Thursday, May 31, 2018

almond milk smoothies and ecological disaster

We talk all too much, in the States, about drugs, and all too little about water. Water is a disregarded topic. There is no water section in the NYT – even the suggestion seems absurd.
But water is everything. I learned this lesson, if not from my own thirsts and growing pains, then from reading Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner’s great book, which gave me an intellectual jolt that I can still, crawling inside the old brainspace, feel. So I’m always on the lookout, which is why I was so pleased to read this horrifying account of our short term fiddling with long term disaster by Mark Arax, A Kingdom of Dust.
For optimal reading, you must have two experiences in mind. One is driving on the highway in California that skirts, at least, the farming district of Kern County, and feeling the eeriness of industrial farming on that scale. The other is Joan Didion’s paen to the California water system, Holy Water. That was written as the final touches were being put in place on the greatest feat of water engineering ever, which was the political legacy of Edmund Brown (Jerry Brown’s father):
“Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive. The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is. The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also think about exactly where that water is: I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons.”
Holy Water was written while Joan Didion was still, pretty much, a John Wayne conservative; however, it bears the seed of her later, radically off the story politics.
Compare Didion to Arax:
Arax centers his piece on one person, a person I had never heard of, and probably you, too. But an interesting guy. Named Stewart Resnick. How interesting? Well, here’s a fun fact to know and tell. Every year, the whole city of Los Angeles consumes 587,000 acre feet of water per year. And Stewart Resnick consumes 400,000 acre feet of water per year – just in California. That’s right, one farmer consumes water on the scale of a metropolis of 5 million people.
Resnick owns 180,000 acres of California desert – or former desert – much of it in Kern county. You’ve tasted his produce. He’s the pistachio guy. He’s the orange guy. He’s the almond guy. If you haven’t tasted his raisons, or almonds, directly, you’ve tasted them in pastries and sweets. And you’ve especially tasted them if you are into “health” food, if you are into “all natural” things like almond milk shakes and the like. You have bought into the mining of water at a rate unheard of in the Holocene era. One reads occasionally that the drug warriors missed a trick by not emphasizing the unfair labor conditions and ecological disasters spawned by the cocaine trade. But these same writers definitely skip the unfair labor conditions and ecological disasters spawned by, say, the Almond Milk Smoothie.
Obviously, Arax has been waiting all his life to write this piece. It has the magical air of a once in a lifetime reportage. I love this kind of thing, even though it makes me pessimistic that humanity is going to survive.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Happiness and the economics of growth

(Hat tip to Economists View)

Chris Dillow, the writer, is an economist with many media outlets. The post basically puzzles over politics at the present moment, and how it seems less driven by economics (which Dillow seems to imply is a matter for economists) than by animal spirits turned mean. 

“And here’s the thing. There is some justification for this denial of economics. The link between income growth and subjective (pdf) well-being is weak and even many of the worst off feel they are living comfortably. Granted, this might be a sign of adaptive expectations. But it also tells us that things other than economic growth are important: community, autonomy, physical and mental health and so on. From this perspective, perhaps it’s understandable that politicians should want to offer a sense of security – as in various ways austerity, Brexit and immigration controls do – rather than higher incomes.

But, but, but. As Benjamin Friedman has shown, economics does matter. Growth makes people more open-minded and tolerant whilst stagnation makes them meaner: it’s no accident that a decade of stagnation has led to a rise of reactionary populism. John Stuart Mill claimed that a stationary state of incomes provides “as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress”. Subsequent history, however, suggests he was wrong.”

I myself sort of bridle at the fact that Benjamin Friedman is distinguished in the field by "showing" that economics matters. Really, he was preceded here by Marx, Adam Smith, Aristotle, and King Henry II of a “chicken in every pot” fame. Interestingly, the implication here is that if we listen to the economists, we get growth, and all its benefits. And, by the way, John Stuart Mill was speaking through his hat. 

