Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Objective Scientific Information in the Political World?

This New York Times article reports the outcome of 20 months of wrangling to try to reform the censorship of government scientists and bureaucratic spin on government findings that became so outrageously egregious under the Bush administration.White House Issues Long-Delayed Science GuidelinesKENNETH CHANG (December 17, 2010),

Structurally, there is a conflict of interest between the abstract concept and claims of scientific independence and objectivity with any organization's needs to maintain internal control, sources of funding, and extrinsic political support. 

And morally and ethically speaking? -- well, first and foremost there are structural conflicts of interest!!!! Idealistic  principles and rhetoric may help make people called scientists feel good about themselves but they can only have limited intellectual and expressive freedom within corporate or government  organizations, or within the professional alliance networks that help them get tenure and grants.  These sorts of things have been discussed extensively from various perspectives. One book that comes readily to mind is How Institutions Think, but Mary Douglas http://www.amazon.com/Institutions-Think-Frank-Abrams-Lectures/dp/0815602065/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1292692090&sr=1-1 Institutions must support certain fictions about themselves to function, and individuals entering these institutions must play along and not rock the boat, or they will most probably be out-grouped and their functionality impaired -- or they may even be expelled. In business, so what? Hype is a publicly understood part of the game. But in science, religion, and certain professions challenging the company line can sometimes be a more delicate matter. These institutions allege to stand for truth and objectivity, and it is understood that internal criticism is part of the workings that help earn them their reputations, but there are conventions for internal disagreement depending on the institution. One can be a critic and respected within the professional network if one can assure the others that s/he is nevertheless a team player. 

Scientists in government agencies are likewise expected to be team players. They can voice certain disagreements if they voice them internally and if they know when to keep their mouths shut and not rock the boat.  The powers that be, for example among elected officials and industrial power-brokers, expect the bureaucrats to be able to keep control over their underlings. If they do not, then their careers are at stake and their budgets. It is difficult to see how to write a set of guidelines that could change such political realities with words. In part the system does need to strive for coordination and accountability and one cannot simply write out elements on which coordination and accountability might seem normally to depend. 

I dealt intimately with federal government and semi-government agencies for over 25 years at high and low levels and can best comment from personal experience on those that were involved with the development of biotechnology, agriculture, and environmental issues. I also dealt with university scientists that depended on funding in these areas and/or that had strong professional ties with networks of scientists in these areas. I began extensive work in 1983, early in the years when the institutional and ideological foundations were being set in place for what have become national policies on biotechnology in particular. 

In all of the agencies (and scientific networks) there were not only junior but senior scientists who had serious scientific concerns about and serious disagreements with the scientific policies and rhetoric of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and what became entrenched. Yet agency heads and university officials had their marching orders. I was also being fed concerns from scientists in a very powerful semi-governmental organization -- the National Academy of Sciences. 

Those many scientists with concerns existed in a working and political environment where the party line was to be defensive and dismissive, especially publicly, of any concerns about what administration jargon called the National Biotechnology Agenda. At every turn, I was meeting scientists with deep scientific concerns but who would only discuss them privately. To speak out publicly about their concerns would have been "talking out of school," which means being a "snitch." 

I am not in any way implying that there were not true believers in the party line!! Of course there were. And there were many who simply did not want to think beyond the conventions of how it was socially acceptable to have questions. The issue is the freedom of scientists in institutions who do have serious doubts that go beyond the acceptable bounds of disagreement to be public about their scientific perspectives that disagree seriously with what they see as the party line. Those bounds can be especially tight in government agencies when they are under political pressures, or in academic departments where particular perspectives hold sway. Then the dissenter needs special support or must simply be willing to endure the inevitable social/professional penalties.

Kids learn early that talking out of school does not mean to their peers "seeking justice" or "fighting for truth." It means being an unreliable team player. The psychology of the social animal easily transcends concerns over particular instances of bullying in school yards or prison yards. So any gains that might be had from seeking justice in particular situations run the risk of long term penalties in terms of social ostracism and revenge. Thus the easiest thing is for the individual to conform to group thinking, or at least to go along with it and try to not rock the boat.  

This principle seems to be learned at a very early stage in socialization (or is it a largely hard-wired social animal trait?) and it is carried over into adult supposedly rationally organized institutions and social networks. In any event one sees it to lesser or greater degrees even in government and universities and scientific networks, and in religions etc. 

Again, I was running into this climate of concern, frustration, and even fear at every turn in my work on biotechnology issues that began in 1983. Scientists in all government organizations had various serious scientific concerns but would only discuss them in private and would not "talk out of school." They would share their concerns because they had quickly learned that I was not the sort of person who would use their names without their permission and put their careers at risk.

By scientific concerns I mean several things. My own "assignment" so to speak was to help especially at the urging of the National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, university colleagues, David Kingsbury as he became Chairman of the White House Biotechnology Sciences Coordinating Committee (BSCC), and to a lesser extent the Department of Agriculture, Office of Technology Assessment, Food and Drug Administration, National Academy of Sciences, and various professional scientific organizations to try to understand how to think about any risks to the environment from recombinant DNA, and later to think about risks to food safety and human health.  Most biologists were and are specialists and yet this sort of analysis required integrative thinking, and I had a reputation for being good at this and also for having an unusually broad grasp of concepts and facts in diverse fields of biology. 

So most of my work and discussions over the decades had to do with these sorts of environmental and health safety concerns within the agencies. But there were other scientific concerns as well that were not directly tied to health and safety risks. Some had to do with "effectiveness." That is, were the proponents of biotech in science and industry too wrapped up in their enthusiasm and the competitive atmosphere of hype so that they were making unrealistic promises too readily? 

Eventually many books will be written about scientifically ill-conceived biotechnology projects that consumed a great deal -- to say the least -- of time, money, institutional, and other resources. A central problem was and has been that the promotional hype of proponent scientists has been far ahead of both the conceptual science and technologies themselves and in many cases not simply "ahead of" but ignorant of their limitations. 

This problem in turn stemmed not only from an intoxicating climate of business promotion and mega-dollars but from the fact that most of the scientists that founded molecular biology were chemists and physicists. Moreover, microbiologists and most other  scientists that later became involved in biotechnology continued to have only very narrow scientific training -- commonly only in biochemistry, molecular genetics, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and perhaps microbiology and the outlook was typically conceptually reductionist and typological. They had little if any substantial experience with sciences that dealt with complexity and emergent properties.  

Could biotech for example really solve the world hunger problem as was being promised? World hunger is in fact a complex problem and does not reduce conceptually to a global food shortage and the problem of growing more food on each plot of land. Moreover, there may in any event be limits to how much food can be produced by a corn or rice plant for example simply by manipulating its genetics. And is the potential of manipulating genetics with recombinant DNA significantly greater than with traditional breeding? This gives only a small glimpse into discussions that consumed countess hours among top scientists around the world behind the scenes as the "national biotechnology initiative' steamed in any event full steam ahead in its foundation years in the Reagan and Bush administration era. Many scientists had serious doubts about these and other claims that were being made.

