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Category Archives: Social

A Hundred Year Old Pandemic

A hundred years ago, humankind went through one of the worst phases in their history. A world war, a global pandemic and then another world war. We survived. After that, a lot of measures were put into place to ensure we don’t have to go through such devastation again. World War 3 is something we dread whenever the slightest international diplomacy failure happens. And it has worked, to an extent.  We haven’t had to face a World War again. However, we haven’t been as vigilant about Global Pandemics. And today, we seem to be in the grip of something as dangerous as any – COVID -19. The Spanish Flu though overshadowed by the World Wars, was perhaps as big a disaster as either of the wars. We need to mobilize our nations today, as we would for a major war. Bill Gates had made a global call for this back in 2015.

We did not heed it. Today, we go to work and talk about deadlines and other stuff as if a global war is not waging on humanity. We need to take severe war-like action today. Before it is too late.

Perhaps it would be a good time to look back on the 100-year-old pandemic that almost sunk us. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse rode together a hundred years ago, and it would serve us well to remember that the horsemen always meet each other and reap together, even if one might arrive before others occasionally.

In 1918, during a century just like ours, in which the most modern of societies thought such epidemics were a thing of the past, people got a reminder that even seemingly routine illnesses can be potentially civilization threatening under the right conditions. A malady that would be dubbed the Spanish Flu struck while the devastating First World War was raging, and soon its death toll greatly surpassed that of the war’s.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing things about this flu was that at the time it hit, humanity had made great strides in medicine. But when American service personnel started showing symptoms, the experts were stumped. The author John Barry describes in The Great Influenza how sailors mysteriously began bleeding from their noses and ears, while others coughed blood. “Some coughed so hard the autopsies would later show they had torn apart abdominal muscles and rib cartilage,” Barry writes. Many were delirious or complained of severe headaches “as if someone were hammering a wedge into their skulls just behind the eyes” or “body aches so intense they felt like bones breaking.” Some of the men’s skin turned strange colors, from “just a tinge of blue around their lips or fingertips” to skin “so dark one could not tell easily if they were Caucasian or Negro.”

A couple of months before the appearance of these extraordinary symptoms, autopsies of crewmen from a British ship who had died after experiencing similar trials showed “their lungs had resembled those of men who had died from poison gas or pneumonic plague.”

More alarming was the speed and scope of the spreading, Barry writes, despite efforts to isolate and contain those who hadn’t even shown symptoms but had merely been exposed: “Four days after that Boston detachment arrived, nineteen sailors in Philadelphia were hospitalized. . . . Despite their immediate isolation and that of everyone with whom they had had contact, eighty-seven sailors were hospitalized the next day . . . two days later, six hundred more were hospitalized with this strange disease. The hospital ran out of empty beds, and hospital staff began falling ill.” As the sick overwhelmed the facility, officials began sending new patients to civilian hospitals, while military personnel continued moving among bases around the country, exposing ever more people.

What began in Philadelphia—at least in its most dangerous form—quickly advanced. In his new book, The End is Always Near, Dan Carlin writes, there was still an international war on, and modern transportation had made great strides, so the virus could get from place to place at a far greater pace than any previous pandemic could. The collision of this outbreak with this first period of true globalization was devastating. At its height, whole cities in the United States were virtually shut down, as areas, where human beings congregated, were closed to prevent people from transmitting the illness. People stayed home from school and work rather than risk exposure, and the gears of society in some places seemed imperiled by the justifiable fear of getting sick. By the time it receded in 1920, modern epidemiologists estimate that the flu had killed somewhere between fifty and one hundred million people; “roughly half of those who died were young men and women in the prime of their life, in their twenties and thirties,” Barry writes. “If the upper estimate of the death toll is true, as many as 8 to 10 percent of young adults then living may have been killed by the virus.”

The disease wasn’t just remarkable for the number of its victims, but also for the compressed nature of its devastating labors. Although it took two years to come and go, “perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918.” That amount of damage in that short a period of time is disorienting and potentially destabilizing for a society.

All this happened in an age when we understood a lot about biomedicine. We understood that germs spread disease; we understood how you prevented contact to limit exposure. Indeed, doctors quickly figured out that what was killing sailors in Philadelphia was a strain of influenza, but it was unlike any they had seen before, and nothing they did could contain it. As much as a fifth of the entire population of the planet contracted it, and as much as 5 percent died from it. In sheer numbers, it was the deadliest pandemic to hit humankind, but as a percentage of the human population alive at the time, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the Black Death that hit western Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. So, humankind didn’t exactly dodge a bullet—the damage was severe and widespread—but it could have been much, much worse.

It still can be, Dan Carlin assures us, in a book that talks about enough civilizational collapses to give one ennui. The same sense of hubris affects us today as affected the generation that was blindsided by the Spanish Influenza. It’s hard to imagine a human society acting rationally or humanely if mortality levels began reaching catastrophic levels, Dan Carlin says. In the past, societies have been reshaped and at times have nearly crumbled under the weight of a pandemic. It’s possible that, facing mortality rates of 50, 60, or 70 percent—as people who lived through the Black Death did—we might do as they did: turn to religion, change the social structure, blame unpopular minorities and groups, or abandon previous belief systems. We can learn from how people in other eras responded to a catastrophic situation, and we can ask ourselves: With all our modern technology and science and medical knowledge, how do we respond?

What’s the likelihood that humanity has already experienced the worst plague it will ever encounter? In the famous science fiction classic The War of the Worlds, author H. G. Wells has the alien would-be conquerors defeated ultimately by Earth’s pathogens. Let’s hope those same planetary defense mechanisms don’t get us first. Those who regularly work with infectious diseases and see the Black Death–like damage that something like Ebola or Marburg virus can have on a small scale in isolated communities are all too aware of how a hemorrhagic fever virus in one global region, or an avian flu mutation somewhere else, could remind us that, just like the Titanic, our civilization is not unsinkable.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2020 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldThe Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

Ferguson contends that today’s financial world is the result of four millennia of economic evolution. It is very important to the aims of this book that this metaphor is accepted. Ferguson looks at this evolution of money into the complicated financial ecosystem of today. He explores how money mutated into new tools/organisms and acquired characteristics that allowed it to meet the needs of its users/demands of its environment better. The tools that helped men make even more money or harness their own energies more efficiently were selected for as ‘fittest’ and soon took over the monetary environment.

This happened in fits and starts:

First came the invention of money itself, which is not given much attention to, probably because it is too shrouded in the mists of time (and also because the West has no unique claim on it, at any of its stages – even the more advanced forms). Then it started mutating into its various forms, conquering and occupying various niches according to functionality.

And according to Ferguson, the civilizations who had access to these new and more efficient tools were hugely benefitted and in many cases were at a decisive advantage, down to our day.

The Evolutionary Stages

1. Banks

Money, once it allowed quantification of the value of transactions soon led naturally to delayed payments and then to the institutions of lending and borrowing. These slowly grew to become banks, clearing houses for ever larger aggregations of borrowing and lending.

2. Bonds

The rulers and the lords were the biggest customers of the banks. In time governments that figured out how to utilize the credit market best thrived and their innovations led to government bonds and securitization of streams of interest payments. This matured into full-fledged bond markets by the 13th century. The rulers had great incentive to protect and regulate this amazing new source of funding! This led those governments most dependent on these markets to institute regulated public markets so as to maintain stability and security of transaction, which was in their own best interests. Transaction and discovery costs reduced drastically and areas with such markets proved extremely useful to their rulers, who could no raise money for wars much more effectively. Battles were now to be won and lost in the bond markets.

3. Stock Markets

By the seventeenth century, corporations started aping the states, a process that was not limited to only financial matters, and started to raise equity through share markets. This could only develop first in areas with already well developed bond markets and public markets and thus gave them a further advantage — the advantage derived from the financial tools now extended from wars to trade and industry. The West was rising buoyed by its financial innovations, in Ferguson’s view.

4. Insurance

With the institutions of bonds and shares prospering, the next step was to use the market to spread risk out. insurance funds and then pension funds exploited economies of scale and the laws of averages to provide financial protection against calculable risk. The corporations now had another decisive advantage in being able to have access to protection against risk and in a world where financial risk was the biggest danger any advantage there could prove world-conquering. The accumulation of financial innovations had already tipped the balance for the West and was now on its way to helping them conquer the world.

5. Real Estate

With the rise of more innovative instruments such as futures, options and other derivatives, it was now possible to increase leverage, not only for governments and corporations, but also for individual households. With government encouragement they soon increased their leverage and used that to invest more and more in real estate. This helped the western countries to have a larger and larger propertied class helping them to transition the into property-owning democracies, which, according to Ferguson, are the most robust sort.

6. Imperialism and Globalization: The Justified Culmination

Now we come to the crux of the narrative — Economies that combined all these institutional innovations – banks, bond markets, stock markets, insurance and property-owning democracy – performed better over the long run than those that did not, because financial intermediation generally permits a more efficient allocation of resources than, say, feudalism or central planning. The financial ecosystem evolved in the West was the best suited for governance and for human civilization in general. And it is for this reason that the Western financial model tended to spread around the world, first in the guise of imperialism, then in the guise of globalization, and has been vital for all sorts of progress achieved around the world — from the advance of science, the spread of law, mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap.

Ferguson has narrated the history of money as a financial evolution and thus given it the air of inevitable complexity and of progress. This makes it seem like the adoption of the ‘evolved’ financial system first by the West and them by the Rest is but a logical and inevitable choice that is for the best of the world at large.

