Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In praise of folly: you get what you pay for.

         There is an old category of wise saying: you get what you pay for. Or as the Romans put it: caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. Or again: don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Our contemporary dominant ideology refuses to admit this wisdom. By cutting "bureaucratic fat" - government services - neoconservative ideologues hope to stimulate the economy by making the rich richer while contributing even less to the common good. The (obviously) self-serving formula is that since "business is more efficient than government" (an unproven premise), real wealth will "trickle down" to the lower levels of society at a lesser cost than inefficient government bureaucracy could provide equivalent services. Also known as The Golden Shower..

          There are many unexamined presuppositions in this bit of neocon ideology: why, for example, how did government end up doing the things neocons want to privatize? Perhaps government ended up providing the service because it 1- was needed (health care, education, prisons, commercial and safety regulations, highways, defense, potable water,..) and 2- private enterprise was found either incapable or unwilling to provide it effectively. In other words, it got dumped on government exactly because the private sector could not do an adequate job. If this historical perspective is indeed still correct we should expect to find more and more private - public initiatives failing to meet the terms of their contracted engagements. Services will be deficient in terms of quality, cost, or availability. And this is exactly the pattern we have seen emerge..

          In some cases, such as education, health care, and safety regulations, we are discovering that the costs incurred after budget cutting are actually greater than the saving obtained by "cutting fat from the bureaucracy". We have become as our grannies used to say, "penny wise and pound foolish". Consider the tragic case of the Lac Mégantic train wreck, for evidence:

          In recent decades, both Liberal and Conservative governments have set their compasses by the dominant USA inspired Neoconservative or Free Market Ideology. Government deregulated and privatized the railroads, selling off national rail lines and cutting the number of federal rail inspectors. In addition, government began issuing safety "guidelines" to rail companies. In practice, this meant the rail companies were more or less free to implement these guidelines any way they liked. In the deregulated climate of the last three decades this also meant that corners got cut. Profit not service or safety became the number one priority. Meanwhile government, due to the Free Market ideology they embraced, grew compliant and even complacent about the corner cutting. The actual cost of this corner cutting, it now appears, will be a lot steeper than Free Market ideologues foresaw. 

          An early July morning, 2013, Lac Mégantic, Québec: an unmanned freight train carrying crude oil plows into the town center at 1 am in the morning, derailing and engulfing the town center in a river of burning crude oil. The fiery holocaust burned approximately 50 innocent people to death, inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars of economic damage, destroyed sites of historic value and caused immense environmental damage (we are only just starting to find out about that!). It also revealed the intrinsic flaws of an ecologically unsound and now (obviously) failing industrial system of production.

            In a backhanded admission that they got things terribly wrong we read that the feds have released six new rules based on "common sense" which, if they had been in place, would have made it very unlikely that the Lac Mégantic disaster would have happened. That's wonderful to know that 6 simple steps - that cost nothing or close to it - could indeed have prevented the loss of about fifty lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic loss. But why the hell weren't they in operation the night of terror? Penny wise, pound foolish..

           Thus, we learn just how lax things have really become in Neocon Lalalotus Land. The government, if I understand correctly, does not actually know for sure (and had to ask!) if Montréal Maine Atlantic rail had insurance sufficient to cover such an event.

           As stated above, "penny wise, pound foolish" is a stupid philosophy to live by when viewed from a utilitarian perspective. It becomes positively immoral, and morally unacceptable, when lives are placed in danger. Once again, the death toll in the Lac Mégantic conflagration is nearly 50, an exceedingly heavy toll in a community of 6,000. What cost do you place on human life..

          According to a recent Montréal Gazette article, 5.7 million litres of crude are still missing and not accounted for: they are in the soil and water of Lac Mégantic and environs. If these figures turn out to be correct this may the biggest oil spill in North America outside of seafloor well blowouts. Decontamination will be a big job, a complex job and a long job which, of course, means a costly job - hence the importance of assuring that rail transporters and rail lines carry adequate insurance, duh..

            Why did we elect these people? That is the question I imagine historians and thesis students in the future scratching their heads in wonderment over.. Why?.. Why, what were those people back then thinking, did they think, were they capable of thinking?..

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Politics of Delusion: smoke and mirrors

          My thesis: creationism (including intelligent design) is used as a "smoke screen" to get the public all fired up and to divert that fired up attention away from really pressing issues like environment, energy, demographics, social justice, equity..

he same applies to gay marriage and abortion (and women's issues in general).

