Taiwan and the Taming of Trash

Taiwan is a small country on a large-ish island, much blessed by nature, but struggling with the impact of a dense human population and rapid economic growth. Returning, for the first time in  more than twenty years, to a country that I had lived in, off and on, for about a year, was most interesting.  When I was last in Taiwan it was in the throes of its “Asian tiger” phase, and now has become, at least according to the taxi driver that picked my daughter and I up at the airport,  much less dynamic.  In the best tradition of the Taiwan citizenry, our driver was not at all shy about criticizing his government vigorously and with considerable sophistication.

Taiwan, also called the Republic of China (ROC) as opposed to mainland China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is always under more or less explicit threat of invasion or bombing by the PRC.  Taiwan’s leaders must  walk a thin line between asserting Taiwan’s right to exist as  a country, which assertion is backed, more or less discretely, by the US,  and provoking Beijing with too unequivocal and evident an existence.   Alongside the global geo-politics are the more local politics that  derive from waves of migration into Taiwan, with the indigenous  Austronesian people of Taiwan  having been displaced by successive sub-cultures of Han Chinese, as well as brief colonial occupations by the Dutch in the 17th  century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Taiwan is fascinating agriculturally as it has admirably fertile, well-watered alluvial plains on its western coast, which are intensively farmed in small plots (by American standards) usually of only an acre or two – much rice, some taro, vegetables, and fruit orchards.  The excellence of Taiwanese plant breeding is a long-acknowledged fact in tropical agriculture circles.

Taiwan is a place that I found simultaneously delightful, disturbing and dystopian twenty years ago, and still find so, but for mostly different reasons this time around.   One thing that is not so different and, unfortunately, much worse is the air quality in Taiwan. There are many explanations for Taiwan’s terrible air quality, such as major petrochemical processing facilities with footprints in the thousands of acres,  large coal-burning electrical plants, trash incineration plants, the high tail-pipe emissions from the vast herds of scooters,  second-hand pollution from the factories in mainland China, and the fine dust blown up out of the river-beds in dry, windy weather.

On the plus side, I was astounded by their success in addressing solid waste – trash, basically – and in the cleanliness of the rivers and streams.  I have one unforgettably dystopian memory of Taiwan in the 1990’s, a scene glimpsed from the window of a bus –   a man wandering through a vast, burning wasteland of trash in the outskirts of Taipei as the sun struggled to rise through the smoke .  I also remember black, sulfurous waterways fouled with plastic trash, and the lovely white sand beaches of southern Taiwan littered by giant, surreal blocks of white styrofoam.  None of that now, at least that I could see on this quick week-long trip.  Quite an amazing feat, to change the everyday practices of everyday people so drastically, to effect social change so broadly, from big businesses to ordinary folks out in the country.   This has been done through sustained policy efforts  and clever design solutions over the last few decades that continue to evolve, energized by the demands of a politically active populace that demanded government action. Not only that but Taiwan  has developed an outstanding network of buses, metros, trains, and bullet trains.  Which is not to say that Taiwan has become an un-mitigated paradise – far from it –  but there is much to learn from their successes.

Last but not least, for all our taxi drivers critical comments about the stagnant economy, the incompetent government, and the worsening air pollution, there was in him and generally in the people of Taiwan a gentle pride in their country, a sense of collective responsibility for being kind to each other and of representing their country well that my daughter and I felt wistfully envious of and wished, of all things, that we could bring back to the US.

Whiplash & the Breath of the Sea

Last week was tough in a way that I hadn’t expected.

I had two events to go to: the first, a climate change conference put on by our state’s climate change commission, and the second, an agricultural bank board meeting.  It was unexpectedly tough to think about the world  in such disparate ways within a few days of each other.  Tough to reconcile their differences, or not to reconcile but bear those differences when they were not reconcilable.  That was the hardest part and it took a toll on me.

