The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Archive for the ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ Category

Space age seems dead. Long live the space age.

with 5 comments

The economist’s recent article, titled, “The end of the space age” raised a lot of hackles (see comments in that link). The latest Archdruid Report tackles this subject head on in his latest post.

What resonated in that article for me, was how entrenched the pervasive “myth” of the space age has been in much of the World’s collective conscious during the cold war period, regardless of caste, creed, colour, race, religion and whatever other division we know of. The other common myth that carries the same fixation and following of a similar scale was discussed by Jacob Fisker in his aptly titled, “Myths and the future”.

Seriously, the comments on Greer’s post were equally chilling for me too, becaue it showed how much every cold-war boy/girl around the World that was drawn into the “Space Age” propaganda (Yes, like all other myths, this one too is clever propaganda, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves it isn’t).

I still have vivid recollections of animated discussions on Skylab around the house, due to the characteristic helicopter blade look of the satellite and the controversy regarding its “reentry” and damage. We were also flooded with Soviet Cosmonaut books (courtesy of the great “Mir publishers”). And if you believe, we sent a man into space 😉 (due apologies to R.E.M). The Indian mass media was not far behind! We had wall-to-wall television programmes on Space such as Space City Sigma and Indradhanush (Rainbow) (*)

(*) This one showed Disney’s Flight of the navigator running on a TV screen on the background — the creators’ nod to their source of inspiration, I suppose 😉 (I like references, however oblique they may be). My father was astute enough to spot it and took me to watch the film later on when it was released finally in India. 🙂

And then there was the overdose of Superman comics too (thanks to my father again :-)) (Bottle city of Kandor, anyone?) And so, I too was not spared of this juggernaut, and growing up, space was all that was, and I wanted to be a “rocket scientist”! I was hooked!

But I “grew up” (both metaphorically and realistically) and realised that if our track record of how we managed terra firma is anything to go by, I do not want us to be going anywhere at all!.

I later found out that Bill Watterson, had actually done a strip echoing my innermost thoughts with a Calvin and Hobbes’ “trip to Mars” (as early as September 1988. The man was quite prescient)! With that motivation and background, enjoy Calvin and Hobbes’ adventures to Mars. Each panel is dripping with Watterson’s ironic commentary of the famous “American/Humankind” projected self image — Notice that rant from Calvin in response to Hobbes’ subtle hint “Maybe they don’t like us”. This mindset and outlook verily dominates the Indian blogosphere a lot these days because of the misguided “India has arrived” mindset. So, Americans take heart, we are soon to be joining your ranks due to our own hubris as well. 😐

Enjoy the abridged trip to Mars!

I Part of the Strips

II Part of the Strips

III Part of the Strip

I was part of the space crowd growing up. Strangely, Star Trek never moved me… but Giant Robot was a big hit with me 🙂 (Oh those finger missiles were ‘deadly’!). Eventually, I realised that it is much more important to focus on the here and now rather than Space and beyond to indulge in ego massages!

Before anyone accuses me of being shortsighted and pessimistic, think about this. Granted, given the need for Humans to strive beyond, stretch their imagination, etc…etc… we have consistently chosen immediate security again and again (and continue to do so). So in the lines of the old Chinese quote “Dreams don’t cook rice” which is what we all fundamentally need in the end. Ermine discusses this in his latest post and so does Jacob Fisker in his gardening for self-sufficiency post. Laugh all you may at their so-called “naivety”, but store those two posts in the dim recesses of your memory. Mark my word, for they will come to haunt us in the coming decade!

Have a good weekend and take care!

Written by Surio

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Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I wish I was that now!

with 2 comments

Ahh, the last week and a half been a blur. It all began like this:

Uncannily, both mother and wife's response mirrored the last strip

Can't blame them really, this is my usual bravado co-efficient

And it came to this. Actually, it has been a week, and I am still feeling pretty lousy!

But the overall sickness gave rise to some “feverish” imaginations:

All you need is a vivid memory and a vivider imagination, to have some fun 🙂

and some rather “delirious” imaginations too:

It was almost surreal, how much art can imitate life, or in my case, the opposite? Mother did bring me lunch over one such 'swimming with salamanders' dream

But this post is is not about me… No sireeeeee…

A small ode to all those 'mom-lady' out there who end up moulding the 'Calvin's into 'Hobbes's

And of course, that “indomitable” other lady of my life:

First time I called DW that, I had to bring down the comics collection from the attic to explain. Oh, and she *did* laugh heartily afterwards!

Thanks to the excellent ministrations from the two lovely ladies, I am now up and about, but just so…… I am not well enough yet to say, can’t grumble, but overall, I feel comforted, I feel reassured, and in safe pairs of hands. So, can’t complain on this post. :-D! And that does, put my other gripes, worries and rants in perspective. :-)…… like this strip.

Sometimes when I feel dark I always look up this strip. Sometimes it's all in the matter of seeing things, isn't it?

Thanks for including me in your thoughts. And have a great week ahead.

P.S: Ted’s post will go up as advertised. 🙂

Written by Surio

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Arbour day musings

with 11 comments

My association with the word “Arboreal” goes a long way. As a young boy, my memories of nicknames from relatives were “Dennis the Menace”, “Terror on two legs”, etc. You can probably guess why. 😉 Inevitably, I got into trouble, a lot of trouble with my mother because of the amount of mischief I was capable of in a given time :-D. It was invariably my grandfather who used to affectionately rescue me from my mother’s wrath by remarking “He’s a natural ‘arboreal creature’. We’ll have to be more on our toes with this one”.

As the word was used so often, it was one of the first words I looked up when I could lay hands on the dictionary. I was lucky to grow up in various spacious Railway quarters, and in semi-urban areas with trees, so in a way I did live up to grandfather’s nickname, rather pleased to say. So, I have always had an affection to that word. Growing up, I discovered to my pleasant surprise, something called “Arbo(u)r day” too (I am not sure of the spelling). It seems timely to talk about it because I’ve remembered facts as mnemonics… “Labour day follows Arbo(u)r day”. And the mnemonic passed my mind recently.

Brief History:

Arbor Day was founded in 1872 in Nebraska, USA. The customary observance is to plant a tree. On the first Arbor Day, April 10, 1872, an estimated one million trees were planted. It is celebrated every year on the last Friday in April (and this post is being read by you in the first Friday of May? ;-)). Each state celebrates its own state holiday.

The movement was founded by one Julius Sterling Morton a well-known nature lover and conservationist who later joined politics. Julius Sterling Morton. His son Joy Morton’s original 400-acre Thornhill Estate has been transformed into a 1,700-acre living history museum of over 4,000 different types of trees, shrubs and other woody plants, with the mission to encourage the planting of trees as well as promoting nature as a source of inspiration, wonder and joy, especially for children. (Hear hear. I didn’t know this until lately)

Now one of the greatest ironies is that Every movement needs its hero, for it to flourish. In its day, Arbour day found its patron saint in the then U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt. He took to it as a duck to water, and initiated a mass tree planting campaign. He is known to have famously said: “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless.” Indeed, he managed in his time, to create or enlarge 150 national forests, mainly by presidential fiat. These carried over into the Progressive era where city municipalities took it upon themsevles to plant trees in cities.


Urban India pretty much typifies hell these days. Trees from a bygone era are dying and most news papers carry stories like “Dead branch crushes businessman’s brand new dream car. What are the authorities doing?”. And flip side of “growth, GDP, economy” means the ones that don’t protest, get eliminated.

In the 1990s the Chicago mayor commissioned a study to gain concrete answers to some simple and fundamental questions such as:

  • How did trees interact with the ecosystem? Did they really affect air quality?
  • Anyone whose family home was shaded by large oaks/maples knew the cool of those trees on a hot summer day, but how much did they reduce the need for air conditioning?
  • When thunderstorms lashed down, how many gallons of rainwater did the leaves of a Norway maple absorb and keep out of the stressed sewerage system?