Parenthetically, I might comment on how these particular claims have held up after some 30 years of discussions and research. Today one does still hear the "feed the world with biotech" claims though there are still no substantial reasons to believe them.  It has become more common to hear proponents say something like "we think that biotech could play some significant role in addressing the world's hunger problems." And of course this toned-down claim might be true, though what that role might be is still speculative. This is a long discussion. Also, it has become ever clearer as the industry has developed that the thrust is toward corporate monopolization of world food production, processing, and delivery. This could actually worsen world hunger. 

Here again, if one is a scientist that is trained to solve problems by focusing narrowly, one tends not be be sufficiently careful in thinking about real organism or real-world complexities and tends to ignore them as "details" or tries to explain them away without really knowing much about them.  

I could go on and on with "insider" examples related to biotechnology and genetic engineering. I could also give many examples of what was happening with regard to government agencies and the environment, for example in the national parks and national forests. My point however is that the suppression of scientific dissent in government agencies did not begin in the administration of George W. Bush. It became epidemic in the Reagan and Bush I administrations. Then once arrangements had been forged between government and university bureaucrats and industry these acted as foundations that were not easily undone. The realities of power in American and other industrialized societies had become clear enough and the Clinton administration could probably not have taken  apart and reconstituted the cultures that had developed even if it had known how to reform "the system," or indeed even if it had wanted to. The Bush II administration simply continued the manipulations of scientists that had developed earlier and arguably made the situation worse. 

Why were Reagan and Bush I so successful at manipulating the agencies? Some of this should be obvious. One factor is that Reagan was swept in by a team that included conservative think tanks and activist foundations that had been watching the government for years and had philosophical agendas and plans well worked out and were even published.  They also brought in any number of corporate executives that had spent their careers shaking up and rebuilding organizations. They were by no means great scholars but they were well studied in top management, had important connections, and were largely on the same page politically/philosophically.  They had useful ties with the military and intelligence communities and with both old and new money. 

I think it would be a serious mistake to go along with the conventional wisdom that the Bush II administration was corrupt and that the manipulation of government science could easily be ended by an administration that is or "should be" more virtuous. There is a terrible historical legacy that involves individuals on staffs and networks of individuals in and out of government and perceptions of power in America. These can be thought of as cultural or structural problems. It is not clear that these could possibly be changed by issuing a "set of guidelines" alone.  

Moreover, the "guidelines" approach is complicated by the fact that there will in any profession or organization be differences of opinion that need to be talked out. The ideal way to do this would be internally so to speak, in a collegial manner, without grandstanding. Then if there can not be agreement, a minority report should be issued. But of course organizations do not like to appear to be in disarray.  And politicians in particular do not like to be handed disputes to have to deal with, so division can be a threat to agency political support and budgets. 

I would like to close by going back to an example from biotech. Iowa lawyer Steven Druker using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that division heads with scientific credentials within the Food and Drug Administration and a Compliance Officer seriously disagreed with the science used to draft the FDA guidelines on genetically engineered foods (Foods Derived From New Plant Varieties, May 29, 1992, Federal Register vol. 57, No. 104 at 22991)  The guidelines suggested that there were not significant concerns and they did not reflect these serious disagreements among FDA scientists. Anyone at all close to the situation understood that the administrators were clearly caving into political pressures. Yet the administrators could in their defence say that they had many factors to weigh in issuing the guidelines and that scientific disagreements are quite normal. On the surface this is quite reasonable as a general statement. Administrators do need a certain amount of discretion. But the problem is that it is an administrative perspective and a general truth that can be used to cover up considerable abuse in particular instances such as this. 

One could make the same points about National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council reports. They are commissioned by agencies to help give them reliable scientific direction. So they strive as much as possible to take diverse scientific views and come up with a consensus in order to earn their keep, so to speak. Hopefully not to overstate the frequency of this -- the problem is that too often they only appear to provide a consensus and sometimes important scientific disagreements sink into the background and are hidden behind smooth rhetoric. Yet -- and this is my point -- the NAS is NOT under the direct control of the White House. It is simply necessarily involved in the political realities in Washington and the US, and must work in that environment to keep the perception that it is the place of importance and "the place to go" for objective scientific authority. Some of their reports are very good and others not so good.    

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Trade, War, and a Non-sustainable Planet. Today's Economic Crisis and China

Let us call colonialism the exertion of power by one state over another nation or another region of the earth, and call imperialism the outlook of the elites of the dominant power of their entitlement to rule. Let us keep in mind that there is not agreement on how to draw lines between conquest and colonialism and imperialism.  

The Spanish marched in and conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires militarily and some would say that this signalled the start of imperialistic colonialism in the modern era. Many would say that this was simply "conquest" as history had always known it, but for present purposes we need not bicker over terminology. The point that I want to get to is that much of subsequent colonialism did NOT fit the early Spanish model but involved power imposed through trade and debt relationships and political agreements, often with proxy local leaders, and only backed up by military intervention when necessary to support or expand those relationships and agreements. One might call this empire by manipulation because much of the machinery of control was "out of public sight" so to speak. The manipulation was in the shadows of account books, treaties, and back-room arrangements rather than in the hands of soldiers in foreign uniforms. 

How did and do such "out of public sight" arrangements come about? Let us approach the question from the perspective of human individual and social nature, and Global Human Ecology and keep in mind the proposition that masses of people would not normally knowingly put themselves under the power of foreigners. 

One might realize first that there has been bribery of individuals and factions in key positions who are superficially patriotic but corruptible.  Then of course there is bribery-enticement and/or trickery of people who are too dull or too much in denial to realize that they are being corrupted and are betraying their supposed loyalties, and these will rationalize their complicity. Those who are doing the buying-off will often bring ready-made rationalizations that the betrayers can use to ease their consciences or explain their complicity to their intimates. Offering defensive excuses can be a rather normal part of negotiations. 

This much is obvious and surely many people these days are thinking about how it is that their own elected officials and agency officials have been betraying their responsibilities. 

I want to focus now, however, on how crisis has been used to advance the cause of empire and colonialism, and now neo-colonialism. This comes up because of some of the reports coming out of Wikileaks this week about China's exploitation of the world crisis to pursue its ambitions for power and empire. What China has been doing is not categorically new, but we are all in a phase of history that is pivotal for all of us and thus of immediate concern, and there is a fair amount of information available, and we have the opportunity to study these dynamics in action.  

I suggest reading a couple of articles in Spiegel and then continuing to follow these sorts of stories. One article is "Capitalizing on the Euro Crisis: China Expands Its Influence in Europe." (12/14/2010) By Wieland Wagner and the other is "Investment with Strings Attached: Cables Reveal Resentment at Chinese Influence in Africa" (12/09/2010) by Horand Knaup.