It is noteworthy that Ferguson makes a point of using elaborate evolutionary metaphors to project the history of financial institutions in a Darwinian light.

Why?

According to this interpretation, financial history is essentially the result of institutional mutation and natural selection: Random ‘drift’ (innovations/ mutations that are not promoted by natural selection, but just happen) and ‘flow’ (innovations/mutations that are caused when, say, American practices are adopted by Chinese banks) play a part. There can also be ‘co-evolution’, when different financial species work and adapt together (like hedge funds and their prime brokers).

But market selection is the main driver. Financial organisms are in competition with one another for finite resources. At certain times and in certain places, certain species may become dominant. But innovations by competitor species, or the emergence of altogether new species, prevent any permanent hierarchy or monoculture from emerging. Broadly speaking, the law of the survival of the fittest applies. Institutions with a ‘selfish gene’ that is good at self-replication and self-perpetuation will tend to proliferate and endure.

As we can see there are certain key themes here:

a. That the survived institutions have to accepted as ‘fittest’ under Ferguson’s interpretation, and

b. That ‘selfishness’ of institutions/genes are rewarding for the species/humanity in the long run. So we should encourage the selfish imperialism of countries/the globalization of corporations today.

These are specious themes that are present in this book with a specific agenda, trying to escape notice by being presented in pseudoscientific light. And as we have seen from our discussion of how Ferguson uses the history of finance to show us how Imperialism was a good thing for the rest of the world, we can safely slot this book as another among Ferguson’s life-long attempts to come up with innovative apologetics for Empire.

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Posted by on June 7, 2015 in Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Thoughts

 

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I, Hegel: A Poem

I, Hegel
*
*
I, Hegel, wrote an essay today
Comparing Jesus,
And his disciples
With Socrates,
And his.
Jesus emerges from my comparison
As decidedly the inferior teacher
Of ethics.
What does that say
About my Religion?

*

I, Hegel, had a dream today
In which Napoleon
Was offered
One of two paths
In a cold subterranean dungeon:
One of which led to untold riches
And the other to a lost work of Aristotle.
He took the first
Without hesitation.
What does that say
About my Hero?

*

I, Hegel, went on a walk today
When I heard
Two villagers arguing
About metaphysics,
And epistemology.
They talked of Jesus and of Zeus,
Of Mary and of Vampires!
But not a word was told of Kant,
Yet they reached (and easily)
The very same conclusions!
What does that say
About my Teacher?

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Books, Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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INTERSTELLAR: Do Not Go Humble Into That Good Night

The Science of InterstellarThe Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My Rating★★★★☆


DO NOT GO HUMBLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

 

The book discusses the movie, so it is only fair that I use most of the space to discuss the movie as well. I will discuss the book itself in one of the sections below. To get a better understanding, we can break our discussion it up into three overlapping sections —
The Three aspects of the movie that has to be examined to get at its core Premise:

1. The Future

2. The Science

3. The Dreams

Book Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads); Movie Rating: 9/10 (IMDB)


Caution: Spoilers Ahead; Spoilers Abound

“The overriding question, ‘What might we build tomorrow?’
blinds us to questions of our ongoing responsibilities
for what we built yesterday.”
~ Paul Dourish


THE FUTURE


Scenario

Interstellar is about mankind’s future and about the options we face. It challenges us to think about how we should react to that future.

It starts from the premise that the Earth has been wrecked.

We have become a largely agrarian society, struggling to feed and shelter ourselves. But ours is not a dystopia. Life is still tolerable and in some ways pleasant, with little amenities such as baseball continuing. However, we no longer think big. We no longer aspire to great things. We aspire to little more than just keeping life going.

Humans have coped with their sudden tragedy by shutting down technology, engineering, research and all the marvels of science. This was the only option left to them.

But why this extreme reaction by a species that was not frightened even by Frankenstein’s monster? Presumably science/progress had something to do with unleashing the blight? My guess would be too much monoculture.

Most of them seem to think that the catastrophes are finished, that we humans are securing ourselves in this new world and things may start improving. But in reality the blight is so lethal, and leaps so quickly from crop to crop (there is also a bit of unscientific nonsense about Nitrogen versus Oxygen, but let us not be too critical), that the human race is doomed within the lifetime of Cooper’s grandchildren. The only hope is to start dreaming again. To get back on the Science Bandwagon.

And (thankfully?) there are dreamers, who refuse to give up to this sub-par, non-imaginative existence.

We are explorers, we are adventurers. Humanity is not meant to give up like this, Nolan tells us. And uses Dylan to drive the point home (too many times!).

The prevailing attitude of stopping progress and just focussing on ‘surviving’ is seen to be a regressive step by our intrepid explorers.

Instead our heroes decide to risk it all on a cross-galaxy exploration. To find a new home for humanity, out among the stars.

In the process Nolan also attempts to reverse the message of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and portray technology as a friend to humanity (TARS), instead of an unknown and volatile threat (as embodied by HAL).


Commentary

This is an eminently plausible future. It is also an eminent plausible reaction to such a future. In face it is very close to what Naomi Oreskes  imagines in her own Near-future scenario: Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. A dictatorial regime, community-based (communist, in fact), strictly controlled, paranoid. We have seen these things before in history, during the dark ages. It is one of our worst nightmares.

A totalitarian govt is pretty much what would be in store in such a future. Freedom comes with trade-offs — the more we can indulge now, the more we restrict humanity later.

The only problem is that by the time we have had time to degrade so much, to feel the hopelessness, to tighten control over a society so much with so less technology, it would probably be too late to be even thinking of interstellar travel.

And that is where the Future that is shown to us breaks down. It shows us an agrarian world that is still capable of inter-planetary travel. That would require a very fast breakdown of things. Fast enough to not let the technology or the knowledge wither away. One bad generation would enough to lose the skills that were required for the Exodus. The plot had to assume an almost impossible fast degeneration and a lot of coincidental happenings in that very small window allowed even in such a world. That is not very realistic.

Lucky we had a miracle to bail us out.

See high-res Here: http://goo.gl/x0eoa


THE SCIENCE


Soft Science

This is where science comes in. Under what scientific capacity we have, and with what technology we can reasonably expect in the near future, we cannot really travel inter-galactic distances in a time span that is remotely realistic, at least for current generations. Nor do we have the cryopreservation methods to take any live humans across such time spans.

And if we were capable of sacrificing our present for the future generations…? Well. Umm. We wouldn’t be in a fix in the first place, would we?

The nearest star (other than our Sun) thought to have a habitable planet is Tau Ceti, 11.9 light-years from Earth, so traveling at light speed you would need 11.9 years to reach it. If there are any habitable planets closer than that, they can’t be much closer.

Voyager 1 is traveling out of the solar system at 17 kilometers per second, having been boosted by gravitational slingshots around Jupiter and Saturn. In Interstellar, the Endurance travels from Earth to Saturn in two years, at an average speed of about 20 kilometers per second.

Even if we imagine an extreme 300 kilometers per second, we would need 5000 years to reach Proxima Centauri (nearest star to earth) and 13,000 years to reach Tau Ceti. Not a pleasant prospect!

Using twenty-first-century technology, we are stuck with thousands of years to reach other solar systems. The only hope (an exceedingly faint hope) for faster interstellar travel, in the event of an earthly disaster, is a wormhole like that in Interstellar, or some other extreme form of spacetime warp.

So a major inter-galactic, centuries-spanning exploration is out of the question.

What then?

Luckily we have the Gods helping us (well, 5 dimensional beings – “them” for short) out.

They make our job a lot easier with a strategically placed wormhole – not too near to rip earth apart, but not so far that we don’t notice it, or will have to spend too much time reaching it. And it takes us to a place with multiple earth-like planets. And we go there on LAZARUS missions (Get it? Christ will walk amongst us at The End of Days — as Technology!). Resurrection itself, no less, is on display here!

Talk about miracles.

“And whoever They are, They appear to be looking out for us. That wormhole lets us travel to other stars. It came along right as we needed it.”

Well, what do you know, we are a lucky species.


Hard Science

I have heard a lot of people criticizing the science behind the movie. To me that is the most acceptable part in the movie. The science mostly makes good sense, except for a few artistic liberties here and there. Also the story was written first and the science was made-to-order. But despite that, it hangs together well.

The movie is exclusively based on a String Theory interpretation of the universe. Most of it won’t make sense unless you accept all the premises required under String Theory.

So we live in a “Brane” inside a “Bulk”. Our universe is the Brane and the Bulk Beings live in higher dimension, in the Bulk. The movie simplifies matters a bit by assuming the Bulk to be in only 1 dimension more than ours, while String Theorists tend to assume 5-6 extra dimensions in the Bulk. Also they are supposed to be curled-up microscopic dimensions, certainly not big enough for Cooper to be floating around in. Nolan didn’t want to confuse a mass audience. Let us accept that as fair.

All this is beautifully explained in the book and reading it will make you respect the rigor and faithfulness to scientific principles that is on view in the movie. Everything (including all those stunning visuals) is modeled based on equations and backed by scientific possibility (speculation at best). The movie allows us to visualize what a wormhole, black-hole, accretion disks, tesseract, world-tubes, etc. would look like IF they were real. And they allow us to do so with scientific rigor. Nolan brings String Theory to spectacular life. So this movie sets a pretty high standard as far as fidelity to science is concerned. Let us give full points for that.

I am wiling to defend most of the science on display in the movie. Please feel free to fire away in the comment section.

They even use realistic equations in the movie. Gotta give points for that too.

