« December 2011 | Main | February 2012 »

January 31, 2012

Belém: Teatro da Paz & the BNC

Teatro da Paz BelemWe visited the Teatro da Paz in Belém to see if it would work for a visit by the Battery Dance Company, which we hope to bring to Belém in April.  It does.  This will be a great venue for the dancers.  Now my only worry is that they will really come.  I am reasonably sure that they will, but it depends on a decision by ECA.  

The Teatro is similar to the Amazonas Theater in Manaus, but it was built about twenty years earlier.  It is in the same tradition of bringing opera to the Amazon.  Both are beautiful theaters and both are a bit of a folly. They tried so hard to be part of the cultured world of the time.  Well, I suppose it was like building a stadium might be today. They figured that every important town needed one.

You can see the view from the stage of the theater in the top picture.  The others are the curtains and the rehearsal area.

 

We visited the BNC in Belém in time to see the investiture of the new president.  The Belém BNC is well established and prosperous.  They have six branches, including one in Santarem, which is very far away up the Amazon.  I wonder if they could open a branch in Macapá, which is actually a bit closer, although in a different state.

BNC theater 

The BNC has a really great facility with its own theater, which you see above and an exhibit space, which you see below.  BNCs face serious completion from schools that just teach English and English is the way they make their money.  But BNCs are much more.  They do the educational advising, sponsor art and give lots of free scholarships.  I am trying to support BNCs in any way we can for that reason.

Belem BNC gallerly 

January 30, 2012

Amapá & a Little Piece of America

Blimp tower in Amapa 

One of the senators from the state of Amapá has been asking us to visit the site of a World War II American airbase, so we did. According the locals, we are the first official Americans to visit the base since we vacated it after World War II. There is not much left except a rusting tower where they use to tie up blimps, some decaying buildings and the remains of the runway. But the visit was certainly worth the effort as it made the senator very happy and seemed to delight the local population. The mayor came along on this visit as did a couple dozen others.

 

We were also told that there was wreckage of a World War II American plane in the jungle of Amapá and that the bodies of American airmen killed in the crash were buried nearby by the people that found them many years ago. This is something we will investigate. If it is true, we will certainly want to bring those men home.  We need to know if this is just a story or the truth.

Car in the ditch 

It took us more than three hours to get from the capital city of Macapá to the municipality of Amapá. Amapá gave its name to the state, but it is no longer the capital. It is really not much more than a village, connected to the world only by a dirt road.  The airbase is nine kilometers beyond that on an even worse dirt road. Inaccessible is the word you would use to describe it. One of the vehicles in our convoy hit a slippery patch and went into the ditch. Nobody was hurt, but it made us late for our next appointments and provided a spectacular picture that you can see above. Below is the municipal building.

 

Nevertheless, the drive was interesting. As the senator described and as we saw, Amapá has five distinct biomes. There is dry forest, wet forest, cerrado, marsh & campo (grassland). The state is not that big, so it is surprising to see that much diversity.

Much of the cerrado near the road is given over to eucalyptus plantations; I understand there are 135,000 acres. They were once owned by international paper, but were sold to a alliance of  two Japanese firms  - Marubeni Corp. and Nippon Papers Industries. I was told that there are no eucalyptus plantations not owned by them in the state. They chip the trees and sell the chips but do not process them further. The eucalyptus are ready to harvest in six years. Amazing.

Up the River

Amazon sunset 

This entry is out of order.  I will write up my stories from Amapa and post soon.

I am going up the Amazon with the Semester at Sea, a university sponsored by the University of Virginia course aboard a boat.  About 600 students take a semester of credit courses, while the boat sails around the world. Among the places it goes in Manaus. The Amazon is navigable by ocean ship to Manaus. This is a very fast ship, but it still takes two days and nights to arrive. Gives an idea of the size of the Amazon.

The courses are like ordinary university courses, but with emphasis on the places they visit. The students all have to read the book “1493” which I read as part of my routine reading list, but now I can claim to have done as homework. Sweet. I get to go for free. Well I have to pay for my trip by giving lectures, which I like to do so it is better than free. I have a good job. 

