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Pigeons, and the Birds Nest Stadium.

28 August, 2008

Some opinions have more value than others.

Some opinions have more value than others.

The world of the worm is a very different place to the world of the bird.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, a world in which animals can talk. The bird would describe a world of wide open skies, and of life in a flock. The worm would describe a life spent underground in nutrient rich compost.

Were you to ask both about a bird eating a worm, you would obviously get two very different answers. The bird may recall a tasty, squirmy snack. The worm would probably turn white on you asking the question; after all, you would have asked them about a quick and painful death. Neither perspective would be right, or wrong; just taken from a very different vantage point.

But to get a truly bizarre answer, you would have to ask the bird about life as a worm (or vice-versa). Sure, a wise and well read old owl with an active imagination might give you a fairly reasonable account of a worm’s life. But the mind boggles at what sort of nonsense you’d get from your average pigeon.

That birds and worms see the world may see the world differently is self evident. Yet we forget that something similar can happen when we talk about other societies. And in the wake of the 2008 Olympics – particularly in the cases of Zimbabwe, Georgia, and China – there’s been no shortage of talk.

Of course, as human beings, we have far more in common than birds and worms. It is too often forgotten just how much we all do share in common, particularly at a biological level. But we are far more than our biology.

What defines us as humans are the circumstances we find ourselves in. Since the day we were born, we’ve been the products of our natural and urban environment, our language, our culture, our language, our education, our personal history, and the people around us. We spent our whole lives re-adapting who we were as infants as our circumstances change. We adapt, and re-adapt, and then re-adapt again.

In turn, we are enmeshed in the complex webs of co-operation and conflict that make up our cultures and societies. As with the humans that make them up (and are shaped by them), these webs are constantly adapting to an ever-changing interplay of circumstances. The history of a civilisation is the fascinating tale of how it has adapted to new circumstances (or, sometimes, how it has failed to adapt), and has come to be what it is today. In turn, our culture today is largely a product of how it has adapted throughout its history.

There are large differences between cultures. This is because they are the products of different histories, and different circumstances, having overcome different challenges at different times. And, like birds and worms, people from different cultures also interpret the same events differently. Because of this, the wise old owls of anthropology warn, we need to be careful about assuming our values, culture, and history when we examine other societies. We need to be mindful not to project the lessons learned from the histories of one set of cultures on another set of very different cultures and histories.

Because China never experienced Christendom, or the Dark Ages. Nor did it experience the Enlightenment or Reformation. Where the English Industrial Revolution took place in the 18th and 19th Centuries in a post-Feudal society, China’s equivalent is taking place now, in a post-Maoist state.¬† Similarly, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, the Chinese Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward all took place in China, and not the West. Projecting the lessons of Western history on China’s many cultures will, ultimately, and in frustration.

The same thing happens when we criticise Robert Mugabe as if he existed in a historical vacuum, and treat him accordingly. Even to the most aware Westerners, cultural imperialism, colonialism, the IMF and the World Bank are (and were) problems ‘somewhere else.’ Well, to Zimbabweans, that ‘somewhere else’ is also known as ‘home.’ It has bred, in Zimbabwe, a politics of national liberation – a ‘defensive nationalism’ – with no equivalent in the West (with a few exceptions, including Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Israel). The idea that a leader, whose power is based on a defensive nationalism, could use Western threats to legitimise his government seems not to have crossed the minds of many in the West.

As for Russia’s recent rise… well, that’s a topic for another day.

The Beijing Olympics have come and gone. In its wake, there was much talk of Russian troops in Georgia, of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and of Chinese human rights. But all I could hear was the sound of a thousand pigeons.


On the Australian Political Right: The Many Colours of the Liberals.

19 August, 2008

Let’s be blunt. The state of the Libs is currently an ugly picture. There is currently no Liberal Government in power either federally, or in any Australian state or territory.

Weak oppositions are devastating to democracy. This is demonstrated in the way the Brumby Government (in Victoria) has arrogantly ignored widespread community outrage at the Desalinification Plant in Gippsland, the Pipeline Project, the dredging of Port Philip Bay, a near total lack of new investment in suburban rail infrastructure in spite of horrendous overcrowding, and – coming soon – the East-West Tollway. Yet in spite of the gross arrogance of the State Labor Governments, many feel that the Liberal oppositions fail to deliver an appealing alternative. The question is why.

The left often sees the right as being a monolithic whole, yet when we take a closer look, we see that this is not the case. The Coalition brings together people standing for a number of distinct philosophies, including the religious conservatism of Tony Abbott, the nationalism of the RSL, the law and order populism of the police association, the ‘status quo’ conservatism of Barnaby Joyce, the small government individualism of the IPA, and new liberalism / ‘small-l liberalism’ of Petro Georgiou. These philosophies often don’t lead to the same answers to social questions. It’s not difficult to imagine, for example, that if you got both an RSL member and an IPA member to present what they thought Australia’s trade policy should be, you may end up with two very different answers. These philosophies are, if you will, the paints in the Liberal Party’s palette, ready to be splattered on a policy canvas.