The general picture is quite simple. The Chinese Communist Party now controls vast economic resources especially in banking and manufacturing and in some strategic materials such as rare earths . At the same time, the "Western" economies, notably the US and Europe have painted themselves into an awkward corner by pumping up their economies and economic elites largely by fiat dollars and other currencies created by governments, and by the financial industry itself in an unregulated fashion and having no clear intrinsic value. The lack of trust in the currencies  and value estimations has contributed to economic slumps, worsening unemployment, and deteriorating infrastructure.  

The Chinese power elite is cleverly taking advantage of these weaknesses and pursuing these openings to extend their economic and political power. As the writer of one article puts it, they leverage the largest political and economic advantages with minimal investments -- that over the globe add up to gaining considerable clout and control.  Speaking in general, this is the sort of thing that imperialistic elites have ALWAYS done. The US neocons were doing this sort of thing when they thought they had the advantage in recent years. 

Most of this looks to the naive simply like economic "aid" that is motivated by compassionate humanitarian sentiments. This is the public face, but it understandably has strings attached. Again, this decoy follows much of the pattern of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Much US foreign aid for example has been subsidies for US/multinational companies and has helped forge economic and political ties with "friendly" foreign elites. Much of the aid to India historically, involving trade, political and military help, railroads etc. ended up making India first into a dependency of the East Indian Company and then into a British Colony. Further examples abound. 

What keeps colonialist or neo-colonialist dynamics such as these moving toward continual expansion? It is very worrisome in terms of global human ecology that the drivers seem to have only a "go" button and no braking mechanisms that would be operated internally. This is like a biological hunger drive with no "set point" for satiety that is thus destined to create gross obesity. To extend the metaphor, one could argue that the ultimate destiny is obesity to the point of physiological breakdown and death. 

So what are the drivers? 

Psychologically, there has usually been an elite and national ideology of entitlement, superiority, and destiny. Such ideologies necessarily imply no endpoint but global hegemony of one sort or another. Christian "dominionists" today tell themselves that they are better than others and must take over the world politically for their brand of Jesus. Likewise, there are in effect Islamic dominionists that tell themselves they are better than others and must take over the world for their brand of Islam. Hegemony is a must, because God/Allah demands it. 

These ideologies do not NECESSARILY imply economic domination of the globe, but leave that option open. Thus these ideologies are potentially adaptable to forming alliances with those hegemonists that use economic, nationalistic, and/or ethnic terms of reference. These ideologies do not have the concept of "enough, stop" built into them. Similarly there have been cultural hegemonic ideologies that involve a sense of history and historical destiny and/or technological history and/or destiny. Manifest destiny in North America involved technological visions that steam and electrical power, railroads, guns, European clothing, etc. would be "civilizing" and this was commonly mixed in with notions about a white Protestant race being God's chosen people. 

The Chinese CCP elite has easily taken advantage of the sense of Chinese superiority and identity that is the legacy of centuries, indeed millennia of largely successful (yet still ongoing despite Han dominance) political efforts to build a nation out of diverse regions and ethnic groups. Current ideology involves today a constant reminder of past humiliations at the hands of Europeans, and a "national" need to recover face and rightful power in the world.  The useful long arm of this is that it can also be used to build and reinforce loyalty and support from overseas Chinese, who are often well-educated, skilled, and affluent. This sort of support from overseas has already proved to be useful to the Chinese elite, as it has also to the state of Israel (which is not to insist that Israel is on an expansionist hegemonic path).  

Economic ideological drivers have tended to be based on the naked self-interest of coalitions of entrepreneurs and networks of banks. Rulers have chartered and encouraged individuals and groups to use ingenuity and connections to pursue profits vigorously. Possession of luxuries and expensive life-syles have been encouraged in various cultures to help motivate ambitions. There is no end to these types of drivers either. There is always the bigger yacht, the bigger summer estate in Maine and another winter estate somewhere warm, another private airplane, more automobiles, more servants, more race horses, more precious objects, bigger and bigger bank accounts. 

The commerce associated with such things has throughout history provided a tax base for military and bureaucratic expansion and foreign adventures.  With rare exceptions commerce has been the life blood of empires. It has been necessary to support armies, police, and bureaucracies, buy allies, and build monuments and wonders to impress the population and give them diversions and a sense of pride in their particular political hierarchy. 

This is a good point at which to bring up competition. Ambition is not simply driven by internal values and desires. It is also driven by competition for trade and resources and military needs which are driven by international competition. It is moreover a social and economic phenomenon driven by both ideologically defined perceptions and necessities. 

Competition along with cooperation and independence are real factors in the natural world and in human affairs. But competition can be formulated ideologically as the overriding cosmic force and thus become a psycological driver that operates both within a social system and between social systems. Thus people will be driven to compete because this has become the norm and reality in their society, and in international affairs. 

Competitive individuals may be rewarded and admired and children raised to be competitive. Theatrical pageants of competitiveness have been invented in sports, television contests, survivor "reality shows, and the like that reinforce and perpetuate competitive ideologies. During the economic growth of Europe competition between towns to build grand cathedrals was encouraged by the religious elite, and similar architectural competitions have been encouraged in other theocracies. Thus even Christian communities would compete to make money to build grand temples and would honour economically aggressive members of their communities. 

Trade becomes the life blood of elites and the governments with which they are associated and through which elites pursue their ends. and hence competition over trade and material resources is in the vital interests of those elites and those governments.  There is a vicious cycle imbedded somewhere in this equation. Protection and pursuit of interests requires investment in the development and manufacture of arms. Arms races require more and more investment. Thus there must be more and more production and there is more to protect in terms of resources and trade arrangements. The system is driven more and more relentlessly. 

Many armed conflicts and much bloodshed has been caused by trade wars and wars over resources. Reading the Spiegel articles on China bring the Opium Wars to mind. China was selling silk, porcelain, tea, spices and other fine things to Europe and was buying back very little gong into the 1800s. Money (precious metals) were flowing to China from Europe. This was not unlike the situation today! China is getting wealthier and wealthier and the West is getting deeper in debt. To make a long story short, the East India Company and the British Empire began forcing China to buy addictive opium and China tried hard to stop this. In the name of free trade Britain fought China, gained Hong Kong, forced the Chinese to accept opium and the Chinese dynasty crashed in humiliation. One could argue that in a sense Britain was "forced" to do some dirty things because of its trade deficits, including waging war twice in the 1800s. We are all still living in the aftermath of this terrible thing. In 1853 US Admiral Perry led a squadron of war ships into Japan and threatened war unless the Japanese gave up their internal economy and opened themselves to American trade. That too changed the world. Japan decided to Westernize its society  and industrialize apparently in large part to be able to defend itself and not meet the same fate as China. That course steadily, perhaps inevitably, led to competition for resources and to colonial expansion and participation in two World Wars.   