Amazon 

The job is a big part of the lectures.  I am trying to get these smart kids interesting in careers in the FS or in the Federal government in general.  This is not hard to do. I just tell them what I have been doing for the last couple of days and everybody wants to sign up.  This is not entirely representative.  My job is more fun than most and the last few days have been more eventful than usual, but I think the overall picture is right.  There are a couple of my more junior colleagues who fill them in about life nearer the beginning of the careers, still very good.   I am also trying to create awareness of the Brazilian Science w/o Borders program and also President Obama’s 100,000 Strong initiatives to encourage Americans to study in South America.  All I care about is Brazil, so I try to encourage Portuguese language study and Brazilian specialization.  We need more Americans who know this place.

Boat Semester at Sea 

The ship is very comfortable. It is like a floating hotel, different from most of the U.S. Navy vessels I have visited, not gray for one thing. Food is good on the ship. It is much like that on a big Navy ship or my Anbar chow hall, which I know does sound like it should be good to those who have not had it, but actually is.  I like cafeteria type food. My cabin is very nice. They are treating me very well. The ship rocks a little, but not much and is generally very smooth.   

It is very cool to watch the Amazon forest from out of the windows or off the decks, but it gets to be a lot like a long flight.  The scenery does not change much that you can really tell from the distance.  It is an unbroken green. When you go around a bend in the river, there is more of the same.  Sometimes the river widens out and there is a marshy area.  Other times the forest comes right to the shore.  I sat on my little balcony (yes I have one) last night for a long time, looking at the moon and thinking about the vastness. If I jumped off the boat and could swim to the shore, I would be in that proverbial middle of nowhere. There is no way I could get back.  It would be like one of those episodes of “I survived” except that I wouldn’t.  I don’t recall ever being in a place like this before, so empty, vast & hostile to survival.  It would be scary, if I was not aboard a luxury boat, bringing civilization with me up the river.

January 28, 2012

Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi

Urns in AmapaWe visted the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi mostly just to keep contact.  We sometimes have short fuse offers of exchange programs and it is important to have connection before you need them.  The museum is also a place to get some background on local history and environment. 

The museum is named after Emílio Goeldi, a Swiss anthropologist who organized the collections and did a lot of anthropological studies in Pará and what became the state of Amapá.  We talked about the native people of the area.  Ancient people of Amapá produced the urns you see above.  They contained to bones of the dead.  The people who made them are now extinct and not much is known about them, but the urns and related items were used to show the continuity of cultures of Pará and Amapá. 

The region was more healthful in pre-Columbian times before the introduction of malaria & yellow fever and could support a larger population using simple agriculture, hunting, gathering and fishing.  I mentioned “1493,” the book I have been reading.  The author says that malaria had a decisive impact on the history of the Americas. Among other things, it transformed the Amazon from a relatively healthy place to live, in terms of diseases, to a very unhealthy one.  The author speculates that malaria came over from Africa with slaves.  African populations have some immunity to malaria; natives of the Americas did not.

Tapir 

Much of the archeological and anthropological research in Pará and Amapá was carried out by German or Swiss-German scientist and German influence in general was strong in this region. As you look at the exhibits, it is one German after another. There was a darker side to this in the 1930s. The Nazis encouraged anthropological research as an adjunct to their general race-based theories. I remembered that from my studies in anthropology so many years ago after I was reminded when one of our Brazilian friends mentioned that one of the anthropologists left Brazil to serve as an officer in the Wehrmacht.  

Tree sloth 

Also part of the museum is a zoo and botanical gardens. It is in many ways the old – and IMO good – model of an integrated scholarship. The zoo is mostly a rescue of animals, i.e. they don’t go out and capture them for the zoo. They had lots of sloths and some anteaters. Evidently these slow-moving animals are often victims of traffic accidents.

Tree base 

January 27, 2012

Beautiful Belém

Amazon River in Belem 

Belém is the kind of place I expected it should be. When I was in Manaus, I didn’t especially feel like I was in the Amazon. It was like another big city. In Belém, in contrast, you can actually  see the Amazon. 