          Take gay marriage. The anti-gay marriage argument is patently absurd once you take the time to stop and look at it in detail. Denying gay marriage "protects the family" - presumably because all of us have a hidden (usually VERY deeply! hidden) Inner Gay which, if given permission, will pop out of the closet and take over, making us all gay.. As absurd as this seems, upon analysis, they do appear to be implying this: if gay sex is not repressed, gayness will take over and hetero-families will die out and with them the human species.. :-0 (Question: is gayness really all that attractive? One wonders.. for example, from an evolutionary viewpoint. Heterosex - originally at least - was always very much about procreating the species. If our hetero-drives weren't strong enough we would have died out eons ago. If anything, we have succeeded in OVERpopulating the world. Hard to see gayness as much of a problem in that context. One could even argue that more gayness in an overpopolated world would be a good thing: it would exert a slight downward pressure on population growth..)

            Then there is the abortion issue, so hot in the USA today. Pro-lifers, anti-abortionists, forget or choose to forget something. Pro-choice above all means FREEDOM of choice, a women should never be forced to submit to an abortion (as in totalitarian China). But the positions are not reciprocal: pro-lifers won't allow choice to those who want abortions.

            The best comment I recently heard, from a prochoice demonstrator in Ottawa, Ontario: "I am absolutely against abortion and absolutely for freedom of choice"

            As in the case of gay marriage, so too for abortion. One wonders why so much smoke for so little fire? Unless, there is a hidden agenda, and the real action is somewhere else.

             Conclusion: I propose that "wedge" issues like abortion, creationism and gay marriage are being used (manipulated) to create lines of political tension in order to divert the public's attention away from urgent matters demanding immediate action: energy, environment, demographics and their "sister issues": social justice and equity (of opportunity, of subsistence and basic social services..)

             Here is another piece of "diversionary news": racialized fear (a form of scapegoating - once again, the goal seems to be to divert attention from important collective issues relating to the Common Good that are NOT being dealt with..)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Petro-transport: rail or pipeline? - Apocalypse in small town Québec

         Here is the human face of nonsustainable development based on fossil fuel energy. Early Saturday morning, July 6th, 2013, a runaway driverless train, loaded with light crude oil, crashed at high speed into the town center of Lac Mégantic, Québec. It overturned, spilling oil which ignited and creating a general conflagration which obliterated the town center. Even if you don't speak French, the following 10 minute youtube video is worth watching for the emotional adrenaline and the visual effect. It even catches a bit of the mesmerizing, hypnotic quality of great fires which draw onlookers like a magnet with their surrealistic kinetics and infinite gradations of color and texture.

            This then, dear reader, is the high price we pay for non-sustainable development (or "pseudo-development" as I prefer to put it). We desperately need to develop new, cleaner sources of energy! And sooner, rather than later. Ironically these "new" sources are not lacking: all that is lacking is political will. Today, one can only ask: how many more holocausts like this will it take.. (And as a friend worries: and when the masses finally do wake up, might it not be too late to do anything.. ouch!)

             As of this writing, 50 persons are missing and presumed dead. Thirty five bodies, charred beyond recognition, have been recovered, more than a week later. Few have been identified. Much of the town center (population 6000) has been effaced. Landmarks, including historic architecture and the town library, are gone - forever (a replacement is not the original..) The town library was a regional archival center. All that local history lost..

             Some people, of course, don't want pipelines - "not in my backyard!" Yet, statistically speaking, rail transport is even more risky and about three times more expensive. The alternative - "the road not chosen" - is to reduce our consumption of oil with alternative energy sources which have less environmental - and human - impact.

            The rail company behind this accident, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, looks like a vulture, buying up failing regional rails. Their reputation is terrible. There have been many complaints of breakages, leaks, spills, noise and indifference to public complaints from residents of Lac Mégantic and environs long be
fore this catastrophe. The complaints fell on deaf ears. The bottom line appears to be all that counts, either for corporations in the current deregulated market economy or for the spineless governments that service them. According to some accounts I heard, even the very rail line itself is falling apart in places. Another problem was the fact that heavy trains with dangerous cargoes were passing within about 30 feet or so of residences. This is insane..


              As one might expect, it's a "complicated" story with multiple finger pointing starting already.

              The train - with one driver only - stopped at a town, several miles distant. The driver should have set both air brakes and manual brakes. One locomotive (of 5) was left running to
keep pressure up in the air brakes. The driver checked into a hotel for the night. All this was "standard practice".

             During the night, for unknown reasons, a fire started on the front of the train. What followed is contested by different parties. A volunteer fire fighter team put out the fire (which involved turning off the running locomotive, possibly decoupling it from the train and various other manipulations). Before the firefighters left they encountered representatives of the rail company who insured them that all was in order.

