Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


[Approximate Watching Time: 6 minutes]
[Mood: Amused] 

Some of the most remarkable films I have seen are made by director and cinematographer, Ron Fricke. His most recent documentary film is Samsara which I watched when it was released in the US about an year ago. I just came across a short film with 6 minutes from Samsara that depicts humanity's relationship to meat and dairy.

Graphic content warning! I don't recommend this film if you're averse to looking at how animal products are mass-produced in our times.

Feeling sure?. OK, here you go -

Thursday, February 13, 2014

David Suzuki on Rio+20

[Approximate Watching Time: 30 minutes]
[Mood: Informed] 

Another one of my alternative news sources, Democracy Now, interviews David Suzuki, noted Canadian environmental activist and scientist, talking about what really goes on at climate conferences where global leaders meet and discuss the climate issue.

Again, the usual disclaimer, I don't look at everything Democracy Now puts out and I don't believe everything I look at but they do offer information and ideas that I take into account as I go about making sense of the world I live in.

Video and transcript at

And here's Marvin Gaye's classic song along the same theme from the album "What's Going On":

Woo ah, mercy mercy me
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
Woo mercy, mercy me, mercy father
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury
Ah oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Radiation under ground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain't what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land
How much more abuse from man can she stand?
Oh, na na...
My sweet Lord... No
My Lord... My sweet Lord

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Global Research

[Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes]
[Mood: Validated]  

From time to time, I come across descriptions of the world that make me think, "I couldn't have said it better". Here's one, from one of my alternative news sources, Global Research.

I don't read everything they write and I don't believe everything I read, but they do offer information and ideas that I take into account.


Mr. Palmer goes to the Farmer

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Creative] 

A friend wrote to me the other day:
According to someone's comment on facebook

"For example, fishermen on the Kerala coast get SMS at 3:30 AM on the current price of fish at neighboring villages.  This allows them to select which village to dock at and maximizes their income.  Similarly, small farms in South India can use their mobile phones to turn on and off the water motors from any location.  So, they do not have to be at the farm when the Govt turns on the water.  There are so many uses of the mobile phone which provides access to information that wa spreviously unavailable and were beign exploited by the known few.  

And we not talking smartphonees.  We are talking about Rs 700-900 phones."

What's your take on that?
I wanted my response to double as a blog post, and here was my attempt:

I would ask a few questions first:
  1. What were the lives of these fishermen and their families like before they became dependent on the "market"? What's the market? Who sets the prices in the neighboring villages and why are these prices so important?
  2. Why are the fishermen being forced to compete with each other to obtain the best price they can? Was such competition part of their lives before they were forced into the market economy? Was it in their own interest to join the market economy?
  3. What has happened to the fishing village's self sufficiency and subsistence life that existed before the village was put on the global economic map? What's the role of technology in this change?
  4. For the farmers in South India, is this new convenience of being able to control their motors from their cell phones something they asked for? Is this something they wanted?
  5. Why is the government involved in their lives, turning on and off their water at its discretion? How did the farmers get water for their fields before the government got involved in their farming? How else is the government involved in their lives?
  6. How has the introduction of cell phones changed overall rural social life considering that cell phones put a man in the middle? Could this actually be a symptom of some other problem?
We're witnessing an interaction between two types of society here. One society is ours. The one you and I and everyone we know live in. Let's call this "commercial civilization" because it's based on commerce, consumption, markets and prices. It's based on private property and the use of private property to accumulate more private property. This accumulation is endless.

When the wealthy invest their money in various businesses to grow it further, the one who invests his money in such a way that he gets the most returns becomes richer faster. This is not only because he's making more money directly through his operations, but because more capital investment will start moving into his operations from every direction. Other millionaires, banks, and mutual funds (really, anyone who has money to invest) would invest their money with him instead of with others. Sooner or later, the other rich men are forced to emulate his operations to maintain their own profitability. If one of them invents a new technology, his competitors must soon play catch up. If one of them disposes of his industrial waste into the river, the others would have to do it too. If one of them underpays his workers, the others must copy him too. Or they'd risk shutting down their enterprises in a competitive marketplace.

This process is endless. This is capitalism. It's an endless accumulation of capital. Money moves in the direction of those who are willing and able to grow their share of the capital the fastest. Our society, commercial civilization, is based on capitalism and the fact that it has to expand and grow in order to survive is critical for us to understand how it interacts with other societies, and to answer the above questions. Commercial civilization is not the only kind of civilization human beings have had. On the continuum between hunter gatherers and today's dominant form of civilization (commercial civilization), there are others with varying degrees of centralization and control. Largely self-sufficient kingdoms have existed for thousands of years in many parts of the world including India, China, Middle East and South America. The need to grow endlessly was not a central feature of these civilizations. They warred with each other on and off but they have also existed in equilibrium with competing civilizations and other societies including hunter gatherer societies for thousands of years. 