There were two different visions of the world that undergirded these two different meetings, two different ideological positions that were the common, unspoken background of most of the attendees at each meeting, and two different set of blindspots. Continue reading “Whiplash & the Breath of the Sea”

Climate Change: Do Politics or Do Nothing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address climate change in terms of policy at the local level,  at the smallest organized unit of government for my area, which is the County of Hawaii, encompassing the island of Hawaii. I am not an expert on climate change or climate change policy in any way, shape, or form, but this may well be the mother of all situations where we will need to learn by doing, rather than waiting on expertise that does not yet exist. Continue reading “Climate Change: Do Politics or Do Nothing?”

What do we tell the kids?

Words don’t begin to

But then that’s all we’ve got. Words, and the stories we weave of them.

I’ve been wondering about this in connection with the study I’m putting together for my MSc. I’m asking pairs of friends who are also parents to record a conversation about climate change, how they feel it may affect the lives of their children, and what if anything they feel they should do about it.

I’m not sure we’ve got a language yet for dealing with these questions. It seems we don’t have the stories we need that would help us navigate this terrain. Continue reading “What do we tell the kids?”

Not Being Heard

The drama that unfolded during the last few weeks over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court took many of us on a journey that no one could have predicted, and that became a drama about something much bigger than the Supreme Court. Bigger than party politics, or even right versus left. It became about being heard.

It became, for some of us, about memory, history, and the way we understood our own lives. Continue reading “Not Being Heard”

Our opposable thumb

Stereoscopic vision, depth perception, certain emotions and other perceptions, and the ability to stretch our thumbs farther than most other species, the ability to build and destroy things, and many other traits individually or in combination separate us from other species, not necessarily all species though.  Other animals with opposable thumbs include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and other variants of apes; certain frogs, koalas, pandas, possums and opossums, and many birds have an opposable digit of some sort.  Many dinosaurs had opposable digits as well.  Granted, most of these are primates, as are we.  I wonder if rationalization is something unique to humans.  The ability to ponder may be as well.” Continue reading “Our opposable thumb”

The Game-Changer

There is a long struggle ahead of us and the outlines of that struggle just got a little more clear this week, when Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, which is about nothing much less than  changing the game.   Her legislation calls for corporations that make over $1 billion a year to be formally responsible not just to their shareholders but also to their workers, customers, and communities – which last concept hopefully extends to the environment.  This is important because at present the board of directors and the management of corporations are legally bound to maximize economic return.  That is the only criteria – other than not breaking the law – with which they are allowed to make decisions.  This dictate is the backbone of capitalism as we know it, which is to say a most predatory, ruthless, and myopic kind of capitalism which sooner or later is going to get us all killed.

Of course the spokespersons for the titans of industry and finance say not only is Elizabeth Warren “batty” but also that  she is a Communist who must be shut up or all the businesses in America will move to Switzerland ( I kid you not.)   Because heaven knows American Capitalism  Will Not Survive being responsible for anything but making as much money as possible!  Such a fragile flower cannot be asked to clean up its own room or do the dishes.

As the incomparable Charles Pierce puts it:

This is one of the first complete frontal assaults on the economic theories that have ruled American politics in one form or another for the past four decades. It is one of the first substantial efforts to treat the ascendancy of conservative economic ideas as a thoroughgoing blight that must be reversed, and it does so by turning the achievements of which conservative economic ideologues are proudest back on them. Corporate personhood? OK, then we’re going to have corporate jail, too. A rising tide lifts all boats? We’re going to be sure everyone has a seat.

Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is significant – perhaps even world-historically significant – but her legislation is just one point in a change in the air, in the mood, in a growing awareness.   She has brought up into the bright light of the national political debate  a simmering knowledge that what we do in pursuit of business success  has complex consequences and those consequences are not adequately weighed and measured in the quarterly accounting of profit and loss, of Return On Investment, and Asset Liquidity.  The long struggle will be to make this point over and over again – that we  all must be responsible to a greater conception of the good and profitable – until it becomes common knowledge and the way we do things.

I tell you what…I’m signing on to her team.