The study was carried out in Chicago (12MB PDF!) and said that the urban forest consisted of roughly 51 million trees, and the canopy shaded only 11 percent of the city, less than half of the proportion city officials believed was ideal. What it also found was that

  • In 1991, trees in Chicago removed an estimated 17 tons of carbon monoxide, 93 tons of sulfur dioxide, 98 tons of nitrogen dioxide, 210 tons of ozone, and 234 tons of particulate matter.
  • Trees in the Chicago metro area sequestered about 155,000 tons of carbon a year. But, that annual intake equalled the amount of carbon emitted by transportation vehicles in the Chicago area in just one week! 😮 Oh dear!
  • Where trees were large and lush, they could improve air quality by as much as 15 percent during the hottest hours of midday. The shade from a large street tree growing to the west of a typical brick residence reduced annual air-conditioning energy use by two to seven percent.
  • In 1993, more than 111,000 trees had been planted in Sacramento as part of electricity conservation, and the Sacramento municipality wanted to assess whether they were starting to reduce energy use. Number crunching revealed that a tree planted to the west of a house saved about three times more energy in a year than the same kind of tree planted to the south. Even today, the trees’ shade collectively saves the utility from having to supply $1.2 million worth of electricity annually. But it seems, running the shade program costs the utility $1.5 million a year! Enter Carbon credits… Exit Surio.

Labour is well looked after today in most places. More can be done, but there are enough blessings to count, at least in some parts of the world. Arbor, by contrast is doing so poorly it makes me mad just thinking about it. We need to do all we can, because the trees cannot form a collective, mobilise a union, or even worse, create lobbies and hoodwink us!

So, please, if you are reading this, and if you have a yard, or some space of your own, I beg of you to plant some trees, preferably local species; even more preferable if it is flower-bearing and fruit-bearing variety (the “bird and the bees” like ’em ;-)) Thank you, Thank you, thank you………. (See third frame below for more detail :-P)


Thankyouthankyouthankyou? Most definitely!

The future generation will thank you and manage to survive because of this. There are only a handful of people around the World who do this in a commendable way: Willie Smits, (the late) Steve Irwin (God bless the man), Felix Dennis…. anyone else? Each of us needs to do what one can.

If you feel this is a bummer post and demand to be cheered up, here’s a few minutes of very enjoyable arboreal (or is it ethereal?) scat and jazz that greatly entertained me as a boy 😉

Written by Surio

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“Worker Bees” of the world, unite? — Done and dusted

with 6 comments

Minor Prologue:

It’s high time, we drew the curtains over the series of posts that offered counterviews for some of the prevalent opinions in the World regarding “Modern” Trade. Here’s Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the series, addressing the other common myths on “trade’s benefits”.

What was my motivation to write these posts? It is best illustrated by this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip below:

Please don't get caught up in the pro-anti-Hunter-hunted message. The broad message that I want you to take away is 'A Change in the point of view of an accepted perspective'.

Yes, this is an overt swipe at the pro-hunting lobby, but my interest lies in the broad message of the strip. How does it look when the mirror is pointed inwards? That was my intent; to turn the mirror inwards and point that what’s being enthusiastically promoted (by the media and the ones with vested interests) has very many hidden riders.

So, when I am done with saying all of this (*), it brings on the final Brahmastra(!) from others, that is usually deployed as closure.
(*) And may I say that I sincerely feel honoured if I was able to make you re-look some of our accepted value systems while reading this.

If it is so bad, why have you not taken to the hills in a bark robe?

Or in longer, more precise terms,

So, you spend considerable effort arguing that trade is bad and is like “slavery”, yet you go ahead and engage in it youself. E.g., The PC you are typing this blog from was probably “Made in China” employing ‘slave labour’ as you submitted in the beginning?

For this criticism (and depending on my audience), my response stops with:

As my mother is fond of saying, “Criticism does not automatically imply self excellence”.

Sometimes the above criticism also takes the form of “You seem bent on turning the clock back?”

For this second one (again, depending on my audience), my response usually is:

Not really. 🙂 All I want to do is to simply stop the clock for a while (if such a thing can be done), and then do some real soul-searching of where we really are now, and decide whether we need to continue down the road, or aprovechar what’s achieved so far in a fair manner.

But it doesn’t mean the discussion ends here. Here’s a slightly involved discussion of “what makes me tick” in the face of my realisation of the points made in these above posts:

For starters, I started supporting (and promoting) the concept of FairTrade (“cooperative societies” as they are sometimes known in India). As Wikipedia describes it:

A movement that advocates the payment of a higher price to producers as well as higher social and environmental standards — focusssing in particular on handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit, chocolate, flowers and gold.

If you are new to the concept, The Wikipedia article on Fairtrade is a detailed one and might bring you up to speed. Like many countercurrent movements, it is not without false-starts and deficiencies and I began to realise it myself. What was even more insidious, was that rampant consumerism started riding on the back of the conscientious consumption movement! For example, I began noticing ads such as:

  • Pay an extra 50p for this bottle of water. When you do, the company will donate 3p to communities without clean water(*). :o… <Insert expletive here>
  • When you buy coffee with us in <ABC> coffee, “you are buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee”(?TM?)!. We purchase more “fair-trade” coffee than any company in the world!
  • Buy one shoe from us, and we’ll donate one pair to another one in need
  • Buy a lot of cosmetic products that you don’t even need or use, because our company is an “ethical” one! (“Greenwashing” entered public lingo with the pricking of this bubble)

It had to be his picture here if we're talking Simple Living!

(*) It’s a win-win: the company keeps the extra 47 cents, and you purchase not only some overpriced bottled-water (despite not questioning why on earth a First class society needs “bottled”) but also the ability to not feel bad about not really doing anything to help all those poor third world communities beamed on your telly. Bottled water is another gripe for another day! 😡

After the realisation of these insidious practices disguised to encourage more consumption by simply boosting our endorphins (PDF), I realised that it is better to curtail my participation to the absolute minimum necessary and I’ve since moved on to recreate a life of Voluntary Simplicity for (DW and) myself. As before, the Wikipedia article above is good if you wish for a headstart and an overview.

I found that this came more naturally and easily to me for cultural, spiritual, historical, familial, empirical, whatever-ical reason…… That desn’t mean it comes easy to ALL Indians (No way!) and is an Mt. Everest-like struggle to ALL non-Indians (No Way!). But paradoxically (or ironically, if you prefer), for these very reasons, it gets restricted, i.e., it could work for *you*, but not for *us*!! :-?… Equally, in adopting this method of making my point, the outreach was also restricted, i.e., only the people I tend to interact with regularly, personally and closely could observe my approach to life now. Also, I found that it was self-defeating in leading by example in this movement, when there are forces larger and stronger than you, me and him at play: I mean, let me try and use a bicycle in Indian roads today that are being deliberately flooded with cars through easy credit, policy and massive advertising – I almost certainly will not make an impact but I shall certainly be visiting the Casualty ward pronto!

At one stage, I was this close to resigning myself to simply being me and let the World wash over and do whatever it bloody well pleases! Yes, I was ‘this’ close. Here’s a (recovering) academic turned trucker (called Bill Pulliam) who’s returned to the land contemplating similar thoughts.

And I do believe that the end consumer has to assume some of the moral burden for what is done to produce and deliver the goods and services he benefits from. I also recognize in this intertwined world it is damn near impossible to extract yourself from all that is done to support our modern spoiled developed world lives. This computer is being run by electricity bought from TVA, most of which is generated by hydro plants powered by the dams that have impounded the entire Tennessee River and helped drive many species of fish to near extinction. Some of the rest of the watts come from coal ripped out of West Virginia by mountaintop removal. Pragmatism is necessary and inevitable. But it does not obliterate moral responsibility. Hell, I drive trucks for a living, burning the fossil fuels and dragging the consumer goods around the continent. But, my decision to drive a truck is not what puts the trucks on the road. It’s a million people’s decisions that they want their cheap plastic crap and they want it HERE and NOW that puts the trucks on the road. My choice to buy less cheap plastic crap will do more to take the trucks off the road than would my choice to surrender my CDL and quit working as a driver. Other decisions I can make as an individual will have a far greater impact than whether or not I drive a truck laden with cheap plastic crap for other people to buy.