There have been cruel dictators throughout history. But the power of a cruel despot decreased as we walked away from his fortress. Before high speed communications, roads and rail, telephone and telegraph, and carrier pigeons, the ability to exercise power was limited. People living far away from the capital felt little interference in their way of life. But, today, distance has no such shielding effect. We're subjects everywhere due to the enormous centralization of power enabled by technology and the nexus between the rulers of the world who while competing with each other for more control, also collaborate to increase what they collectively control. And this, they do by constantly expanding commercial civilization's footprint. They each want a bigger slice of the pie but they get together occasionally behind closed doors and talk about how they could increase the size of the entire pie too. They do this by knocking on the doors of those who are not yet part of commercial civilization, those who still live on their ancestral lands, those whose lives are self-sufficient, independent from commercial civilization, those who live in tune with nature and its cycles, those whose ancestors have lead similar lives before them.

What makes our civilization unique is the commercial nature of it, the central features being trade and endless capital accumulation. In just a few hundred years, commercial civilization has taken over most of the world. It has taken over the planet not only geographically, but also in other ways because capital comes in so many forms. It comes as tangible natural resources of the Earth like fossil fuels and minerals as well as intangible resources like patents, trademarks, copyrights, and really, as ideas. And everything in between. Anything that can be ascribed a value can be treated as capital. And if something is not yet ascribed a value, it will soon be. We even put a value on how much we can pollute, when we talk about carbon credits. That's capital too.

Mr. Palmer goes to the Farmer!
Commercial civilization knocks on a villager's door, somewhere in the deep third world, and introduces itself.
[Mr. E. Palmer, Vice President at Conglomerate, Inc. represents commercial civilization]

Palmer: Hi, how are you? I'm here to help you.
Farmer: Thanks, but no, I don't need any help. My family and I live happily here. We don't need anything more.
Palmer: But you have almost nothing. Look at us. We can give you some of the stuff we have.
Farmer: No, thanks again. We're self-sufficient just like our ancestors were for thousands of years. We don't need your stuff.
Palmer: Look, I don't think you get it. You have no choice. You have to give us some of what you have. In return, you're welcome to have some of our stuff.
Farmer: What do you want from us? Didn't you just say we have almost nothing?
Palmer: Err... you have things we could use. You're not using them efficiently enough. We need your land. The land you live on could be put to more productive uses than you're putting it to. You're barely getting anything out of it.
Farmer: This land and the forests feed us well. We don't need more food than we have. We have plenty, even for all our dozens of festivals and special occasions when we gorge ourselves.
Palmer: Yes, but you see, we work differently. Where I come from, we put a value on things. We use this thing called Science to do it. Trust me, we're figuring it all out. We have Math geniuses working on it. And they say your land has more value to us than to you. You don't have to leave if you don't want to. You can stay on this land but you need to do things differently.
Farmer: You say we don't have a choice?
Palmer: You have some but not a whole lot. The village up the river from you, they didn't fare well and you don't want to end up like them, do you?
Farmer: What happened to them? Haven't heard from them in a while. Rumor is they were chased away from their lands. Was that you?
Palmer: It wasn't us. It was your government. But... come to think of it... you have a point. We did make some of your politicians very rich. Of course, we also took full ownership of that land for our new mining operation.
Farmer: Why did you do that? What have they done to you?
Palmer: Well, we discovered Bauxite on their land. We had to kill some of them because they wouldn't let us build the road. The rest agreed to cooperate with our plans. There are still a few hiding out in the forest but it's a matter of time before they give up.
Farmer: So they didn't do anything to you but you went after them anyway?
Palmer: They didn't realize that they were sitting on valuable land. We offered them money but they wouldn't take it. They didn't want our stuff either. We tried so hard. We promised to build them a school and a hospital too.
Farmer: What's a school? And what's bauxite?
Palmer: Schools are where you will send your kids to learn about our culture. We teach them our language and our history. We teach Science too. But most importantly, we teach them how to think like us. Hospitals are where you go when you're sick. Look, you all look healthy now but you and your family needs a hospital, don't you think?
Farmer: No, we're all healthy. We know of so many herbs, plants and minerals around here that we use to cure ourselves. This is how we've lived for thousands of years. What's bauxite?
Palmer: Ah, you're very curious about bauxite, aren't you? We make aluminum from it.
Farmer: What's aluminum?
Palmer: It's a metal. We use it in all sorts of things. From foil to airplanes. You might have seen our airplanes up in the sky? Aren't they cool?
Farmer: They make a lot of noise.
Palmer: They're actually not that loud inside. I came here in one of them.
Farmer: So you came here to take aluminum. You build an airplane with it, get on it and go somewhere else to get more aluminum for more airplanes?
Palmer: Hmmm... yeah... kinda... but we also make foil with it.
Farmer: I think I get it. Thanks for explaining. Have you thought of when it will all end? When you will run out of bauxite?
Palmer: Haha... you're smart. You should become a banker. Well, let's see. we're definitely not running out of bauxite in the next quarter. Actually, we're good for several quarters. I should be promoted to Senior VP and be out of this backwardness by then. But look, that reminds me I need to get back to my hotel in the city and finish up my report. I'll be back. I like you. Hope you'll be around the next time I'm here.