Against Complacency: the fierce voice of Patrick Noble

We don’t need more renewable energy to power how we live, but to change how we live so we don’t need that power.  –  Patrick Noble, https://convivialeconomy.com

There are some writers on the internet that get thousands of clicks and hundreds of comments every week.  Generally these writers work hard to build their online community of readers.   Their art is that of building a common language.

There are others who don’t have the knack or interest in building their readership.   I suspect they are the kind of artist that is fascinated by something on the horizon, something that is not readily visible, and even less readily conveyable.  Their art is that of illumination and discovery. Continue reading “Against Complacency: the fierce voice of Patrick Noble”

Economics, Traveling & Brian Davey’s Credo

“Sharing the same motivations and rules of the self interest game created a common orientation and thus a common operating system for economic actors to participate in.”  Brian Davey, Credo, 9. 

For a few days I’ve been sleeping in airplanes and hotel rooms.  There is nothing in a hotel room that tells you about life.  There is a bed, a TV, and some electrical outlets.  The closest thing to life is the water piped in, and the view if there is one.  Everything non-human has been disappeared except as it appears on the breakfast, lunch or dinner plate.  “There is no there there,” as Gertrude Stein once said so famously of Oakland, (By which she meant the place that she had known had been disappeared).  What does it mean to live in a place which is no place, an abstraction made concrete (and of concrete),  a place where appetite is untethered from its context and therefore unlimited in scope and blind ferocity?

These are the places we made in the name of a certain kind of pantheon of economic Gods – in the name of Efficiency and Innovation and Growth and Jobs.  These are the names of the orthodoxy now.   It is difficult to argue with the gods.  It always has been.  These are the places that we make under the influence of our gods – hotel rooms, office buildings, airports.  They represent the ideals of our civilization.  They are clean to the point of sterility, air-conditioned,  anonymous, secure, profitable.  These, it seems, is the realm we make when the rules of the game are determined by the lowest common denominator of humanity: unmitigated self-interest. We make places that are stripped of all life and love of life.  We make places that are cold, efficient, and impersonal.  We make places that reproduce our lowest common denominator – our blind self-interest, our infinite appetite.

As I am traveling in this world of placeless hotel rooms, the  DJ Avicii, a mere boy in his 20’s but a superstar of the Electronic Dance Music scene, is dying of a drug overdose in another hotel room in Muscat, Oman.  It is a lethal world, this world, even for those who are its “winners,” and infinitely more so for the “losers.”

Why am I traveling in the karmic realm (avicii) of hotel rooms and airports?  To protect its opposite paradoxically enough.  Brian Davey’s speaks of such places:

“People living in human communities situated in specific biological communities (eco-systems) may come, over time, to recognise that the eco-system in which they live has a “balance level” of health. This is is not the same as what economists understand by equilibrium but a dynamic negotiation between the different elements beyond which “tipping points” occur and the system slips into a different state altogether. The sense of responsibility for the maintenance of a place and the way of life embodies and embeds a recognition of the need to stay back from these ecological tipping points. This is based on a keen appreciation of the needs of the whole human community, as well as the need to maintain balance in the community of species of which it is a part (the eco-system).”  Davey, 32.

What if we thought about economics in terms of looking at the whole picture of life on Earth?  What if we let economics be about our better selves – the selves that love and nurture our children without pay, that serve as volunteers in our communities, that feel  and act on our connection to the environment?  What if we advocated for a kind of economics that saw the whole picture of what it means to be alive instead of the current definition that has us fighting over scarce resources, selling ourselves to the highest bidder, bull-dozing “empty” land to make into hotel-rooms, and sacrificing our health and happiness in the name of success?

This is all to say that I am reading Brian Davey’s book Credo (available for free online) where he advocates for just such another kind of economics, and that it’s worth checking out, as well as the website for FEASTA  of which Davey is a frequent contributor.

Also here’s a picture of some lovely snowdrops – which I had never seen before – at Jody’s house.  Amazingly beautiful little things!