Garden path in Belem 

I will be writing more about what we did in Belém.  We were very busy.  But I am also very busy today, so writing the history will have to wait.  In the meantime here are a few pictures.  You will notice at the top that his is just really pretty.  As usual, the picture doesn’t capture all the beauty. The reddish dust you see on the path are pedals from flowers falling from the trees. 

Ruy Barata 

Above is a local poet Ruy Guilherme Paranatinga Barata.  It is a nice memorial to get to sit for eternity in a beautiful garden.  

White birds 

January 26, 2012

Belém First Contact

Big trees in Belem 

Flying into Belém you see a kind of water world.  The Amazon splits into many rivers, with lots of islands. Streets are lined with very big mango trees, some planted a century ago.  I was told that that drivers here have to buy special mango insurance, since the heavy fruit so often fall on cars, denting the hoods. But the trees are beautiful & worth the trouble.  They make the city feel much more comfortable and lower the overall temperature.  

Since we (Justen and I) got into town late, we didn’t have time to do too much. BTW, my picture is not good because of the late hour. It was dark. But those trees were really impressive and I wanted to get a picture for today's post.  We did find time to visit the offices of one of the major media firms, that owns newspapers, webpages and RBA (Rede Brasil Amazônia de Televisão)  Rede Bandeirantes in Belém.  We spoke to the boss, who is a good contact of some of my Embassy colleagues, but who I had never met.  He was a very nice guy who spoke to us in English, explaining that he had family in Charlotte, NC and had lots of connections with the U.S.  

He explained that Pará was getting more prosperous.  The initial impetus was the vast mineral wealth.  Vale (Compania Vale do Rio Doce) has mountains of iron, enough to supply the world for decades,  and Alcoa has similar amounts of bauxite. There is also the wealth from forestry and agriculture.  But Pará has now moved beyond simple resource based economics.  At first this was because services had by necessity followed firms like Vale or Alcoa, but now the economics is self-sustaining.  

A small but important help to Belém would be regular direct flights to Miami. Belém is closer to Florida than it is to some other parts of Brazil in terms of easy of access.  This may soon happen, as firms add flights in response to growing demand.

We talked about educations, a subject always important in Brazil and making sure Pará was included in initiatives, since all the economic growth will require a more sophisticated labor force.  Not everyone is as aware of the opportunities as might be desired, nor are people aware how easy it is to study in the U.S.  We discussed doing webchats on the study in the U.S. and the Science w/o borders program. The beauty of the web format is that we can do it from Brasília or anywhere else and still tap into the network in Pará. This is something worth following and perhaps using in other places.  The Amazônia site gets about two million visitors a month.   

We had supper with five alumni YA and English immersion students.  These are all smart kids.  The older ones are completing their university studies.  We talked in about the program and about things in general. One of the participants was planning to apply to Science w/o Borders and another said that he would after we explained it to him. He had been unaware of the opportunity.  

I have never met a YA who was not wildly enthusiastic about the experience.  Their challenge is staying in touch with colleagues, which they all want to do.  This is something we should be more active in helping. These networks will prove extremely valuable to participants.   As they move up in Brazilian society, and they certainly will, they can network with participants from all over Brazil.  It is a great program and we need to make sure it keeps on paying dividends. 

 

January 23, 2012

Maids no more

Brazil is changing rapidly, as old habits and institution disappear or are altered beyond recognition.  One of the mainstays of Brazilian “middle class” life has been cheap domestic help. It was not only the very rich who had maids, gardeners and other sorts of helpers around the house.  People with incomes similar to those of an American family of around or just a little above our median income could afford household help.  The reason for this was abundant cheap labor resulting from a fairly deep chasm between what we would recognize as middle class and what we would see as real poverty.

Most Brazilians have become better off in the last twenty years.  Although the income distribution per se has not changed much (the rich got richer too and Brazil is still an unequal place), the general increase in wealth has disproportionately helped the poorer Brazilians.  Relative wealth matters, but absolute wealth matters more when you are trying to climb out of poverty.   A rich person whose income doubles might be able to buy a nicer car of a bigger refrigerator, but he already owns those things and the additional utility he gets from a better model may be small or even trivial.   The poor person, however, who for the first time gets into the income bracket that he can afford his first car or his first refrigerator feels a quantum leap in his lifestyle.  In the last couple decades, perhaps 50 million Brazilians have climbed past the threshold where they can afford the basic comfort level.

