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”

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!

There and Back Again, or the SARE Conference report

The birds sang in the bamboo patch and a soft wind blew across the green valley, and so  it was with a twinge of reluctance that I embarked on my trip to Saint Louis, Missouri to attend the SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) conference. SARE is a grant program under the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, for which I have the privilege of serving as an advisory council-member. Continue reading “There and Back Again, or the SARE Conference report”

Urban and Small Farm Agriculture

We often read about the environmental damage and unsustainable practices of modern agriculture.  Some people have proposed urban gardens and small farms as a pathway to food resiliency; repairing environmental damage, reducing fossil fuel use, and improving our health and well-being.  Others conclude that it takes too much effort; people aren’t going to change; no one wants to slave away in the garden, kitchen, or on the farm; it can’t be done in every country;  small farms and gardens can’t feed the world’s population.  All these arguments have some merit, but I have found the reality of growing local food becomes quite different once the transformation begins. Continue reading “Urban and Small Farm Agriculture”

Fish in a tank

A few evenings ago he was sitting up on his bed looking troubled. His cheeks seemed blotched and his eyes were flicking and blinking, almost as if he was going to cry. But he’s nine, and I think it’s a point of honour with him never to cry. He said quietly, as I bustled around getting ready for lights-out, “Daddy, there’s something that bothered me today…”. I paused for a proper look at him and asked what’s up? “On the way back we stopped in the Chinese supermarket. There were all these fish in the tank. There were so many they could hardly move…”, and that’s where he tailed off. His expression told the story. Continue reading “Fish in a tank”

Food as Medicine

Hippocrates said “Let food be they medicine, and medicine be thy food.”  At the doctor’s office for my annual checkup I was asked to list any herbs I take and I thought “this should be interesting.”  Sure, I take herbal supplements but what about all the fresh or dried herbs I cook with or drink as tea?  What about Mediterranean herbs in spaghetti, garlic in hummus, basil in pesto, chamomile or mint tea?  What about carrots, sweet potatoes and squash in navy bean soup to boost our immune system and fight off colds?  I asked the doctor if I should list basil in pesto and was told “No, that’s food!” (along with a look that said I must be an idiot).  Well isn’t that the point, that our food is our medicine!

Continue reading “Food as Medicine”