatively agreed with food prices. Specifically, the model fit the FAO Food Price Index time series from January 2004 to March 2011, inclusive. The results showed that the dominant causes of price increases during this period were investor speculation and ethanol conversion.
Timothy A. Wise (director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute — Tufts University) posted this very informative article on his “Triple Crisis” weblog (6 March 2012) regarding the NECSI data and food price model. A year earlier, he wrote another succinct piece on food price volatility that initially captured my interest and led me to the NECSI paper mentioned above.
United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization's world food price index from 1990-2012 (accessed 13 March 2012). Observe the coincidence of real and nominal food price peaks with civil unrest.
I used to be fascinated with economics until I started learning about banking and reserve ratios, and that’s when I started to fall asleep in my high school classes. But if I could teach economics my way, I would have started off drawing a production possibilities curve (one of the first graphs we learned) using wheat on the horizontal axis and guns on the vertical axis. And instead of leading my students down an a priori path that preaches free market capitalism, I’d introduce them to worlds where free market capitalism has failed and life has indeed become a matter of choosing between feeding your children or taking up arms.
This is the dire economic reality for the growing number of people living on the economic margins, and I’m concerned about what lurks around the corner of our future. If I’m lucky enough to one day get into a top-notch graduate economics program, I would dedicate all my time and energy looking into relationships between access to healthy food and basic resources and the incidence of civil unrest. There is a more general theory that guides this work however: income inequality has the potential to exacerbate pre-existing economic conditions. This chart that I pulled from the UN FAO makes my point on a very cursory level.
Food and water, to me, are sacred. And so it hurts me on a very profound level knowing there are people in this world being deprived of such basic sacred rights due to S/E/P machinations. Hopefully, if my prayers are answered, I’ll one day have a platform to speak up on these issues in order to raise greater awareness.
My friend put together the rough cut of what we envisioned for our project. This is loosely based on the conversation in Closing the Gap: Part II and an ongoing conversation highlighted in his blog 40C. The end goal is to do on-the-ground work in countries where our families originated while spreading awareness into the root social, economic, and political inequalities that cause such plights as highlighted in our conversations.
Close your eyes. And listen to the song I have posted above. Listen closely to the floating city-light string melody in the first 10 seconds. This is an introduction to a film and story I’m passionate about. In the blackness of your mind’s eye (which represents the blackness of the screen), a statistic in white arial font text appears which reads:
“Every year nearly 11 million children living in poverty die before their fifth birthday” .
The next string of the text reads:
“Over the course of seven years, this will be more than the number of fatalities over the entire duration of WWII which lasted for seven years.” .
The last sentence is the following lamentation:
“This is dedicated to all those lost souls, the downtrodden, and desperate.”
Each of these sentences appear on the screen sequentially in this order.
And right when the bass hits, the blackness abruptly transitions into graphic video footage of police firing on poor farmworkers during the Mendiola Massacre of 1987. Now listen carefully to the lyrics spit in the first bar: “Bridge over troubled water / Ice in my muddy water..” For 30 seconds we are bombarded by the imagery of protesters along the Palestinian-Israeli border, Nigerians in Lagos demonstrating against fuel price inflation, dedicated Muslims in Sadr City gathering en mass to protest US occupation in Iraq, indigenous resistance actions in Oaxaca and Chiapas combating police who are aligned with repressive political institutions, etc. etc. The beats hit us hard, the viewers, as if we are barraged by a slew of stones thrown at us by these desperate citizens of the world with the same force as their frustration on these post-modern battlefields against oppression. The bass you hear is a war cry: the battle drums beaten by the hungry, ignored, voiceless, the kings of the underground. This is the soundtrack of a revolutionary movement.
The music stops, and the narrator of the film checks to see if the viewer is still with us.
“Do I have your attention now? Are you still with me? Good. I’m going to take you on a trip.”