Even when the equation is attempting to “solve gravity”. *chuckles*

In short, it is easy to be skeptical of the science, but this companion book does a good job of shooting down most objections you might have and proves how well-founded most o the exotic stuff in the movie is. The really exotic things turn out to be closer to home, in the Future that is depicted and in the Dreams we are being asked to nurture! I started this book being very critical of the movie, looking for weapons to bludgeon it with, but the constant doses of science has softened me up. Reading this book will probably make you respect the movie much more too. Highly recommended.


Artistic Licences

That said, Nolan does take many liberties with science in the movie, but mostly they are for visual effect.

As Kip says, If Chris had followed the dictates of Einstein’s laws, it would have spoiled his movie. So Chris consciously invoked artistic license at some points. Although I’m a scientist and aspire to science accuracy in science fiction, I can’t blame Chris at all. I would have done the same, had I been making the decision. And you’d have thanked me for it.


Truth, Educated Guesses, and Speculations

The science of Interstellar lies in all four domains: Newtonian, relativistic, quantum, and quantum gravity. Correspondingly, some of the science is known to be true, some is an educated guess, and some is speculation.

That is why throughout this book, when discussing the science of Interstellar, Kip has to explain the status of that science—truth, educated guess, or speculation—and he label it so at the beginning of a chapter or section with a symbol:


TO SUM UP

The thing is that a wormhole cant work (they are just not stable enough to be traversable, even if they actually exist — admitted freely in the book, in fact Kip goes so far as to almost admit that Wormholes are the most impossible outrageous idea in the book, and he was also the one responsible for introducing a wormhole into Contact and thus into mass consciousness!), time can’t be fixed, and if you have enough energy/tech to make a new planet habitable, you will definitely have enough to make earth re-habitable!

So we will never actually face a choice — either we will be capable of saving the earth AND colonizing a new planet. Or we will be incapable of both. And if the earth is in a bad enough condition it is unlikely that a true centuries-spanning mission is going to get funding anyway. And if we can fix the planet, how can we choose to leave all the other species behind? (Diversity being so important, as mentioned in the movie — and true genetic diversity should also include species diversity.)

The Science in the Movie DOES NOT matter. Because it is not a question of what is possible, but of what we want to believe in.


Cooper = Christ

This movie is about Miracles & Dreams, not of Science. And, to drive it home, religious hints litter the movie, as pointed out with the Lazarus missions above.

We thus have Cooper in a double role, as a Christ figure who brings God’s message to a Prophet, and also as an Apostle-Prime, who alone has experienced divinity, who is convinced that the miracles are being performed by The Children of Men. That men will become Gods one day, capable of miracles. Get it? The Bulk-beings, the 5-Dimensional Gods are nothing but the Children of Men, conceived immaculately through a Technology-Mary)

“Not yet,” Cooper says, “but one day. Not you and me but people, people who’ve evolved beyond the four dimensions we know.”

Traditionally, when you fall into a black hole, you should get pulled apart, instead the movie itself gets pulled apart by its seams. It was a plot necessity. Of course, our new understanding of singularities allow a slim chance of survival, but certainly not for the Nolan-esque climax. It’s a brave plunge, either way.


THE DREAMS

The real message of the movie might very well be to show how difficult it would be to find an inhabitable planet and get to it, even with plenty of miraculous deus ex machinas thrown in. And we still need to have in source of energy — gravity itself — to have any shot at a humane solution (of transporting everyone instead of having to deal with the rough job of choosing WHO gets to go!)

In the move, it all ends in an optimistic note in COOPER STATION, but what of the Earth? Kip admits in the book that to “harness gravity” to get off the earth would probably require a complete destruction of the planet (through extreme compression).

If they had access to enormous energy, through “solving gravity”, then surely they could have fixed Earth instead? Given the choice between a beautiful Earth and an artificially recreated station (limited by man’s imagination, even if by the imagination of the most brilliant among us), where would you choose to live? What would you choose for your child? Even today, would you rather stay in a magnificently designed IT park imitation or actually go and visit the original? And what of the history, architecture and ecology we have to leave behind? I know what choice I will make. I might make a visit, but I would want come back to earth.


A Cut-And-Run Theme

As an article puts it:

At first glance, Interstellar does seem to have a green message, warning that climate change could make the world uninhabitable for humans (and, presumably, other species). Yet there’s an odd twist. The tag line for the film is, “The end of the Earth will not be the end of us.” And the lead scientist, played by Michael Caine (no longer Alfred the Butler), says at one point: “We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it.” In other words, if humans do trash the planet, don’t worry, some super-smart folks will help us make a nice get-away somewhere else in this swell and expanding universe. Given that Grinspoon researches life and planetary development, I wondered what he thought of this cut-and-run theme.

Once we cut out all the fantasy elements, Interstellar has this dire projection for us:

1. We are ruining the planet

2. We need to look for options to save ourselves.

Now, I have no objection to Humans leaving the Planet. Best case might even be that Humans leave the Planet to save the Planet.

3. But, whatever solutions we want to imagine/implement, we need to do it before it is too late.

By the time it is too late for the planet, it is bound to be too late for our technology too.

Cut-And-Run is not a feasible option. Deus Ex Machina happens only in movies.

As I have repeated many times by now The Science of Interstellar is the least questionable aspect of the movie. Its core premise (the Future & The Dreams) is what is really questionable.

Interstellar operates from a premise that it is never too late as long we keep the flame of exploration and technology alive. It ignores the ethical dilemmas of leaving a planet and most of its inhabitants (including humans) to die. It also ignores the more present question of how to avert a cut-and-run scenario from ever manifesting itself. That is the real question in front of humanity today. By skipping ahead and showing us an imaginary solution to present day problems, Nolan is indulging in a sort of escapism.

Let us just deal with it:

The right dream to have might just be of saving the planet and thus ourselves, and not of leaving it.

The movie was good entertainment and the book does a wonderful job of backing it up scientifically. But having the right dream is important too, to direct Science, which is merely a tool.

Humanity was not meant to die on Earth.
Earth was not meant to die of Humanity either.


VERDICT: THE SCIENCE IS SOLID. THE FUTURE IS SHAKY. AND THE DREAM IS JUST PLAIN STUPID.

Arthur C. Clarke took us on a similar journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he asked us uncomfortable questions: Where are we headed? Are we ready to rely on Technology? What hidden dangers lurk in the Highway of Progress?

Nolan instead chooses to allay most of those uncomfortable questions and leaves us with a too simple an answer: Trust in technology, keep the spirit alive and everything will be fine.

I am not sure that is the right message for our times. It needs to be examined, and hence the review. I have done a shoddy job of it, but it is something.

All this is not to indulge in technology-bashing. Our scientific knowledge and our capacity for improvement are still our best bets to continuing survival. But “Solutionism” is not the answer.

This is how “Solutionism” is defined:

“‘Solutionism’ interprets issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.”
~ Gilles Paquet

We should be optimistic, but only cautiously so. We should not ride headlong into a future we don’t want, expecting a miracle at the end of the lane to bail us out. We should respect science and trust in it, and expect it to not only be a miracle, but also a path-finder. Science should show us the way, it should show us the means to avoid the unwanted future. It should be a companion, not a god-of-last-resort, to which we turn only once we have ruined ourselves by ignoring it.

Let us use science to chart the best course. Let us respect what our scientists tell us instead of allowing our politicians and our run-away consumerist economy to take us to a cliff from which even Science cannot be expected to work a Miracle.

Even though the movie was supposed to be a powerful message about Man’s power, in the end it turns out to be about man’s desperate need for miracles, for easy answers. That is its failure.

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Arthashastra: The Science Of Good Governance

The ArthashastraThe Arthashastra by Kautilya

My Rating★★★★★

THE SCIENCE OF GOOD GOVERNANCE

The Arthashastra is the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times, and perhaps of all time.

The Arthashastra is written mainly in prose but also incorporates 380 shlokas, which adds a vital poetic flourish to this otherwise down-to-earth classic. The text of this extraordinarily detailed manual contains fifteen books which cover numerous topics viz., the King; a complete code of law; foreign policy; secret services; civic responsibilities, and so on.

In trying to understand Kautilya‘s analysis, we have to keep in mind the fact that in the Kautilyan view, the king encapsulates all the constituents of a state, he has expounded the theory in terms of the king – any king. In other words, what Kautilya calls the ‘interest of the king’ would nowadays be termed ‘National Interest’.

A Note About The Translation

This translation by Rangarajan is a good reference book if you are coming back to Arthashastra for reference, but not particularly good for a first reading. It is too well catalogued and too practical for that. The verses should be read in the order Kautilya arrayed them rather than in this re-arranged fashion that helps to make much better sense of it, but somehow takes away the spirit.

The translation also contains a useful Index of Verses (By Textual Order) — it is meant to assist in finding out in which Part and Section a particular verse of the text has been included.


The Branches Of Knowledge

Traditionally, in classical Indian texts, the four branches of knowledge are considered to be:

1) Philosophy,
2) The Three Vedas,
3) Economics, and
4) The Science of Government

Kautilya tells us that these are, indeed, the four fundamental branches of knowledge because one can know from these four branches of study all that is to be learnt about Dharma [spiritual welfare] and Artha [material well-being]. {1.2.8-9}

Artha, literally wealth, is thus one of four supreme aims prescribed by Classical Indian tradition. However, it has a much wider significance and the material well-being of individuals is just a part of it. The ‘Artha’ of Arthashastra is an all-embracing word with a variety of meanings.  In accordance with this, Kautilya’s Arthashastra maintains that the state or government of a country has a vital role to play in maintaining the material status of both the nation and its people.