And I already made the single biggest choice on that front when I got my tubes snipped insuring that I will never be responsible for the creation of another resource-swilling shit-exhuding human individual. So I keep on trucking and look for ways to do those other things that would make more of an immediate difference.

The rest of the post can be read here on his blog.

Meanwhile, I also discovered Jacob Lund Fisker’s blog in parallel, and was impressed with his attitude of perseverance. He gave a “name” (Early retirement extreme — ERE) to what is essentially an existing body of philosophy, chose to put up a blog in said name, and discusses ERE as a working concept (in the comments and in the forums), and didn’t just stop at retiring from the rat race and walk away with his savings. The underlying message I got from him was: To participate within the system, yet promote the “other side” idea, to point out that it can work, and bring about voluntary change and reach critical mass.

I also had an epiphany from the life of Mahatma Gandhi that gave my thoughts some weight:

  1. Gandhi advocated the Boycott/Swadeshi movement, but did use Press/Telegraph/cars/trains to organise the freedom struggle. In other words, he didn’t use the ‘Swadeshi’ Carrier pigeons or runners for the movement
  2. Despite being an ahimsavadi, he canvassed for Indian soldiers to fight for the crown for the I World war.

People still tend to call him a major hypocrite for these acts, but they seem to completely miss the point. In his doing so,

  1. Because of the well-coordinated and well-oiled relay and communications, India was among the first colonies to gain independence from the empire (after Ireland) and in a much more peaceful manner than the other colonies (let’s not talk partition today, OK?), and,
  2. Gandhi actually gained the support for Indian Independence from the grateful British public! This made a moral blot in the case made by the crown to retain India as a colony.

So, I now understand that it pays to use the dominant medium(*) of the day to communicate the larger message even if it brings the odd moral posturing time to time.
(*) i.e. the equivalent of the telegraph and the newspaper of yore.


Yes, there have been arguably good benefits to trade, in the past through to today, but I am not at all in agreement with how it has come to be carried out today. And it is not just restricted to the amount of power these corporations have managed to wield. Let’s see if this narrative flows:

In the beginning,

  • Those items (Sarong, Saree, Bullock carts, conical hats, etc…) mentioned in that thought experiment from Part 1 were part of all the colonised Eastern civilisations’ socio-cultural fabric (as American as Apple pie comes to mind) and had enabled them to engage in a quality of life, leisure and enjoyment that the West is now increasingly wanting to escape to all the time….
  • In a similar manner, around some time in History, other European civilisations invented spinning jennys and all those things that we were forced to cram in school as “great inventions to showcase human ingenuity”. Lovely — to each their own, as far as I am concerned. So far, still so good.
  • Now let’s take any jaded old colonial diary narrative of the “East”… The “natives/coolies” were invariably described as “lazy”, “sleeping in afternoon” “won’t work”…etc… Is this a bias in the thinking of the Europeans (PWE — my favourite bugbear) that made the Europeans mistake a true life-of-leisure into all those negative epithets?
  • Other (equally if not more, dominant) civilisations of their times, didn’t actively force their “ways-of-life” to Europe/USA, or anyone else. For example: India actively traded with China, Cambodia, Malaya, Indonesia, etc.. (by sea too!), but retained their mutual respect for each others’ way of life. Chinese didn’t wear veshtis, nor did the Indians wear robes (but “Lungi” became famous! Perhaps due to a shared climate and garish colour fascination? ;-)).
  • What I don not like is the way in which every other civilisation that does not live like the West is somehow labelled as “deprived”, “backward”, “non-progressive” and forced to convert into “Mammonism”, either by gun boats (previously) or by economic sanctions (lately). Why is it that “North Korea” or for that matter “any other place”, is somehow in “deep horse manure”, because they don’t “walk like us”, “talk like us”, “eat/sleep like us”….etc….?
  • And in the end, what is this fixation about “new markets” with the West, but always being portrayed as “beneficial to the locals” all the time? I love the bard when he says: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.

After several years of experiencing the “Brave, Flat World” I think I am beginning to understand Gandhi’s remarks,

When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi famously replied, “I think it would be a great idea.” Thus he did not equate increasing scientific and technological sophistication with progress in civilization.

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides an my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.

While everyone and his dog seems to hold North Korea as the “backward runt”, for its lack of trading in the global shanty, South Koreans themselves don’t think their lives are any better. This recent news article about South Korea literally set the blog rooms ablaze about similar complaints of India too…..

If being chained to your desk, whether you like it or not is not to be considered slavery, what is to be considered as slavery, then? As Jacob Fisker would say, “These are Golden handcuffs, highly sought after” 😉

Perhaps, it will take something as drastic as this strip before we are driven back to our senses (hoping they are not irrepairably dulled by mindless consumption by then)

Our Global economies' fixation with growth, job creation and new markets to explore

Finally, remember that in all this noise, profound words are being forgotten…..

“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”
——— Old Native American proverb

And in the end, when we are confronted by the coming generations about the trail of destruction that was left behind in this quest for markets and profits, let’s hope we’ll have enough honesty in responding to them. Remember this old anecdote:

A friend comes to you angry that an item he lent to you has been returned broken. “Unbelievable!” you begin, continuing, “First, look at it- it’s not broken. Second, I never even borrowed it. And third, it was already broken when you lent it to me!”

Let’s NOT respond like this to them!

Written by Surio

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“Worker-Bees” of the world, unite? Part-III

with 7 comments

Minor Prologue:

Continuing with the multi-part series of my objections to modern trade as being practised here and now. As I tried explaining in the comments, throughout the series, I am trying to a) to hold a mirror from a slightly different perspective on the (evolution, leading to currently being practised) form of trade today and its benefits and b) to chronicle history from this context. And I would like to reassure you for the nth time, these are not the writings of someone yearning for socialism/communism! I particularly like this definition of Socialism and Communism by Davis:

Reducing the infinite permutation of human society and consciousness to a simple opposition of owners and workers, capitalist and proletariat, Marxism, formulated by german philosopher in the Reading room of the British library, was in a sense the perfect triumph of the mechanistic view of existence inspired by Descartes. Society itself was a machine that could be engineered for the betterment of all.

Unfortunately, all it ended doing was causing, among several // other // casualties, death of 3 million Cambodians and 40 million Chinese.

I am more in concurrence with these tenets: a) Be the change you want to see in the World, and, b) anyone who thinks they alone can change this world is both wrong and dangerous. Indeed what drives this series of posts is a culmination of thoughts and my concurrence with the following philosophy:

“The myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be the West”. They are unique expressions of the Human imagination and heart, unique answers to the fundamental question: What does it mean to be Human and alive?

There’s a tendency for those of us in the dominant Western culture (Surio adds: and its more militant recent converts/clones) to view traditional people—even when we’re sympathetic to their plight—as quaint and colourful, but reduced to the sidelines of history, while the real world, which of course is our world, continues moving forward. We see these societies as failed attempts at modernity, as if they’re destined to fade away by some natural law, as if they can’t cope with change. That’s simply not true. Change is the one constant in history. All societies in all times and in all places constantly adapt to new possibilities for life. It’s not change per se that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere, nor is it technology. The Sioux Indian did not stop being a Sioux when he gave up a bow and arrow, any more than an American farmer stopped being an American when he gave up the horse and buggy. It’s neither change nor technology that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere. It is power—the crude face of domination (*).

(*) Ermine/HSpencer, once again I’ve nodded to the point you both raise, but I hasten to add, it is not the only issue here.