I would show a little more respect for John Stuart Mill, and a little less time praising “growth”, if you want to really talk about the political economy. I’d say Dillow’s puzzlement is a small sign that the field of economics desperately needs to return to its political economics roots. To speak of growth as the post does, and to oppose it blankly to stagnation is the work of mystification rather than analysis. 

You have to couple growth with other aspects of economic living in order to really judge whether economics should "matter." I like to refer to Stefano Bartolini’s essay, Beyond Accumulation, to mix up the notion of growth, for in that essay he proposes something radical yet simple: that negative externalities could operate to aggrandize growth. Instead of being opposed to growth, or the cost of growth, they could operate as a driver of growth.

If you go to Friedman’s book, the Moral Consequences of Growth, there is no separate item in the index for social cost, and externalities are treated to a pretty small spotlight, one in which Friedman imagines externalities only in terms of regulations from “outside” the economy. 

At no point does he imagine that the working class denizens of growth have in any way to pay for growth. 

Growth, of course, is one of those controversial phenomena in economics. There is something not accounted for in it. It has a mysterious relationship to what Robert Solow calls the “residual”. In the 90s, the mystery was solved, or at least some economists thought so, by simply reversing one of the tenents of classical economics, which held that one could expect decreasing returns on endogenous production factors over time. This school, lead by Paul Romer, said aha! we should include knowledge as an endogenous factor, and knowledge shows increasing returns over time. Hence, puzzle solved!

The optimism of the 90s has passed, and many have suspected that the re-accounting for all those productivity gains created by computing might actually be, hmm, not so great. Certainly not as great as those for, say, the invention of artificial fertilizer. Nor is it true that knowledge leads linearly to increasing returns - in fact, these returns seem more like monopoly returns given a certain legal system restricting competition than anything else. 

What Bartoloni suggests, in line, it must be said, with a Marxist school of political economics, is that growth might actually exploit those negative externalities to create more growth – that, in other words, besides the surplus value accumulated by Capital from Labour, there might be another dimension of surplus value in the life styles demanded by the system.This gives us a more complicated relationship between growth and well-being than is dreamt of by Friedman. Growth can very easily look good on paper, but in the everyday, lead to increasing stresses and expenditure - especially when public expenditure lags behind growth, although the latter is no panacea either.

Consider a highway. That sounds good, building a highway. Its a growth-y kind of thing. But if it makes businesses locate along it, and if the real estate landscape is such that it doesn't congregate around the business, then employees might have to commute in. And they might have to schedule chunks of their time to do that which would otherwise be spent on their own lives. 

Which means for one thing they have to figure out what to do with the children. And so on. 

It is easy to see where this structure is going. It is here that the matters that have fallen under the rubric “identity” have their political economic correlates. What does happen to the children? What happens is that women, largely, take care of them. Since women also work, since the households that exist in the growth societies require – in order to maintain the lifestyles that, for instance, result in housing, which results in growth – cannot exist, for the vast majority of people who live under the upper middle class line, without two earners, growth puts a great burden on women. Although self-reported happiness should be viewed with suspicion – it is by no means clear what the respondents mean by happiness, and it is possible that, in a society with a success ethos, to say one is not happy might mean that one is not successful, thus skewing the response – it is true that there’s a gender divide about happiness, with women reporting much higher levels than men. Men, at least in America, who are white and above forty report the highest happiness level, in contrast to the public face of these men, which is one of anger.
Its complex.  

If, however, economists insist that the economy consists of economic ideas instead of practices that must be empirically understood as well as theoretically modeled, they will persist in imposing economic policies on an increasingly unhappy population, and then puzzling over the “politics” of it all.  