10 years later...

Palmer: You there, hi... we've met before. Haven't we?
Farmer: Yeah, and I've been regretting it ever since.
Palmer: Funny! You haven't lost your sense of humor, eh?... How's it going?
Farmer: Don't you see? I grow soybean now. Isn't this what you wanted us to do? Because soybean is what your civilization needs from us? That's all I grow now, season after season. The soil has lost most of its nutrient content. The soil used to have so much life in it. It's all gone because I grow only one crop season after season without allowing the soil to recover itself. And I work long hours. My whole family has to work now. My 10-yr old son helps after school. We sell the soybean in the village market to the trader who set up shop soon after you left. They also opened a store where we buy everything we need. We're dependent on the trader for everything. When the crop wasn't doing well a few years ago, he said I should buy fertilizer from him. And when the pests came, he sold us pesticide. We never needed either fertilizer or pesticide before. Our compost pile was more than enough for manure and pests were under control naturally. That was how we'd lived for thousands of years, in tune with the nature around us. We used to depend on nature for everything and it used to provide us with plenty. I worked only half the day. But not anymore. I'm dependent on the trader. I tried switching to a different trader but they are all the same. They don't pay me enough to live as well as we used to. I have to work 10 hours a day. My family has to work too. Everything we are now forced to buy, we used to either get from our neighborhood and the forest for free or our villagers would grow and we'd all share. Our village used to grow all sorts of foods and sometimes we'd trade with the fishing village over there but now everyone here grows only soybean. Half the foods we used to eat before have disappeared. And we're now buying corn flour and bread from the store.
Palmer: Great! Thanks for the update. I'll put it in my weekly report to my boss at headquarters. He should be pleased to hear all of this. He said he'd promote me to president soon. We were a bit worried about how the plan would unfold but it seems to have worked out quite well.
Farmer: What plan?
Palmer: The integration plan. You're now well on your way to being fully integrated into the market economy.
Farmer: The market? That's the word the traders keep talking about all the time. I ask my trader why he gives me so little money for the soybean and charges so much for the things we need. And he says something about how it's not in his control. He says someone called the market sets the prices. But he doesn't know much about it at all.
Palmer: No, he wouldn't. We have PhD's working on it trying to understand how exactly the market works. It's not a person, by the way. It's hard to explain. But your son will be able to explain it to you soon if you continue sending him to school. How's he doing? We could use a few more scientists. Is he showing any interest in Science?
Farmer: How would I know? I know nothing about Science. I know he's not as healthy as I was when I was his age. Can Science help explain that?
Palmer: Let's see. Is he getting a balanced diet? Make sure you give him plenty of protein. A child his age needs protein to grow.
Farmer: What's protein? Where can I find it?
Palmer: Do you eat fish? It's a good source of protein.
Farmer: We used to eat fish all the time years ago. The fishing village over there used to give us plenty of fresh fish in return for milk and other dairy products. But now, they don't come to our village that often. They must be buying milk from the store.
Palmer: Ah, that's too bad. What do they do with their fish these days?
Farmer: I don't know. Someone said they sell it to the traders in the village down the river. One time, I saw a fisherman on his way to my village. We were walking and talking and suddenly something starts making music. He pulled out a small box from his pocket and spoke to it. It told him he could get a better price at the village down the river. And he left. I was excited my family and I would be eating fresh fish after a long time but I was disappointed that he left. I don't like that box that spoke to him.
Palmer: Ah, yes, great! Glad to hear modern technology is making inroads into your lives. That box is called a cell phone. See, I have one too. It's magical. You can talk with anyone anywhere. As a matter of fact, it was me who gave the idea to my friends.
Farmer: What idea? What friends?
Palmer: My friends from business school. I told a few of them of this great opportunity to bring cell phone service to this region. Glad that's working out so well. We call it synergy. Welcome to the 21st century, my friend.
Farmer: I still don't like that music box.
Palmer: You're gonna have to get used to it. You can't stop progress. I heard your community hall has a color TV now. What do you think of that?
Farmer: Oh, that thing. It's another strange box. The talking heads tell us all sorts of stuff that we don't understand. My son understands more than I do and he explains it to us sometimes.
Palmer: Yeah, I hear you. Government news is boring. Wait till you get cable, haha!
Farmer: What government? The trader talks about the government too. I don't know what that is. We didn't have to deal with it before.
Palmer: The government is our friend. It makes laws to help us. Well, some of us get helped more than some others, haha! But it's a great friend of commercial civilization. It takes what you have, keeps some and gives the rest back. And thus it assures security for all of us. Well, some of us more than others, but you get the point.
Farmer: I think I get it. It seems everyone in commercial civilization is trying to figure out how to steal from us poor ignorant farmers. We never used to be poor like this.
Palmer: There's hope my friend. Don't be so pessimistic. This is the cost of progress. I mean this is the cost you pay for our progress. But soon you'll be like us too. Your children will love it. But do tell your son that the private sector offers better opportunities than the government.
Farmer: You steal more efficiently through the private sector, I suppose?
Palmer: Haha, you're being funny again. But all this is for your own good, don't you see? Think of it as the cost of entrance to civilization. It's worth it, I promise. Your son's life will be so different from yours.
Farmer: Got it. Private sector, not the government.
Palmer: Yeah, the government is way too inefficient for my taste. See, you still don't have electricity in your house.
Farmer: I don't need it in my house. And besides, we can't afford it anyway.
Palmer: It'll come soon. Then you will have your own TV. And electric motor and what not.
Farmer: What's a motor?
Palmer: You use it to pump water into your soybean fields.
Farmer: The water doesn't need to be pumped. It's always there. It comes from the river through the canals. Why does it need to be pumped.
Palmer: Ah, see, this why you need electricity. So you can buy a TV and watch the nightly news. Then you would know about the dam.
Farmer: What dam?
Palmer: The one your government is finally starting to build. They're going to divert all the water away to the dam. The canals will be dry.
Farmer: Why are they doing this dam thing?
Palmer: For the hydroelectric power plant that's coming up.
Farmer: What's that?
Palmer: It's used to make electricity. The electricity that will power your house and fields. Listen, you'd need to dig a well to irrigate your fields.
Farmer: I think I get it. The government takes my water away, makes electricity from it, sells it back to me so I can pump water with an electric pump. From a well I have to dig.
Palmer: Yes, you should get together with your village folk and ask for subsidies to get those wells dug. Don't tell anyone I gave you this idea. This is how we do it in the private sector. The government helps us with all sorts of subsidies.
Farmer: How do we talk to the government?
Palmer: There are people called politicians. They run the government. You talk to them. They teach all this in school.
Farmer: I see. I'll have to speak with my neighbors then.
Palmer: You'll figure it out.