OK, in my previous posts, I had tackled the points mentioned below:

  1. Trade is a great thing. You can get the best product at the best price from the most efficient producers (Part-I) in the world.
  2. Billions of people in developing countries have been lifted out of poverty by trade (Part-II)

Moving on, I like to address that other “myth” associated with trade (OK, OK, very heavily qualified)

Trade between nations is very good. It is vital to the interests and progress of the entire world

Reading into World histories and into the chronicles of (for lack of a different word) indigeneous societies, I have discovered to my startlement that: This point is neither cast in stone, nor is it a must, but this sentence above has entered our collective conscious very strongly. Essays such as “I, Pencil” have fostered this thought strongly and provided a lot of traction to this line of thought. Indeed assayists of this school of thought have threadbare cupboards from USSR/North Korea to wave as the immediate and only alternative universe to that above remark. Sigh!. Therefore, at the onset, I am aware that this is a very loaded and contentious statement with some truth in it, if viewed at face value. Especially in the context of the very same “Historical facts”, such as spread of cultural thoughts, religion, etc., etc.

But I am going to point out that in the last few 100 years, this statement has become hollow and has been flipped over its head. I submit that modern trade is the same old wolf in new sheep’s clothing that was carried over from the age of Imperialism/Manifest Destiny! While this thought was previously dismissed as the usual “anti-colonial rant” (and the ranters sometimes had themselves to blame!), this thought is gaining more traction within mainstream thinkers as well (see for some samples).

In fact, lately the word trade has become so generic and commonly used, it can mean anything from “trading favours” to “multi-lateral trade”! Therefore, before we go forward, I want to introduce a few definitions used in connection with trade for comprehension:

  • Subsistence economy based societies: In such economies, money played a minor role, and is typically used, but primarily for luxuries —- jewellery, silver, and gold. Basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter were provided for without money. More critically, in such societies, the labour one needed was free of charge, and was part of an intricate web of human relationships
  • Money economy societies: Typically, this begins as an “apparent improvement” over the above, i.e., Since money traditionally had been a good thing by bringing luxuries from far away, more of it seems to be an unconditional improvement! Subsistence economy is typically practises in villages, and people tend to be conscious of the limits of resources and of their personal responsibilities. Mostly, if not always, money economy is practised in the cities where paradoxically, you cannot see the water and soil on which your life depends. It is just a question of how much money you have. More money will buy more food. And it can grow much faster than wheat or barley, which are dependent on nature with her own laws, rhythms, and limits. Also, in such economies, the birth rate is no longer significant.
  • Resource Frontier: A region containing renewable and non-renewable natural resources in high demand by domestic and/or world market. Resources extracted here are usually exported outside of the region and sold in the intl. marketplace.
  • Regional exogenous integration: The incorporation of a region within the World economic system. This process is accelerated in resource frontier regions.
  • Peripheral Capitalism: The economic process in states which participate in the World economic system but have little control over the dynamics of that system. These economies are characterised by a spatial concentration of economic activities, and economic dominance by merchant capitalists (*) and a decline in reciprical and redistributive economies.
  • These are just a few, and are relevant for this post. Reader’s interest should unearth more terms and definitions.

(*) “World-Mart” (TM) anyone?

All those definitions may have been a mouthful, so let’s all lighten the mood a little bit! 😉 Been a while since Calvin and Hobbes made an entry in my blog, so here’s a humourous strip about how money based societies typically tend to operate:

A money economy is stimulated at every level, and usually the government subsidizes a number of imports.

Rhetorical question: Isn’t trade all about goodwill, freewill, choices, and all other revolting happy-happy sounding phrases that everyone wants us to believe? Indeed, is this “trade”, “so very important to the interests and progress” that it needs to involve gunboat diplomacy? Confused? Let me lay it out in a littl more detail for you. As Kunstler puts it in his inimitable style ” History doesn’t care if we fail as a civilization” (but faithfully records it!) 😉

  • China, a nation that was quite self-sufficient in all its wants and needs, was forced into “trade” through “Opium Wars”
  • Korea was forced into “trade” by the famous “fake” General Sherman boat incident
  • The Americans forced Japan to open up with gunships.
  • The Indian colonisation is also well known, whereas India was one of a key players on the Silk route not so long ago (see Part-II of my post for graphs)

OK, OK…. by now, I hear all your collective “Whoa, hold your horses there, things are so different now” at this point! To which I am wont to say: Whoa! Not so fast to the defence there.

Side-Note: While my writing keeps alluding to concentration of power, I want you to helpfully remind yourselves that all things said and done, trade is what corporations do at the end of the day, and they’ll do anything, all, and more to keep it that way. Caveat Emptor!

I submit, (somewhat controvertially, I agree) that most of the World’s trade activity has reduced most if not all the “players” to the roles of either a) Resource Frontier, or b) Peripheral Capitalism! I am now going to take up two case studies to point out these. If where you live doesn’t fall into these categories, thank your lucky stars. It is highly likely the place will fall in one of those categories (and chances are slim they won’t), click on any one of the links on my blogroll/Links for ideas and escape strategies! I will highlight two case studies (one for each) to easily wrap around the idea. You may find parallels within your own system.

  • Resource Frontier: Balikpapan/Samarinda (in connection with Samboja Lestari)
  • Peripheral Capitalism: Ladakh post-1970s

Resource Frontier, ruined: Balikpapan, (Samboja Lestari)

I suspect, most of you who’s seen Dr. Willie Smit’s talk in TED may have heard of the place. Here’s the fast introduction:


Prior to the oil boom of the early 1900s, Balikpapan was an isolated Bugis fishing village. In 1897, a small refinery company began the first oil drilling. Construction of roads, wharves, warehouses, offices, barracks, and bungalows started when a Dutch oil company arrived in the area. Then Balikpapan became a war theatre between the Japanese army and the Allied Forces, resulting in heavy damage to the oil refinery and other facilities. Then, the Royal Dutch Shell company continued operating in the area until Indonesian state-owned Pertamina took it over in 1965. Lacking technology, skilled manpower, and capital to explore the petroleum region, Pertamina sublet petroleum concession contracts to multinational companies in the 1970s. Although the policy was heavily criticized for uncontrolled environmental damage and corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, it significantly boosted urban development in resource-rich cities. In the 1970s, Balikpapan experienced 7% population growth annually, while exports of timber and petroleum increased dramatically. Today, it is the second-largest city in East Kalimantan, after the capital Samarinda.

Samboja (Lestari)

The small town of Samboja near Balikpapan, was founded about a century ago in what was then rainforest when oil was discovered in the area. Dutch oil workers moved into the area to work for a company that was later taken over by Shell and later still by Pertamina. The oil company began cutting wood in the 1950s and as people came flooding into the booming oil town of Balikpapan they cleared the surrounding forest.

Pollution over Indonesia and the Indian Ocean on 22 Oct, 1997

Pollution over Indonesia and the Indian Ocean on 22 Oct, 1997

With the pronounced El Niño of 1982 and 1983 the worst firestorms then known in a tropical forest ravaged the area, destroying what small pockets of forest that remained. Following the pattern of deforestation in Borneo as a whole, the area was now vulnerable to the dry years that followed. In 1997 and 1998 the fires enveloped the region in smoke. The thick choking smog darkened the sky and caused respiratory problems throughout the region and beyond.

Samboja in 2002 (note: before Willie’s reforestation efforts) was the poorest district of East Kalimantan, with 50% of the population unemployed and a high crime rate. There had been climate change, with severe droughts resulting in crop failures, along with almost total extinction of plant and animal life. Flooding occurred five or six times a year and there were annual fires. Almost a quarter of average income went on buying drinking water. The land no longer sustained any agricultural productivity and was covered with alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica) which produces hydrocyanic acid that prevents the germination of tree seeds. There were many nutrition and hygiene related health problems and life expectancy was low, with high infant and maternal mortality.

In 1985, William Bruce Wood investigated for his PhD thesis the subject of “Intermediate Cities in the Resource Frontier: A case study of Samarinda and Balikpapan“. The thesis focussed on the functions and roles of those two cities above within an international economic system, and analysed the urban changes catalysed by the arrival of multi-national timber and petroleum corporations. Primary concern was to study how the interaction between the world economy and resource exploitation affects the regional and urban development process. The above summary of the two cities leave no doubt about what changes did the companies wrought, but I will quote a few observations from the thesis:

Resource-frontier cities are characterised by rapidly growing populations, inflated economies, infrastructural shortages, and little control over their futures. Why?