The Arthashastra is thus ‘the science of politics’ with a significant part dedicated to the science of economics. It is the art of government in its widest sense — the maintenance of law and order as also of an efficient administrative machinery The subjects covered include: administration; law order and justice; taxation, revenue and expenditure; foreign policy; defense and war. Its three objectives follow one from the other: promotion of the welfare of the subjects leads to acquisition of wealth which, in turn, makes it possible to enlarge the territory by conquest.


The Instruction Manual

The Arthashastra is essentially a treatise on the art of government and is, by nature, instructional. It seeks to instruct all kings and is meant to be useful at all times wherever dharma is held to be pre­eminent. And because it is instructional, it is basis is the practice of government. The majority of the treatise is a Manual of Instruction for kings and officers of the state.

There are three distinct parts in this manual:

1. The Manual of Admi­nistration
describes the organization of the apparatus of the state and prescribes the duties and responsibilities of every key official, either for maintaining order or for collecting revenue. There are, naturally, parts devoted to budgetary control, enforcement of civil service dis­cipline and the public’s civic responsibility.

2. The Code of Law and Justice
covers both civil and criminal law and is, basically, a Penal Code; the extensive and graded penalties and fines prescribed in it have the twin aims of deterring transgressions and collecting revenue for the state.

3. The third part is a Manual of Foreign Policy, the pri­mary aim of which is acquisition of territory by conquest.

These three manuals correspond to the three objectives of the state – wealth, jus­tice and expansion — A stable and prosperous state, which only a just administration can secure, is a prerequisite for accumulation of wealth which is then used to augment the territory.

Justice —> Wealth —> Expansion —> More Wealth, and so on

… as long as Justice is not compromised. Which is why the prime focus of The Arthashastra is good administration that ensures the perpetuation of justice and posterity in the kingdom.


Against Reductionist Arguments

Before we move on, we should face the unfortunate fact that both Kautilya the author and his masterwork the Arthashastra are much misunderstood. Popularly known as Chanakya, he is maligned and often ridiculed as a teacher of unethical, not to say immoral, practices and as an advocate of the theory that ‘the ends justify the means.’ ‘Chanakyan’ has entered Indian vocabulary as the equivalent of ‘Machiavellian’.

Most people know little of what Kautilya actually said in the Arthashastra. The only thing they can recall is the superficial aspects of the ‘mandala’ theory, based on the principles: ‘Every neighboring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.’ This is, no doubt, almost always valid. Nevertheless, to reduce Kautilya’s theory on foreign policy to just these two observations is to do him a grave injus­tice. Indeed, the theory deals with not just three states, but with a twelve. Here is a sample of how much more nuanced that simple understanding could be, with a little effort:

This popular view is not only simplistic but untrue. A through reading of the treatise is required to appreciate the range and depth of the Arthashastra. It is a pioneering work on statecraft in all its aspects, written at least one thousand five hundred years ago.

Even the condemnation of Kautilya as an unethi­cal teacher and the equivalence established with Machiavelli (itself based on gravely erroneous conception of that great master!) is based on ignorance of his work.

Kautilya’s is always a sane, moderate and balanced view. He placed great emphasis on the welfare of the people. His practical advice is rooted in dharma. But, as a teacher of practical statecraft, he advocated unethical methods in the furtherance of national interest, but always with very strict qualification. But these are often ignored or just plain unknown to the majority.

Just as Kautilya’s important qualifications to his advocacy of unethical methods is often ignored, so is the voluminous evidence in the Arthashastra of his emphasis on welfare, not only of human beings but also of animals. Welfare in the Arthashastra is not just an abstract concept. It covers maintenance of social order, increasing economic activity, protection of livelihood, protection of the weaker sections of the population, prevention of harassment of the subjects, consumer protection and even welfare of slaves and prisoners.

In short, the Arthashastra is a mixture of both what we applaud today and what we consider to be reprehensible. Kautilya has a great deal to say about civic responsibility; the obligation of every householder to take precautions against fire is mentioned; so is a prohibition on cutting trees in public parks. Consumer protection and vigilance against ex­ploitation of the people by government servants are aspects which we consider good. Equally, some of Kautilya’s suggestions will be seen by us as unethical. What is essential is that we understand both aspects and use them to learn history as well as to apply to the modern situations.


The Kautilyan Conception of The State

Dr. Kangle, in his magisterial work on Kautilya, notes that ‘the kind of state control over the economy Arthashastra presupposes is not possible without an efficient administra­tion. We, therefore, find in it a description of an elaborate administra­tive machinery.’

A ruler’s duties in the internal administration of the country are three-fold: raksha or protection of the state from external aggression, palana or maintenance of law and order within the state, and yoga­kshema or safeguarding the welfare of the people. These duties also meant that the King needed an elaborate support system.

The highly centralized Kautilyan state was to be regulated by an elaborate and intricate system as laid out by Kautilya. While at first glance we might think that this high centralization is repulsive, we should also appreciate the difficulties of the time. Most of the empires of the world relied on tight centralization to ensure some degree of success. Also, in Kautilya’s eyes, everything was in the service of one goal: Justice.

The extensive responsibilities of the state for promoting economic wellbeing and preserving law and order demand an equally extensive administrative machinery.  Any text on Arthashastra thus has to contain details of the organization of the civil service as well as the duties and responsibilities of individual officials.

Thus we can see how The Arthashastra was bound to be an elaborate manual that dealt with every minute aspect of administration and daily life.

The Arthashastra is a through discussion on the science of living, along with being a valuable historical document on the conduct of administration. It is thus supremely valuable for the historian but also for a modern political scientist or sociologist or economist or administrator.


A Modern Kautilya

All this shows us how close to modern life and administration the Kautilyan ideas come. Reading ancient books is the best way to rid ourselves of modernist fantasies — except for communication and transport, in the basic institutions, we are still where we were. and it is these two things (advance in communication & transport) that has made our institutions slightly more efficient, but also a lot more complex and thus just as bad at dealing with real things, while giving the illusion of a lot of activity.

The same thing can be said of the role of technology in daily life as well. We can get more things done because we can, but precisely because we can, there are always more things to do.

The Red Queen’s laugh reverberates through our modern lives and modern states.


Reality And The Ideal

The picture of the ideal Kautilyan state that emerges from our discussion above is one of a well-run state, prosperous and bustling with activity. But if we are to comprehend clearly Kautilya’s teachings and apply them judiciously to the modern world, we also have to be aware of the essential characteristics of the work. The treatise is about an ideal state – not that such a state actually ever existed or is even likely to exist now or in the future. To the extent any of the six constituent elements of a state – the ruler, the ministers, the urban and the rural population, the economic power and the military might – differ from the ideals Kautilya has set out, to that extent the advice given by him has to be modified.

I cannot imagine that much would change if a modern Kautilya were to write an Arthashastra today, except that he would have a broader, faster reach, and a better chance of enforcing things. But the basics of what he wants to do would not change much, nor would the how, only the means/instruments of effecting them would be easier., But unless those means are not available to the people, their range also increases, and hence real control would remain as difficult today as it was then.


The Illusion of Governance?

This realization should lead us to wonder why Kautilya attempted such an elaborately and minutely planned state architecture — we should consider the possibility that perhaps this level of intrusion into daily life was required, at least at the planning level, precisely because real control was so impossibly difficult? Maybe the Plan was needed for any semblance of governance? This reminds me strongly of Kafka’s Castle administration and their reliance on the awe of the villagers. Maybe the illusion of minute micro-managed and all-pervasive governance can cover up for the inability to really govern?

Isn’t it the same today?


The Best in the Market

We have seen that the Arthashastra is an exhaustive and detailed inventory of everything a state should do and everything every minor official should do. A more detailed secular constitution of governance and daily life cannot be imagined. With this legacy, it is no wonder that the much less ambitious Indian Constitution is still the longest in the world, the most detailed and most concerned with trying to micro manage the nuts and bolts of administration.

We have also seen how the problems that Kautilya tried to tackle are more or less the same as what modern states fail spectacularly at, even when aided by more gee-whiz technology. And this immutability of problems and of solutions is precisely why the level of detail that Kautilya goes into is still valuable for government officials, administrators and citizens.

A better guidebook has not hit the market yet.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Dreaming The Perfect Library, with Alberto Manguel

The Library at NightThe Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

My Rating★★★★☆

Dreaming The Perfect LIBRARY

The Quest & The Question

The starting point, Manguel says is a question. Few today can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose.

And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are sadly doomed to failure.

Why then do we do it? Admitting from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, Manguel embarks on it for its own sake. This book is the story of that quest, “an account of my astonishment”, as Manguel says — and it is an astonishing journey for the readers as well.

“Surely we should find it both touching and inspiriting,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson over a century ago, “that in a field from which success is banished, our race should not cease to labour.”

Dreaming The Perfect LIBRARY

THE LIBRARY is a lot of things. And since it is quixotic by definition, this reader will now follow a future dream Library as Manguel traces his past, real libraries.

THE LIBRARY AS MYTH — It should be capable of eliciting in this reader the loftiest of all possible sensations, the sense of the sublime.

Manguel talks of the two great information-gathering projects of Mankind: The Library of Alexandria and The Tower of Babel. These two tower over the rest of the book, constantly reminding the reader and the writer about the magnificent and utile quest that mankind loves to keep re-embraking on.

THE LIBRARY AS ORDER — can a library ever have any meaningful order?