<Mr. Palmer gets a phone call and talks for a few minutes>

Palmer: Check this out... my team just called me. They said our latest iPhone app is almost ready to be released.
Farmer: What's that.
Palmer: It's this thing you put on your phone. And you can turn on your electric pump with your cell phone. Because your government, I tell you, is very inefficient. They will turn your electricity off for a few hours every day. And they will do it on no particular schedule. You'd want to use our app so bad, you see. These are what I call synergies. We do offer a heavily discounted special pricing for third world countries. You and your family might want to skip a meal and save up. I have to go now!
Farmer: OK
Palmer: Bye! Oh, find me on Twitter!
Farmer: Whatever!


Let's ask the questions again:
  1. What were the lives of these fishermen and their families like before they became dependent on the "market"? What's the market? Who sets the prices in the neighboring villages and why are these prices so important?
  2. Why are the fishermen being forced to compete with each other to obtain the best price they can? Was such competition part of their lives before they were forced into the market economy? Was it in their own interest to join the market economy?
  3. What has happened to the fishing village's self sufficiency and subsistence life that existed before the village was put on the global economic map? What's the role of technology in this change?
  4. For the farmers in South India, is this new convenience of being able to control their motors from their cell phones something they asked for? Is this something they wanted?
  5. Why is the government involved in their lives, turning on and off their water at its discretion? How did the farmers get water for their fields before the government got involved in their farming? How else is the government involved in their lives?
  6. How has the introduction of cell phones changed overall rural social life considering that cell phones put a man in the middle? Could this actually be a symptom of some other problem?