While the colours are different, most are not mutually exclusive. The nation can, for example, be defined to suit whatever ends you want. We can – for example – live in a nation defined by its freedom, its Judeo-Christian values, or as a nation of laws. The big exception to this, during the Howard era, was the rift between the ‘Howard-Abbott’ camp (standing for religion, nationalism, authoritarian populism, and to some degree individualism) up against the Kroeger-Costello Camp (largely status quo conservatives, small-l liberals, and some small government individualists). Over the months (and years?) ahead, picking or mixing the right philosophical colour will be the party’s big challenge. They then need leaders who can paint what the Liberal Party stands for in modern Australia, both at state and federal level.

It is an art made more difficult by the legacy of the Howard era, which has alienated many of the party’s potential supporters (for high profile examples, see Fraser, Malcolm; also, Manne, Robert). And this alienation came from how far the Howard era deviated from the underlying principles of many small government and small-l liberals. Some examples of principles undermined include: smaller government (increased spending on ‘middle-class welfare’ before elections), lower taxes (income tax bracket creep), individual liberty and rights (anti-terror laws), and competitive markets (Telstra’s wholesale, network, and retail divisions being privatised as a single entity). In the wake of the crushing electoral defeat of the Howard Government, the challenge of finding the right philosophical colour, and showing how this colour is different to Howard’s, is a large part of the Liberals’ challenge.

A similar phenomena happened at State level in the wake of the Kennett Government’s fall in 1999. While there are obvious differences – Kennett was quite clearly a small-government individualist who made very significant cuts to the state public service (in clear contrast to Howard), there challenge at state level has been similar: finding the right colour for Victoria, and showing how this is different to the deep blue of Kennett. While Robert Doyle was a very different artist to Kennett, he somehow forgot to highlight how his landscape was different to Kennett’s individual portrait, or even mention that he doesn’t like portraits. Whether Ballieu will end up doing the same is a matter for debate.

Painting the right picture is part of the challenge for the Libs. But that’s not the only challenge the Liberals face.

Libraries, Walkable Communities, and Imaginary Squares.

12 August, 2008

Aside from opening the door to discredited theories such as Malthusianism, there has been a moralising tendency among many urging action on climate change. It is a logic which suggests that people are “evil” because of their CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions; that inefficient use of natural resources are a moral failure. This moralising tendency often neglects the fact that people are products of their environment; that we develop and adapt our beliefs and behaviors to the environment we find ourselves in. If you create a Brave New World, you will socialise a society full of Soma-popping Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, and Epsilons. If you create an Oceania, then a society full of indifferent Proles and subservient Outer Party members will be the result.

By that same token, if people live in an environment which makes it easy to live with low CO2e emissions, and they are rewarded for doing so, they will. Similarly, if people live in a physical environment in which it is impossible, or takes significant effort and sacrifice, to live with low CO2e emissions, and they are rewarded for not doing so, then they won’t. Urban planning and public policy are therefore at the very heart of creating a low carbon emission environment.

In terms of urban planning and natural resources, if you need to house a whole heap of people, low density sprawl is horrendously inefficient way of doing it. And Melbourne has plenty of it. According to The Age, Melbourne has an average of 10 homes per hectare. A Hectare is an area of 100m x 100m (i.e. 10,000 square metres). Phrased differently, if your house were in the middle of an imaginary square 100m by 100m, the nearest edges of this imaginary square would be 50m walk from your house, and there would be (on average) around 10 homes in that square.

But what does this sprawl mean in human terms? Well, there’s a limit to the distance that a reasonably fit, able bodied person would be comfortable to walk to a destination before they chose to drive. in this example, we’ll be generous and say it’s 400m (though this distance will vary from person to person). If you were to walk to the edge of an imaginary square 400m away from your home, the area of that imaginary square would cover about 80 homes.

Population density, and the number of households within walking distance of a home, become important factors when we look at the many businesses and services which depend on population base (and, in many cases, a customer or user base) in a given area in order to be viable.

Let me give you an example: imagine that one library is viable for every – say – 1,000 homes. Obviously, this would mean roughly one library would be viable in every 100 hectare area (or thereabouts). If you imagine a square demarking the homes the library serves, its nearest edge would be 5 Km away. Of course, only 80 homes would be within a comfortable (400m) walk of the library, meaning that the other 920 homes would be using some other means to get to the library. And, with inadequate public transport, this means driving.

In this example, what would happen if we doubled the population density? If, instead of 10 homes per hectare, we moved to 20 homes per hectare? If our 400m walk invisible square covered 160 homes instead of 80?