             Then, once again for unknown reasons, in the early morning hours of Saturday, July 6th, the driverless train rolled down the slope it was parked on. 

              Why was it parked on a slope in the first place?

              Why, given that train was carrying hazardous material, was it "standard practice" to leave it unattended with one locomotive running all night?.

               At any rate, the rogue train gathered speed over a distance of several miles and rolled into the center of Lac Mégantic at a frightful rate (some say over 60 mph making buildings shake and awakening sleepers). It derailed in the town center, oil was spilled and ignited somehow. The rest is history.

              People seem very angry over this one because of the traditional arrogance and indifference of the rail company to complaints and safety issues.

              Of course, regardless of where the blame lies, 50 people are dead and numerous families and businesses have been devastated. Economic costs will be astronomic as the town center was blown away. No one has a handle on the ecological damage yet but it promises to be severe, perhaps irreparable in places. Oil and toxic combustion products are said to have saturated the soil to a depth of eight feet, for example. Local aquatic ecosystems - lake and river - are affected, but to what degree no one knows. Tourism is down, with numerous cancellations throughout the region. The longterm knock on effects will last for perhaps a decade, amplifying the costs of the initial accident several fold. And these are only the monetary costs. Add to that the "cost" of bereavement, stress related medical costs, post traumatic syndrome.. 

              An event like the Lac Mégantic conflagration can be approached from a number of viewpoints and perspectives. Beyond the heartrending human tragedies it is easy to see the accident as the more or less inevitable result of an eternal conflict of values. One the one hand, there are the values of profit and individual "autonomy" and, on the other, the "Common Good" and a felt obligation to pass on to our children a planet in as good shape as the one we inherited from our parents. Only in our time - due to the intensity of modern technology, ideological shifts and the pressure of overpopulation - has this eternal conflict reached truly apocalyptic dimensions.

               What is actually shaping the balance of forces between "individual freedom" and the "Common Good" are ideological considerations. Despite conventional denials, North America is actually under an ideological regime as rigid as that of the former Soviet Union but vastly more sophisticated. So sophisticated, says critic Yuri Orlov, that we don't even know someone is pulling our strings. Soviet propaganda was ridiculed by the people, behind closed doors. Our propaganda system, which trains us to mindlessly consume things we don't really need, actually gives us the appearance of delivering what is promised. Only recently have people have people begun to challenge received neoconservative, Market Forces, ideology: the Occupy Movements could be read as a recent symptom of simmering discontent.

               On the whole, though, most people probably still believe in the (North) American Dream: that a "little man" though his own efforts, if he is made of the Right Stuff, can make it big or, at least, "move up in society" so that his children will live better. This dream has, of course, been an illusion for decades as high quality North American jobs were shipped overseas to third world sweatshops - to the disadvantage of workers in both the first and third world. It's the old "divide and conquer" strategy, obviously..

               We have lost the wisdom of the framers of the American Constitution. They believed in "separation powers" so as to avoid the abuse of power.

                Today, deregulated industries like the railways, decide how they will implement government guidelines. True, some money is saved upstream in the form of bureaucratic cuts. But the last few decades have also increasingly shown us that pennies saved by cutting public services cab turn into dollars of accumulating costs downstream. We have become in the wisdom of our grandmothers: penny wise and pound foolish. Our ideology cost us more than it saves us. It is only in the case of apocalypses like that of Lac Mégantic, that we are confronted with truly stupefying actuarial statistics: how much, exactly, is a human life worth..

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review: Arnold Pacey, The Culture of Techology (MIT Press)

Arnold Pacey: "The culture of technology" (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1983), 179 pages, extensive chapter notes, index, select bibliography.

            Pacey's critique of technology's "culture" is witten by an insider. He is a proponent - and practictioner - of "appropriate" technology in 3rd world development programs. His basic thesis is simple. Technology consists of three components:

1- the technical aspect (equations, nuts and bolts),

2- an organizational aspect (administration, management, institutional support, government policy) and

3- a cultural aspect which includes the values and goals of the technologist on the one hand and the values and practices of the users of the technology on the other.

            Pacey identifies two major flaws in technological thinking and policy making which often render "development" projects problematical. First there is "technical viruosity": engineers naturally take pride in their work. This can definitely be a good thing. It generates enthusiasm, esprit de corps, a sense of mission. The downside comes from a fixation on the "sweet" or "sexy" technical fix when another, less expensive, organizational fix might be more appropriate to a given situation. Consider the use of nuclear reactors for power generation in equitorial third world countries where less energy is actually required - no winter heating bills! - and where solar energy is abundant. In such contexts, nukes are like using a pile driver to crack walnuts..

