The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Archive for the ‘Comic strips’ Category

“REAL” FI/ER is all about simplifying your life (*)

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(*) Fed up with all the disinformation that media peddles (despite earning Rs. 65000 in today’s money on interests alone!), and inspired by ermine’s post!

Couple of things before getting to the post:

A BIG Thank you to Macs helping to feature a great post on the blog. The ideas of Macs’ post are of the timeless variety, the ones that were in practice before we joined the ranks of Homo Industrialis (cf., Wade Davis’ writings on Old-World indigenous societies from across the World) — which has, for a brief period in time, allowed us to live in a fantasy of waving plastic cards that in turn spill paper strips called “money” out of machines(*) that lets us all become Cinderella at will.

(*) also referred to as “dark ages of technology” by EREistas.

“Three amigos” (bigato, buzz, m741 and matxm?) from the ERE forums have started a new blog called SkillsFIRE. I also discovered an Indian blog on FI+ER which is a personal Yahoo moment for me! Yay! Make those Indian voices count!

And we get to the point of the post

Lately, the OWS movement garnered very uneasy headlines due to the pepper spraying of protesters on International Students’ day!

When the OWS movement (aka we are the 99 percent) started, much was offered by way of facts, opinion, stereotype busting, even metaphors and exhortion about the protests. While I feel somewhat unqualified to offer anything new in the face of the wonderful commentaries like those I have linked above, my USP seems to be in using comic strips as plot devices for anything that life throws at me ;-).

Exhibit A: Tintin in America

Exhibit B: Blondie by Dean Young

This one is actually a second choice. This picture can play into the hands of pro/anti car lobbies equally. The first choice was Blondie running pillar to post to register her catering business. Oh! The Humanity! Sadly, I don't have a copy of that with me, nor can I find it online!

The compass of acceptable Capitalism seems to be these two images always. Anywhere in the World today, if I have to generalise Capitalism at work, I need to go no further than either the robber barons (Ex. A), or the evidently self-important paper/pencil pushers who revel in death by hyper-regulation and control (Ex. B). And places like India offer both images at the same time for its hapless victimscitizens!

If one interpolates further enough with either of the two images, it becomes evident that the framing of the context will lead to a victim/loser in any of the many ways in which each scenario can play itself out. In fact, both these scenarios, is the first exposure towards Capitalism or Economics that everyone gets in their life as well (Just skim through the rules).

Ergo, the game is rigged right from the start. Sooner or later, in either scenario, you will find that depending on the framing of the problem you will be viewing yourself as a loser (*)!

And this is what needs to be internalised. Whether you free everything, or you regulate everything, we will end up with the “99 percenters”.

(*) “My journey towards financial independence started with a hefty dose of anti-consumerism. Later I joined the dark side and became a capitalist. Hey, when you’re wealthy, you too will suddenly find yourself with a negative opinion on the capital gains tax” — Jacob Fisker. Another Post on the topic.

Indeed, that is why Jacob goes to great lengths to point out, ERE is only an early stage preparation phase, not the do-all, end-all as some take it to be. As he tried to point out (unsuccessfully, based on the pathetic comments), the final goal would be to live in such a manner that your lifestyle is never framed to be a victim (or a perpetrator), but to live the life of a maverick, or in other words, a renaissance man.

Memo to self: One of these days, I got to give a big tip to Jacob for putting out all the content for me to simply hyperlink and make my point 😉

P.S: If anyone can point me to the Blondie strip where she is made to run pillar to post to every desk in the office, it would be lovely!

Written by Surio

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Space age seems dead. Long live the space age.

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

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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 nber.org 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:

Balikpapan

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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