There are also generally better opportunities and people are better able to take advantage of them, as well as few people to do the work.  These three factors interplay.  A big source of domestic help and unskilled labor in general had been the rural areas, especially in the chronically poor regions of the Northeast. Nordestinos , often living on marginally productive small farms, took buses to the cities in the richer South or Southeast whenever life became unbearable or a drought hit the region. Both these things happened with monotonous regularity, but the high birthrates seems to ensure an unbroken supply of very poor people seeking a better return on their hard work. 

People used to talk about the two Brazils. One scholar characterized the country as “Belindia”, i.e. part was rich as Belgium and the other as poor as India, but there was no border between them and the richer cities of other parts of the country. It would be as if the poorer parts of Mexico or India were part of the United States. This was not strictly a geographic phenomenon. The rich and the poor in Brazil often live very close together, but there was a definite geographical aspect too. 

The Northeast is still poor, parts are developing rapidly, actually drawing in labor from other places .  If you bought a Ford Fiesta last year, it was probably made near Salvador, Bahia, part of what used to be an abysmally poor region.   There are lots of people ready, willing and able to work if there is a chance to do it. At the same time, population growth is slowing even among the poorest Brazilians.  Demographic inertia will carry the population higher, but the drivers have stopped.  Among those smaller numbers, illiteracy has dropped, meaning that people can take advantages of more of the available opportunities.   Domestic help doesn’t really need to read.  Most other jobs do. Illiterate or semi-literate people are stuck in the jobs that are going nowhere but the kitchen or the garden.  

It is a healthy sign that it is getting harder to get good domestic help.  Live-in maids are not very productive for the society as a whole.  But their sudden disappearance has created some problems.   A world with full-time maids does not invest much in labor saving devices.  Most American homes, even those of the “poor” have appliances such as dishwashers, microwave ovens and efficient washing machines and driers.  Americans with lawns own power lawnmowers.  People have power tools  and most Americans are accustomed to using them.  There is also something we often overlook.  

Things in the U.S. are simple to use and keep in good repair.   Our shirts don’t require ironing.  Our floors are naturally shinny and don’t need to be waxed much or at all.  Frozen food sections are full of fairly good tasting products that can be zapped in the microwave and ready in minutes. In short, an average American home comes equipped with machines and features that take the place of full-time household help.   Brazilian houses are not like this.  My house in Brasília, which is obviously built for a person richer than I am, did not come equipped with a dishwasher.  I don’t think you can even find a newer house at or above the median price that doesn’t have a dishwasher.

There is a sudden boom in household appliances.  Dishwashers, driers, microwaves etc are selling very well.  I have not actually studied this, but I bet there is also a trend toward simpler construction, more prefab and easier to maintain features.

A recent article re this subject (in Portuguese) is here.

I also noticed more ads about cleaning services.  It looks like the future here will be more like the present in the U.S., with most of the maid's work done by labor saving devices and people who can afford it hiring cleaning services once a week or for special occasions.   

A related phenomenon is illegal immigration.  As Brazil’s economy grows and Brazilians no longer want to do the dirty jobs, others are being drawn in to take them.  It is funny to see Brazilian attitudes toward illegal immigrants coming to resemble ours in the U.S.  The news has recently featured stories about Haitians.  They come on a roundabout route  through Peru.

January 22, 2012

Time Enough

Hand lawnmower 

Unless I am working or traveling, I spend my weekends and holidays home alone. The big events are walking to the grocery store and running along the lake. This is not as sad as it sounds. I am alone but not unconnected. I talk to Chrissy every day and get lots of internet connections.  And I have things to do.  I actually like the work I do, for example, and I like to do background research and writing at home w/o interruptions.

I have found that I have to make lists of things to do to keep the day on track and make sure that one day doesn’t just melt into another. I have to put my house cleaning & laundry duties on the list; otherwise I put them off. The weather in Brasília helps create a feeling of timelessness. We have a wet and a dry season but the days are similar. You don’t get that changing seasons feeling.