Because, growth of a resource-rich frontier city is dependent on the World market demand for those resources, rather than on existing regional and national linkages. (and the type of resource being exploited plays a key role too)

Since Historic times, East Kalimantan was never economically isolated. For 100s of years it had produced commodities held in high value by other cultures (rattan, damar, reptile skins, birds’ nests, and many other exotic products bringing a high price from distant lands). Chinese traders roamed the coast and traded with the dayaks in exchange for forest products (porcelain, opium, tools, salt, slaves, weapon, cloth). The trading network was extensive but there was almost no industrial activity – apart from the Anglo-Dutch petroleum industry.

Even by 1964 census, less than 5000 were involved in manufacturing, and only food, wood or leather industries employed over 50 persons.

When Indonesia went into petroleum business themselves in the 60s, it was so engineered that they were forced to contract out drilling activities to large foreign oil companies because they lacked the necessary capital and technology (deliberately not shared?). In the 70s (OPEC crises onset?) production sharing contracts with foreign companies were renegotiated to encourage drilling of further offshore fields. Two major importers of oil: USA and Japan.

Until 1960s, all timber taken from East Kalimantan was consumed locally. However, due to inadequate reserves in their own lands, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea escalated demand for tropical hardwood. Through production sharing agreements, the Japanese provided the capital required to carry out the widespread logging within the “concession areas” and rafting them to ports. To ensure this, the central government restricted the provinces to granting concessions to no more than 100 ha., thereby eliminating them (local govts.) from the decision process. This move transformed the timber industry from low-tech, small-scale into very large scale, high-tech and capital intensive. Local firms were outlawed and foreign timber firms were encouraged to bid for large concessions.

There is considerable discussion about how expectations of continuous subsidies, growth coupled with curbs introduced on wholesale “raw exports” of timber forcibly crippled the timber industry (in Samarinda). Additionally, the forest fires of 82-83 and its socio-economic impact is also discussed. Ironically, Indonesia was importing logs from Sabah, Malaysia (which is also a tragic story in its own right) to prop its local plywood industry :-o! This is an ironic twist for the local economy because it removes the main justification of locating factories in Samarinda to provide local employment!

Chapter 4 is a brilliant expose of how property bubbles operate in resource frontiers. I replaced Samarinda with Bangalore (Chennai, Gurgaon at the appropriate places) and saw absolutely no difference in stories between Samamrinda’s timber boom with Bangalore’s/Chennai’s IT boom with subsequent disenfranchisement of all parties concerned (except the expats whose over-inflated tabs were picked up by the heavily subsidised foreign corporations)! This Chapter is recommended reading if you’re Indian “middle class” living in the so called boomtowns and wondering WHT is your mortgage bleeding you dry month-after-month! 😦

In Chapter 5, by juxtaposing Balikpapan’s oil exploitation history with Mexico of the 80s, the thesis goes to show how the oil economy went on to polarise the local economy between those employed by the oil industry and those not — other problems include shortages of food, housing and infrastructure due to rapid in-migration of job seekers and very inflationary prices! 😮 Again, if I replaced Balikpapan with Bangalore (or Hyderabad) and oil with IT, the Chapter was a reading into contemparary events! 😐 As it it was not enough, then there was speculative property prices bubble sub-plot that read eeerily like the US property price expectations of 2008! Eeeerie! :-o!!

The sub-plot on water scarcity documented in 1985, made for scary reading in the thesis. Things have gone from bad to worse since: “Almost a quarter of average income in Balikpapan went on buying drinking water.”

Even more ironically, despite all the petroleum industry in Balikpapan, only 46% had electricity, and nearly 35% used firewood for cooking. All the oil company owned/leased houses however had electricity, either from the city or from their own generators! (Anyone with a passing knowledge of Bangalore will identify parallels in this story!)

The work goes on to highlight much more issues that such lop-sided trade/development activity brought to the region – basically the activity damaged more than it developed. Returning to today, to counter the damage caused by timber and petroleum, part of the Balikpapan area was reforested into an Orangutan reserve, no thanks to those “trade enabling corporates”, but wholly due to the conservation efforts of Dr. Willie Smits at great risk to his life and limb! Enjoy the talk. Inspiring is a mild word.

Peripheral Capitalism, lays havoc: Ladakh

Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World

Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World

About the Book:
A gripping portrait of the western Himalayan land sometimes known as “Little Tibet,” Ancient Futures opens with author Helena Norberg-Hodge’s first visit in 1975 to idyllic, preindustrial Ladakh. She then tracks the profound changes that occurred as the region was opened to foreign tourists and Western goods and technologies, and offers a firsthand account of how relentless pressure for economic growth precipitated generational and religious conflict, unemployment, inflation, and environmental damage, threatening to unravel Ladakh’s traditional way of life.
Energized by the fate of a people who had captured her heart, Norberg-Hodge helped establish the Ladakh Project (later renamed the International Society for Ecology and Culture) to seek sustainable solutions that preserve cultural integrity and environmental health while addressing the hunger for modernization. Since then, other Ladakh-based projects have proliferated, supporting renewable energy systems, local agricultural methods, and the spiritual foundations of Ladakhi culture.

In this book, Helena Norberg-Hodge documents with detail and clarity, what trade can be, what trade tends to be and what havoc it can create to the innocent bystander! Unfortunately, the blame for the trouble and havoc that Ladakh went through has to be laid squarely at the feet of the Indian Government. India threw open Ladakh for tourism, mainly to send a message to its neighbours (Pakistan and China) that Ladakh was its backyard and its own territory! Just goes to show, stupidity isn’t the privilege of a select few! 😦 Hoo boy!

OK, back to the book, Helena points out:

I came to realize that my passivity in the face of destructive change was, at least in part, due to the fact that I had confused culture with nature. I had not realized that many of the negative trends I saw were the result of my own industrial culture, rather than of some natural, evolutionary force beyond our control. Without really thinking about it, I also assumed that human beings were essentially selfish, struggling to compete and survive, and that more cooperative societies were nothing more than Utopian dreams.

It was not strange that I thought the way I did. Even though I had lived in many different countries, they had all been industrial cultures. My travels in less “developed” parts of the world, though fairly extensive, had not been enough to afford me an inside view. Some intellectual travels, like reading Aldous Huxley and Erich Fromm, had opened a few doors, but I was essentially a product of industrial society, educated with the sort of blinders that every culture employs in order to perpetuate itself. My values, my understanding of history, my thought patterns all reflected the world view of homo industrialis.

Mainstream Western thinkers from Adam Smith to Freud and today’s academics tend to universalize what is in fact Western or industrial experience. Explicitly or implicitly, they assume that the traits they describe are a manifestation of human nature, rather than a product of industrial culture. This tendency to generalize from Western experience becomes almost inevitable as Western culture teaches out from Europe and North America to influence all the earth’s people.

Every society tends to place itself at the center of the universe and to view other cultures through its own coloured lenses. What distinguishes Western culture is that it has grown so widespread and so powerful that it has lost a perspective on itself; there is no “other” with which to compare itself. It is assumed that everyone either is like us or wants to be.

As everywhere else in the world, development in Ladakh means Western-style development. This process has consisted primarily of building up the so-called “infrastructure”—especially roads and the production of energy. Power represents the largest expense in the government’s budget. Western-style medicine and education form the other basic cornerstones.

The book clearly points out how the peripheral economy is at every stage not in control of its economy, its monetary system or its own policies:
“Now, suddenly, as part of the international money economy, Ladakhis find themselves ever more dependent—even for vital needs—on a system that is controlled by faraway forces. They are vulnerable to decisions made by people who do not even know that Ladakh exists. If the value of the dollar changes, it will ultimately have an effect on the Indian rupee. This means that Ladakhis who need money to survive are now under the
control of the managers of international finance. Living off the land, they had been their own masters.”

