The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Archive for the ‘Musings’ 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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Aesop’s fable revisited

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Don’t know about you, but it can be tiresome being constantly egged on to do this or that “because you’re worth it” (TM), no? If not that phrase because you don’t have TV/cable (like me ;-)) then maybe you’re hearing another refrain… that You’re not “living up to your potential” (Dark side of ER) or “so many generations before you sacrificed so much, for you to live a life like this”. OK, before you close this page in disgust, I’ll stop ;-). But you get the idea.

How did we get to this? It was a slow road, going back two generations at least. Here’s my simple take on it:

The Town mouse visits his country cousin

I hope you’ll remember Aesop’s fable of the “Town mouse and Country mouse”?:

A town mouse visits his cousin living in the country. The country mouse offers his cousin from the town, a meal of simple country foods, at which the visitor scoffs and invites the country mouse back to the city for a taste of the “fine life”. But their rich city meal is interrupted, first by a cook, then by a cat, then by dogs, followed by the Master of the house himself, which force the mice to abandon their feast every time and scurry to safety. After this, the country mouse decides to return home, preferring security to plenty.

The moral interpretations this story offers is just profound! I like the different phrasings used by many philosophers in retelling the story:

  1. “Good-bye,” said he,
    “I’m off. ”
    “You live in the lap of luxury, I can see,”
    “but you are surrounded by dangers; whereas at home
    “I can enjoy my simple dinner of roots and corn in peace.”

  2. “I’d rather gnaw a bean than be gnawed by continual fear”.

In fact, If Jacob wants to make an elevator pitch to a honcho about featuring his book (Flipkart link), that’s the story idea he needs to use, ending with: “My book talks to people like that parable about choosing ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of aprovechar‘” 😉

Brief Digression

Now, if you weren’t actually someone like Aesop (a slave) it could be said that your life was pretty peaceful in that era. In fact books like The Richest man in Babylon hark back to this sense of nostalgia in us by drawing on a life that’s gone by. But irritatingly, the book does so by juxtaposing our modern consumerist mindset and lifestyle memes into that timeframe, and offering solutions to break free.

But back to our main story:
Now did you know that Beatrix Potter of Peter Rabbit fame retold Aesop’s mice fable in the year 1918, mainly because of a need to keep up a story deadline to her publisher. Now how did her rendering go?

Timmy willie, a country mouse is accidentally carried to the city. and finds himself in a large house. He slips through a hole in the skirting board and lands in the midst of a mouse dinner party hosted by Johnny Town-mouse. Timmy is made welcome — and tries his best to fit in, but finds the noises made by the house cat and the maid frightening and the rich food difficult to digest. He returns to his country home after extending an invitation to Johnny Town-mouse. who then pays Timmy Willie a visit. He complains of the dampness and finds such things as cows and lawnmowers frightening. He returns to the city after telling Timmy country life is too quiet.

I know, you can see the roots of post-modernism in the story: I quote Jacob who defined it quite hilariously in another post:

I realize that what I am about to say could cause some misunderstandings, particularly in a would ravaged by postmodernism. A world where even facts have been reduced to opinions and all opinions are considered equally valid as long as the opinion holder — yeah, these days it’s less about what you say and more about who you are — does not show any signs of hypocrisy. To go off on a tangent, in a world with no objective values, the only way to be bad is to be internally inconsistent, that is, to be a hypocrite.

Coming from a stoic school of thought myself, an eager yound mind needs to be made to understand that

The essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition(*), the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes.

—— Mastery by Leonard

and not this wishy-washy “You can do whatever that rocks your boat, and it is equally valid because in the end, it made *you* happy”. It really gets my goat! Really! And Beatrix did a magnificient PR trick in the end of the story by stating her own preference for country living! Gaaaahhh!

(*)Note: If you think I am promoting by-rote learning, you need to hang your head in shame! I use “mindful repetition” which is galaxies ahead of “mindless repetition” (rote learning)

As to the story itself, what was the critics’ opinion? Something to the effect of: “Another volume for the Peter Rabbit bookshelf. Oh, such charming pictures and exciting letter press”…. More Gaahh!

So, Please repeat after me: NOMO POMO (Check the comments for discussion on NOMO POMO). And if you want “true” happiness, here’s an ERE credo to mindfully repeat until you finally “get it”! It’s my “gift” to you. Enjoy!

“Good-bye,” said he,
“I’m off. ”
“You live in the lap of luxury, I can see,”
“but you are surrounded by dangers; whereas at home
“I can enjoy my simple dinner of roots and corn in peace.”