BTW – the list system works well in other timeless activates, such as long airplane trips.  I make a list of things I want to accomplish on the plane.  I never get them done. I procrastinate.  But the act procrastinating and avoiding work makes the time pass much faster. 

On weekends I can catch up on my sleep.  I really don’t like to go to be before midnight, often 1am, but I still have to wake up at 630. By the end of the workweek, I am tired physically.  I also have lots of books to read. I put them on the list and tend to get at them on weekends. I have written before about audiobooks. Audiobooks go with walking.  I find that if I sit while listening I fall asleep. 

My biggest weekend activity is gardening.  I dispensed with the services of the gardener and bought a push mower.  You have to mow the lawn more often but it doesn’t make all that noise.  I planted corn, tomatoes, beans, lettuce and cauliflower.  I planted the corn with the beans.  The beans will fix nitrogen to help the corn grow and the beans will be able to grow up the corn stalks.  The corn just spouted, so I put in the bean seeds.  My plan is that the corn will be ready in March-April when the dry season starts and it gets hot enough to finish the corn.

watermelon 

My watermelon experiment is failing. I got really big vines but I had only one melon. That one was attacked by some kind of animal and subsequently invested by pests. It takes me a week and a half to eat one watermelon.  It probably just is not worth it to grow them, even if I could. Tomatoes and corn, on the other hand will be cost effective and worth the effort. I should have planted them earlier, but I went with the flowers first.  I have a banana tree, but I don’t know when/if it will get any bananas. I had lots of mangoes, but I don’t much like mangoes.  The birds tended to get at them anyway. Mangoes are very productive and I can see that they would be good to have if you liked the fruit.  

What I need is a Coke Zero tree.

I know this is a boring entry and it might seem to indicate a boring existence, but I don't see it that way. The books are giving me a lot to think about and the gardening, growing the plants from seed in what is for me a strange soil and climate, is pretty interesting for me. Maybe I am just a boring guy, but these are things I find interesting.

Of course, my work can be interesting in the more active sense.  Next weekend, for example, I get to take a boat up the Amazon.  It will be part of a "semester at sea" program. I have to give a few lectures and in return I get to do what not many people can. That weekend will be more eventful than usual.  I will take pictures and post some entries. 

Window washers in Brasilia 

Above are some guys washing windows on one of the new buildings. I thought it was an interesting picture. 

January 15, 2012

Illegal Logging

This is a draft of what I will send for my quarterly article in "Virginia Forest" magazine.

Illegal loggers steal from us in many ways. Sometimes they are literally stealing our trees, but it goes way beyond that. Illegal logging is rarely done according to good procedures that protect the environment and preserve the forest for future generations. The public views the scenes of destruction left by illegal loggers and jumps to conclusion that this is how logging is done. That means that illegal loggers also steal the reputations of honest loggers and landowners who are good stewards of their land and often have been for many generations.

Addressing the problem of illegal logging, however, is not as simple as enacting stronger laws and harsher penalties. In fact, worldwide it is often the theoretically strong laws that are the problem. Of course, in Virginia we still have timber theft. This is a type of illegal logging but at the levels and ways it is done, it is more akin to ordinary crime like burglary or grand theft auto. There are no cases of widespread deforestation caused by illegal logging in the Old Dominion.  Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere.  In some countries the illegal timber harvest can reach as high a 60-70% of the total.  What accounts for the difference?

The easy answer is that countries where illegal logging is rampant simply lack strict laws or the ability to enforce them. The first part of this statement is often not true. Many developing countries have – on the books – much stricter preservation laws than we have in Virginia. In some places it is just plain illegal to cut down native forests on a wide range of land types. These are often the places most likely to be deforested, as illegal logging targets them first. They understand that government authorities probably cannot protect them and that the off limits status has removed the incentives for local people to pay much attention. The second part of the statement - that they lack the ability to enforce the good laws - is true in areas of deforestation but it is not as remarkable at it seems because it is true everywhere.

