Ali F. Khwaja

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Page I - March 5, 2012 - Plan B's Repercussions on 'Global' Citizenship

While reading Lester R. Brown’s "save-our-civilization" Plan B, I was taken aback by how he matter-of-factly posited such radical changes in our current world order. Though he recognizes its "ambitiousness," it is worth nothing that actualizing his proposals would require unprecedented intergovernmental cooperation. Also, if the pace of environmental change were to outstrip that of technological advances and mitigation efforts, Brown’s plan would have to be customized to the prevailing circumstances.

Steffen et al and Brown treat climate change as an established fact (which, at least for most educated people, it is). Via a narrative bolstered by scientific reasoning, the former seem to be legitimating climate change when they state that there is "indisputable evidence that human activities [are] affecting the environment at a global scale." But even today, in the 21st century – where many are still skeptical - it would be difficult to mobilize public opinion worldwide in favor of Plan B because it would create a highly charged and politicized debate. Indeed, Brown relies heavily on excerpts and data from Foreign Policy, which made me realize exactly how political the problems at hand are.

Governments may be hurriedly procuring swaths of foreign arable land in order to secure future food supplies, but political – not environmental – longevity seems to be the main motive guiding such "long-term" vision. That these deals are far from transparent also makes you wonder what “global citizenship” will entail. Will there be a green WikiLeaks to hold leaders accountable? Will countries adhere to “investment codes” or forgo land grabs? In times of unrest and frequent natural disasters, will people transcend self-interest, or will there be more "business as usual" (a phrase that, incidentally, recurs in both readings)?

This is not to say that human beings are wired to be selfish, insular and consumerist. International aid, charity and primacy of human rights exemplify our capacity to be altruistic and humane, but also reveal a global consciousness whereby we are beginning to internalize the dual nature of modern citizenship i.e. simultaneously being citizens of our respective countries and of the globe. Faced with challenges that test the limits of personal and national sacrifices, will we all begin to “think like ecologists?” Will there be an international court to prosecute egregious incidences of ecocide?

According to Steffen et al: "Collapse of modern, globalized society under uncontrollable environmental change is one possible outcome." Similarly, before lightening up towards the end of Selling Our Future, Brown paints a bleak picture – so-called "failed states" collapsing left and right; a dysfunctional natural system; disrupted food production and raw material supplies; political strife fomenting terrorism. Preventing or countering these trends at “wartime speed” would, to my mind, be extremely difficult. The formation of public policy is a lengthy and tortuous process, especially when it comes to the energy and environment sectors, where we are hard pressed to find consensus. Implementing watered-down (no pun intended) climate change legislation would take time, and even then adaptation would be necessary.

Despite the fact that the Kyoto Protocol expires this year, the world repeatedly failed to solidify future commitments to combating climate change at Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban. I find this very alarming and discouraging, as it is indicative of the protectionism and short-sightedness inherent in world politics. It seems that we still cannot reconcile abstract notions such as the nation-state, treaties and sustainable development with their real consequences on real people. Our inability to move past doomsday scenarios on the one hand and Climategates on the other represents a fundamental lack of imagination. Even if we do not pursue Plan B, simply living in Anthropocene means that most of us will bear witness to human folly and genius on a grand scale. We will have to redefine our relationship with other people and the world: as citizens and, more crucially, as human beings. I don’t think it will be nearly as smooth as Brown suggests.

