Feb 14, 2011

What Next?

The dictator has been handed his pink slip, and not so quietly, been shown to the door.  What then?  A few days of revelry, yes, then the protesters get kicked out of the square - the time has come to get back to business.  But will it be business as usual, or will there be real change?  Now is the time when that question will truly be answered.

Of course it won't be business as usual in the strict sense - Mubarak is gone, and nothing's going to bring him back.  But how deep will the changes go?  Will the Egyptian military still control the country?  Will the emergency rules be released?  Will there be a crack-down on the protesters?  Will the next elections be truly free and fair?  Who will lead?  What other social and political changes will occur as a result?  These questions remain unanswered as of yet.

You see, it's one thing to take down a dictator - to deconstruct a regime.  It's a marvelous thing, to be sure: a moment of beautiful chaos where the passions of the populace are ignited and the affective resonance carries the movement forward.  Wave upon wave crashing upon the rigid cliffs - no rock can withstand the power of the water!

But once the deconstruction has been done, the real work is only just beginning.  The aftermath is not so momentous, not so beautiful or romantic, but it is, by far, more important (and, in my opinion, far more interesting anthropologically) than the revolution.  Now is the time when a new world can be built out of the rubble.  Now is the time when the questions posed above will be answered.  What will that new world look like?  I don't know.

Kim Stanley Robinson defines Utopia as "Struggle Forever" but too often we stop fighting when the battle is only half won.  My hope is that the Egyptian people don't stop now; that they continue the fight, and build a better society for themselves and for the world.

(Cross-posted at Eidetic Illuminations)

Feb 13, 2011

The Anthropology of a Revolution

The spark has been ignited and the whole world is aflame.  The Egyptian people rose up and took back their country, and, in so doing, sent waves of response and reaction across the globe.  Democratic uprisings have now occurred in several other Islamic nations, and commentators in the West are beginning to wonder: Why not here?  Yes... why not? 
The blogosphere has been buzzing over the last few weeks with news and analysis of the uprising in Egypt.  I want to share some of the best - most anthropological - coverage that I've seen:

Graham Harman has been providing detailed coverage of the events including his own experience return to Egypt during the protests and being evacuated.  
At Immanence, Adrian Ivakhiv provides some thoughts on the revolution from a process-relational perspective.  He also offers a look at the affective resonance that drives these types of events. 
At Zero Anthropology, Max Forte has been serving up insight in his usual provocative style, including a piece on what he calls the "(Hillary) Clinton Doctrine" of foreign policy at play right now in Egypt and other nations.
Chris Vitale has posted Eleven Theses Toward a Theory of Political Change, drawing lessons from the Egyptian people.
Krista Tippett's On Being had a special program titled "Demonstrations, Hopes, and Dreams" in which she interviewed Anthropologist Scott Atran about the future of Egypt and the role of the US in democratic uprisings.
Undestanding Society asks the question "Is there a Revolution Underway in Egypt?"
Kerim at Savage Minds speculates on the role of social media in the events in Egypt.  
And Michael at Archive Fire offers his Congratulations to the Egyptian People

If I've missed anything, I apologize.  Please feel free to add your own links in the comments section.

Daniel Lende: "You can read this blog for free"

Daniel Lende over at Neuroanthropology has a new post about some of the possibilities for anthropology. He talks about some of the recent PR controversies that took place within the field, and how this is illustrative of some of the primary issues and challenges that anthropologists face these days. We are, it seems, at a bit of a crossroads. And it's probably about time to move away from some of the old models and explore new ways of not only doing anthropology, but also publishing and disseminating anthropology. My favorite part of the post is when Lende talks about the contrast between old school publishing models (which lock up information behind expensive subscriptions) and some of the new possibilities:
The Nature commentary by Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks is behind a paywall. It costs $32 to buy, unless you have institutional access. Ulf Hannerz’s article in American Anthropologist, which Greg drew on extensively in writing about diversity as anthropology’s brand, is available either through institutional access or by joining the American Anthropological Association. The cheapest AAA membership costs $70. You can read this blog for free (my emphasis).
That last line is a beauty. The point, as I see it, isn't to do away with journals, but instead to realize that the publication models are severely limiting. If we are all about the dissemination of anthropological analysis, concepts, and ideas to wider audiences, how is that supposed to happen if all of the latest research sits behind a subscription wall? The irony of course is that there is still a fairly skeptical view among THE ACADEMY about online publishing. Many question whether or not REAL RESEARCH can be published online. I mean, is it possible? However, I have recently run a complex experiment and come to the conclusion that yes, all 26 letters of the English alphabet do show up on screen, so it is indeed possible to publish real, valuable, and important work online. The only thing stopping this is a lack of either interest or desire. So it goes. As Lende points out:
A negative view of writing online (i.e., blogging) and a closed view of knowledge production (i.e., through institutional access or society membership) is still predominant in anthropology.
It's funny, when you think about. Or, at least, when I think about it. Anthropologists are doing all sorts of cutting edge, timely, and fascinating research. So why is our publishing model and ideology so....well...stale? The good thing is that people like Lende, Greg Downey, the folks at the OAC (Open Anthropology Cooperative), Max Forte, the Savage Minds crew, John Hawks, John Postill, Colleen Morgan, and a slew of others are indeed messing with the boundaries. Who knows? Maybe, at some point, more people outside of the academic world will actually know what anthropologists are up to.