We could chose to have our libraries closer together. The nearest edge of that square demarking the area the library serves, instead of being 5 Km away, would be only 2.5 Km away. 160 homes would be within walking distance of the library, with 840 left to drive.

Or we could chose to build bigger, more efficient libraries  (in terms of labour and Рmore importantly Рnatural resource use) that serve 2,000 people. The savings made in avoiding duplicating staff and resources across two libraries could be channeled back into better services and lower taxes. The local residents would have more books and resources available to them, and they would not have to travel any further from home than they do now to get to it.

And if we increased the density further, you could chose to do both.

Of course, the situation would not just apply to libraries. It would also apply to train stations, bus and tram routes, schools, hospitals, parks, and shops, just to cite a few examples.

These are important if we want to reduce our car use, dependency on oil, and the Co2e emissions this creates. In our library example, doubling our density could mean an extra 80 homes who would not need to drive to the library. And instead of 500 homes being within 2.5 Kms of the library, now all 1,000 would be. This means fewer people are driving, and when they do, they drive a shorter distance.

Reduced car use is further encouraged by the more efficient public transport networks that higher population densities allow. Reducing the size of suburbia means shorter bus routes, and by reducing the number of kilometres our bus network has to serve, and we can redirect those resources to more intensively serve each kilometre of bus route. More people would live within walking distance of public transport, and more destinations are within walking distance of public transport. This, in turn, encourages more commuters on public transport, meaning more money entering the system through fares, and more fares in turn mean more frequent for the same level of government funding. While – as I will point out in a future post – higher density is only part of the public transport challenge, it is certainly one means to improve public transport patronage.

So if we are serious about creating an environment which encourages lower resource usage, we need to aim for Walkable Communities: medium and high density communities where more businesses and services are within walking, cycling, and public transport range of more homes. Sermons about individual moral failings do little in comparison.

Malthusian Belts

8 August, 2008

In the past decade, a number of people have noted the simultaneous phenomena of population growth worldwide, and the mounting problems caused by environmental problems (such as global warming and peak oil). Seeing this correlation, some have erroneously assumed that the former is the cause of the latter (forgetting that correlation and causation are two very different things).

This has, in turn, led to the re-emergence of the dangerous and discredited theories of Thomas Malthus. At the core of this neo-Malthusian creed is the notion that overpopulation was to blame for diesase, poverty, war, famine, and other social and environmental ills.

What these neo-Malthusians often overlook is that there is a large disparity between rich and poor in terms of access to natural resources. For example, Australians emitted 25.6 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita in 2000, compared to 1.9 tons per capita from India.

By framing the question in terms of over-popualtion, rather than in terms of how efficiently we use natural resources, the neo-Malthusians obscure real solutions. Consider how either public transport or driving a large SUV both get a commuter from point A to point B, a family can live on the 22nd floor of an apartment building or on a quarter-acre block, or how both low energy lighting and halogen lamps can light a small space. In all three examples, the same end utility is gained, but with different amount of natural resources used. In many cases, the technology and know-how already exists to perform many tasks far more efficiently than at present, allowing far more people to be comfortably supported off fewer natural resources.

It is worth noting that Malthus himself acknowledged this inequality in access to natural resources, but this was of no concern to him. Malthus believed that the poor had no inherent rights to natural resources, and their lot in life was a Divine punishment for sexual promiscuity. Similarly, the neo-Malthusian advocates of population reduction probably wouldn’t feel same way if it were their own lives (or the lives of their loved ones) on the line. It is only when the victims are someone else – the underprivileged – that overpopulation argument comes up.

And this is the crux of the matter. It’s the downtrodden who suffer. Not looking at how people in developed world could do things more efficiently, and blaming overpopulation instead, only serves a small section of society, who have a large vested interest in earning their wealth by “owning” natural resources.

Of course, as Robert Owen so sagely pointed out, people are what their environment makes them. If you have an economic and social environment that encourages disproportionate, unsustainable and wasteful resource use, why would anyone be surprised that disproportionate, unsustainable and wasteful resource use is what you get? And if the economy allows people to make money off speculation in – and private ownership of – natural resources, why shouldn’t people take advantage of that opportunity? So long as the economic status quo continues, so to will the environment – in both senses of the word – it creates. The world’s downtrodden are not to blame for this.

The reality is that the problem is not in population sizes. instead, it lies in the economic system we use to allocate how finite natural resources are effectively used. What we need is an economic system that systematically encourages the efficient and sustainable use of natural resources, frees up labour and capital to this end, and compensates those who receive less than their fair share. As the economist Henry George pointed out, a century ahead of his time, this means shifting the tax base from labour and capital on to the ownership of scarce natural resources, and the wealth generated by such taxes redistributed equitably across the community.