Here are some driveby shots at development economics: ass it is set up now, growth economics situates itself in the absurdly short term (with the long term made into a smooth abstraction of the same old thing in the indefinite future), smooths out or does not address feedbacks (hence, the idea that stagnation is the opposite of growth, when of course it could as easily be the result of growth, depending on the composition of the growth), and it also persists in making itself more about equilibria (which goes back to the absurd idea that economics, to be a science, must be centered around the equilibrium, an apriori idea about markets that has done infinite harm) than about real human flourishing.

And as the incredibly inefficient distribution of wealth becomes more egregious, the situation of human flourishing becomes worse and worse. Here economics has mattered greatly - that is, economists bear a lot of blame for our current unhappiness.

All of this is not to say that growth is a bad thing – rather, it is to say that it is different things. And at the root of economics as an ideology is an old myth, that is a subset of the classical economic view that a systematic phenomenon motivated by profit contingently produces such benefits in the mass of people that they become happier. However you formulate this, it is a restatement of the invisible hand metaphor - a coordination between two independent variables that is not explained by either of them. In fact, who knows, empirically growth in the narrow sense might make the mass of peeps happier - or then again, it might not. In any case, to be happier in a changed environment requires a lot of unrecognized expenditure by the individual, with the burdens of that expenditure being unequally distributed.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