Development policies for Ladakh are formulated in the state government of Kashmir and the central government in Delhi. Ladakh sends one M.P. to Delhi and one representative to the state government. In Ladakh itself, government programs are administered by officials who generally are not Ladakhi and do not speak the language. The head of the administration, or Development Commissioner, is an officer in the Indian administrative service and spends an average of just two to three years in his job.

The money economy is stimulated at every level, and the government subsidizes an increasing number of imports. From 1985 to 1986, 6,000 tons of wheat and rice were brought into Leh district alone, while 900,000 pounds of hard coke and 50,000 cubic feet of firewood are imported annually. Most of this is subsidized.

In one day a tourist would spend the same amount that a Ladakhi family might in a year. Ladakhis did not realize that money played a completely different role for the foreigners; that back home they needed it to survive; that food, clothing, and shelter all cost money— a lot of money. Compared to these strangers, they suddenly felt poor. During my first years in Ladakh, young children I had never seen before used to run up to me and press apricots into my hands. Now-little figures, looking shabbily Dickensian in threadbare Western clothing, greet foreigners with an empty outstretched hand. Besides giving the illusion that all Westerners are multimillionaires, the tourist also helps perpetuate another faulty image of modern life—that we never work. It looks as though our technologies do the work for us. In industrial society today, we actually spend more hours working than people in rural, agrarian economies. But that is not how it looks to the Ladakhis. For them, work is physical work, walking, and carrying things. A person sitting behind the wheel of a car or pushing buttons on a typewriter doesn’t appear to be working.

Every day I saw people from two cultures, a world apart, looking at each other and seeing superficial, one-dimensional images. Tourists see people carrying loads on their backs and walking long distances over high mountain passes and say, “How terrible; what a life of drudgery.” They forget that they have travelled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars for the pleasure of walking through the same mountains with heavy backpacks. During working hours they get no exercise, so they spend their free time trying to make up for it. Some will even drive to a health club——across a polluted city in rush hour—to sit in a basement, pedalling a bicycle that does not go anywhere. And they actually pay for the privilege.

Development has brought not only tourism, but also Western and Indian films and, more recently, television. Together they provide overwhelming images of luxury and power. There are countless tools and magical gadgets. And there are machines—machines to take pictures, machines to tell the time, machines to make fire, to travel from one place to another, to talk with someone far away. Machines can do everything for you;
it is no wonder the tourists look so clean and have such soft, white hands. For the young Ladakhis, the picture they present is irresistible. By contrast, their own lives seem primitive’, silly, and inefficient. The one-dimensional view of modern life becomes a slap in the face. They feel stupid and ashamed. They are asked by their parents to choose a way of life that involves working in the fields and getting their hands dirty for very little or no money. Their own culture seems absurd compared with the world of the tourists and film heroes.

But it didn’t mean the Ladakhis lived in isolation. They had a dynamic balance between the urban and the rural, the one complementing the other. While some people made a living from trade with the outside world, most economic activity was based on local resources. Here’s how trade/development ended up tearing Ladakhi framework:

In Leh these days, for instance, building with mud is becoming prohibitively expensive, whereas the relative cost of cement is falling. This is a good example of how Western-style development operates to undermine local systems. It seems impossible that a heavy and processed material that has to be transported over the Himalayan Mountains can compete with mud, free and abundant, there for the taking. And yet that is exactly what is happening.

What is more, as mentioned earlier, the majority of “educated” people have not learned how to build a house, and the engineers work with cement and steel. As a consequence, the skills required to build with mud become ever more scarce, and thus more expensive. There is a psychological dimension as well: people are afraid of seeming backward—and everything traditional is beginning to be seen that way. They want to live in a modern house. A mud house is bad for the image.

Two more observations from the book before I close this reeeeally long post!

As mutual aid is replaced by a dependence on faraway forces, people begin to feel powerless to make decisions over their own lives. At all levels, passivity, even apathy, is setting in; people are abdicating personal responsibility. In the traditional village, repairing irrigation canals was a task shared by the whole community. As soon as a channel developed a leak, groups of people would start working away with shovels patching it up. Now, people see it as the government’s responsibility, and will let a channel go on leaking until the job is done for them. The more the government does for the villagers, the less they feel inclined to help themselves. I remember talking to a government official about a hydroelectric plant that had been installed in the village of Nurrla. “I just can’t understand it,” he said. “They always looked after their old water wheels so well, but this thing they don’t seem to care about. Earlier this summer, some rocks got into the turbine, but no one bothered to do anything about it—and now they don’t have lighting.”

Most of the skills Ladakhi children learn in school will never be of real use to them. They receive a poor version of an education appropriate for a New Yorker. They learn out of books written by people who have never set foot in Ladakh, who know nothing about growing barley at 12,000 feet or about making houses out of sun-dried bricks. In every corner of the world today, the process called “education” is based on the same assumptions and the same Eurocentric model. The focus is on faraway facts and figures, a universal knowledge. The books propagate information that is meant to be appropriate for the entire planet. But since only a kind of knowledge that is far removed from specific ecosystems and cultures can be universally applicable, what children learn is essentially synthetic, divorced from the living context. If they go on to higher education, they may learn about building houses, but these houses will be of concrete and steel, the universal box. So too, if they study agriculture, they will learn about industrial fanning: chemical fertilizers and pesticides, large machinery and hybrid seeds. The Western educational system is making us all poorer by teaching people around the world to use the same resources, ignoring those of their own environment. In this way education is creating artificial scarcity and inducing competition.

The book repeatedly takes an apologetic tone that one shouldn’t romanticise traditional societies. I beg to differ; there’s nothing romantic but everything practical about how traditional societies operate and exist. All societies primarily evolve and find ways to survive, and traditional societies have repeatedly shown to us, that key aspect we now burn jet fuel to Copenhagen for — SUSTAINABILE LIVING!

But before we disperse for the day, I like to finish with another TED talk.

Anupam Mishra travels across water-challenged India studying rainwater harvesting methods and learning from the people behind them. He presents his findings to NGOs, development agencies and environmental groups, pulling from centuries of indigenous wisdom that has found water for drinking and irrigation even in extremely arid landscapes through wells, filter ponds and other catchment systems.

A founding member of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Mishra is working to bridge the gap between modern water management technology and India’s heritage of water harvesting, so that every community is self-sustainable and efficiently safekeeping an increasingly scarce and precious resource.

While I was composing this, I was reminded of an old cartoon from the small society cartoon strip.

Oil politics from the 70s

If we all become customers like this, we will stop creating more Balikpapans in this world… … … we hope!

Read Part IV here.

Written by Surio

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“Worker-Bees” of the world, unite? Part-I

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Don’t be alarmed by the title, I am more Groucho Marx (Hurray for Captain Spaulding!) than Karl Marx! Now take a brief look at this embedded video below from The Story of Stuff Project. It is a simple video, depicting trade as practiced today, and IMO, is very skewed. The references for her video can be accessed at her website.

(Pay close attention at 4 minutes and at 7 minutes into the narrative).

So, if you have watched it (at least to 8 mins), and are continuing to read on, I would now submit my polemical thought that for most nations, modern trade is nothing but some form of “slavery”. Usually, when I make or endorse statements like that, I run into a few well-meaning arguments countering my POV. Let’s lay them out here.

  1. Trade is a great thing. You can get the best product at the best price from the most efficient producers in the world.
  2. Look at Hans Gosling’s TED talk and you’ll see an amazing progress in the 20th century as both income and life expectancy increase dramatically for many developing nations. If not trade, what else is causing it? Would you rather be “insert some Asian country here” or would you rather be “North Korea” (that last bastion of self-sufficiency, but with other ideological issues)?
  3. Trade between nations is very good. It is vital to the interests and progress of the entire world
  4. So, you spend considerable effort arguing that trade is bad and like slavery, yet you go ahead and engage in it. E.g., The PC you are typing this blog from was probably “Made in China” employing ‘slave labour’ as you submitted up there?