Subjects upon subjects, each of these subjects will require a classification within its classification. At a certain point in the ordering, out of fatigue, boredom or frustration, this geometrical progression might stop. But the possibility of continuing it is always there. There are no final categories in a library.

For this reader, the only consolation is that a private Library, at best, unlike a public one, presents the minor release of allowing a whimsical and highly personal classification. That is enough.

THE LIBRARY AS SPACE — Space is never enough a books never stop coming in

Ultimately, the number of books always exceeds the space they are granted. This reader wishes for a Library designed on The Brain, using folds and infolds to enfold a million books.

In the second chapter of Sylvie and Bruno, Lewis Carroll dreamt up the following solution: “If we could only apply that Rule to books! You know, in finding the Least Common Multiple, we strike out a quantity wherever it occurs, except in the term where it is raised to its highest power. So we should have to erase every recorded thought, except in the sentence where it is expressed with the greatest intensity.” 

His companion objects: “Some books would be reduced to blank paper, I’m afraid!” “They would,” the narrator admits. “Most libraries would be terribly diminished in bulk. But just think what they would gain in quality!”

THE LIBRARY AS POWER — The invested power of the written word, thrills this reader. Empires can’t stop building libraries and people cannot stop authoring memoirs. They are the only real sources of lasting power. The Library left behind and the books written, they shall define this reader’s legacy.

THE LIBRARY AS SHADOW —  If every library is in some sense a reflection of its readers, it is also an image of that which we are not, and cannot be.

Every library is a shadow, by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope. And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.

This reader imagines a Library where the censorship is total and the reader is a dictator, a benevolent one.

(This chapter includes a sad tour of The History of Censorship.)

THE LIBRARY AS SHAPE — “Every librarian is, up to a certain point, an architect,” observed Michel Melot, director of the Centre Pompidou Library in Paris. “He builds up his collection as an ensemble through which the reader must find a path, discover his own self, and live.”

This reader has already said that his Library will be modeled on The Brain.

THE LIBRARY AS CHANCE — A library is not only a place of both order and chaos; it is also the realm of chance. Left unattended, books cluster around what Henry James called a “general intention” that often escapes readers: “the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.” Isaac Asimov, anyone?

This reader imagines a Library where the books are left to cluster by chance and then picked up cluster-by-cluster and put back with their intellectual soul-mates.

THE LIBRARY AS WORKSHOP — The place where you read, and the place where you work. A history of the ‘study’.

This reader imagines a cozy nook, nudged within the Library, form where the grandeur is glimpsed but not enough for intimidation. At reach, still far enough away.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf published her now famous lectures on “Women and Fiction” under the title A Room of One’s Own, and there she defined forever our need for a private space for reading and writing: “The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace.” And she added, “Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn.” As if it were night.

A study lends its owner, its privileged reader, what Seneca called euthymia, a Greek word which Seneca explained means “well-being of the soul,” and which he translated as “tranquillitas.” Every study ultimately aspires to euthymia.

Euthymia, memory without distraction, the intimacy of a reading time — This reader can hardly imagine a more perfect Paradise.

THE LIBRARY AS MIND —What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice.

This reader too will generally know the position of any book by recalling the Library’s layout.

The remembered order will follow the patterns of my mind, the shape and division of the Library ordered just so by me — and the Library will in turn reflect the configuration of my mind.

THE LIBRARY AS ISLAND — The Library, each book in it will be a newly discovered island.

To be the first to enter Circe’s cave, the first to hear Ulysses call himself Nobody, is every reader’s secret wish, granted over and over, generation after generation, to those who open the Odyssey for the first time.

This reader accepts that Libraries are not, never will be, used by everyone. Even in the most fantastically educated and cultured cities, the number of those for whom reading books is of the essence has always been very small.

What varies is not the proportions of these two groups of humanity, but the way in which different societies regard the book and the art of reading. And here the distinction between the book enthroned and the book read comes again into play. This reader’s Library will have no books enthroned, but all arrayed to be read.

THE LIBRARY AS SURVIVAL — On the destruction of books, by burning, drowning and other means. And On Survival

This reader likes to envisage his Library as a magnificent ark that will sail across the ocean of forgetfulness that embraces humanity.

THE LIBRARY AS OBLIVION — Oblivion through enforced illiteracy; Lost books, lost libraries; Displaced

This reader rejects this possibility.

THE LIBRARY AS IMAGINATION — The collecting of imaginary books is an ancient occupation.

This reader is sure that his Library will have as many imaginary books as real ones.

THE LIBRARY AS IDENTITY — Library can be more than a reflection of just personal identity.

In a similar fashion, the identity of a society, or a national identity, can be mirrored by a library, by an assembly of titles that, practically and symbolically, serves as our collective definition.

This reader’s Library should be a pride for the community and beyond.

THE LIBRARY AS HOME — A library can be as nourishing as a loving home.

For this reader, his Library is his umbilicus mundi, the navel of his world, the landscape that feeds his imagination, if not his body.

The splendidly cosmopolitan Library of this reader will, in turn, also ensure that the whole world is present right there. He will be at home in his Library and it will also be his World-at-Home

To be One With The LIBRARY

 The conceit that what we can know of reality is an imagination made of language—all this finds its material manifestation
in that self-portrait we call a library.
And our love for it, and our lust to see more of it, and our pride in its accomplishments as we wander through shelves full of books that promise more and more delights, are among our happiest, most moving proofs of possessing, in spite of all the miseries and sorrows of this life, a more intimate, consolatory, perhaps redeeming faith in a method behind the madness than any jealous deity could wish upon us.

Dreaming of the Perfect Library can be therapeutic. Try it.

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution

We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the ConstitutionWe Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler

My Rating★★★★☆

 

The Testaments of Democracy

Adler presents an engaging discussion of what he classes as the three defining documents of the USA — the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (plus amendments, especially the First Ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights), and the Gettysburg Address, and their inter-relations, especially between the Declaration and the Constitution.

He calls them the American Testaments, since when interpreted together and in relation to one another, they are like the sacred scriptures of the nation.

Adler claims that through detailed examination and critical exegesis, much can be gained from them.

– From the Declaration — DERIVE the nation’s basic articles of political faith.

– From the Preamble & Amendments — UNDERSTAND the elaboration of these articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, structures and policies.

– From the Gettysburg Address — give to ourselves a full and rich CONFIRMATION of our faith in these articles. And also in the people who declared, formed the ‘more perfect union’ and perpetuated it.

Best Quote: We are not only the heirs of those people, we ARE those people.

The Parts of the Whole

The first part of the book is devoted to declarations about the importance of learning these three documents – both for understanding the nation and to charting the future course of democracy.

From then on, the book focuses on a minute examination of the three documents.

Before the exegesis commences, Adler indulges in a discussion about two words: Ideas & Ideals.

These two words look alike and sound alike but have different meanings, and form the very core of this book.

To summarize, we can distinguish the two thus:

IDEAS — are to be understood, intellectually and can be theoretical or practical.

IDEALS — are objectives/goals to be striven for, and realized/realizable through action. 

Once an Ideal is realized, it is no longer an ideal. Only realizable goals are ideals, if not they are utopian fantasies. Genuine ideals belong to the realm of the possible.

We need only think of an ideal society to understand that most underlying ideas of any constitution remain unrealized. We have only remotely approximated most ideals, including the practicable ones.

Which is why we need to understand the ideas and their most ideal natures and objectives, to understand how they have served us and how they can serve us further.

Some of the ideas addressed are – equality, inalienable rights, pursuit of happiness, civil rights and human rights, consent of the governed, the dissent of the governed, people (form of by etc) and thus Democracy itself.

Of these ideas, Equality, happiness, etc. generates ideals that are clearly not yet achieved.

Democracy too is an idea that is also an ideal – i.e. not fully realized yet.

After delineating ideas and ideals, proceeds to set out the ideas and then examine if they have been realized and the ideals we need to aspire to realize more fully

The second part of the book is concerned with isolating and explaining the ideas identifiable in the Declaration of Independence & Lincoln’s famous speech. They are only considered as ideas in this section and their more important role as pursuable ideals are discussed only later.

The third part isolates the additional ideas found in the Preamble and then foes on to also consider them as ideals, still on the road to fulfillment.

The Fourth section of the book is devoted to the most important idea of the modern world – the idea of democracy. This is considered in great detail and more importantly, in both political and economic aspects.

Adler says that this idea has only recently been recognized as an ideal. Which is why it requires the fullest possible realization of Political and Economic Justice, Liberty and Equality. We are made to consider also the obstacles to be overcome if a true democracy is to ever be born for the FIRST time in the history of the world.

This was my favorite section of the book — most interesting being the discussion on the economic imperative of true democracy, without which it will always remain an ideal, an idea-in the making. Democracy is not a Political idea, it cannot be attained through political means alone. The goals have to include both political and economic ideals.

The Individual Obligation to Philosophy

Adler wrote this book as an homage to the second centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Mere flag waving, convocations or oratory will not suffice to celebrate such an event and its two centuries of development.

What would instead be a better homage to the idea of democracy is to focus on individual celebrations — by accepting the obligation to understand the ‘testament of the nation.’ I would go further and say that this spirit should be maintained at every election year, and even more, at every democratically vital moment a nation passes through.

I read this to gain that spirit as India prepped for the world’s largest democratic spectacle. In spite of studying the constitution many times, I have always felt that it had to be more than mere study that is expected. Adler has made me realize that it is direct engagement with the core ideas and ideals that is required along with constant reinterpretation of the arguments. That is the only way to make sure that we stay true to the ideals and keep re-charting the course we have taken.