the firefly party

The Firefly party
« Reality stares at us with a look of intolerable victory: its verdict is that all we have ever loved shall be taken from us forever. »
Pasolini’s most famous essay is entitled: “the power vacuum in Italy”, although it is more often referred to as “The disappearance of the fireflies.”
Pasolini, with his hybrid of Catholicism and Communism, his deep sense of peasant culture and his sexual alienation from same, was one of the great post-war observers. To observe is to synthesize. He noticed the hardest thing to notice – because the hardest thing to notice is the change that happens all around us, and not at geological speed either, but in human time. For instance, he noticed the death of a culture that went back around 4,000 years. Rural idiocy was replaced, rapidly and completely, by techno-idiocy. And its effects were to move mountains, literally. We no longer have to have faith the size of a mustard seed – mustard seeds are definitely obsolete. We just have to have faith in our ones and zeros, our synthetics, our gene splicing, our Glyphosate, Atrazine and Lambda-cyhalothrin, our Parathion, Malathion, our Chlorpyrifos.
The price we pay is to lose any sense of the longterm. The memory palace has been looted. The ancestors have fled, and we all calmly accept that our grandchildren will be living near dead marshes, sunken cities, on a planet that has heated up, in spots, to Martian temperatures; a planet in which the Gulf current is extinct; a planet in which the glaciers no longer store our fresh water, and we have no substitute. The short term is now fully incorporated into the get-it-now economic system, and that is that. We’ve signed in blood.
In his essay, Pasolini used, as a central mark of the changes that had been wrought in Italy during the Demo-Christian era, the disappearance of the fireflies:
“At the beginning of the sixties, the fireflies began to disappear in our nation, due to pollution of the air, and the azure rivers and limpid canals, above all in the countryside. This was a stunning and searing phenomena. There were no fireflies left after a few years. Today this is a somewhat poignant recollection of the past—a man of that time with such a souvenir cannot be young among the young of today and can therefore not have the wonderful regrets of those times.
The event that occurred some ten years ago we shall now call the “disappearance of the fireflies’”.
Since Pasolini’s murder, in 1975, the disappearance of the fireflies has become a recognizable trope. Sciascia’s famous polemic on the Aldo Moro kidnapping begins with a reference to a firefly that Sciascia sees – and his memory of Pasolini as someone who understood the massive corruption of power in Italy. In 2009, Georges Didi-Huberman wrote a book, the Survival of the Fireflies, that took up the political meaning of the exaggerations of Pasolini, and makes the case against the apocalyptic turn.
Well, in 2009, it might have seemed like the Occupation moment would surely lead to something. In 2018, that looks less likely; this is why I found this article on a recent survey of insect life in Germany so interesting not only in terms of our seeming inability to stop ourselves from destruction, but also our inability to even see it. 
This alarming discovery, made by mostly amateur naturalists who make up the volunteer-run Entomological Society Krefeld, raised an obvious question: Was this happening elsewhere? Unfortunately, that question is hard to answer because of another problem: a global decline of field naturalists who study these phenomena.”
For those who have read Pasolini, there is something eery about the way articles such as this one illuminate the double loss that he raged about: the loss of the Holocene and the loss of the sweetness of human life, up to an including the knowledge of nature. Not knowledge simply as an act of monetizable genesplicing - knowledge as love for its object.
Pasolini’s poetic-literary approach brings together natural and human history in one enormous stroke. The disappearance of the fireflies is not simply a fact of concern for naturalists – it is a fact that has a bearing on memory, on the bonds of one generation to the other, and even on the enormous invisible losses that come with ‘creative destruction’ and that refuse to be registered by the political forces that express themselves day after day, and now minute after minute, in the media. By noticing the fireflies, Pasolini breaks out of the parochial discourse of blame and offense in which both the hegemonic party and the oppositional movements in Italy were stuck, like flies to flypaper.
Pasolini’s words became famous, but the signal he sent out died. Nobody ever formed a firefly party. The machine did not stop. The treadmill of production and consumption continued to roll over the planet, producing the routines that make it really impossible to notice that there are no fireflies, that you can’t see the stars at night, that the elms are disappearing, that there are no bluebirds in the garden. Making it impossible to see where you live and what has changed.
Perhaps just as the disappearance of the fireflies marked a cut in the Holocene humanness of Italy, and the disappearance of insect diversity in Germany marks the end of an environment that has existed for the last 14,000 years in that part of Eurasia, we can also mark the appearance and population explosion of other insect, animal and vegetable species, who, like humans, are cleaning up in this short period of time. For instance, the bark beetles in North America.
The bark beetle has a pretty simple lifecycle. The adult beetles dig into the bark of trees, and lay eggs there, as well using the cover of the bark to survive the cold weather. Many of the pupae that hatch from the eggs die off, due to cold temperatures. Some, however, survive, enough that another generation of pine beetles will again lay its eggs.
This simple lifecycle has been sped up by the last Conquista – the conquest of the atmosphere. In terms of the lifecycle of the European movement outward, the first conquest was that of the Americas, the second the partial conquest of Asia, and the third that of Africa. The fourth seizure is of uninhabited atmosphere, which is “free”, and which has been laid claim to by Western industry and now global industry. Just as the conquest of the Americas was accompanied and made possible by a mass dying – the mass dying of the Amerindians, due to the diseases carried by the Europeans – the conquest of the atmosphere is also leading to a mass dying, from which the descendents of the Europeans are averting their eyes.
The devastation extends worldwide. The great euphorbia trees of southern Africa are succumbing to heat and water stress. So are the Atlas cedars of northern Algeria. Fires fed by hot, dry weather are killing enormous stretches of Siberian forest. Eucalyptus trees are succumbing on a large scale to a heat blast in Australia, and the Amazon recently suffered two “once a century” droughts just five years apart, killing many large trees.”
The natural history of the Americas and the political history of the moment are, it seems, joined in ways that are a mystery – or rather, that are made a mystery. We actually register these things, but out of the corner of our eye.
And this is the political party we need to form: a corner of the eye party. A firefly party. An aspen party. The treadmill of production is deafening, but perhaps we can plug our ears enough to look around. Look around and recognize that the unemployment we face and the massive inequality of wealth that has seized the developed world with the implacable and mechanical force of a bark beetle infestation and that infestation itself are all parts of one thing: the politics of the Holocene. These are the stakes. And if we lose the Holocene to the hedge funders or the coal plants or oil companies or offshore money, we lose everything.
“But for the natives…God’s hand hath so pursued them as, for three hundred mile’s space, the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox, which still continues amongst them. So as God hath hereby cleared our title to this place…” John Winthrop