Here's another good section from Lende's post:
Online media, not just writing, is an incredible way to reach the public. Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist who became interested in new media and teaching after doing his doctoral work in Papua New Guinea, work with his students to create a video, A Vision of Students Today. It has been viewed 4,136,850 times. That is an incredible impact.

And open access? Take PLoS One. It was founded in 2006, and covers research in science and medicine. In five years, it became the world’s largest journal. That is incredible success. One of its more technical journals, PLoS Biology, was founded in 2003, the first of the PLoS journals. It has been the highest impact journal in biology, as ranked by the Institute for Scientific Information. Open access isn’t just viable – it is the way to reach the broadest possible audience and have the greatest scholarly impact.

On Amazon, which came to fame and financial success by selling books online, its #1 product is its Kindle e-reader. Books themselves are going digital. And not just books. Amazon recently launched Kindle Singles, which presents “a compelling idea–well researched, well argued, and well illustrated–expressed at its natural length.” Apple’s iPad offers ways to integrate multi-media features with traditional text. Digital innovation in how we present scholarly material is already happening, and will continue to grow extremely rapidly.

Anthropologists need to go digital – blogging, collaborating, creating, sharing, and disseminating the field online. Blogs, the integration of new media with text, e-publications, and open-access publishing need to be part of how we keep our borderlands discipline healthy and vibrant.

To do otherwise, is to make the field into a marginal borderland, rather than the key meeting place and vibrant area of production the anthropology is today and can be even more so in the future.

Agreed. No need to remain on the borderlands any longer. Time to go push the boundaries and go digital. What's stopping us?

Cross-posted @ Ethnografix


Mar 12, 2010

Convincing Climate Deniers

This article is cross-posted at Eidetic Illuminations.

Recently there has been quite a commotion on the Environmental Anthropology (EANTH) listserv over the science around global climate change (GCC). Essentially, a couple of climate deniers have stirred up the list, and they've been encouraged by a combination of polite people who want all voices to be heard and others who are willing to argue with them endlessly. This got me thinking about what it will take to convince climate deniers, and whether or not we should actually waste our time.

Part 1 - What is a Skeptic?
First of all, the climate deniers on the EANTH list have insisted on being called skeptics rather than deniers. They claim that "deniers" is a pejorative term meant to associate them with the likes of Holocaust deniers. So the question arises, what is a skeptic and do these individuals deserve that title?
A skeptic is a person who has an inherent doubt about any claim, and, therefore, requires a certain burden of proof to be established. Even then, a skeptic might hold on to some doubt as new evidence comes along which may change the picture. A genuine skeptic would look at the two sides of the climate debate and see that the climate scientists have a mountain of strong evidence in support of their claim (most of which is freely available from the IPCC) and a general consensus among scientists and the leading scientific organizations around the world that climate change is occurring and that it is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gasses. The skeptic would then look at the denier's case and see a paltry amount of very weak evidence, and no general consensus except among energy companies, and others for whom climate policy poses a potential threat. A genuine skeptic might look for alternative explanations, but would conceed that the weight of the evidence is in favor of anthropogenic climate change.
As a result, I reject the use of the term skeptic to describe climate deniers. They don't weigh each side equally, expecting the same burden of proof from both sides. They have taken an emotional, political stance against climate change, and will automatically reject any evidence that contradicts them. Furthermore, their "science" is driven by economic and political claims, and backed by substantial funding from oil companies.
In fact, science has a built in skepticism. Any claims must be backed by substantial evidence, and those that are not will be outed in the peer-review process. I think a great disservice has been done to science in the last decade by those who think that all opinions should carry equal weight. In the scientific world, however, claims that cannot bear the burden of proof (i.e. intelligent design and climate denial) must be discarded. Climate deniers will claim that a conspiracy of scientists has kept them from getting a fair consideration. However no such conspiracy exists, and I would be far more doubtful of "science" that comes from powerful corporations with a vested interest in halting climate policy.