Saturday, February 8, 2014


[Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative] 

From Wikipedia:
Anarcho-primitivism is an anarchist critique of the origins and progress of civilization. According to anarcho-primitivism, the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural subsistence gave rise to social stratification,coercion, alienation, and population growth. Anarcho-primitivists advocate a return to non-"civilized" ways of life through deindustrialization, abolition of the division of labor or specialization, and abandonment of large-scale organization technologies.
From Encyclopedia Britannica:
primitivism, an outlook on human affairs that sees history as a decline from an erstwhile condition of excellence (chronological primitivism) or holds that salvation lies in a return to the simple life (cultural primitivism). Linked with this is the notion that what is natural should be a standard of human values. Nature may mean what is intrinsic, objective, normal, healthy, or universally valid. Various senses of primitivism depend on whether the natural is set over against historical development; against artifact and contrivance; against law, custom, and convention; or against rational mental activity.
Among historical expressions of primitivism are the Cynics’ spurning of luxury, property, and social amenities; Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s “free and easy wandering” in the spontaneity of the Dao; the Greeks’ pristine Golden Age; the biblical Garden of Eden; medieval monasticism; the Anabaptists’ aloofness from bourgeois civilization; the Romantics’ idealization of the “savage”; and modern nostalgia for the “golden” years of childhood and yearning for the “simplicity” of the past.
Excellent resource on "primitivist" theory:

Two related books I highly recommend:

Society against the state

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative] 