There have been some efforts to reduce competition between armed entities by defining "spheres of influence." For example the Monroe Doctrine quickly developed into an understanding that the US would have economic domination in the Western Hemisphere. Australia and through it the British were given a sphere of influence in the South Pacific. The major European powers were given free reign in their "colonies." But dividing the world into spheres of influence would not in and of itself end conflicts over trade and resources. The Middle East and South Asia have always been difficult to split up into spheres of influence. 

Now in the last few decades China, even under the rule of the CCP, has shifted to an economically competitive economic base for power. It promotes internal and international commercial competition. It has adopted a system that cannot by its nature remain confined within its own borders. The mechanisms that have been set in place are hegemonic by nature. They include industrialization and a need to maintain markets and obtain low cost resources. China reaches out for power throughout Africa and as far as Europe and the US. Other once great countries are too weak to confine it to a "sphere of interest" using either diplomatic or economic leverage. Even military power is probably too limited to confine it as things presently appear. Predictions that it will fall apart from internal problems do not seem to have much substance. 

Moreover, "falling apart" would be tragic on its own terms. The various ethnic groups that make up China have suffered miserably under emperors, under colonialists, under nationalists, and under communists. One can only hope that the present odd form of capitalism that the CCP is pursuing is not merely shifting misery around among the Chinese people and building a new privileged class to help finance military power, recover world respect, and maintain government power. It would be much more compassionate for all of us to hope for reform than for collapse. 

Academically, we can dwell on the irony of a communist regime that seems not to be at all idealistic, and one can wonder if it was ever actually Marxist rather than essentially nationalistic and totalitarian. 

But it is also an academic matter that China is a set on a course that can only increase the ecological footprint of humanity on the planet and that might well lead to continued arms races and armed conflicts. We all are today in some phase of a clash of empires, and the interests of humanity and the environment seem destined to be secondary concerns for the warring giants. 

It does seem essential for humanitarians, educators, and environmentalists around the world to keep their bearings and keep working towards the goals of respect for human potential and dignity and sound ways of living together on this planet.  

Today's economic crisis provides openings for ambitious political and economic elites and governments to advance their interests. [Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine is recommended reading here.]And of course without vigorous dialogues about broader humanistic and ecological perspectives and accomplishments in the past against great odds, in effect resistance to mind control, there will be little to slow them down. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Millions of Lives and Whole Cultures in the Subtext

I just read a discussion in the leading German Newspaper Spiegel -- "Immigration Debate: Germany Needs More Foreigners." By Reiner Klingholz. As the title indicates he argues that Germany needs many more foreign immigrants to keep its economy strong. He is arguing against the trend in Europe to worry about the fact that many Muslim immigrants are not being well assimilated into Western cultures and are too often at odds with modern Western democratic principles and freedoms. There is a series of articles that are well worth reading to keep up with immigration issues in Europe.

Debates about pro-natalist and immigration demographic policies can seem very, very dry and irrelevant to most people. Then following the debates real world policies tilt one way or another and people forget that there were important discussions and that the fate of populations, cultures, and nations were being decided. The realities of the demographic effects settle in and if and when they are noticed they are chalked up to some supposed inevitability like the march of progress or globalization, or Malthusian population growth, etc.

One thing that is noteworthy in the Spiegel article is that the author understands that massive immigration will inevitably change national culture but he shrugs it off saying that culture is always changing anyway. I see this argument in the context of different attitudes between those who think in terms of society and those who think in terms of "an economy."

Those who think of and discuss populations as economies have the habit of "externalizing" social and environmental costs using facile phrases, and shove them off on the rest of us to deal with and pay for. They focus on generating "wealth" in a monetary sense, and push most everything else out of focus.

Maybe Germany should import more foreign labor and accept cultural change. I cannot judge that even though I spent a year there. My point here is instead about the economic perspective that focuses on profits and externalizes so many of the human and environmental costs of doing business and shoves them off on to the rest of us without directly asking. I would like to see everything put out on the table in plain sight, and I think we must do that if we are to make scientifically rational decisions.

This sort of thinking in unscientifically focused economic terms went on in the US around the time of the Nixon and especially the Reagan administrations. Legal immigration to the US was opened up without much if any planning for assimilation. Illegal immigration was progressively winked at. Only a few people interested in demography were paying attention, and essentially none of the media. All this only came to the surface in the last several years. Then once there were complaints that reached media attention businesses began to squeal like stuck pigs that they needed what was in effect this cheap labor, but they did not offer to pay the costs to society. Surprise, surprise. Moreover, by then many legal and illegal immigrants had been integrated into US ethnic communities and not unexpectedly saw the issue as defending their own. Too much discussion got sidetracked into issues about racism and ethnic voter trends.

Great influxes of immigrants were also being encouraged more or less in parallel in Europe and for essentially the same reasons as in the US. The basic dynamic was increasing trade competition and efforts to deal with this in the traditional Western way, by seeking cheap labor to cut the costs of production. Meanwhile Japan was doing a terrific job in the trade wars in large part because of efficient management and production, innovation, and by building employee loyalties. They were offering QUALITY and DURABLE products at reasonable prices. Employee savings were helping to grow the Japanese banks into world powers.

By cheap labor, I should clarify that Western economists had for centuries argued that population pressures would produce competition for jobs that would keep wages low. So I say "cheap labor" but it would be more sophisticated to refer to job competition or wage competition. So to create population pressures they recommended pro-natalist policies to increase reproductive rates, but they also recommended immigration. They also recommended excess population not only for cheap labor but on the premise that poor men would have the incentive to become soldiers.

This Spiegel article is an "artifact" of current discussions that stem from the epic demographic events of the 1970s and from the 1980s on. The subtext all has to do with economies geared to cheap labor and with economic thinking that passes off onto society in general the true costs of making business profits. In effect the business community is covertly getting society to subsidize its production costs.The term is "externalizing" which means leaving significant costs out of economic arguments and equations. The general public and even most politicians do not understand this and are in effect fooled into thinking that mathematically rigorous logic is being presented to them. It is simply remarkable how few responsible people will demand a full cost/benefit accounting -- apparently they simply don't understand the importance of knowing all the facts.

If one does get onto them, the next argument is, "well no one can know all the costs, so it is honest to leave them out of our equations." But then it should be noted that no one can know all the benefits either, and maybe none of them for sure. We would have to do our best in both cases.

And WHO benefits and WHO pays the costs? No arm waving about rising waters lifting all ships, please.

Again, I don't know if this writer is right or wrong in the case of Germany. But I do know that Germany and Europe in general face enormous cultural, political, and security problems because of the economic/demographic POLICIES of the last several decades. I wish them good luck.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Global Human Ecology is Not Neo-Home Economics

Linda commented that her daughter majored in Human Ecology and that my blog is helping to explain to her what that is. But sorry, what I am calling Global Human Ecology is not something that one can get a degree in now. What is called Human Ecology is something else at universities. What is called Human Ecology is a new word for what used to be Home Economics, as it has tried to move beyond its image of baking and sewing and other state fair stuff and even expanded into neighborhood activities.