              Technical thinking is also, too often, affected by various forms of tunnel vision. The social context in which a technology is to be implemented is often ignored, for example. It is assumed that equivalent infrastructure suport will be available in the new operational setting as in the old. Sometimes this is an error: technologies may be put to new uses in new settings, uses for which the equipment was not designed. All of these situations can reduce the effectiveness of the new technology or simply render it inoperant in short order.
              To counter these problems, Pacey argues for maximized public participation in the conception of large scale projects such as dams, electrical generation stations or nuclear reactors. The idea is to mesh "user values" with "expert values" and, through dialogue or "dialectic" between the two  set of values, arrive at a truly optimized complementation. Today, "optimzation" is too often limited to bottom-line, purely economic considerations.

            One discussion I found particularly fruitful related to "linear" versus "innovative" perceptions of technical progress. Bureaucracies and large insitutions tend to view technical progress as an inevitable, inherently logical, quasi-mechanistic process. This is the "linear" perspective. Progress seems predictable, a machine-like unfolding of the possibliities laid bare by the scientific method. An alternative approach lays emphasis on the  startling innovations and quantum leaps technical progress so often shows in historical perspective. "Progress" is often not an up-sloping line as it is so often plotted on graphs but a series of steplike technical and organizational innovations. These "quantum leaps" or "paradigm shifts" sometimes interact to produce powerful and novel "emergents". Thus, the industrial revolution of the 1820s was, in reality, the outgrowth of an earlier reorganization of artinisal labor into the "factory system" based on fixed schedules of production. True, the Industrial Revolution increased the application of machinery to production but the machinery would have had no use had it not been for the previous reorganization of labor, the increasing urbanization of life and rising demand for industrial products. Several currents - labor organization, urbanization, machinery and novel energy sources- came together to create a Perfect Storm which we recognize as the Industrial Revolution of the 1820s.

"There is clearly no determinism about the experience of progress. A human, not a mechanistic process is at work, in which there is certainly an element of choice. But not the simple weighing of known options - it involves, rather, different ways of approaching the unknown. It is a decision between differents attitudes of mind. We may cultivate an exploaratory, open view of the world in which awareness can grow; or we can maintain a fixed, inflexible view in whcih new possibilities are not recognized.. The dominance more recently of linear views of progress which restrict expectations to narrow patterns of development, may be symptomatic of how that openess has been lost" (page 28-9).

             Indeed! Witness the contemporary shrinkage and castration of the word "freedom" to mean "freedom of choice" among consumer product brands! Or the neo-con idolatry of purportedly iron-clad "laws of the market" against which there can be no recourse. At several points in his text Pacey draws attention to the necessity of including humanistic values of caring, solidarity and participation in analyses of the impacts and benefits of proposed development projects.

             I suspect that one of the motivations behind this text was a desire to understand the negative blowback - unintended consequences - of technology. Thus, computers allow networking and decentralization but paradoxically also strengthen centralization and hierachcy in large organizations. Rather than a world of increased wealth spread more equitably, we see instead wider inequalities everywhere. Information flows faster and more freely but the internet also provides the opportunity for solopistic inbreeding of nihilistic ideologies. Witness internet communities promoting right wing or religious extremism such as jihadist terrorism or neonazi racism. Pacey seems to be pondering the question: why so MUCH blowback? What have we got wrong?

             Many, if not most, of the world's problems today either arose directly from poverty or are negatively impacted by poverty. Yet developers are obsessed with technical issues or measures of economic prerformance. I could even argue there is evidence of a positive correlation betwen economic performance and increased poverty since the opening of China to western trade. Over the last 40 years, relatively well paying American jobs have been shipped to overseas sweat shops to maximize corporate profits. While CEOs of internationals roll in money and "incentives packages", the actual wealth of the worker has declined. Witness the Great American Rust Belt..

              Pacey raises the point that in order to have good answers we need to ask the right qustions which, obviously, we are not doing or we would not be in the mess we are now (and which is worse than the mess Pacey was describing thirty years ago..) Thus our "experts" raise questions relating to maximizing bottom lines which in turn imply maximizing system "througput": production, consumption, and waste.

               But Pacey, as an extremely intelligent field worker in 3rd world appropriate technology development, soon observed that such an approach very often produces suboptimal results with much negative blowback in the social and environmental spheres. Often people benefit more from disease prevention programs and an improved capacity to maintain existing assets (such as ecosystem services) than they do from the introduction of gadgets (which they can't maintain due to lack of infrastructure) or high tech projects (which benefit only a few). Third world governements, though, are usually keen on showy, sexy projects which provide them photo ops, international prestige and increased access to foreign funds for still more high tech projects.