To set out to understand the Ideas & Ideals enshrined in any constitution is nothing less than a philosophical undertaking, and that is what Adler demands of us.

It is true that Adler talks primarily of the American Constitution, but readers from any country can come away from this reading with a better appreciation of how to engage with their own Testaments. We are not merely the heirs of the people who gave them to us, we ARE those people and it is our duty, both to confirm them and to fulfill them.

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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War is Boring: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

My Rating★★★★☆


War is Boring

Hemingway’s narrator writes not as a soldier but as a journalist-soldier, channeling Hemingway himself, recording with precision and apparent objectivity the things that happen around him and to him – practical and prosaic and always pragmatic about everything. People die and bombs explode in the same paragraph as the one where breakfast was considered with equal interest, and he takes it all in his stride.

As best as I can tell, the action of A Farewell to Arms takes place from 1916 and before the end of the war. Place references and political references come and go without troubling the narrator too much – he is not to be bothered with such details. His context is not simply this war, but all wars and the notions of honor, heroism and patriotism – all of which he looks at with pristine incomprehension.

War always generates backlash, even from the Mahabharata and the Iliad to the many anti-war epics over the ages – the honor and glory that war is supposed to provide is questioned in its aftermath. The bloodlust and the fever-pitch cries of honor precedes war and then they calm down into searching questions about what those terms mean or into scathing parodies.

I am not entirely sure whether Farewell to Arms is a sober questioning of these virtues or a shambolic parody of them. It is never quite clear whether Hemingway is making fun of war or just expressing profound ennui. Especially when he combines Love with War, and both seem to get the same treatment, it becomes even harder to deduce whether Hemingway is ridiculing war and its virtues or life and its delusions in general and including love also into it. After all, the famous ending doesn’t leave us with much to pick up the pieces after.

The narrator tells the often ugly truth about war, without even trying to be anti-war in any way. By depicting daily life, he achieves it without an effort. It is the prosaicness of action, the utter lack of drama that becomes the most significant force in the narration – even his injury is incurred not in valorous combat but while he is eating spaghetti.

All this combines to show up war as a hideous game, but one entirely not worth the bother. There are so many subtle ways in which he trivializes war, always retaining the impression that it is not a conscious effort, as if he was not even telling us anything about the war, letting it remain in the background as a boring humm.

“The war seemed as far away as the football games of some one else’s college.”

We are not even allowed particularly intelligent characters to liven up the drudgery of our reading, the novel is full of the Ordinary, the exceptional striking in its absence – and the readers are left disoriented, repeatedly trying to remind themselves that they are in the midst of the greatest and most destructive war humanity had yet known.

In the end, war is exposed as not only meaningless but boring. Usually war writers exploit the Pathos of war, Hemingway walks right inside, shows us around and escorts us out after having shown us the utter blandness of the ‘heroic’ exercise.

Even the “Love Story” is constructed out of the boring bits and of repeated bland conversations that seem almost never-ending and droll. Here Hemingway is probably playing us again: instead of the usual technique of showing the pleasant bucolic scenery of distant daily-life and contrasting that against gory war scenes and thus asking the reader to thirst for the war to end, Hemingway places both the personal and the public sphere next to each other, exposes both and yet somehow derides war through this. I am not yet sure how he does that, but my feelings wherever I encountered this tells me that he does it well.

Hemingway’s notorious fault is the monotony of repetition, and he has always been considered a better short story writer than novelist – the short form plays into his prowess for portraying ironies in short staccato beats. In A Farewell to Arms, he brings both his strengths and weakness as a storyteller and makes them both work for him masterfully. He converts the act of boring the reader into an art form and into an exercise in supreme irony. Very effective. Almost as effective as comedy, if you ask me.

While it is hard to interpret A Farewell to Arms as hopeful, to me it was so, though in a subtle way. It leaves us the hope that if only more soldiers could be like the Tenente and just walk away from all the boredom, even though only boredom awaits in normal life, things could be better.

To me the most striking impression of all, in a work filled with unforgettable impressions, was the sheer acceptance exhibited by the narrator: The hustle of the war, his own life, and the entire world even seems to move past the stoic Tenente who is left a mere spectator, but who never seems to question the events that unfold.

This captures the spirit of the war and also of the times.

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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas: The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom

My Rating★★★★☆

Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas

The Vertigo Years traces the initial eruptions of some of the most explosive ideas and social phenomenons of the century that bore the brunt of the first mad rush of modernity —  from socialism and fascism, to nuclear physics and the theory of relativity; from conceptual art and consumer society, to mass media and democratization; to feminism and psychoanalysis. The many issues and the intellectual interplay is explored in great detail and gives an overall impression of what seems in retrospect like backing for the war that followed, by every section of the social classes, from the intellectual elite, to the middle classes to the oppressed classes. We may even be tempted to see the war itself as a subconscious eruption of such strong tendencies that pervaded a restless continent and thus the world.

Granted it was weird times, but the ping-pong of retrospectively attributing the war to all these ideas and tendencies, and all these back to the war is not valid. The turn of the century was marked by many leaps of understanding, and also by a blind faith in science and progress, and a strong tendency to believe simplistic arguments. The war itself was a product of this blind faith in technological advance and an inability to think through the various connected effects of each advance and its application in any field (including the military). A mad scramble for catch-all theories.

Most of the wildest surmises of the era seems laughable at best or dangerous at worst to us now, especially the term ‘Belle Époque’ and the many excesses of fields such as Criminology, Phrenology, etc. But what we need to understand is that without such wild forays and over-confident theories, science would not have progressed at such a rate. There is now an unfortunate tendency to look back at these theories and mock them with a typical – “Look what THAT led to!”

Isn’t it deplorable that even a theory like Darwinism still has to buckle occasionally under the weight of its origins and the distortions visited upon it back then? Isn’t it at least sad that the intellectual legacy of philosophers like Nietzsche is perpetually tainted by the twisting it was subjected to by over-zealous followers? Isn’t the same the case even with Marxism? Why do they all have to be judged with hindsight-bias? It is our loss that these ideas are tainted, and even more so when we know so well that there is enough wheat among the supposed chaff to make them well worth passionate study and engagement.

This book allows us to see those ideas, including the ones that seem virulent and culpable to us today, in a new light — in the light of exploration and intellectual abandonment. As necessary precursors to both the good and the bad, hard to distinguish or separate at the moment of conception.

This is to be achieved by seeing the whole period in a new light, far way from the shadow cast upon it by later events.

That is when we can understand and appreciate the many ideas and false starts and sputtering that were necessary to the march of progress. That is also when we can learn to liberate the ideas from the weight of history and set them free again, to rejuvenate our own times.


The Thought Experiment

Blom is well aware that it is impossible to see this momentous period without the perspective of the war that followed. True. And the period deserves to be seen without that shadow, but this book proves that it is impossible to read without that shadow and more importantly, the author must have realized that it is impossible to write without it either, especially when most of the readers who turn to the book will do so to understand the war and its lead up better.

That is why Blom asks us to indulge in a thought experiment that should be sustained throughout the reading of this book — Blom invites us to look at the era without the benefit of our retrospective blinkers. He asks us to imagine that written history ended on 1914, so that this complicated period is not overshadowed by the events that followed. This is very hard to do and the moment we loose sight of this and slip back into our impatience to ‘understand’ the war, much of the book will seem pointless to the reader. If the reader wishes to understand the period, he/she needs to persist in this little suspension of belief.

After all, no period deserves to be treated merely as a lead-up to some historic event, but needs to be approached on its own terms to discover the true complexity of the people and ideas which inhabited and shaped it.

A lot more was going on than just the war.

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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Art of Avoiding Bestsellers: A Field Guide for Authors

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling GiantsDavid and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

My Rating★★☆☆☆

The Art of Avoiding Bestsellers: A Field Guide for Authors

 

How do books succeed?

By getting into the Bestseller lists? By making a few millions? By winning the most prestigious awards of the day?

Wrong.

These are very narrow views on what constitutes success for a work of art, especially literature or serious non-fiction. If we redefine success, we might find that these very things that confers ‘success’ in the short term might be hurting the artist/author the most in the long term. This applies to prestigious prizes such as Bookers as well, as we will see. We might even get an idea of why so few of the Booker winning books seem to be good enough a few years after their moment of glory. (Spoiler: (view spoiler))

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Let us illustrate this by taking an example from this very book. This reviewer has to warn the reader that the example is originally invoked in the book for another purpose though it has been adopted more or less verbatim here, but we need to get into that now. (By the way, the careful reader should also be able to divine why this small essay is can also serve as a review for this book in particular and to all of Mr. Gladwell’s books in general.)

Let us go back to 19th century France. Art was a big deal in the cultural life of France back then. Painting was regulated by the government and was considered a profession in the same way that medicine or the law is a profession today. The Professionals who did well would win awards and prestigious fellowships. And at the pinnacle of the profession was The Salon, the most important art exhibition in all of Europe.

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Every year each of the painters of France submitted two or three of his finest canvases to a jury of experts, bringing their work to the
Palais de l’Industrie
, an exhibition hall built for the Paris World Fair between the Champs-Élysées and the Seine. Throughout the next few weeks, the jury would vote on each painting in turn. Those deemed unacceptable would be stamped with the red letter “R” for rejected. Those accepted would be hung on the walls of the Palais, and over the course of six weeks beginning in early May, as many as a million people would throng the exhibition. The best paintings were given medals. The winners were celebrated and saw the value of their paintings soar – became ‘bestsellers’. The losers limped home and went back to work.