Part 2 - What will it take to convince them?
As I said above, climate deniers have taken an emotional, political stance against climate change science. They are not scientists, they are not concerned with the accuracy of the data, and they are will re-interpret or discard any data that contradicts their position. The mountains of evidence that support the climate change science is not enough to convince them, so what is?
I don't think anything will convince them short of some massive disaster with clear and direct ties to climate change. Nor will long, drawn out discussion and arguments on email listservs. Whenever I see debates such as the one on the EANTH list, I am torn between the desire to correct the climate deniers and the knowledge that my arguments will never change their minds. We seem to be caught in a double bind - we can't keep quiet or they'll win, and we can't engage in discussion because they don't care about the evidence. It seems to me that all we can do is mechanically repeat the facts "The planet is warming. The warming is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gasses. It's already harming people, and will only get worse. We can do something about it." Rinse and repeat.

Part 3 - Do we really need to convince them?
The media tends to exaggerate extremes, and that's why we hear scientists arguing with climate deniers all the time in the news. Some of that needs to be done, especially for building support at the policy level. But it should be done in the way I mentioned above. Like the captured soldier being interrogated - just repeat: name, rank and serial number (or in this case, the facts behind climate change).
But Policy is not the only way to address climate change meaningfully. As Elinor Ostrom has pointed out in her report to the World Bank, Polycentric Approaches to Climate Change, we should be looking for multiple solutions on multiple scales.
When I was doing my research on the controversy surround the Holcomb power plant, I talked to a lot of people in Western Kansas about issues like climate change. There were a couple of people who suggested to me that they believed that climate change is a fiction, but overall I got the sense that most people are aware of the science and at least somewhat concerned about the potential problems that could occur. They may not be fully convinced, but they are not generally climate deniers like the two on the EANTH list or those in the media. They want to do something about climate change, but, at the same time, they take a pragmatic view of it. They are concerned about their jobs, about their families, about their health. They want a better life for themselves and their children, and climate change simply isn't the most pressing issue in their lives.
On the plus side, we don't need to convince them either, we just have to sympathize with them and figure out workable solutions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide jobs and other economic benefits for them, and help build sustainable communities. This kind of grassroots effort could then develop into a broad-based support for national policy and international governance. This approach, I believe, will be far more successful than trying to convince all of the deniers and trying to craft national legislation or international policy that will satisfy everyone.

Mar 1, 2010

Obesifying America

By now everyone knows that obesity is a serious problem in the US. We hear about it in the news on a regular basis. The CDC recently released a study claiming that obesity costs us about $147 billion per year in direct and indirect costs, and the First Lady has made it her personal mission to educate Americans about living a healthy lifestyle (see here).
It's an issue that hits home for me as well. My father is currently obese and trying to lose weight. He's making progress, but his weight has caused him innumerable health problems. He has bad knees and ankles, has a stint in his heart, and takes ridiculous amounts of medicine to keep his blood pressure and cholesterol down and to treat many other diet related problems. It pains me sometimes to see him struggle to move around and do his daily chores. It's especially disconcerting when I think that his dad died of a heart attack at roughly the same age.
With that in mind, I think the focus on obesity and the stigma associated with it is misguided. If we continue to focus on weight and appearance as a determinant of health, we risk swinging the pendulum in the other direction and ending up with an anorexia epidemic.

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Instead, the focus should be on providing access to quality, fresh foods and encouraging a healthy diet and physical activity. But the issue is complex - it's one of the most obvious examples of a biocultural disease (one that involves both biological and social-cultural factors). In his award winning TED talk, Jamie Oliver focuses on a triangle of causal factors - Main Street (i.e. big business), the home, and the school.

The subsidy system needs to be fixed so that we're not making unhealthy food cheap. Instead we should be subsidizing fresh, organic produce and ensuring that it is available to everyone. Currently there are places where people simply can't get fresh food (called "food deserts"). And for those who do have access, it's often more economical to buy the unhealthy processed foods than it is to buy quality fresh food.

Furthermore, schools need to provide healthy meals and should not provide unhealthy foods. I remember when I was an intern at the Connecticut General Assembly. The representative I was working for was sponsoring a bill to ban junk food from schools. It went through several committees and got watered down to the point where it was basically meaningless - it limited the sale of sugary milk drinks and eliminated some (but not all) vending machines. Nevertheless, the Republicans were vehemently opposed to it. They thought that it was an imposition on their ability to decide what's best for their own children. But there is not right to access junk food. If parents want to provide that, then they can pack a lunch. By default, schools should serve healthy meals and not provide unhealthy food as an alternative.

People need to learn to cook again. Ideally they'd learn to garden and preserve their food as well, but that's not necessary. As a college student I see people eat some seriously disgusting things simply because they can't make food for themselves. Instead they eat fast food or heat up a pizza.