Here are some words clipped out from a description from Cornell University's College of Human Ecology.

The beginnings of the College appeared in the year 1900, when a reading course for farm women was created. In 1907, the Department of Home Economics was created within Cornell's New York State College of Agriculture. In 1919, the Department of Home Economics became a school within the Agriculture College. In 1925, the school was converted to the New York State College of Home Economics, the first state-chartered college of Home Economics in the country. ... The New York State College of Human Ecology (HumEc) is a statutory college at Cornell University. The college is a unique compilation of studies on consumer science, nutrition, health economics, public policy, human development and textiles, each part of the discipline of human ecology.
Students at the College of Human Ecology delve into biology and chemistry, economics, psychology, and sociology, applying their expertise in fields such as health, design, nutrition, public policy, and marketing. Studies done by professors and students vary from studying the financial impacts of tax legislation to designing safer workplaces and facilitating healthy growth of premature infants.

Great stuff!! But this is not what I mean by Global Human Ecology and that is one reason that I insert "Global." 

What I mean by "global" is a perspective for looking at how human beings function in terms of individuals and societies systems of interactions and patterns of behavior that have global implications, including but not restricted to interactions with the environment. I want to share my efforts to develop a broad perspective on the modern world system and human condition. If there are practical implications, it  is for the individual to figure out how to incorporate insights into his or her personal endeavours. I don't see GHE as something that will prescribe what individuals should "do." It is more like developing study protocols and broadening one's perspectives as self-education continues through one's life. 

I spent many years as a panelist and advisor to  Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  One thing that our panels of experts all over the country agreed to was that American education needed to do a much better job of better opening the minds of students and the public to the ways that bits of knowledge and theories and so on interconnect, and why this matters. Some would phrase this, "students need to think more holistically, that is to be able to see the big picture of causes and effects." We break down knowledge into bits, but we do not develop disciplined habits of putting the bits together very well. My idea of Global Human Ecology is very much in this spirit, though it is not part of Project 2061 or a direct spin off. Rather it is because I think this way that I was recruited by the AAAS to join and advise this project. 

Let add that I think the historical development of patterns of human behavior and of economic and political systems and of patterns of interacting with the biosphere should be part of a complete perspective. Thus my approach to understanding the modern world system includes efforts to piece together its evolution. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Prime Minister’s Secrets. But First, What is a Conservative?

Being new to Canada, I am still trying to learn the history of this country. It turns out to be much more interesting than I had realized, having been schooled in the US and having depended so much on US media for so long. Busy learning some history, and a new culture, I do not yet knowing much about contemporary Canadian partisan politics. 

My eyes and ears are primed, though, to notice news items that illustrate “how things work” commonly in high politics -- thus related to Grand Political Strategy and Global Human Ecology -- just about anywhere in the modern world. Thus some recent news items about Canada’s conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper caught my eye and are worth some comment here.

First let me be clear though about calling him “conservative.” That is his term and the term they use up here and it seems to be like what “conservative” has come to mean by the man on the street in the US, which is not the only meaning of “conservative.

For example, I think of myself as a conservative fellow. By that I mean I tend to be cautious about making judgments and decisions, and very naturally hold back from “must haves” and fads. No one would call me a trendy!  I believe strongly in individual freedoms and rights and to me these are very conservative US constitutional and indeed world democratically understood human values. I have a very plain automobile, and I prefer to walk when I can. I dress very plainly (conservatively?), and when I have tried from time to time to dress more fashionably I have quickly lost interest.

I do not ordinarily call myself a “conservative” however because that word has been taken over ideologically. In some cases it has come to mean for some the very opposite of what I mean. So let me be clear that when I am forced to use Harper’s label for himself and his party it means that they have an ideologically “conservative” social and economic political agenda. He is part of an ideological “conservative” movement of our times in North America and Europe that claims to represent prudence and tradition. 

“Prudence” sounds great to me on the surface. “Tradition” I would be cautious and selective about, because I feel that some traditions are fine and others would keep us all stuck in the mud. I like the tradition of people being polite and courteous to each other. I don’t like the tradition of celebrating Christmas with a mad rush to spend, spend, spend, and then spend.

With both words, however, it really depends on who gets to define them. Certainly I don't get to define them!! What do they actually mean in the world of political fighting and spin? Whatever they “believe,” the ideological conservative politicians and lobbyists tend to side with the interests of business -- and it seems especially with the interests of big business, and even with those of multinational corporations and banks -- creations that don’t want to pay taxes or have to deal with regulations, and that tend to be against consumer protections and rights. 

Thus my own frugal “economic conservative values” and efforts to stay out of debt have conflicted with their “economic conservativism” that has focused on not paying their taxes and indeed on their encouraging of consumer spending. Sorry, that’s just way the cookie crumbles. It’s just me. I enjoy fresh air more than fresh furnishings. I’m just standing here, trying to stay put, trying not to get blown over in their storm and frenzied promotion of “economic growth.” 

When it comes to social conservativism, my values center on respect for individual rights and freedoms – live and let live.  Educate the young so that they can develop the maturity to take care of themselves and become responsible neighbors and parents and so that rationally self-governing communities can form. This is conservative in my mind. In my mind a fellow-citizen, indeed a fellow human being, is a flesh and blood individual and I think it is a preposterous stretch and legal spin to take profit making machines made up of flesh and blood parts, and grant that these are individuals, “legal individuals” or otherwise.

Consumers should expect products to be advertised honestly and people have a right to know what they are being sold to eat and full disclosure if there are risks. Call this consumer protection or whatever, I think this is conservative, though some that call themselves “conservative” would say that this is over-regulation and that I must therefore bear for all to see the scarlet letter “L” for “liberal.”  I think of them as “ideological conservatives,” not true conservatives. 

So this is Phil; and you can see why I am not comfortable about labels. There has been so much political spin put on the language that we use in public discussion that I feel a bit dirty even to enter into the language used in public discussion. Maybe the best I can do is just state this, as I have just done, and then go on and try to make my points using conventional terms of discourse.

What does all this have to do with Prime Minister Harper? I will get to that. But first I wanted to explain that I have problems with the label “conservative” as it has been used in the US, and frankly I am not yet exactly sure what they mean by it up here in Canada. I also want to confess quite frankly that being new here I am in no position to say if Canadian “conservativism” is good or bad for Canada!