I hear them, because, in the past, I was told exactly those very things and I did believe in them. But now I see them to be fallacious arguments. I will address them all, one by one. As the posts got a little involved, I have split the posts into many parts, based on the questions. But first, let us see, what is the meaning of the word “trade”, as in a dictionary? (Thanks to DW for suggesting this)

Trade (n):
1. The commercial exchange (buying and selling on domestic or international markets) of goods and services
2. […]
5. An equal exchange
7. [….]

Perhaps, I am biased by my own history of the famous “Silk Road” in which India was an equal (dominant even, maybe?) and an important player. So, (5) was always my first thought when someone suggests the word “trade” to me. So, it won’t take a rocket science degree to see straight away that modern trade immediately loses (a little?) ground by means of just the definition.

Trade is a great thing. You can get the best product at the best price from the most efficient producers in the world.

Let’s begin with a small thought experiment:

Close your eyes. Imagine there are huge factories in many states in some part of the World, and each of them that are manufacturing these specific items: Conical hats, dhoti, Kimono, Saree, Sarong, Rickshaw (older varieties), tanga, Cart, equipment such as Water wheels, etc…….

So far, so good. Now imagine these factories are located in the West (USA, Germany, etc…), and the goods are in turn supplied to the East. Whatever surplus produced in these factories due to productivity improvements in “Taylorism”, can be used to supply the local populace (American, German, British…etc…).
RMB 500, Rs. 250….etc are going the prices for them too. Very reasonable and lots of deals in “Cart-Mart”, “Tanga-Land”, “Sashes-R-Us” and “Gimee-Kimono” outlets!

Now, all those in favour of “free trade” ideas mentioned above, please raise your hands? Are you still with me? Or have I offended every one of you? If I have, I am truly sorry. Those above mentioned items in that thought experiment were every bit part of those colonised/recently liberalised Eastern civilisations’ sociocultural fabric (as American as Apple pie comes to mind) and had enabled them to engage in a quality of life, leisure and enjoyment that the West is now increasingly wanting to escape to all the time. (Backpacker/Tourism stats, anyone?). But that is unfortunately how it reads if you’re not from the West. Dmitri Orlov puts it scathingly in his longnow foundation talk:

Professor Fukuyama told us that history had ended, and so we were building a brave new world where the Chinese made things out of plastic for us, the Indians provided customer support when these Chinese-made things broke, and we paid for it all just by flipping houses, pretending that they were worth a lot of money whereas they are really just useless bits of ticky-tacky.

Here’s another “thought” question: Would Thomas Friedman have gone all fruit-cake over “Flat” world (I cringe every time I hear that phrase!) if the tables were turned the other way? What I intend to convey is best illustrated by this:

Some of them, eager to land one of the customer service jobs from India, are attending special training sessions in New York City, led by language specialist Dave Ramsey, who goes by a simpler name for his Indian clients: Devendra Ramaswaminathan.

Professor: “Okay, Gary, Randy and Jane, first we need to give you Indian names. Gary, from now on, you’ll be known to your customers as Gaurav. Randy, you’ll be Ranjit. And Jane, you’ll be Jagadamba. Now imagine you just received a call from Delhi. What do you say?”

Gary: “Name as tea?”

Jane: “How can I be helping you?”

Professor: “Good try! You’re using the correct tense, but it’s not quite right. Anyone else?”

Randy: “How I can be helping you?”

If you are interested, read the rest of the blog post in full here. Now imagine if this is NOT a satire (either on call centres, nor on the stupid fixation of Indians with English), but this IS the reality. Would it have been so “welcome”? That is why I wanted you to go through these thought experiments, to see how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot.

The reality is, before globalisation was forced into many of these so-called “developing nations”, all the people from these places, had “their place” under the Sun, not as in a 2-bedroom-house-for-every-family, but as in “a sense of belonging”! Think I am making it up? This is Bill Watterson reminding us that uncomfortable truth in this comic strip.

I am significant, like everyone else.

I am also significant, like everyone else.

If you had read my detailed review of Blue Zones, you will have noticed that jobs-or-no-jobs, being part of a close-knit family unit clearly helps in maintaining one’s health, well-being and overall happiness. Now, you can put a price on your job, but can you put a value to those three things mentioned? As Oscar Wilde summed it so long ago: “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

The real problem is, these aspects are rarely if ever honestly discussed, before considering the need to “open up”. Anyone who mentions these is a “nostalgic”, “romantic-head-in-clouds” type, or worse, an “enemy-of-progress”.

Elsewhere, H.H the Dalai Lama says in one of his talks:

No matter how attractive a traditional rural society may seem, its people cannot be denied the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of modern development. However, as this book suggests, development and learning should not take place in one direction only. Amongst the people of traditional societies such as Tibet or Ladakh there is often an inner development, a sense of warm-heartedness and contentment, that we would all do well to emulate.

And this, in my view, has been the biggest failure of modern “trade policies” practised. More and more of “this is how you all ought to live, because we live like this, and so it MUST be good for you too, deadly no?” is thrown at the rest of the World and less and less of “that sounds like another good way of doing things” (based on my own experience). Indeed, most off-shoring operations are beset with back-biting, unnecessary nitpicking, rubbing about “lack of English” when it is not at all needed, putting down offshore centres’ work quality, even when the original blueprint used in the execution originally came from the mothership. There has to be a different way, plain and simple. This is the first of the many times I will be quoting this passage from Ivan Illich, since it is relevant in many places:

By now it should be evident to all America that the U.S. is engaged in a tremendous struggle to survive. The U.S. cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on-Earth. The survival of the U.S. depends on the acceptance by all so-called “free” men that the U.S. middle class has “made it”. The U.S. way of life has become a religion which must be accepted by all those who do not want to die by the sword – or napalm. All over the globe the U.S. is fighting to protect and develop at least a minority who consume what the U.S. majority can afford.

Here’s the irony of it. This speech was made in 1968 in Mexico! And the writing hasn’t changed at all, simply Vietnam has been replaced by Venezuela or Afghanistan, or some other place I’ve forgotten (Bolivia happens to come up as the bad guys, on and off!). And dare I say it, the American dream itself has soured as we write in 2011, so why persist in this notion of “trade” between the World? Why not, let’s all become self-sufficient as it was, just 4 generations ago.

So, before you praise trade for all its “greatness”, “convenience”, “efficiency”, etc… Think about it once again. Is it all that and more simply because it is a replica of what “you” are used to living, doing and dealing with, or will you still think it is great, if reality was as mentioned in those thought experiments above? I leave you with that thought. And I will take up the next question in Part II.

Read Part II here.

Written by Surio

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Life in Pictures – II

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Another weekend comes and goes… Actually, I am not in the best of spirits, but still decided to post something here. Thoughts that follow may not make for funny or thoughtful reading. There, you’ve been warned!

Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice broke in upon my thoughts:
“You are right, Watson,” said he. “It does seem a most preposterous way of settling a dispute.”
“Most preposterous!” I exclaimed, and then suddenly realizing how he had echoed the inmost thought of my soul, I sat up in my chair and stared at him in blank amazement. […]
“Do you mean to say that you read my train of thoughts from my features?”
“Your features and especially your eyes. Perhaps you cannot yourself recall how your reverie commenced?”
“No, I cannot.”
“Then I will tell you. After throwing down your paper, which was the action which drew my attention to you, you sat for half a minute with a vacant expression. Then your eyes fixed themselves upon your newly framed picture of General Gordon, and I saw by the alteration in your face that a train of thought had been started. […]
You were recalling the incidents of Beecher’s career. I was well aware that you could not do this without thinking of the mission which he undertook on behalf of the North at the time of the Civil War, for I remember your expressing your passionate indignation at the way in which he was received by the more turbulent of our people. You felt so strongly about it that I knew you could not think of Beecher without thinking of that also. When a moment later I saw your eyes wander away from the picture, I suspected that your mind had now turned to the Civil War, and when I observed that your lips set, your eyes sparkled, and your hands clenched I was positive that you were indeed thinking of the gallantry which was shown by both sides in that desperate struggle. But then, again, your face grew sadder; you shook your head. You were dwelling upon the sadness and horror and useless waste of life. Your hand stole towards your own old wound and a smile quivered on your lips, which showed me that the ridiculous side of this method of settling international questions had forced itself upon your mind. At this point I agreed with you that it was preposterous and was glad to find that all my deductions had been correct.”

–– Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

An excellent piece to demonstrate, how there’s no controlling how the mind jumps through hoops, or switches gear instantaneously. You may read the full conversation in the link provided. This conversation occurs right at the beginning of the story. So, my train of thought went somewhat like that in the last few days:

First there was this excellent post on Monevator about inflation that I read! Some highlights (emphasis mine):

If you could know with any degree of certainty that high inflation is on the way (or, equally, that it’s definitely not) then you could capitalize on it by buying or shorting government bonds.
For that very reason, tens of trillions of dollars is wagered in the government bond market worldwide, utterly dwarfing the equity market. This bond market sucks up the brainpower of thousands of smart people who are paid a small fortune to guess the direction of interest rates.

If you think you know better than this vast voting machine because, for example, you read on a blog that Mexicans are having a stand-off due to a tortilla shortage, then please get over yourself(*).
Fears of high inflation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as workers push for higher wages and consumers and companies start stockpiling.

Alternatively, the prospect of higher interest rates to come to tame the inflation can curb spending and borrowing, and stop companies investing in expansion – even before rates have moved by very much.
UK QE can be blamed for the weaker pound, but it hasn’t driven the oil price. And for its part the US has so far seen very little domestic inflation, despite its own massive QE operations and super-low interest rates.

History, as ever, remembers the winners. Still, that’s more than most bloggers, who seem to remember neither the winners nor the losers, but rather just that morning’s headlines.

Instead of being a hawk or a dove on inflation, as private investors we should play chicken to protect our wealth. This means having a healthy fear of the consequences of inflation, but not going crazy at every headline (that just makes you a headless chicken).

(*) That would be me most of the times! 😦
Thank you, “The Investor” I said, and thought no more about it. As (bad) luck would have it, in the next few days most discussions I had on the ERE forums seemed to highlight the fact that inflation was present in the US (also pushed up petrol prices, as I recall from the conversation), and was a noticeable enough phenomenon! Over here, inflation has been a bug bear over the last 4-6 monts, and shows no signs of abating. The latest Govt. pastime seems to be unloading one scam after another over for the World’s entertainment! Our stock market had some prolonged ups and downs lately (yes, yes, ordinarily the market tends to do that, but inflation and poor governance are not ordinary events!), which has provided enough grist to the mill for the damned media. One main reason was the FII pullout due to the instability of inflation and governance combined (That’s one theory – many more abound, but that one’s found more traction). I had held my peace over inflation for several months (as Monevator says good bloggers ought to) before raising it on my blog lately. And then the things that I (or for that matter, Monevator) hadn’t accounted for, like the US inflation with oil included in the upswing, and the sudden see-saw on the Indian market is highlighted to you rather sharply (Now with this new info, go back and re-read Monevator’s post and re-assurances – you’ll be a tad worried (just a tad, mind you), just like me).

It set me wondering, when was the last time these combinations went into freefall, Surio? Not so far off, the answer came: Remember the Argentine economic crisis brought about by inflation and poor governance? And don’t forget that capital flight was part of that equation too! And it seems it hasn’t left them completely either! (Sorry, Monevator, but I hope this doesn’t count as latest headlines :-()
And there’s more Surio, said another tiny voice, now warming up (Damn you, voices!!! :x)! Don’t forget Zimbabwe too! And that was a prime case of bad governance! Hoo Boy. That slipped my mood down a few notches.

And then, there was an impressively titled report from the WWF with much fanfare. Are they living in this same planet as the rest of us? Are they aware the kind of uphill struggle humankind is up against in this switch to renewables. Here’s a some quick visuals for the time challenged (Yes, the title of that post is also impressive! :-|) That was just the science part of it. Then as another commenter (impressive title there too, notice a trend here? :-?) had already taken note that there was a pronounced use of the “Imperial We” throughout the report. Sample these:

“We must introduce legally binding minimum efficiency standards world-wide”

“We need strict energy-efficiency criteria for all new buildings.”

“Developing countries must phase-out the inefficient uses of traditional biomass.”

“We need to massively expand our capacity for generating electricity from renewable resources.”

“We need urgent investment into smart grids.”

“We also need efficient grid management.”

“We need to consider the rights of communities and indigenous people.”

“We need to carefully analyze, country by country, what land and water is available for bioenergy.”

“We should limit growth in areas that depend on liquid fuels.”

One needn’t have more than a rudimentary understanding of European and American colonialism and its legions of missionaries, technocrats, investors, philosophers, explorers, and engineers who have in the past carried out the latest fantasy of world improvement in order to see where this might all be going. Despite the emphasis on equity, the belief that “a sustainable energy future must be a fair one, in which the equal right of every person to benefit from the world’s energy resources is recognized” (56), what is imagined in The Scenario is in fact an expansion of European and American globalism to an unprecedented level of design specification. We might refer to it as hyper-globalism, Plan B on steroids in which “we” provide the central intelligence needed to make “country by country” analyses, or to provide the “efficient grid management.” Indeed the report looks forward to a time in which not only is electricity shared within the world’s 10 regions, but eventually between them (150, note 32)

Yes, that’s all we need…. 😐 More puppet strings on everyone, everywhere! And then just when I didn’t need more bad news about collective myopia, this piece of slightly old news floats past me!

Bill Gates’ inane comments were just a little bit too much (I had tried hard to forget it, but this week’s mood just got me wound up straight away!). How about telling Americans to use only as much energy as an average European, Mr. Gates? And while we are there, how about telling the Europeans to use only as much energy as the average Asian, Mr. Gates…. Sheesh, that “Imperial We” again! Our ways are the aspirational ones, so naturally there’s no “reverse gear”, right? (Tony Blair’s an old pro on reverse gears Bill; ask him for pointers! :-()

OK, all things said, I’ve come to the topic of this weekend’s cartoon strip! This strip reflects how I am feeling right about now!

Bill Watterson just about nailed it here. Assumed fair use. Leave a comment if you want it removed.

Actually, I am sorry if this was all very drippy and negative. I sometimes wish I had a Blackadder streak in me…

(Blackadder enters the room and kicks the cat right off the floor.)
Baldrick: Oh sir, poor little Mildred the cat, what’s she ever done to you?
Blackadder: It is the way of the world Baldrick, the abused always kick downwards: I’m annoyed, and so I kick the cat, the cat (mouse squeaks) pounces on the mouse, and finally the mouse…
Baldrick: Ahhhh!
Blackadder: …bites you on the behind.
Baldrick: And what do I do?
Blackadder: Nothing, you are last in God’s great chain Baldrick. Unless of course there’s an earwig around here that you’d like to victimize.

That would be so easy. Step one: Find a cat! Step two: All is well! Hrm… Perhaps, I am Baldrick, and I don’t realise it still! 😐 And just to reassure you all, I swear I wasn’t doing something like this strip either!

assumed fair use...etc....

Ironically, that Holmes story ends with this rather grim soliloquy:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Indeed! What is the meaning of it all, folks? — GDP/GOP/ROI/PPP/TLA/TLA/TLA!

You know what? I’m Sorry! Just close this tab/window and enjoy the rest of your weekend! Let’s hope I shake off the blues by next week. I hope!

PS:Stop press!

And bless my dear DW! She reminds me that Valentine’s day is upon us. So, here’s a bonus strip that shares that thought, to say goodbyeeeee from me!

Fair use...etc.... See Last Panel. Nuff said! Happy Valentine's day to everyone!

Written by Surio

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