Be safe and Keep well.

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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Beauty, beholder and its perceived value

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Whenever I hear or read phrases such as “valued at”, “it is worth <ABC>”, etc., I am reminded of a small story from one of our puranas, the Rāmāyaṇa: In a nutshell,

Rāmāyaṇa is a narrative of the life and times of Sri Ramachandra (considered an avatara of Lord Vishnu, who took this form in order to fulfill his role in Ravana’s destruction). Rama, is the eldest of four brothers. Sita is his wife. Due to the machinations of one of his father’s wives, Rama, along with Sita and his brother Lakshmana was sent to the forests in exile for a span of 14 years.

Here, events conspire in such a way that Ravana abducts Sita, and carries her off to Lanka, his kingdom. This sets the scene for Rama’s meeting of Hanuman, Jambhavan and Sugriva setting the scene for the epic crossing of the ocean and the equally epic battle between the monkeys led by Rama and Ravana’s army.

The anecdote I am about to narrate, is set while this battle is in progress. One day, after a particularly hairy day of fighting, a few monkeys got to talking with each other. “Tell me something”, said one of the monkeys nursing his wounds and his sore body, “why exactly have we come all this way, and risking life and limb, fighting day after day?”. The others replied, “You know what, we don’t know either!”. So they all went to Hanuman with this question. Hanuman admonished their ignorance and explained that the mission was to rescue Sita, that “jewel among women”(*), “the most holiest” and “the most beautiful”. So, the monkeys’ curiosity is picqued and they ask for “a glimpse” of this great lady once the war is won.

(*) Ironically, Ravana’s wife, Mandodari is described as a much more beautiful woman in Valmiki’s Ramayana. When Hanuman, the monkey messenger of Rama, comes to Lanka in search of Sita, he is stupefied by Mandodari’s beauty when he enters Ravana’s bed chambers and mistakes Mandodari for Sita.

After the war is won, Hanuman, remembering the request of the troops, requests Sita to visit their camps once, to which she readily acquieses. As she is inspecting the troops, one of the monkeys lamented loudly, “What!? Is this is the most beautiful jewel for whom we fought day after day?”. As the others turned towards him, he continued, “But how can she be termed beautiful. For she has no tail!. How can someone be considered beautiful, without a tail!”. Continuing, now with a misty look in his eyes, “Now, my wife……”. “She’s got the most beautiful tail in her village”. And, turning to the others, “You’ve all seen my wife right, so don’t you agree?”. To which there were loud assents and murmers of approval to the same.

Surio comments: So, whenever, I am being hard sold on anything…. with “scarcity” and “value” thrown with good measure, I always recall this story. Pop comes the moral behind the story.

All value is perceived value. All value is perceived value. All value is…

In today’s consumerist culture, this takes on much further significance. No matter what you are told about “the next best thing after sliced bread”, in any advert, remember, it only takes as much significance as you allow it to take (i.e., It may be the “most best jewel”, but does it have a tail? 😉 ). Remember, the power of believing or rejecting the spiel is within you!

Considering how significant Sita is to Hindu culture, I am always impressed at the foresight of including this incident within the puranic versions of the text and its re-telling of this to this date.

So, this latest iFad of yours, does it have a “tail”? :-D!

Written by Surio

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Posted in Musings, Philosophy

Speech is silver, but silence is golden

with 8 comments

Jacob’s old, tongue in cheek post from a couple of weeks ago, “In praise of mystics” initially flew past my head, as I am more used to the Indian association of the word “Siddha” for the word “mystic”. That Wikipedia article covers a lot of ground, so enjoy yourself.

From what I remember reading about Siddhas from elsewhere, Silence was a big part of their teachings. Indeed this is one of the common threads that connects many of the World’s religions. Other religions have also advocated (Buddhism, Sufism, Benedictine…etc…) silence as a means for raising one’s level of consciousness/awareness. Indeed silence is a misnomer here. It is not silence in the meaning that we commonly know and use, but that of stilling one’s mind, the originator of all thoughts (that eternal gaggler!). “Just be” is a more appropriate admonition here, rather than “Be quiet” :-P!