When, in primitive society, the economic dynamic lends itself to definition as a distinct and autonomous domain, when the activity of production becomes alienated, accountable labor, 1evied by men who will enjoy the fruits of that labor, what has come to pass is that society has been divided into rulers and ruled, masters and subjects--it has ceased to exorcise the thing that will be its ruin: power and the respect for power. Society's major division, the division that is the basis for all the others, including no doubt the division of labor, is the new vertical ordering of things between a base and a summit; it is the great political cleavage between those who hold the force, be it military or religious, and those subject to that force. The political relation of power precedes and founds the economic relation of exploitation. Alienation is political before it is economic; power precedes labor; the economic derives from the political; the emergence of the State determines the advent of classes.
 Other notable excerpts:
Primitive societies are societies without a State. This factual judgment, accurate in itself, actually hides an opinion, a value judgment [...] What the statement says, in fact, is that primitive societies are missing something - the State - that is essential to them, as it is to any other society: our own, for instance. Consequently, those societies are incomplete; they are not quite true societies--they are not civilized--their existence continues to suffer the painful experience of a lack--the lack of a State--which, try as they may, they will never make up. Whether clearly stated or not, that is what comes through in the explorers' chronicles and the work of researchers alike: society is inconceivable without the State; the State is the destiny of every society. One detects an ethnocentric bias in this approach; more often than not it is unconscious, and so the more firmly anchored.
It has already been remarked that archaic societies are almost always classed negatively, under the heading of lack: societies without a State, societies without writing, societies without history. [...] One is content to observe an additional lack and continues to use our own world as the reference point: those societies without a State, without writing, without history are also without a market. But common sense may object - what good is a market when no surplus exists? Now, the notion of a subsistence economy conceals within it the implicit assumption that if primitive societies do not produce a surplus, this is because they are incapable of doing so, entirely absorbed as they are in producing the minimum necessity for survival, for subsistence. The time-tested and ever serviceable image of the destitution of the Savages. And, to explain that inability of primitive societies to tear themselves away from the stagnation of living hand to mouth, from perpetual alienation in the search for food, it is said they are technically under-equipped, technologically inferior.
What is the reality? If one understands by technics the set of procedures men acquire not to ensure the absolute mastery of nature (that obtains only for our world and its insane Cartesian project, whose ecological consequences are just beginning to be measured), but to ensure a mastery of the natural environment suited and relative to their needs, then there is no longer any reason whatever to impute a technical inferiority to primitive societies: they demonstrate an ability to satisfy their needs which is at least equal to that of which industrial and technological society is so proud.
There is a stubborn prejudice in that notion, one which oddly enough goes hand in hand with the contradictory and no less common idea that the Savage is lazy. While, in our culture's vulgar language, there is the saying 'to work like a nigger," there is a similar expression in South America, where one savs "lazy like an Indian." Now, one cannot have it both ways: either man in primitive societies (American and others) lives in a subsistence economy and spends most of his time in the search for food; or else he does not live in a subsistence economy and can allow himself prolonged hours of leisure, smoking in his hammock. That is what made an unambiguously unfavorable impression on the first European observers of the Indians of Brazil . Great was their disapproval in seeing that those strapping men glowing with health preferred to deck themselves out like women with paint and feathers instead of perspiring away in their gardens. Obviously, these people were deliberately ignorant of the fact that one must earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow. It wouldn't do, and it didn't last: the Indians were soon put to work, and they died of it. As a matter of fact, two axioms seem to have guided the advance of Western civilization from the outset: the first maintains that true societies unfold in the protective shadow oft he State; the second states a categorical imperative: man must work.
The Indians devoted relatively little time to what is called work. And even so, they did not die of hunger. The chronicles of the period are unanimous in describing the fine appearance of the adults, the good health of the many children, the abundance and variety of things to eat. Consequently, the subsistence economy in effect among the Indian tribes did not by any means imply an anxious, full-time search for food. It follows that a subsistence economy is compatible with a substantial limitation of the time given to productive activities. Take the case of the South American tribes who practiced agriculture, the Tupi-Guarani, for example, whose idleness was such a source of irritation to the Urench and the Portuguese. The economic life of those Indians was primarily based on agriculture, secondarily on hunting, fishing, and gathering. The same garden plot was used for from four to six consecutive years, after which it was abandoned, owing either to the depletion of the soil, or, more likely, to an invasion of the cultivated space by a parasitic vegetation that was difficult to eliminate. The biggest part of the work, performed hy the men, consisted of clearing the necessary area by the slash and burn technique, using stone axes. This job, accomplished at the end of the rainy season, would keep the men busy for a month or two. Nearly all the rest of the agricultural process--planting, weeding, harvesting--was the responsibility of the women, in keeping with the sexual division of labor. This happy conclusion follows: the men (i.e., one-half the population ) worked about two months every four years! As for the rest of the time, they reserved it for occupations experienced not as pain but as pleasure: hunting and fishing; entertainments and drinking sessions; and finally for satisfying their passionate liking for warfare.
Now, these qualitative and impressionistic pieces of information find a striking confirmation in recent research-- some of it still in progress--of a rigorously conclusive nature, since it involves measuring the time spent working in societies with a subsistence economy. The figures obtained, whether they concern nomad hunters of the Kalahari Desert, or Amerindian sedentary agriculturists, reveal a mean apportionment of less than four hours daily for ordinary work time.  Lizot, who has been living for several years among the Yanomami Indians of the Venezuelan Amazon region, has chronometrically established that the average length of time spent working each day by adults, including all activities, barely exceeds three hours.  Although I did not carry out similar measurements among the Guayaki, who are nomad hunters of the Paraguayan forest, I can affirm that those Indians, women and men, spent at least half the day in almost total idleness since hunting and collecting took place (but not every day) between six and eleven o'clock in the morning, or thereabouts. It is probable that similar studies conducted among the remaining primitive peoples would produce analogous results, taking ecological differences into account.
Thus we find ourselves at a far remove from the wretchedness that surrounds the idea of subsistence economy. Not only is man in primitive societies not bound to the animal existence that would derive from a continual search for the means of survival, but this result is even bought at the price of a remarkably short period of activity. This means that primitive societies have at their disposal, if they so desire, all the time necessary to increase the production of material goods. Common sense asks then: why would the men living in those societies want to work and produce more, given that three or four hours of peaceful activity suffice to meet the needs of the group? What good would it do them? What purpose would be served by the surplus thus accumulated? What would it be used for? Men work more than their needs require only when forced to. And it is just that kind of force which is absent from the primitive world; the absence of that external force even defines the nature of primitive society. The term, subsistence economy, is acceptable for describing the economic organization of those societies, provided it is taken to mean not the necessity that derives from a lack, an incapacity inherent in that type of society and its technology; but the contrary: the refusal of a useless excess, the determination to make productive activity agree with the satisfaction of needs. And nothing more. [...]
The advantage of  a metal ax over a stone ax is too obvious to require much discussion: one can do perhaps ten times as much work with the first in the same amount of time as with the second; or else, complete the same amount of work in one-tenth the time. And when the Indians discovered the productive superiority of the white men's axes, they wanted them not in order to produce more in the same amount of time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter. Exactly the opposite occurred for, with the metal axes, the violence, the force, the power which the civilized newcomers brought to bear on the Savages created havoc in the primitive Indian world.
Primitive societies are, as Lizot writes with regard to the Yanomami , societies characterized by the rejection of work: "The Yanomami's contempt for work and their disinterest in technological progress per se are beyond question." The first leisure societies, the first affluent societies, according to M. Sahlin's apt and playful expression.
For man in primitive societies, the activity of production is measured precisely, delimited by the needs to be satisfied, it being understood what is essentially involved is energy needs:  production is restricted to replenishing the stock of energy expended.  In other words, it is life as nature that--excepting the production of goods socially consumed on festive occasions--establishes and determines the quantity of time devoted to reproduction. This means that once its needs are fully satisfied nothing could induce primitive society to produce more, that is, to   alienate its time by working for no good reason when that time is available for idleness, play, warfare, or festivities.
In primitive society--an essentially egalitarian society--men control their activity, control the circulation of the products of that activity: they act only on their own behalf, even though the law of exchange mediates the direct relation of man to his product. Everything is thrown into confusion, therefore, when the activity of production is diverted from its initial goal, when, instead of producing only for himself, primitive man also produces for others, without exchange and without reciprocity. That is the point at which it becomes possible to speak of labor: when the egalitarian rule of exchange ceases to constitute the "civil code" of the society, when the activity of production is aimed at satisfying the needs of others, when the order of exchange gives way to the terror of debt. It is there, in fact, that the difference between the Amazonian Savage and the Indian of the Inca empire is to be placed. All things considered, the first produces in order to live, whereas the second works in addition so that others can live, those who do not work, the masters who tell him: you must pay what you owe us, you must perpetually repay your debt to us.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Pretense of Knowledge