Logging is almost always done in relatively out of the way places. Laws are never enough. Even the most active authorities cannot effectively police large areas of forest land.  In Virginia, they really don’t have to.  Landowners, loggers and foresters have incentives to preserve and enhance the forests on their land because they can use and benefit from them. They also know that everyone around suffers if forests, soils, animals and water are wantonly destroyed.  It is obviously true that the authorities protect my forest land in Brunswick County.  But the first lines of defense are my neighbors, friends and even strangers who know that we are all in this together. Virginians protect their own land and those of others because they own the land. We have centuries old traditions of protecting property rights and we all are in the same boat. We protect each other’s stuff.

We also enjoy the use of our land with fewer restrictions than in most other places. We can harvest trees and other forest products within reasonable rules. We can hunt that animals that inhabit our forests and, again within reasonable limits, we can change the way we use our lands. In the final analysis, what most protects the forests of Virginia is the effort of thousands of Virginians who have a stake in the management and use of the forests and the products they produce. In Virginia, hunters, loggers and landowners are preserving and enhancing our forests. Laws work when they are reasonable and when people see the benefits. If you want to preserve and improve forests, you have to let people cut some trees and kill some animals. You have to let them have a stake.

Places that suffer widespread deforestation because of illegal logging often find themselves in this unhappy situation not in spite of but because of strong laws, albeit misapplied. Laws and regulations meant to preserve forests often end up destroying them if they make it difficult or impossible for the people who live in or near the forests to make an honest living from them. If strict rules make it impossible to make an honest profit, some people will make dishonest ones. Even worse, as honest people leave the business and dishonest ones take their place, the whole respect for law as well as the whole idea of stewardship disappears.  The field divides between preservers and destroyers.  Neither is the right way to go.  We need stewards.

If I can be permitted a little immodesty, in America we got it right. That is not to say challenges have disappeared. There is no perfect system and everything must always adapt. But we should never make the quest for the perfect the enemy of the good. The methods of stewardship that have grown up in the United States during the twentieth century work well. The American Tree Farm System and other independent certification systems are doing their jobs.

Most landowners want to do the right thing on their land. People I talk to not only want to take care of the land during their own lifetimes. A major motivation is to leave the land in better shape for future generations.  People are willing.  We need information and guidance both to do the right things and to do things right.  What we don’t need is strict, sometimes incomprehensible, rules that make it difficult for honest people to make honest profits.  We have created a wonderful and sustainable system of forestry in Virginia.  We can be proud of it and we should all work to protect it and try to spread the word as far as we can.

January 01, 2012

How Violence has Declined & Why we Didn't Notice

Stephen Pinker is my favorite living philosopher of society.  Some would correct me and say that he is a scientists and not a philosopher, but the two can overlap extensively.  With all due respect to the ancient philosophers that I read and loved, many of the questions that perturbed them are now just “simple” matters of science.  For example, philosophers argued back and forth for years as to whether humans were “blank slates” influenced only by their environments or whether they were determined by physical or genetic factors. Recent advances in science have made this argument mute.  

People are born pre-programed.  A variety of talents, abilities, habits are inherited to some extent.  On the other hand, within these constraints human behavior and preferences are highly mutable.  (Science proved what any perceptive parent of more than one child already knew.)  I take this to mean that you can have a lot of freedom to change things if you recognize and work with nature, its gifts and constraints.  

That is what I liked about Steven Pinker’s book the Blank Slate when I read it about ten years ago.  At first you might feel a little discouraged.   Pinker points out that human propensity to violence, intolerance & sloth were bred into us during evolution.  Humans of the stone age who didn’t react quickly and violently to threats didn’t usually live long enough to become our ancestors.   The good news is that institutions of civilization and social constraints can (and have) made us behave in ways that are – well - more civilized and socially acceptable. 
 

I just started reading Pinker’s recent book, the Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  I suppose that good intellectual rigor would dictate that I actually finish the book before commenting on the ideas, but I have read several reviews and I just finished reading an interview with the author in Veja that got me thinking about this.  There is a good recent interview here.  The best quick background is Pinker’s TED talk.  (BTW – TED lecture are really interesting in general.)

Pinker studied statistics on violent deaths. Of course there are no statistics on Stone Age people in the actual Stone Age, but it is possible to study more modern Stone Age people. It turns out that murder rates among primitive people about which we have records are astronomical. It is a myth that people were good and later corrupted by civilization. Civilization civilizes and it is better than the alternative "natural man." 