The narrator announces that he will lead us through a journey into the slums and ghettos of the Third World, the shell-shocked ruins of the civilian battlegrounds of today’s war on the poor, the wastelands of developing nations who’ve sold off their sacred lands to foreign corporations who claim to help them…
“Closing the Gap” is meant to be that bridge over the troubled waters we see in this world. My friend and I are working on a project to calm the seas, and bring peace to the lives of those who need it the most. If you read Part I, we’ve already acknowledged that this can’t be done overnight for everyone, but we hope to put all our energy into making baby steps towards progress one person at a time. Our journey across this bridge begins on the banks of the Pasig River, Metro Manila, Philippines.
Lately a friend and I have been exchanging ideas about how we want to change the world. There is a certain hubris associated with this among privileged circles of people. But we aren’t trying to “change the world” in any grandiose sense. However, I’m not afraid to say that what we want to achieve must be bold and revolutionary. This is a prerequisite for any meaningful action we wish to take in our brave new globally-interconnected world. We accept that the world is too complex and massive for us to change instantaneously as a whole. We believe instant gratification is a symptom of the mechanism(s) we wish to change. Therefore, patience and humility are of utmost importance since what we want to ultimately achieve will not be achieved in our lifetimes. But we can take steps toward that goal.
The problem: as interconnected as we would like to think our global village is, the fact of the matter is that we are growing ever more disconnected at an alarming pace. There is a dangerous gap fomenting between the center and the periphery of our global village, a gap between those who hold concentrated power and those who live on the margins of our global society. This gap is becoming catastrophic in that power imbalances will continue to grow volatile if we don’t comprehensively address the root issues driving the feedback loops of these mechanisms. As food, water, energy, and other natural resource systems lose their resilience and reliability due to the mismanaging of negative externalities, the environments that support human life will be stressed beyond precedent. This is well known. What else is well known is that the disparity in the access to resources across communities at the center and communities on the periphery hampers development.
The solution: Close the gap. Infinitely easier said than done. But infinitely many solutions in diverse and creative forms will be required. I’ll elaborate in upcoming posts.
The focus: Third World poverty. I’ll narrow this and dig deeper into the details of what I have in mind in due time. The food supply is definitely at the heart of this (see above).
Google blackouts home page in protest of SOPA and PIPA
If you visit the OpenCongress page for House bill “HR 3261 – Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA)” take a glance at the long list of supporters and opposers to the measure. You’ll notice that among the supporters are the Motion Picture Association of America, NBC Universal, Viacom, News Corp, Disney, Time Warner, Comcast, the National Football League, etc., and that among the opposers are Google, Disqus, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Stack Overflow, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, ACLU, etc. You’ll also find some unusual suspects in the “support” camp (Nike Inc, Pfizer, Philip Morris).
If you step back for a minute from the list, the division between the two camps becomes clear. Those in the information technology and sharing space are pitting themselves against the entertainment-industrial complex. You could make the case that another set of interesting divides appear: Silicon Valley v.s. Hollywood, or even Northern California v.s. Southern California. But there is something more fundamental that demarcates the two camps which is arguably evident in the cultural divide between Northern and Southern California: protecting ideas over people versus protecting people over ideas. Silicon Valley definitely falls into the former category, whereas Hollywood might fall into the latter. However, the notion of “protecting people over ideas” is a bit twisted in the Era of Corporate Personhood since the intellectual property rights of artists in the entertainment industry belong de jure to the corporations that back them and sell their art. And so really the latter boils down to protecting corporate interests over ideas.
There is something far scarier about this cultural-conceptual division albeit subtle. We might spend time battling over whether ideas ought to be protected over corporations. The telling outcome of these battles in public life however is that our political institutions have a history of bowing to the corporation–above ideas, above living people. It’s possible that with enough public pressure the outcome of this battle will lean differently than the others, but more broadly there must be a critical examination of the influence of certain corporations in the United States and throughout the world if they continue to ram legislation through our political institutions in all-too receptive environments.
Hopefully, whatever versions of SOPA/PIPA that make it to the House/Senate will be voted down on January 24. If there’s anything our political leaders can learn from the likes of pioneers at the vanguard of information technology, it’s “Don’t be evil.” But then again, even pioneers can be hypocrites.