[Approximate Reading Time: 15 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative]

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Stephen Hawking

“The Pretense of Knowledge” is noted economist Friedrich A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize Lecture delivered at the ceremony awarding him the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974 in Stockholm, Sweden.

A friend sent me this gem of a speech a couple of months ago and I've been meaning to write about it since.

According to Wikipedia, Scientism is a term used to refer to a "belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. It has been defined as "the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society".

As much as economists want to believe that their field of study is amenable to the scientific approach, the truth is Economics is a social science that carries with it a certain fundamental complexity that renders it opaque to the otherwise penetrating eye of the scientist and the empiricist. Social sciences are not even sciences in the true sense of the word. Is political science really a science? How about history, civics, sociology, psychology or anthropology? And yet, they all fall under the rubric of "social sciences".

Hayek warns about the dangers of attempting to apply the scientific approach, which works wonders in the realm of the physical sciences, unquestioningly to social sciences such as Economics.

One of the ways in which scientism manifests itself in the modern world is through our willingness to narrow down the problem or a theory to such an extent that it rests on only the quantifiable aspects of the problem space. This happens when we either throw out key factors because they are not easily measurable or include irrelevant factors because they are easily measurable. Both of these practices appear to be common wherever the scientific approach is unquestioningly applied.

I'm reminded of a fable: The sun had mostly set when an old man walks home after a day's work. On the way, he sees a young man who seems to be looking for something on the ground under the lamp post. The old man stops and asks him if he needs help. The young man replies that he'd lost his keys. The old man asks where he was when he last had them and the man points to the fields off the street. "Then why are you looking here?", asks the old man. "Because this is where the light is!"

Scientism forces us to look where the light is because that's where all the measurable things are. Off in the fields, no light shines, nothing there is very measurable but that's where the keys are.

Hayek is articulate when he says, "there may thus well exist better "scientific" evidence for a false theory, which will be accepted because it is more "scientific", than for a valid explanation, which is rejected because there is no sufficient quantitative evidence for it." Scientific research in the social sciences is replete with this folly of scientism.

Interestingly, several Nobel prizes have been awarded in Economics over the decades to people who simply "showed" that Economics is not a science. The field of behavioral economics, according to Wikipedia, and the related field, behavioral finance, study the effects of social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences for market prices, returns, and the resource allocation. The fields are primarily concerned with the bounds of rationality of economic agents. Behavioral models typically integrate insights from psychology with microeconomic theory; in so doing, these behavioral models cover a range of concepts, methods, and fields.

What's going on here? This is what an economist must be telling himself: "we take a social study, turn it into a Science, realize that it's a little too complex because human beings are not completely "rational", and then we grant Nobel Prizes to those of us who tell us human behavior is a bit too complex for those formulas to work! In other words, our profession rewards those of its practitioners who simply remind the rest that human beings are not fully machines yet. But fear not, we're working toward that end too, toward an era when human beings are emotionless robots who process information like a computer does. Economics will then be a true Science, and rightfully so. But until then, those pesky little things called feelings can be studied by those of us who still like people. We affectionately call them behavioral economists."

In this context, the history of the Nobel Prize in Economics is also worth considering. According to Wikipedia, The Prize in Economics is not one of the original Nobel Prizes created by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895. The Prize in Economics (as it is referred to by the Nobel Foundation) was established in 1968 and endowed by Sweden's central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, on the occasion of the bank's 300th anniversary.

If it seems to you that the field of Economics has been vying to be included up there with the big brothers of natural sciences, with economists extending their hand to scientists in a "me too" fashion, you're on to something. Daniel Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision making. Kahneman, who is a psychologist, not an economist, applied his understanding of another social science, psychology, to economics. In their quest to be called true scientists, economists have inadvertently taken something called science that didn't fully apply to their field and twisted their very field of study so it can be studied in a scientific manner. And sometimes it takes a psychologist to remind them of what they are really studying. In his introductory book on World-Systems Analysis, Immanuel Wallerstein writes "the sciences denied the humanities the ability to discern truth":

Scientism, we learn, is over a hundred years old! Economists have been fighting to have their profession look more like a science for a very long time and by 1974, when Hayek made this speech, the implications and the dangers were becoming apparent, at least to Nobel Prize winners!

