Credit where credit’s due

Paul Raven @ 28-02-2011

Or maybe not; very much depends on how you see causality in action in geopolitics, really. But enough with the preamble. I can’t seem to locate where I first said it (though I’m pretty sure it was on Twitter, around the time the Egyptian revolution was really hotting up), but I remember someone joking about how a Middle Eastern country had managed to achieve regime change almost in spite of the best status quo reinforcement efforts of the West, and me responding that – if the revolutions turned out to be even remotely successful – the very meddlers who caused the whole damn mess would start claiming the revolution as the hard-won victory that they’d always been aiming for in the first place.

So, here’s Thomas Barnett on the “opportunities” of the Libyan crisis.

To me, this is an ideal sort of SysAdmin intervention opportunity: keep it small and proportional and elevate in response to events. Big point:  not pre-emptive but responsive.  You want to ride with globalization’s natural tide as much as possible, letting the “new map” tell you where to apply pressure next, thus making local demand your primary guide.

Naturally, the fearful and paranoid will see the usual Western plot to grab oilfields, but denying the bottom-up nature on this one reduces them to sheer lying.

Don’t think anyone’s denying the “bottom-up nature”, Mister Barnett, but framing a violent popular uprising in an oil-rich country as an “opportunity” is rather to invite the very criticism you claim to be paranoid, despite the historical precedents, no? Where you see an “ideal sysadmin opportunity”, a lot of other people can see a country shaking off the legacy of decades of sloppy sysadmin work… and looking at the state of the prospective sysadmin’s own hardware at the moment, I’m not sure it acts as a great curriculum vitae for someone looking to tell other people how to run a safe and secure server, do you? But wait for it…

Me? I see a beautiful, globalization-driven process at work here. Let it roll!  Because I like our longer-term odds versus those of the Iranians, al-Qaeda and the Wahhabist Saudis.  Then again, victory was never in doubt–just timing and cost.

Bingo! That didn’t take long, did it? Political shamanism: if I wait long enough, the sun will rise just like I the gods promised it would! Now, where’s my private cave and mammoth-skin blanket, eh? Plenty more insightful prolepsis where that came from, but you’re gonna need to keep me sweet if you want the benefits thereof…

(For the record, I’m on the same page as Barnett when it comes to seeing the globalisation process as an inevitability driven by a huge number of complex interacting factors, and as – over the long term, at least – a net good for the entire human species. Where we disagree is at the point where each step in the globalisation process becomes a crack into which the prybar of American influence should be poked; if the last ten years haven’t shown you that the cost of meddling with other people’s countries isn’t far too high to justify the rewards – not just for your own people, but the people whose countries you decide to reorder – then I doubt anything I can say will convince you to the contrary.)

Daddy, what did you do during the Currency Wars?

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2010

China and Russia drop the dollar for bilateral trade; Brazil and India may be next [via MetaFilter]. Southern Europe may well riot in response to fiscal austerity [via BigThink], and here in the UK it’s only taken six months of having the Tories back in power before the police started to club children with batons.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The greys are coming! From generation gap to economic turf-war

Paul Raven @ 03-11-2010

Props to George Dvorsky for flagging up this Salon interview with Ted C Fishman, promoting his new book Shock Of Gray, which is all about the recent rapid increases in human longevity, and the knock-on effects of such. Perhaps we’ll finally shake off our geographical differences only to get caught up in an economic tug of war between the elderly and the young:

As baby boomers start to approach the age of 65 in large numbers, do you foresee a civil rights movement for older adults, given that generation’s history of activism?

There might be a civil rights movement, but people won’t recognize it as a civil rights movement. They’ll see it as an economic turf war. When you get the resources of a society, you get the respect. You can see this in Europe right now, where the population is somewhat older than it is here. The debt crisis has really caused a huge and quick reckoning with the crisis in pension funding and hundreds of thousands of people are coming into the street. They made promises to themselves and now they find that they can’t keep those promises. In some ways, they’re battling their past selves.

But they feel like they are fighting a younger generation.

Yeah, I think that’s right. But in the long run the battle will not be for who gets what share of the public financing. It will be a more traditional civil rights issue, which is: Evaluate me on my abilities and my skills, not on my weaknesses. The older population is a hugely diverse one. If the image of an older person is going to be exclusively that of an enabled, sharp, cognitively with-it, older person who can work into their 70s and 80s, then we’re ignoring a huge part of the population that will need our help.

Not exactly a new idea, but one that probably isn’t getting the attention it deserves; longevity is kind of sneaking up on us while we bicker about other matters.

Here’s an idea that’s new, though, or at least it is to me: longevity as an accelerator of globalisation.

You argue that when wealthy nations started to age, that actually sped up globalization.

Right. Aging economies — Japan and Europe and the United States — are shopping the world for youth. The traditional workplace is changing to drive older people out — the cost of healthcare and pensions weighs very heavily on global companies — and places such as China have a population that it could send to the cities unburdened by age and the cost of age. Globalization really is a function of demographic change. When you go into beat-up, industrial towns you can feel it. You can see that older workers who used to be on the factory are now doing minimum-wage work at big-box stores on the edge of town. And then China has factories that contain tens of thousands of workers, without a single soul that’s over 25 years old. And you think, the only important thing about these workers is their youth.