There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable of liking a painting without Salon approval,” Renoir once said. “There are 80,000 who won’t buy so much as a nose from a painter who is not hung at the Salon.

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. In short, for a painter in nineteenth-century France, the Salon was everything – the Booker Committee and the Bestseller List rolled into one.

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And now, the twist:

In spite of the all the benefits, the acceptance by the Salon also came with a large cost: for the truly creative and path breaking (let us take for example the Impressionists such as Monet, which is the case study taken up by the book):

1. It required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful,

2. & They risked being lost in the clutter of other artists’ work. 

Was it worth it?

The Salon was the place where reputations were made. And what made it special was how selective it was. There were roughly three thousand painters of “national reputation” in France in the 1860s, and each submitted two or three of his best works to the Salon, which meant the jury was picking from a small mountain of canvases. Rejection was the norm. Getting in was a feat. “The Salon is the real field of battle,” Manet said. “It’s there that one must take one’s measure.”  It was the place where “you could succeed in making a noise, in defying and attracting criticism, coming face-to-face with the big public.

But the very things that made the Salon so attractive—how selective and prestigious it was—also made it problematic.

No painter could submit more than three works. The crowds were often overwhelming. The Salon was the Big Pond. But it was very hard to be anything at the Salon but a Little Fish.

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Night after night, the rebels (the Impressionists) argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The problem for the rebels such as the Impressionists was The Salon’s attitude: it was cautious, traditional. It had a reputation to uphold for being the voice of approval. It could not afford to make mistakes.

“Works were expected to be microscopically accurate, properly ‘finished’ and formally framed, with proper perspective and all the familiar artistic conventions,” the art historian Sue Roe writes. “Light denoted high drama, darkness suggested gravitas. In narrative painting, the scene should not only be ‘accurate,’ but should also set a morally acceptable tone. An afternoon at the Salon was like a night at the Paris Opéra: audiences expected to be uplifted and entertained. For the most part, they knew what they liked, and expected to see what they knew.

The kinds of paintings that won medals, Roe says, were huge, meticulously painted canvases showing scenes from French history or mythology, with horses and armies or beautiful women, with titles like Soldier’s Departure, Young Woman Weeping over a Letter, and Abandoned Innocence.

The Impressionists, on the other hand, had an entirely different idea about what constituted art.

They painted everyday life. Their brushstrokes were visible. Their figures were indistinct. To the Salon jury and the crowds thronging the Palais, their work looked amateurish, even shocking, and was repeatedly turned down. They had no hope of making waves in the Big Pond of The Salon.

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The Big Fish–Little Pond Gambit

Pissarro and Monet were smarter. They conjured up an alternative to the shackles of the Salon.

They thought it made more sense to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond. If they were off by themselves and held their own show, they said, they wouldn’t be bound by the restrictive rules of the Salon, where the medals were won by paintings of soldiers and weeping women. They could paint whatever they wanted. And they wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, because there wouldn’t be a crowd.

In 1873, Pissarro and Monet proposed that the Impressionists set up a collective called the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs. There would be no competition, no juries, and no medals. Every artist would be treated as an equal.

The Impressionists’ exhibition opened on April 15, 1874, and lasted one month. The entrance fee was one franc. There were 165 works of art on display, including three Cézannes, ten paintings by Degas, nine Monets, five Pissarros, six Renoirs, and five by Alfred Sisley—a tiny fraction of what was on the walls of the Salon across town. In their show, the Impressionists could exhibit as many canvases as they wished and hang them in a way that allowed people to actually see them.

This was the first exhibition of “Impressionism”. It was here that Critic Louis Leroy took the title of a work by Monet, ‘Impression, Sunrise’ to deride exposure and then went on to qualify these artists, quite skeptically, as “Impressionists.”

The name stuck.

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This historic show brought the artists some critical attention. Not all of that attention was positive: one joke (in addition to the name ‘impressionism’ itself!) told was that what the Impressionists were doing was loading a pistol with paint and firing at the canvas.

But that was the second part of the Big Fish–Little Pond bargain. The Big Fish–Little Pond option might be scorned by some on the outside, but Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside. They have all of the support that comes from community and friendship—and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon.

We are beginning to make ourselves a niche,” a hopeful Pissarro wrote to a friend. “We have succeeded as intruders in setting up our little banner in the midst of the crowd.” Their challenge was “to advance without worrying about opinion.” He was right. Off by themselves, the Impressionists found a new identity. They felt a new creative freedom, and before long, the outside world began to sit up and take notice.

In the history of modern art, there has never been a more important or more famous exhibition. If you tried to buy the paintings in that warren of top-floor rooms today, it would cost you more than a billion dollars.

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In the end, the Impressionists were lucky to make the right choice, which is one of the reasons that their paintings hang in every major art museum in the world. But this same dilemma comes up again and again, and often the choice made is not as wise.

Their story should remind today’s top artists and authors that there is a point at which money and mainstream recognition stop making them and start breaking them. The story of the Impressionists suggests that when the artists/authors strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the Bestseller lists and Booker Lists, rarely do they stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether this is always in their best interest:

1. One of the important lessons the Impressionists could teach the modern artists is that there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond, where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all.

2. Another important lesson is that what counts in the end is if you let the Big Pond define you, or if you were brave enough to invent an alternative. The answer might not always be a Little Pond, but it sure can’t be meek acceptance of the current status quo path either.

Think of all the great artists of the modern age who could hardly be defined as mainstream during their own lifetimes, who would never dream of writing for the approval of a committee, who were as far away from honors and awards and money as only exiles could be.

Think of all the books with prestigious honors and the #1 bestseller mark that seem like jokes now.

Think about how so many of our best authors seem to end up producing the same sort of exceptional trash – very well written, but hardly the real deal that would last a century.

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What then can be an alternative for the ones who want to break free? We can talk about one option that our case study suggests – it might not be the only option, and the creative ones can always come up with better option, but the exhortation of this reviewer is a simple one: that the really ambitions artists and authors need to start thinking hard about the best use of their own abilities and efforts.

(Added here from the comments section, for clarity):

To restate, in our day the artists have three options –

1. Satisfy the Bank
2. Satisfy the critics (or impress)
3. Or satisfy their own genius (or impress)

The last being the most risky and perhaps most important one.

So what is the winning option again? For one thing, examples abound of niche novelists’ groups pushing the boundaries of literature, slowly attaining cult status and eventually becoming part of the canon itself. Just as Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne weighed prestige against visibility, selectivity against freedom, and decided the costs of the Big Pond were too great, it is time for the really serious to make the same call, of rejecting the conventional trappings of ‘success’ that only serves to limit their possibilities.

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Posted by on February 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability

State of the World 2014: Governing for SustainabilityState of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability by The Worldwatch Institute

My Rating★★★★★

We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems.

~ Lester R. Brown, Plan B (2008)


MOVING THE IMMOVABLE OBJECT

The State of The World Report 2014 focuses on Governance –  “the most powerful obstacle to creating a sustainable future.”

It is clear that things cannot continue as it is the. The modern caisson of hell is ‘Business As Usual”. That is why the core of the Environmental Movement is Change – but change has three aspects to it:

1. Change has to be initiated

2. Change has to be controlled and directed

3. Transformational change, always brings side effects – they have to be mitigated or hedged against.

Dealing with these three aspects requires good leadership, motivated citizenry and capable institutions – Good Governance, in short.

We need to recognize this and break out of our apathy or even revulsion towards governments. True, governments have not ben responsive, true they have not lived up to their empty promises, and true they have deliberately sabotaged environmental movements – but the answer is not rejection, but reform.

Long before the climate crisis was “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen,” it was a massive political and governmental failure.

This Report is a call for action for this reform. It asks us to get around the idea that “government is the problem,” propagated by the odd alliance of ideologists, media tycoons, corporations, and conservative economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which has only lead to the sad present condition where the public capacity to solve public problems has diminished sharply, and the power of the private sector, banks, financial institutions, and corporations has risen. Meanwhile, elsewhere, the number of failed states with tissue-thin governments is growing under the weight of population growth, corruption, crime, changing climate, and food shortages.

This is why we need to re-look the role of governance – The Report asks us to start to make concerted efforts to create the kind of local, national and international governance structures that will take us through the ‘Perfect Storm’ we are sailing into.

The Irresistible Force of Environmental Concern and Activism has to Move the Immovable Object that is the current atrophied Governance structures.

The Coming Tide

The massive ecological changes that are predicted, and already underway, is going to change the landscape of human existence and civilization. We are living a pipe-dream if we expect magical technological bullets to stop this. The effects of our rapaciousness are already upon us and the effects will last for centuries, perhaps millennia, and no society, economy, and political system will escape the consequences. That is where we are headed.

Many challenges loom ahead:

Soon, millions of people will have to be relocated from sea coasts and from increasingly arid and hazardous regions of Earth. Agriculture everywhere must be made more resilient and freed of its dependence on fossil fuels. Emergency response capacities everywhere must be expanded. The list of necessary actions and precautionary measures is very long. We are like a ship sailing into a storm and needing to trim sails, batten hatches, and jettison excess cargo.

Without proper governance structures, can we realistically expect to confront and survive changes on this scale? 

What we do know is that citizens, networks, corporations, regional affiliations, nongovernmental organizations, and central governments will all have to play their parts. The twenty-first century and beyond is all-handson-deck time for humankind. We have no time for further procrastination, evasion, and policy mistakes. 