              We need to readjust our priorities to fit the real world. Such adjustment is not hopeless idealism, as shown by Kerala province, India and the island of Sri Lanka where substantial improvements in public health and social welfare did not depend upon high consumption rates or expensive foreign "aid" programs. In these cases, the secret seemed to lie in female literacy and the political empowerment of local populations. In Kerala, "sanitation is good because people are educated", even where modern hygienic facilities do not exist. In Kerala, life expectancy was 10 years longer than for the rest of India at the time of Pacey's writing.

             These improvements in living standard were not, however, the result of some neo-con inspired "trickle down" economic growth at the top. The improvements arose from and were driven from the grassroots of society, the little people, not the rich. If fact, the improvements in social standards of health sometimes impeded economic growth. Thus human wellbeing and economic growth may be decoupled, yet our "experts" still claim that wellbeing and growth are identical. We are defintely not asking the right questions yet; neither 30 years ago when Pacey wrote his book, nor today..

             Related examples of the conflict between economic and human needs are found in Africa where international organizations like the WMO and IMF encourage governments to promote cash crops for international sale. Subsistance farming, in the meanwhile, languishes and dies. The mantra, of course, is the always the same: enriching the bourgeoisie will trickle down to the masses. But the actual, concrete result: decling per capita food production - now, THAT's progress! Ideology over reality; mind over matter one might say..

             "The culture of technology" is a remarkable book for its intelligence and lateral thinking. It's always a pleasure to read a book by someone who can really think things out from their basic premises to their logical conclusions. The author quickly sketches out potential future lines of inquiry in the social sciences and development policy. One interesting suggestion is a possible linkage between contemporary Western anomie (lack of sense of meaning or purpose in life, existential emptiness) and the technician's exaggerated quest for "technical virtuosity" - for those "sweet", oh so "sexy" expensive technological fixes. Perhaps because the technician lacks any real social purpose, he seeks surrogate (and ultimately phony) satisfaction in displays of technical virtuosity. But, of course, the drive for virtuosity may, in part, be an innate urge, stronger in some, depending upon one's life experience or genetic factors..

              In sum, what we need, says Pacey, is a saner balance between competing values and value systems: user values versus expert values, basic human needs versus technical virtuosity and economic value.

              A number of approaches are suggested for achieving a better balance: more public participation in technological policy development, better public science education, broader - less specialized - education for scientists and engineers, more delgation of authority and managerial control to smaller administrative units (more autonomy at the regional / municipal level), promoting female literacy, more functional participatory democracy at the local level. Perhas his most realizable and immediately beneficial suggestion is encouraging "interactive innovation" over the "linear innovation" of large bureaucracies and industries which emphasizes continuity, inevitability, determinism, ideology and abstract / mathematically modelling. Interactive innovation could, and has, been utilized by NGO's in 3rd world settings with resounding success. Interactive innovation requires a continuing "dialectical" give and take between participating foreign experts and recipient communities with their local set of "user values" and (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. This dialectic needs to continue till a consensus is arrived at: WHAT really needs to be done and WHY and HOW.. Such mutual adaptation seems to result in projects with deeper roots. Locals become participants,  managers and fine tuners of a system which they helped design, understand and own. This results in better maintenance and may even lead to the creation of local interactive innovation circles to deal with a variety of problems.

                   With its virtuosity of thought, this is an appealing book. Untimately, though, Pacey recognizes that technology alone will not save us. Our problems arise mostly from human values and until these truly change we should expect no better from technology than what we get today.

                   Looking back over the last 30 years since "The culture of technology" was written, one could easily be discouraged, as I was at times reading it. What have we learned in 30 thirty years? Pacey, at the time of the writing, was an exceedingly bright young man. How much of what he understood then have we put into practice since?

                     Not much. If anything, we regress. Western nations provide aid from national producers rather than buying commodities in the aided community and environs. "Aid" is more driven by ideology and short term economic gain than human need or long term perspectives. Yes, one could easily be pessimistic. However, I prefer to see the Big Pic as Pacey himself recommends. Today, 30 years after the publication of "The culture of technology", the malfunctioning "System" he describes is breaking down from its own collpasing weight and internal contradictions. This imposes the need for change: necessity is the mother of invention! In this growing need - and its growing recognition - lies hope.

                    I like this book. It was intellectually challenging, fascinating in its insights at times, generally well written. A good book, a very good book even: it is the "System" Pacey describes that is depressing. Grudgingly, perhaps, I'll tip my hat and give a 9 on 10.