In fact, preparing a meal is very easy, but it does require time, and time is an issue as well. A lot of people simply don't have enough time to prepare fresh food every day for every meal. Between work, school, children, and entertainment, it's understandable that people would simply go to the freezer for something to heat up instead of actually cooking.

I think, fundamentally, we need to make it possible and desirable to connect to our food again. We need to be able to know where our food comes from, how to prepare it, and where it's going to. This is a lot more complicated than it sounds, but if we were to accomplish it, we would be healthier, happier, and more environmentally responsible as well.


Jan 15, 2010

The Redistribution of Wealth: Comparative Economics, Neoliberal Capitalism and Wall-Street Bonuses

One thing I've noticed from studying anthropology and reading ethnographies of other cultures is that every economic system, whether it's composed of egalitarian hunter-gatherers or hierarchical aristocracies, has had some method for redistributing wealth. I think there's a good reason for this; it seems intuitive to me, though I couldn't back it up with actual data, that the natural flow of wealth is always upward. That is, wealth tends to flow towards those who already have it and away from those who do not. There are, of course, exceptions, but it seems to be a reasonable generalization. The same is true for power. Though I don't agree that wealth and power are equivalent, I do believe that there is a reciprocal relationship between the two - wealth can buy power and power can attract wealth. In fact, it may be this cyclical relationship between power and wealth that drives the upward flow of both.

The problem is that, when a society's wealth becomes overly concentrated in a few hands, that society becomes increasingly unstable. Extreme poverty sits outside in the cold while extravagant wealth dances and drinks cocktails in a penthouse on the top floor. The flow is unsustainable, and it is the flow of wealth, like blood through veins, which keeps a society alive. This is why every economic system has developed some system for redistributing wealth - small groups use reciprocity, slightly larger groups use complex rituals and centralized priesthoods, even larger groups use governments and taxation. The point is to siphon wealth from those who have a lot of it and give it to those who have little, thus maintaining the flow of wealth and a degree of equality within the population.

I'm sure you've all seen, or at least heard of the champagne glass distribution of wealth. What has happened in recent decades is that wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very small population. The reason for this is that classical, laissez-faire Capitalism, as it's presented in theory, lacks any form of redistributive mechanism. Government intervention through taxation, the only form of redistribution that could potentially handle the enormous flow of money generated by industrial capitalism, is considered harmful and the "invisible hand" of the market is supposed to take care of everything.

In the past, the government has intervened anyway. After the Great Depression made it clear that laissez-faire capitalism doesn't work, the US government implemented a series of social programs that effectively redistributed wealth to the general population (mostly in the form of services rather than actual cash). In the years that followed, welfare state capitalism attempted to balance the distribution of wealth (though it still allowed for extreme differences as well, and it also gave rise to the Military Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned about). Then, in the 1970s, the oil crisis hit and the world was thrown into another economic recession. This time the blame was placed on Keynesian economics and the welfare state, and Neoliberal economists were able to worm their way in to a dominant role.

There is, however, a key difference between Neoliberal economics and classical capitalism. The difference is that Neoliberals are not opposed to the redistribution of wealth, as long as the wealth is redistributed to those at the top in the hope that it would "trickle down" to the rest of the population (which, of course, is the opposite of the theory proposed above). The result is that there has been an acceleration of the natural upward flow of wealth so that, in just a few decades we have seen both the US and the Global economies develop that champagne glass shape. The problems with this have become glaringly apparent in the last decade as the global economy has been plunged into a deep recession and a number of economic scandals (i.e. Enron and Godlman Sachs) have plagued our nation.

However, policy makers have done nothing to address the root cause of the crisis - the lack of redistribution of wealth. Bush's final act was to give trillions of dollars to the banks to bail them out of their problems. Obama has continued that approach, and what we see now is that the banks are the only groups to have recovered - drawing record profits roughly equivalent to the amount of taxpayer money they were given by the government and offering enormous bonuses to the very CEOs that caused the current economic crisis.

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With this principle in mind - that an economy requires redistribution of wealth in order to be sustainable - the best practice, one which most economists would likely scoff at, would have been to give the money to the poorest populations either in the form of hard cash or services (i.e. universal health care, subsidized college tuition, social security programs, etc.). That kind of subsidy would truly lift all boats, as the money would flow up the wealth ladder, enriching everyone on the way. Instead, our governments and international agencies continue to support the trickle-down theory, which amounts to corporate welfare and legitimized theft by the wealthy from the poor.

It's time we were outraged by this. It's time somebody said "Enough is enough!" and demanded that the corporations give back our money so we can do something useful instead of waste it on a fragile, inequitable economic system.

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