Cut to today. It is getting more and more difficult, if not downright impossible for “the Organisation man” to perform the act of wilful ceasing and stilling of thoughts in order to to engage in simple soul-searching for self-actualisation, let alone take stock of where the hell is this train-wreck heading towards:

  • A side effect of our infoglut culture with easy access keeps us on overdrive all the time. 😐
  • Digital Taylorism – Enough said. Ermine, our resident stoatwizard wrote a post on it. This modern ill that plagues us, ensures we are forever in an agitated frame of mind and in a bellicose mood that is brought on by that feeling of powerlessness.
  • Overspecialisation on the job front. Ermine touches on this also, but it is not what I meant to convey. Heard of DO-178B? That’s what is used when they try to develop avionics software. And fear not dear stressed-out, already overworked developers, there’s a new version coming out this year! And that’s just for the software. Don’t forget the hardware now! And just remember, you’ll be sued and jailed for negligence if something goes wrong, but your CEO will still collect his bonus and get himself another job.

“Special”, “customised” service, Sir? Watch the video. Enough said!

And the net result of our “modern times” is that

……the share of Americans who considered themselves very happy was 53% in September 1956 and 49% in December 2006, even as their personal computing powers increased infinitely……

—- Vaclav Smil on an online talk.

Vaclav Smil’s Latest article on American scientist: At very low and low per capita consumption levels, higher use of energy is clearly tied to rising index of human development, but once energy per capita reaches about 150 gigajoules per year, the correlation breaks down. More is not better. Read full article

So, one thing is very clear. Things are not going to be better if you are dependent on a monthly salary. After all, “You, Sir, are a ‘tool’ “ and you are about to get even more smaller and overwrought as we get more Specialisation and more energy-intense lifestyles. Double Whammy? Double Whammy is the right word indeed.

If you feel that you need to discuss with someone about these misgivings, then all the better. Just please spend some time and read this brief parable by Kahlil Gibran:

Four frogs sat upon a log that lay floating on the edge of a river. Suddenly the log was caught by the current and swept slowly down the stream. The frogs were delighted and absorbed, for never before had they sailed.

At length the first frog spoke, and said, “This is indeed a most marvellous log. It moves as if alive. No such log was ever known before.”

Then the second frog spoke, and said, “Nay, my friend, the log is like other logs, and does not move. It is the river that is walking to the sea, and carries us and the log with it.”

And the third frog spoke, and said, “It is neither the log nor the river that moves. The moving is in our thinking. For without thought nothing moves.”

And the three frogs began to wrangle about what was really moving. The quarrel grew hotter and louder, but they could not agree. Then they turned to the fourth frog, who up to this time had been listening attentively but holding his peace, and they asked his opinion.

And the fourth frog said, “Each of you is right, and none of you is wrong. The moving is in the log and the water and our thinking also.”

And the three frogs became very angry, for none of them was willing to admit that his was not the whole truth, and that the other two were not wholly wrong.

Then a strange thing happened. The three frogs got together and pushed the fourth frog off the log into the river.

—- Knowledge and Half-knowledge.

Moral of the story? “It depends” 😉

But two things stand out in the story for me.
1. The silent frog had in fact put more thought into their happenings than the so called “observant frogs”.
2. In the end, the cacophony of “factual”, on-the-ground observations will either win you over or crowd you out. In case of the frogs, the latter happened.

Minor Edit:

Very uncanny. A respected fellow commenter of great insight, Maus over at ERE forums has just completed a “fast from the Internet”. My two big takeaways, which I ought to place here.

  • I decided that my daily use of the internet had become a bit compulsive. I was frequently checking a handful of websites that I’d found interesting in the past. It began to seem to me as if I was doing this to avoid dealing with work responsibilities that were neither urgent nor interesting, and probably to avoid the larger question of whether my career as a lawyer has plateaued… I was taught that fasting (usually from food) helped one to obtain detachment and clarity of thought or intention. And my experiences at that time generally confirmed this. So, I decided to fast from the internet.
  • I wanted to recapture a sense of intentionality about my use of this incredible tool for communicating and obtaining information. The very ease of access had led me to take it for granted and to squander its potential to truly add value to my life. Having returned to the Net, I can say that my fast was very satisfactory. While I missed the ebb and flow of commentary by familiar “voices,” I can see that I did not miss anything truly earthshattering or fundamentally important to the realization of my core values.

So, don’t become the fourth frog in trying to engage the (half-)knowledged crowd. Become your own master. Indeed, this is when you’ll find, “Speech may be silver”, but “Silence is golden”! Some of the links on the right will help you on your road to mastery of your own life.

But, in the end you need to truly “meditate” on the options present, and come up with an action plan. May the force of the “mystics” be with you.

Written by Surio

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Posted in Musings, Philosophy

“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

- at ....

“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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