Unspoken but implicit in that statement is longevity-as-driver-of-immigration. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the widespread tensions over immigration levels aren’t just a convenient proxy for concerns about the economics of greying…

The end of geography

Paul Raven @ 27-10-2010

Dovetailing neatly with discussions of Wikileaks and Anonymous, here’s a piece at Prospect Magazine that reads the last rights rites for geography as the dominant shaper of human history [via BigThink]. The West won’t be the best forever, y’know:

The west dominates the world not because its people are biologically superior, its culture better, or its leaders wiser, but simply because of geography. When the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age, making farming possible, it was towards the western end of Eurasia that plants and animals were first domesticated. Proto-westerners were no smarter or harder working than anyone else; they just lived in the region where geography had put the densest concentrations of potentially domesticable plants and animals. Another 2,000 years would pass before domestication began in other parts of the world, where resources were less abundant. Holding onto their early lead, westerners went on to be the first to build cities, create states, and conquer empires. Non-westerners followed suit everywhere from Persia to Peru, but only after further time lags.

Yet the west’s head start in agriculture some 12,000 years ago does not tell us everything we need to know. While geography does explain history’s shape, it does not do so in a straightforward way. Geography determines how societies develop; but, simultaneously, how societies develop determines what geography means.


As can see from the past, while geography shapes the development of societies, development also shapes what geography means—and all the signs are that, in the 21st century, the meanings of geography are changing faster than ever. Geography is, we might even say, losing meaning. The world is shrinking, and the greatest challenges we face—nuclear weapons, climate change, mass migration, epidemics, food and water shortages—are all global problems. Perhaps the real lesson of history, then, is that by the time the west is no longer the best, the question may have ceased to matter very much.

Amen. It’d be nice if we could get past our current stage of global socialisation, which might be best compared to a group of people sat in a leaking boat arguing over who should do the most bailing.

The new face of globalisation: outsourced childbearing and international water shipments

Paul Raven @ 13-07-2010

Globalisation is a highly politicised word, but I’m increasingly thinking of it as a phenomenon rather than a project (the same way I think about postmodernism, as it happens). In a nutshell, globalisation is the trend toward global movement of things: people, ideas, jobs, money, resources. It’s an economic phenomenon, sure, but it’s increasingly social as well – not social as in “social media” (though thet’s a part of it), but as in the ongoing corrosion of geography erasing a lot of old ideas about who we do business with, what we consider to be business, and why we do it.

Take outsourcing. It’s an established idea to take a job like coding PHP and giving it to someone in a poorer country so you (theoretically, at least) get the same results for less expenditure, but what about a “job” like carrying your baby to term [via MetaFilter]?

“In the U.S. a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50,000,” Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist who helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate last year, told Reuters.

“In India, it’s done for $10,000-$12,000.”

Fertility clinics usually charge $2,000-$3,000 for the procedure while a surrogate is paid anything between $3,000 and $6,000, a fortune in a country with an annual per capita income of around $500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India with some calling it the “commoditisation of motherhood” and an exploitation of the poor by the rich.

“It’s true I’m doing this for money, but is it also not true that a childless couple is benefiting?” said Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai, who declined to give her full name.

For the surrogates — usually lower middleclass housewives — money is the primary motivator.

For their clients it’s infertility or — some claim — educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid a pregnancy affecting careers.

And how about natural resources? We’re used to the idea of scarce commodities being shipped around at scary prices, but as populations (and their footprints) increase, some resources that we think of as givens become valuable enough to justify the overheads of stuffing them in a tanker and floating them across the globe. Water, for instance [also via MetaFilter]:

Sitka, a small town located on Baranof Island off Alaska’s southeast coast, will sell the water to Alaska Resource Management for one penny per gallon. S2C and True Alaska Bottling, which has a contract for the rights to export 2.9 billion gallons (10.9 billion liters) per year from Sitka’s Blue Lake Reservoir, formed Alaska Resource Management LLC to facilitate bulk exportation.

The city will earn $US26 million per year if ARM exports its entire allocation, and more than $US90 million annually if the city can export its maximum water right of 9 billion gallons. That amount of water is enough to meet the annual domestic needs of a city of 500,000 using 50 gallons per person per day.

Nice idea, at least on paper… but it makes the erroneous assumption that one can just keep taking [x] amount of water from an area, swap it for money and not experience any problems. A friend of mine who works in water treatment and reclamation here in the UK is at pains to point out to anyone who’ll listen that water is shaping up to be the new oil: essential to everyone’s survival, increasingly scarce and expensive, and the sort of thing that people will go to war over…. not only in developing nations, but right here in the privileged West, too.

When I’m having an optimistic day, I find myself thinking that increasing awareness of the finite limits of resources (human labour and skills and time very much included) will gradually push us toward a closer form of global unity: a recognition that we’re all in the same boat, and that the boat only has so much in the way of provisions, and that between us we can sail it pretty much anywhere. Of course, that won’t happen unless we work together to overcome geopolitical and economic barriers… which is why on my less optimistic days the boat metaphor tends to end with a hull full of corpses.

Small-g globalisation isn’t a bad thing; as borders become permeable, it’s an inevitability, like a thermodynamics of things. But the project of Big-G Globalisation is a different thing entirely: it’s a crude, rough-handed and successful attempt to profiteer from restricting and manipulating that ineluctable movement of things, performed by those who already have sufficiently rarified levels of power to influence the flow. The phenomenon of globalisation should be encouraged, supported and monitored; I believe it’s essential to the long-term survival of humans as a species. The project of globalisation needs to be exposed, deconstructed and shut down; it’s an ethical black hole baited with conspicuous consumption and confirmation bias, and it’s killing millions for the benefit of hundreds.

*steps off of soapbox*

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