Scientism is not limited to Economics but has been a prevailing theme in other social sciences as well, as Hayek writes:

My debate on the Economics mailing list at Google summarized here appears to have been with some of those "impetuous younger members" that Hayek mentions above ;)

While Science has its uses, it's scope is rather limited when it comes to the vast footprint of the human experience. Unfortunately, much like an organized religion, it has taken over spheres of life that are not amenable to the approach not because these spheres are not fully formed and up to the mark but because of their very interrelated complex constitutions. It's as if we became addicted to equations and computer models after finding success in articulating the laws of motion or of aerodynamics while failing to realize that while they work well in the physical sciences, they can never describe the complexity of the human body or of an ecosystem. But instead of eschewing Science in these areas, we've set out to transform these areas themselves in order to fit them into the mold that Science can work with. The human body is hence increasingly treated as a machine, reducible to its parts, each with their own specialists who spend up to 15 years learning about them. Numerous book burnings in the early 20th century destroyed holistic and natural remedies and wisdom practiced up until then across the country in favor of a new chemical-based "modern" medicine based on "Science". E. Richard Brown explores the connection between medicine and capitalism in his 1979 book "Rockefeller Medicine Men".

The danger of our time is the overwhelming ease by which those who endeavor to control society do so by reshaping it with the help of those who believe in the power of Science. These "accomplices", as Hayek calls them, are all around us, in schools, in the workplace, in the corporate board room and just about everywhere the tentacles of science have spread, places where science shouldn't have gone. The trend continues today with the increasing emphasis on "STEM" education in schools around the world. STEM, an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, is a current priority of the capitalists who hope to ensure into the future, a competent workforce, the most scientistic generation ever.


The next time someone says, "there's not enough data to support what you're saying" or when someone points you to a formula on Wikipedia to measure human happiness, ask him if he isn't being a bit too scientistic :)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Save Ethiopia's Omo Valley Tribes

Ethiopia is one of the biggest recipients of American and British aid through USAID and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Please use the power of your keyboard and mouse to send an email to Dennis Weller, the Mission Director for USAID Ethiopia and Justine Greening MP, UK Secretary of State for International Development.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Idiot Savants

[Approximate Reading/Watching Time: 3 minutes]
[Mood: Amused] 

Mark Hertsgaard, the moderator of the debate starts off with the quote from Brand’s new book. It was an update of the classic line from Brand’s 1974 Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” Whole Earth Discipline updates that to: “We are as gods and we HAVE to get good at it.”

Peter's question (transcript):

Let me challenge your hypothesis that we're Gods. And let me suggest a more accurate metaphor which would be idiot savants. We're highly developed, we have these great skills, these technological cleverness which is completely untethered to wisdom, and the reason that you and Winona are speaking against one another is that you're speaking on the level of intelligence and she's speaking on the level of wisdom [audience applause].

Obama may have a very brilliant Science adviser, I believe he does. He doesn't have a wisdom adviser. And the level of problems that we need to deal with right now have to be applied at the level of wisdom. So the invisible guest in this conversation is culture. And culture is the determinant of how we live, which determines how big a footprint we're gonna take on the Earth. If you want to sanctify American indulgence as the global standard, you're gonna need Hydrogen power, you know, you're gonna need nuclear bombs to power all the electricity. But if you remember, when the Norwegians came to Iceland as Europeans and tried to raise cattle in Iceland, they starved to death to the very last person and right over the hill, the Inuit were fat and sassy living on local food.

So here's my question. My question is that what I find disturbing and sort of a little sociopathic about your perspective is the absence of doubt. […] You are willing to risk the entire commons by introducing a biocide that’s fatal to everything with replicating cells. That stays deadly longer than all human history, the oldest cities may be 10,000 years old, the half-life of plutonium is over 100,000 years, and I can only see the reason is to support this culture. So my question to you is, in the light of such risk, which will be enduring forever, the UN just came out with a report that 980,000 people died as a result of Chernobyl, so in the light of this risk, why are you not willing to entertain all the prior precautionary steps of changing the culture, reducing consumption, retrofitting, changing our life, making that a contest, making that a dance and a challenge, rather than continuing the model of centralized power, centralized sale, and keeping the rest of us consumers, at the risk of the entire biosphere? [audience applause]

The minutes of the debate are worth reading too:

The War on Terra

[Approximate Watching Time: 5 minutes]
[Mood: Amused]