For example Canadian economic policy has been good for helping Canada to weather the global economic crisis even though its economy is so closely tied to the US economy.  Business people in the US used to say derisively that the Canadians were much too "conservative" economically, too old fashioned, and they would send lobbyists up here to try to break the economy "open" and "modernize" it. I would say maybe we should say Canadians have been "prudent" and the American go-go loose credit binge was predictably a bubble waiting to pop. In fact left wing governments as well as “conservative” ones supported the prudent economic policies, as I understand it now.  That is, Canadian economic prudence may have little to do with the Conservative party for all I know right now. 

To complicate things more, the Canadians do tax a lot, but they pump money back into infrastructure and general health benefits. There is a campaign back home to convince Americans to call this “socialism” -- but my gosh, it has the effect of subsidizing business up here!! For example the workers do not demand health benefits from employers because workers (all Canadians) have excellent government health benefits. Of course there is grumbling, humans being all too human, but in general the Canadian citizens love their health system. Such social services also lower the production costs for Canadian businesses and helps them to build and to keep them strong, as does good infrastructure. If this is really socialism, it is of a species that also is a huge, huge subsidy to capitalism. Go figure. Scratch head. Again, I need to learn more – and then I will have to figure out what I learn means! 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Buying Elections, and Human Ecology

I want to keep trying to be clear how my thinking would include politics and economics in a comprehensive science of Global Human Ecology, especially in these first posts on this blog. The point is not easily grasped because traditional academics has divided the pursuit of knowledge into boxes, as it were. Universities set up professional turfs such as ecology, economics, anthropology, political science, and so on where experts are hired and trained because they function well within the turf boundaries and in fact help to defend these boundaries and their specialized perspectives. Here in the article mentioned next is an example of important dynamic links in the modern world system that are not part of our traditional ways of thinking about ecology and in turn about human ecology let alone GHE even though obviously each discipline has something to contribute and will ofter insights now and then into the big picture. 

The article is in today's New York Times. September 20, 2010. Donors’ Names Kept Secret as They Influence the Midterms. By MICHAEL LUO and STEPHANIE STROM. Link includes comments; you will perhaps have to sign in. And yes, of course candidates that are Democrats can also be beholden to Big Money in this system, as well as Republicans. The article could have fleshed that out a bit. And nevertheless ....

Basically, a lot of Big Money is being spent to influence the upcoming US elections and the public has no way of knowing who is bankrolling the organizational and media campaigns that are vigorously promoting mostly Republican candidates with pro-big-business agendas. This is hardly a surprise and the situation was expected to get worse and worse after recent rulings of the largely Republican appointed Supreme Court. It is not a secret that there is a good correlation between campaign spending and electoral victories. In fact it is the scandal of our nation that our democratic system has proved to be so fragile.  But what does this have to do with GHE? 

How does this article make me think in terms of GHE dynamics? The making and administration of laws certainly influence how people behave and form their habits of thinking and acting. Laws and the administration of laws can affect how corporations behave in many ways, including uses of natural and human resources, pollution, promotion of military exploits to advance and protect trade interests, and on and on. Thus laws and their administration help shape how Homo sapiens interacts with its social and total global environments. A comprehensive science of GHE would strive to understand how laws are made and enforced and the electoral process that helps determine laws and their administration and thus it is important how money is used to influence elections. 

Political power should not be a black box, or left to fragmented disciplines each with its own turf interests and perspectives, in thinking about human ecology. We should be asking, what is it about the movements of Big Money and indeed about human nature that cause and allow the dynamics of Big Money flow mentioned in the article below to be important? How conscious is the general population about how media campaigns and the organization of so-called "grass roots" movements influence their thinking and behavior. What is it about human nature that can be so reliably exploited in this regard?

Traditional disciplinary training and turf-defending put knowledge in boxes such that attention to the dynamics of campaign contributions would not be thought of as part of human "ecology" in ordinary academic terms. This in itself involves human psychology and institutional behavior that makes it difficult if not impossible to develop a very much needed comprehensive science of Global Human Ecology within the traditional academic framework. This is to say that the study of academic communities of experts should be an important area of study within GHE. Our communities of experts do not even have a clear idealized conception of what GHE needs to be, and why is that and what does it matter? 

(I really do need to get some of my book manuscripts polished and published!!)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What Should a Science of Human Ecology Be? --Menus and Food Riots

The food supply relative to human numbers has been shrinking for some time. I hope that I will not have to keep repeating that increasing numbers of people and decreasing availability of farmable land and of fishes in the sea have been contributing to food shortages, hunger, starvation, and even the spread of food riots.

Let’s stop for a minute though to think scientifically about what we mean by “food supply.” Scientifically speaking, people have to eat to stay alive – sure! One issue though is do they have to eat so much mammal meat?  The answer is no!!

An awful lot of our farmland goes to raising grain to feed to livestock. This takes a lot of high-energy inputs like fuel for tractors and shipping and fertilizers and pesticides and fertilizers and so on. And then the darned livestock use up most of the energy in the grain just to keep warm! Then we put yet more energy into shipping and slaughtering them and getting their pieces into grocery stores. And of course there are enormous federal subsidies coming out of your pocket to help all this along. You would think that meat must be incredibly healthy to justify all this cost and ecologically inefficiency. You would think that it must be very adaptive to eat a lot of meat.

Of course meat is nutritious, but experts agree that “modern man” tends to eat far more than is necessary. In fact we eat so much that this contributes to obesity, heart and artery problems, cancer, and reduces longevity.

In short yes we do have to eat! -- But we do not have to eat so much meat, or shrimp cocktails, or cakes and pies, and so on. For some reason the modern world has developed a taste for, a craving for such things. They are luxuries and habits.  

University ecologists are trained to think of humans as animals that have population sizes and metabolic budgets and nutritional needs and to think in terms of tons of available food and tons of food needed to support populations. This is THEIR toolkit. But food is a much more complicated subject than this and in part because of the uncomfortable fact that people eat types of food in amounts that don’t necessarily make sense in terms of the body's energy requirements. When faced with this fact, scientists with ecological training tend to throw up their hands and are not sure what they can contribute -- either because they are not deeply interested in cultural habits in a practical sense or they don’t have time to learn how to think about how cultures develop historically or cultural habits are maintained and spread.  And yet how can we really hope to understand the ecologically significant aspects of human behavior, the attitudes and behaviors that impact the way we live on the earth, without giving due attention to culture? And culture of course includes religions, and the diverse religious mentalities are complicated topics in their own right. 

How is it that have we modern folks developed such a craving for meat? I don’t mean to imply that Hindus and other peoples who are vegetarians or largely vegetarian are not modern, but actually the fact that I have to qualify this helps to illustrate the issue!! A great part of our craving for meat is that our culture has developed the idea that a high-meat diet is progress and a sign of being “modern” and of luxury living. How has this reputation of meat in fact, theories aside, actually happened? How in the general sense do such things happen? With this question we would be getting into the area of social theories, and there are several to consider – and some of those that seem most attractive are actually too easy, too simple. So please expect that we will be poking about a bit, tossing ideas around.