Historical records are spotty at first, but it is clear that life was much more dangerous and violent in any ancient or medieval period we study. Death was a penalty for all sorts of minor crimes. And was often inflicted in the most cruel way possible. Torture was common. Entertainments were cruel and bloody. But things improved, at least in the west.  

Despite the great wars and murder on an industrial scale, the 20th Century has been the least violent in history.  Of course, more total numbers of people have been killed, but that is because there are more total people.  The proportions are way down. 

Most people can vouch for this, if they think about it for even a short time. It is only in recent times that most of the population could expect to live a long life w/o ever being the victim of the deadly violence that was common to all humankind in the past. 

Pinker has to take a lot of crap for pointing out the truth.  One reason is simply because most people like to think they live in the most challenging times.  Beyond that, we have much better reporting.  If a couple people are killed in nasty ways anywhere in the country and increasingly the world, we get graphic and memorable details on the news.   

A counterintuitive reason might be that things are actually improving so quickly that it makes the remaining problems seem that much worse.  We repent much more sorrowfully the fewer acts of terrible violence because they seem more personal.   “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic,” is as quote attributed to Stalin, who understood how to kill individuals and millions. It is nasty, but perhaps accurate. We get inured to lots of violence and more afraid of a little. 

Pinker also has to face what we might call the miserly industry.  Politicians selling programs and NGOs seeking donations need to paint the in the direst colors.   Pinker is a brave man to take this on.

Of course, why violence has declines is important. What goes down in human behavior could go back up.  Pinker does not think the explanation is that humans have improved or human nature has changed. He is too much a scientist to think these things.  He does not try to make a comprehensive explanation, but he mentions some possibilities.  The first is the rise of stable states.  He doesn't use the word strong, but prefers competent in the sense of keeping order and satisfying the basic needs of its people. Competent states must be strong, but not all strong states are competent. Nazis & communists had strong states.

Another explanation is free trade.  In one of the interviews, Pinker quoted that "we can't bomb the Japanese because they make my minivan."  Free trade goes with communications. The more we see people are being like us, the less likely we can treat them as sub-human.

We may be less violent because there is less incentive. Hunter-gatherers are always ready for violence. They sometimes commit violence because they fear violence from others and sometimes just to rip off their neighbors, which is one reason everybody fears violence from others.   War used to be profitable, at least for the winners.  Not so much anymore.  Finally, there is a prosaic reason of habit. Many of us have lost the habit of using violent solutions.

I don't think violence or war will ever go away, but we have seen less of it.  I have never been a victim of serious violence. I felt it personally when Alex was a hate crime victim. This is the kind of senseless thing you cannot purge. His attackers didn't know him or try to rob him. They merely acted out of the dark demons of human nature. I saw war in Iraq and like many observers, I was stuck by the banality of violence.  I saw violence drop not because of persuasion but mostly because the Marines and our Iraqi allies established predictable order.

Violence and disorder always lurks under our veneer of civilization. The threat never is gone. We have to work  all the time to channel the primitive passions and animal desires.  I say "channel" not suppress. These impulses are sources of our energy and creativity.  The uncivilized human is not evil or sinful, as was widely thought in some religious circles, but neither is there any such thing as a noble savage.  Both these notions have caused great misery, as have the ideas that human behavior is determined by genetics or that humans are blank slates on to which society can stamp any design.

Life provides us with a never ending series of constrained choices. It is certainly not true that anything is possible, but making good choices can expand our contentment as well as our ability to make more good choices. Some human problems are intractable and some "problems" are not really problems in the sense that they cannot be solved. If we ask the wrong questions, we will come up with the wrong answers. We will never achieve a society where everybody is equal because people are not equal.  We will never achieve a society w/o violence because people have  propensity to selfishness which sometimes leads to violence. 

But if we recognize constraints, we can achieve better results. "Going back" to a more primitive society is not an option. It would add to misery. Life was nasty, brutish and short in earlier periods.  Going "forward" to a utopia is also not possible.  Life is actually pretty good for most people in our Western market democracies and it is getting better for those in the developing world. Maybe we will just have to manage with what we have.


Hosting by Yahoo!