We must now mobilize society for a rapid transition to a low-carbon future. The longer we wait to deal with the climate crisis and all that it portends, the larger the eventual government intrusion in the economy and society will necessarily be, and the more problematic its eventual outcome.


Prioritizing Responses; Avoiding Disaster

A second and related priority will be to reform the global economy to internalize its full costs and fairly distribute benefits, costs, and risks within and between generations. By most reckonings, majority of the costs of economic growth has been, and will be, offloaded on the poor and disadvantaged.

In the face of governmental inertia and corporate capture of many decision-making processes, strong and persistent bottom-up political pressure is needed more than ever, and it should be a directed and strategic pressure, aimed at well thought out reform towards much-needed new economic, political and social governance structures.

Whether we can avoid capsizing the frail craft of civilization or not will depend greatly on our ability and that of our descendants to create and sustain effective, agile, and adaptive forms of governance that persist for very long time spans.

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ADDENDUM: A SUMMARY OF CHAPTERS

All in all, this year’s Report is a very good compilation of the leading thoughts on an important issue, as usual presented in a focused and concise, yet hard-hitting format.

While it is easy to say “Good Governance” is the answer, the more difficult question concerns what is needed to drive the governance process for sustainability forward. The chapters in this book examine not only the obstacles to this process, but also the multiple ideas and possibilities for needed change at different scales – from the level of individual ethics to the minutiae of international policy making.

Here is a quick summary of core ideas from some of the chapters, since the ideas themselves are worth thinking upon and acting upon:

Chapter 1: Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet

Introduces the main themes and sets the stage.

Cold, hard data reinforce the sense that humanity is at an unprecedented crossroads that requires a sharp departure from politics and business as usual.

***

Climate and other sustainability questions cannot be seen solely through the prism of environmentalism. The fight for sustainability needs to incorporate dimensions of social justice, equity, and human rights.

Chapter 2: Understanding Governance

Sets out the core principle so ‘good’ governance, especially for our changing times.

Taking inspiration from Elinor Ostrom’s (2009 Nobel Prize in economics) work, Conor Seyle and Matthew King, while admitting there is no ‘one-size-fit’s all solution’, makes a case for stronger and more involved bottom-up local governance to flourish.

Elinor Ostrom, drew on her experience in small-scale societies around the world to identify eight principles for the successful management of common-property resources:

(1) a strong group identity,

(2) fairness in distributing costs and benefits,

(3) consensus decision making,

(4) effective monitoring of effort and rewards,

(5) graduated sanctions,

(6) rapid and fair conflict resolution,

(7) sufficient autonomy when the group is part of a larger system, and

(8) appropriate coordination between groups.

Ostrom and her colleagues identified these principles, which, when are in place, local communities do a remarkable job of protecting their resource bases even under intense outside pressure.

Chapter 3: Governance, Sustainability, and Evolution

In this chapter, Governance is explored from the perspective of evolution, which makes  a lot of sense when governance is so divorced form nature – it helps to put it back in perspective. Governance systems are the formal and informal ways that humans manage relationships with each other and with the natural world.

John Gowdy, in this chapter, argues that there is in fact an evolutionary basis for the worst forms of governance mistakes and suggests that failing to devise institutions that can mitigate our worst genetic tendencies will take us down nature’s pathway to sustainability, with whatever costs and disruption to human civilization it sees fit to inflict.

Chapter 4: Ecoliteracy: Knowledge Is Not Enough

Monty Hempel asserts that teaching ecoliteracy, while necessary, is not enough to get people to respect the mimics of the planet and operate harmoniously with the natural world; it will need to be combined with ethics training, developing emotional connections to the natural world and appeals to action.

Much attention in environmental education and risk communication has been devoted to the “knowledge deficit” theory of social change, when the real issue appears to be a behavior deficit.

Chapter 5: Digitization and Sustainability

Richard Worthington debunks the idea of  “technology is legislation, ” and cautions that we cannot rely on the digitization of everything to solve the problems we face –  digitization has not increased the number of politically engaged citizens. What we need is concerted action in other, especially political, spheres.

Digitization and media access widens the information and engagement gap. At one end of the spectrum are a relatively few highly informed and active citizens, whose information sources are more biased toward their views than was the case before the advent of digital systems. At the other end are the vast majority of citizens, who have relatively little information or interest in politics, and whose views are subject to the messages emanating from an increasingly concentrated mass media.

Chapter 6: Living in the Anthropocene: Business as Usual, or Compassionate Retreat?

Peter Brown and Jeremy Schmidt urge us change the basic approach towards the future, way from a blind hope in technology that reaches extremism like geoengineering and to instead to  opt for an ”ethics first” approach, that would seek reduce human impacts on planetary systems.

 

Our task within the Anthropocene is to re-learn what it means to be a citizen; not just of our earthly community, but of the universe. And it raises sharp questions about whether geoengineering is the latest version of the Faustian bargain struck by a wealthy minority who have brought life’s commonwealth to an unwanted and undeserved, yet fateful, choice.

Chapter 8: Listening to the Voices of Young and Future Generations

Antoine Ebel and Tatiana Rinke urge us to expand the circle of stakeholders to include the voiceless youth and the generations to come, especially in business calculation and the now infamous short-termism of the ‘discount rate’ – we can not longer afford to ‘discount’ the future!


Chapter 10: Looking Backward (Not Forward) to Environmental Justice – MUST READ

In what is the best written and most eloquent chapter in this Report, Aaron Sachs warns us that we cannot afford to lose sight of the injustices of today’s world when we worry about the apocalypse that is coming. Sachs invites us to instead view the Environmental Movement through a historical perspective and demonstrates why all successful social movements throughout history, have incorporated a strong sense of ethics – The Environmental movement cannot expect to gloss over the injustices of today if it hopes to succeed.

And this should start with what is increasingly derided by a disillusioned community – of taking personal steps and sacrifices towards an ‘impact-free’ life. Yes, all that tripe about switching off the bulbs and recycling is indispensable to a truly ethical approach.

We can be impatient for revolution but we cannot abscond our own responsibility to “Do No Harm”. 

This chapter made me proud again of my own small efforts such as cycling to office everyday. It is easy to question what these sorts of acts can really accomplish – it reinforces the ethical basis of the revolution, that is what it accomplishes.

It gives legitimacy to the rhetoric.

Even the best-intentioned young environmentalists, who often emphasize governance and “efficacy,” tend to scoff at my insistence that they read Thoreau: given the enormity of our problems, what does it matter if one more hermit goes off the grid? But the point of working one’s way through Walden and Thoreau’s other writings is not so much to dwell on his specific actions in the woods as to analyze his way of thinking and his resistance to certain elements of the status quo, to engage with his New England spirit of self-reliance and civil disobedience.

Chapter 14: How Local Governments Have Become a Factor in Global Sustainability

Extending the  the focus on Local Governance, Monika Zimmermann discusses that the current locus of activity on climate change and biodiversity preservation lies mainly within organizations of local and regional, not national, governments.

Over the last 20 years or so, pioneering local governments have stepped forward on the global stage to assert their relevance to sustainability initiatives, exemplify commitments, provide and share resources, establish concrete metrics, track progress toward goals, and help spur national and international processes to do the same.

Chapter 19: The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses

As Muhammad Yunus argues in his discussion on ‘Social Businesses’ as a way to end poverty, Colleen Cordes examines the parallel “benefit” corporations and their impact on changing the face of business and eventually of investment activity, I.e., finance. This still-new phenomenon of remarkable companies that orient themselves toward a broader array of stakeholders, including their employees and the local communities within which they operate, volunteering to be held publicly or even legally accountable to a triple bottom line: prioritizing people and the planet, while also promoting profits.

Chapter 21: Take the Wheel and Steer! Trade Unions for a Just Transition

Along with Sean Sweeney in Chapter 20, who argues in favor of greater “energy democracy” that gives workers, communities, and the public at large a more meaningful voice in decision making, Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer argue here for a fundamental reorganization of all unionization.

They argue that it is also the responsibly of the Trade Unions to protect their members through the coming changes to ensure a ‘just transition.’


Conclusion: A Call to Engagement

Ultimately, then, it is not ‘Government is the problem’, that we arrive at but concentration of power that is thwarting efforts to achieve sustainability. The theme that runs through much of this year’’s report is one of deconcentrating – devolving – wealth and power.

The concluding chapter, is a ‘call to engagement’ by listing out again the variety of political and economic means available to achieve that end.

Sustainability is a socioecological problem. It is a problem for each and every one of us to tackle personally, socially and politically – we need to tackle it on every field simultaneously.

People everywhere must strive to don the mantle of citizenship and commit to persistent engagement in the governing of their workplaces, communities, and nations. Only a steady popular commitment to engaged governance can prevent the future we seem to be headed towards.

The quest for environmental sustainability, social equity, and a deep, deliberative culture of citizen engagement are closely intertwined goals.

 If there is a common theme standing behind the policy ideas and reforms explored in this book, however, it is the necessity of citizen empowerment and citizen responsibility. Call it the first law of political physics: a body at rest will remain at rest until a force is applied to it. When promising governance alternatives are known and seem worth trying out but are not yet happening, then a force needs to be applied to encourage exploratory movement in a new direction. And when governments themselves are unable to muster that force and other actors (such as corporations) are pushing in the wrong direction, an opposing vector can come only from the people.

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This book was provided by Island Press as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

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I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

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“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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