Advertising certainly helps to maintain the craving for high-meat diets and is helping the habit spread around the world to growing economies like Japan and China. Ecologists DO know that this spread, cultural diffusion of values and life styles, means increasing pressure on farmland to produce animal feed, and costs for the various inputs, and reduces the amount of food for direct human consumption. But again, about all they can say about the CRAVING is that it seems unnecessary biologically and has something to do with desires for a more modern life-style, like smoking tobacco with all the risks of heart disease etc.

Wait! -- Advertising! Glamorous images! I will bet that over half of the population thinks that glamorous advertising images don’t influence people’s minds, cravings, or behaviors. So how can I dare to bring advertising in here as something that contributes to human behavior? 

The fact is that plenty of studies show that regardless of what the consumers think, the shrewd businessmen who spend hundreds of billions of dollars and hire expensive designers and promoters are in fact getting something significant for their money. It is like negative political campaigns. Most people hate them and want them to go away. So why do political interests keep spending money on negative campaigning? You would think this would backfire, but in fact the professionals know that even if people hate it, nevertheless it gets results!!

So why do most people think that they are never influenced by glamour in advertising and by negative campaigning?  Why do most people think that THEY are the exceptions? We need to understand this working of the human mind, this aspect of human nature, if we are going to understand human behavior on our planet. This quirk of the mind is something that does influence consumption patterns and whole economic networks and voting patterns and political representation, and even sometimes wars, and of course personal and neighborhood values and behavior.

The short of it is, first of all, that PEOPLE DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE WORKINGS OF THEIR OWN MINDS very well at all. We are taught by mother culture to flatter ourselves into thinking that we are rational and objective. Often it takes a crisis in life for one to realize that this may not be true and then one may turn to a psychotherapist to get help working to sort out what went wrong with one’s supposed rationality and objectivity. Sometimes the person in crisis does not have the guts to really break through into their core and their past. Sometimes they get swept up in cults that offer them emotional support and new ways of thinking and in effect they turn themselves over to a new herd, and all too commonly to a convincing shepherd with a few loose screws.

A second factor is DENIAL, and this can be related to the lack of self-understanding that I just mentioned. But denial is not just a lack of understanding, it is something that the brain does automatically that protects one’s identity and ego from challenges to the way one see’s oneself and/or expects others to see them.   If we are really going to understand the mechanisms of human behavior and the impact of humans on the planet then we have to have a good grasp of human psychology and that includes ego-defense mechanisms and how they can keep us blind to realities, or cause us to rationalize them -- a sub-species of the same problem with the brain. Let’s be sure to keep this in mind when reading posts on this blog. 

Like tobacco, high meat diets are promoted and made to seem glamorous by large advertising budgets.  They have also become cultural habits. A treat for many people is still a steak dinner at an expensive restaurant. I enjoy the ritual of the backyard barbeque as much as anyone else. It tastes good, and it is a fun way to be social and maintain relationships. But lots of meat and ice cream are nevertheless luxuries in my culture and there is no non-cultural, strictly nutritional reason to overdue these as we do. Our culture has come to see such things as “quality of life” -- and in their push to “modernize” the Japanese and Chinese seek to imitate us and to “reach” what our “modern Americanized” society tells the world is the one and only good life profile.

By the way, they say that the Japanese began to ban raising animals to kill them and eat their meat under the influence of Buddhism and with the Emperor Temmu in A.D. 675. There were plenty of fish and so they could get enough protein and developed a rich cuisine without a lot of meat in it, but enough protein. Then around 1854 Japan made plans to Westernize and become a world power and its elite tilted the worship of the masses toward Shinto, which stressed ambition and competition, and the Emperor Meiji began to promote the Western luxury meat and it slowly began to catch on. [But only slowly with regard to meat – and that in itself is interesting.]

What is this drive to imitate all about? Is it simply that “modern life styles” have been hyper-glamorized by television programs, films, and the media? Certainly this is part of it. [For some reason the film El Norte comes to mind, in which a brother and sister in rural Guatemala have dreams of living in the US from American magazines that portray a rich quality of life. They discover that the realities of life in the US for them are far from what they expected. Modern life is a mixed bag.] 

Imitation is indeed part of the workings here, but not all of it. And we cannot drop the original question of why has our own culture defined “quality of life” the way it has, and in such a way that “modern society” leaves what conservation biologists call a huge “ecological footprint.”  I will have more to say about this in future posts.

Questions, questions!! What I am trying to get at right now is to SKETCH THE SORTS OF THINGS that we need to know if we want to understand how and why humans think and behave these days and especially in ways that make us the species on the planet that has the biggest impact on the thin covering called the biosphere. Again, biology, culture, history, and economics would all be part of a true science of Global Human Ecology if it were not for the academic boundaries that tend to keep them apart and to keep cross talk poor. C.P. Snow famously referred to the Two Cultures of the sciences and humanities in intellectual life and in universities. But there are certainly more than two!!

Let’s talk about “political economy.” What’s that? For now, let’s simply say that “political” means power and “economy” means organization and say that political economy books began to be written back in the late 18th century to refer to the ways in which the power of states, kingdoms and nations, was based on the organization of people, national institutions, finances, arms, and foreign relations. “Economy” split off from this integrated way of looking at a state or nation and national power because what we call today “economists” took up and tried to develop predictive powers about certain details having to do with the flow of money through the machine of power, and the flow back and forth between other national machines of power. This is of course important to understand and it is like thinking about a nation as a body and its patterns of circulation and metabolism. But it wanders from the Big Picture.

Similarly, “political scientists” split off their specialized studies and writings from political economy because narrow specialization was thought to be important especially where there was voting (to try to understand voter behavior). And after all, somebody had to talk about theories of formal government in the abstract and where democracy might fit in, and how other national machines of power could be formally classified. And so on. This is the easy stuff, of course. You’re not going to get tenure and promotion trying to study and teach general principles about back-room deals, the Mafia, bribes, lying or crooked politicians and bureaucrats, voter ignorance, arms dealing, psychopathic ambition, and so on. These are all very real dynamics in politics and power, but there has not been much if any of a job market at universities for scholars who might like to focus their studies on these sorts of dynamics in the system.

So anyway, the entire kingdom, including the entire population, was thought of as the king’s house or estate, and economy meant the way his house was organized. Think of political economy as the study by his staff of how to make and keep him powerful and help him to get to be even more powerful. And keep in mind that as Plato and other great thinkers have pointed out, running a state is all about managing herd psychology.

So how does the king’s system inspire people -- his herds -- to be ambitious so that they will serve their roles in his machine and with determination? His advisors set up a system of rewards and social levels. Some writers call this “a prestige system.” The system gives out ranks, titles, medals, awards, salary increases and bonuses, and perks, perks, perks! These are distributed so to define the workings of his power machine.  The idea is to make “a machine that will run of itself.” Then the king can sit back and play croquet and still be powerful. This even works for systems where there are no kings or dictators.

Thus, people work hard to get status symbols, and because of the particular system of rewards, in doing this their energy and ambition serve the system and the machine spins along generating power for the guy or guys at the top.

Back to meat: Meat has been a status symbol in a lot of cultures for a very long time. It is indeed nutritious and has been harder to come by than other foods whether it is hunted or raised. In many societies livestock were currency used for bride prices, land sales, reparations, and so on. Look at all the religions in which people were supposed to sacrifice animals to their god or gods, and then the priests got to eat them -- and this perk was a dramatic sign of the high status of the priests. This was true for the Western religions in the days of Moses and Abraham, and only threatened to go out of vogue around the time of Jesus and Paul when some followers of Jesus gave up eating meat and Paul had to argue that they should not be self-righteous about it.

"One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." (Romans 14:5-6)

Thus when the Emperor Meiji broke many centuries of tradition and made an example by officially serving meat he installed an expensive status symbol into his system of power, along of course with others. In a few decades Japan industrialized and became a world power, and meat may have played a small role in this vast project.

Food habits decidedly have an impact on the use of land, trade patterns, human misery, and even political stability and war and peace. The causes of food habits should be something that citizens and scientists should seek to understand for insights into global human ecology.  This will require broad rather than narrow perspectives that fully respect an understanding of culture as well as agriculture and nutrition, and history as well as economics, and sociology as well as population growth, and how the mind works as well as how brain tissue is put together, and religions as well as mathematical formulas.

James Thurber once gave us some words to ponder -- "The brain of our species is, as we know, made up largely of potassium, phosphorus, propaganda, and politics, with the result being how not to understand what should be clearer and clearer is becoming easier and easier for all of us." 

Monday, September 6, 2010

World Hunger, Starvation, and Riots

≈World hunger seems like a good topic to begin this blog. Let me explain. Back in early 2008 the press began to report a sudden jump in the numbers of food riots in many parts of the world. Suddenly more people were starving than might be expected simply from population growth and poverty alone!

This jump in numbers seemed like an interesting incident in the history of global human ecology and so I began to try to learn why it was happening. I began to bounce my findings and ideas off of colleagues and soon people were suggesting that I start a blog. But I did not start one until now, after more urging regarding this and other topics. So here we are, you see entry #1! Now back to early 2008, many months before the world economic crash. What I was finding out one could say predicted the crash, for my looking into the food crisis began to reveal to me that the world economy was a house of cards. Maybe I should have known earlier, but apparently most educated people and even economists did not then understand this. Apparently most of them still do not, or don't want to discuss it. Everybody is focused on the immediate problems.

Okay, in 2008, and before and after, the obvious contributions to world hunger were and are climate fluctuations and population growth. But these will only explain part of world hunger, and of the 2008 spike. Another factor is ecological degradation of farm land and again that will only explain part of world hunger and of the spike. So we keep looking -- right?

To make a long story short there were two other big possibilities; I will deal with them briefly for now. The first was that biofuels made from food crops were being promoted by governments and by the "life science" biotech and seed companies and the scientific community that is involved in this sort of thing, and of course by stockholders and the banks that are betting on these sorts of companies. There was a lot of awesomely powerful lobbying behind this! Legislation to mix ethanol into fuel and subsidies of course stimulated farmers to grow more corn for biofuel and less for human and animal consumption. They put less land into alternative food crops too. So, less food was on the market because it was more profitable to grow for biofuels. Farm land prices were shooting up too because of the market that was being stimulated by legislation and subsidies for biofuels. So this further drove up the prices of grains and other foods for both domestic consumption and the export markets, A lot of big farmers and investors were very happy about this. But there were complications, to say the least, for certain types of farmers and for world trade in food and for poor people. Perhaps more about this later.

Right now I want to get back to my "house of cards" claim. Where was all this money to invest in land, farm equipment, processing plants, etc. coming from? Moreover, as food prices were going up speculators were jumping like mad into the commodities markets and buying up grain futures for example. Huge amounts of money were being spent to bet that biofuel grain and food prices would go up. Think of a sort of bidding auction, where rich people are willing to pay more and more trying to own the rights to some grain and this competition drives up the price of the grain, much as competition can drive up the price of a Picasso to crazy heights. This sort of effect means that most of us cannot afford an original Picasso, and likewise many people at the economic margins could rather suddenly no longer afford to buy even as much food as they had. Thus, panic. All this is simple enough to understand, right? How much of the problem was caused by this? We still cannot put a precise figure on it for various reasons, but it is generally agreed by all but the special interests that biofuels and speculation were significant factors. And keep in mind that despite the world recession/depression and tightening of money the structural issues here have not really gone away!

I am still not quite to my "house of cards" claim, but almost. Sooooooo. The next question is where did all the money for investing in commodity futures come from? There seemed to be no shortage! Most was coming from big hedge funds. And where did they get the money? NOW to the house of cards: What I began to learn is that if you are one of the big boys you can borrow a tremendous amount of money without much real value collateral and THIS SUPER-LEVERAGE WAS GOING ON ALL OVER THE PLACE!! What that meant was that there was a tremendous amount of money in circulation without anything solid behind it. If simple loose credit was not bad enough I learned that if you are one of the big boys you can take the money that you have borrowed that has very little real value collateral and use THAT leveraged borrowed money as collateral for yet another round of loans. Regulations had become so loose that this could go on and on, and has done so! And moreover this sort of thing had become such common practice that many other countries were allowing this as well so that their wealthy folks could stay in the global competition.

Basically the world of high finance, that for some decades since the Reagan Revolution policies of deregulation had been developing, had been allowed to print their own money -- maybe call it "e-currency."  This all seemed impossibly reckless to me, not to mention unfair to little people who are not allowed to "e-print" money. My younger friends in business said "You are only concerned because your thinking is old fashioned. The world is prospering with these new creative types of financing." That was before the crash began a few months later and the big institutions began to freeze up because not even they were sure of the true value of anything.

My knowledge of history told me that economies went into great troubles when for example, kings diluted the precious metals in coins so that they could have more of them to spend on their wars and castles. Think about it this way -- why not just allow you and me to print our own money? Why not make counterfeiting legal? In a sense the US governments since the Reagan Revolution have allowed businesses evermore to print money. So let's say for the sake of discussion that there had been a good amount of economic growth around the world -- but how much new capital had been bought by "counterfeit" (in this sense) money? Apparently no one is sure. And apparently no one is sure what to do about it even today. But lets save these sorts of questions for later.

One point I want to make just now is that human ecology cannot be simply about how much biomass an acre of land can produce and how many calories X numbers of people need to survive. It must take into consideration laws, politics, the real world ins and outs of moving money around, and indeed the public ignorance of the world that helps to keep voters from making informed decisions.

And why is there public ignorance? -- Let's save that for future posts.