  • Ali brings up a great point, of who will hold leaders accountable to their new standards of global citizenship (when and if they come). It would seem that the majority of the people living in the country would have to care enough, even in the face of "challenges that will test the limits of personal and national sacrifices" to hold their leaders accountable. How can we achieve this? Would nearly everyone have to be convinced that the new sustainable measures are for the greatest good, and have an in depth knowledge of possible effects of climate change, and what climate change is? This would be a monumental task, that would probably require a unified effort by not just law and government, but by NGO's and many others. Or would we have to make it so that these sustainability efforts are what is most rewarding for people in the short term, which is to say that they'll make money from it? This may make people interested in holding their leaders accountable, but the task of making environmental policies and renewable practices moneymakers is a daunting one as well. Fabbott-lum 03:02, 8 March 2012 (UTC)
  • The observation that Brown offers his radical (yes) propositions in such a dead-pan way is, I believe, worth thinking about some more. Is this a more or less effective way of promoting major change? If you say 'this change would be a major upheaval of the established order', would that repel a lot of people? Or, if you offer it in a matter-of-fact way without big flags flying, will people just not take it seriously? I wonder if this is a calculated strategy on his part, but it's true that his writing has always had a 'just the facts...' manner. Kwoods 01:31, 11 March 2012 (UTC)
    • You bring up some fascinating points Ali. I wonder how much of our inability to bring about effective change comes from the wavering and vague role of the nation state within a newly globalized world. Seemingly, in some scenarios, the call for global integration (mainly through markets) has overridden the power of the nation state in international relations. Do you think we have to find a new mode of international communication to bring about this change? Is the nation state outmoded in this context, and can no longer command the power we need to bring about global sustainability? Ozubrowski 18:15, 11 March 2012 (UTC)
  • Great insights. To your question about whether people and governments will be able to come together in the collective interest of saving our ecosystem at the penultimate hour, or if we'll inevitably be practicing "business as usual" even as humanity's ship is sinking, you might be interested in the two perspectives outlined in this article. The question that might make all this discussion irrelevant, though, has yet to be answered: is the ship already sinking, or have we just spotted the iceberg in the distance? Dblack 21:27, 14 March 2012 (UTC)
      • Forest: "The greatest good" and profitability don't go hand in hand--at least according to conventional wisdom. Some developing countries have agreed to carbon taxation, through which industrialized nations pay them considerably to not emit greenhouse gases. But this only maintains the status quo. Kerry: As you noted in our last class, Hardin doesn't think that guilt trips work. Likewise, a hysterical, soap opera-esque or alarmist tone would definitely "repel" potential champions of Brown's cause. In my opinion, his no-nonsense approach makes his work sound authoritative. Olivia: With the birth of social media, have we not begun having a global conversation? Virtual people-to-people exchange can never, of course, replace in-person interactions (I recently heard of the word "clicktivism," which is used as a pejorative way of characterizing online or "hashtag" activism), but "international communication" (pithy phrase), has led to a kind of global electorate, I think. On February 17, 2003, following the London protests against the War in Iraq, The New York Times stated: "The huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: The United States, and world public opinion." That being said, whenever the G8, G20, WTO and Davos summits take place, protesters always challenge the local police, but it has become so routine an occurrence that the media do not take it seriously. Even violent or non-violent direct action do not necessarily effect change at the policy level. David: Thanks for the article; it is very interesting. I don't want to sound like a pessimist but, to me, it looks as though the ship began to sink a while ago. Akhwaja 21:03, 1 April 2012 (UTC)

Page II - March 19, 2012 - Kingdom Collapse Disorder: Realizing Nature's Worth

Ardent environmentalists aside, how many of us consciously think of how our lives affect those of other species? And when we do, why are we - to quote Wackernagel et al - wont to place “monetary values on the ecological services that humanity depends on?”

In a 1997 research paper, Economic and Environmental Benefits of Biodiversity, David Pimentel et al concluded that pollination contributed $40 billion to the American economy and $200 billion to the world’s. Insects such as honey bees are vital for pollination. A few years ago, colony collapse disorder (CCD) among honey bees generated hysteric media interest; now, it is all but forgotten. CCD meant that beekeepers witnessed mass “die-offs,” mostly without so much as dead bees littering the hives. Scientists have been unable to ascertain the root cause of CCD (although insecticide poisoning is the most favored culprit), but “experts” have been quick to highlight the loss of agricultural and food production. Never mind the bees.

Is it possible to delink the economic value of non-human species from their actual worth? Or is putting a price tag on an “ecological service” the only way to recognize the potential loss of a natural asset? Writing about a British “national ecosystem assessment” report in The Guardian, George Monibot says: “The graphics used by the assessment are telling: they portray the connections between people and nature as interlocking cogs. It's as clear a warning as we could take that this is an almost comical attempt to force both nature and human emotion into a linear, mechanistic vision.”

Monibot's words reminded me of an infographic that I recently stumbled upon, which compares the financial damage incurred by last year's Japan tsunami relative to other natural disasters. Multicolored graphs put death tolls in a historical context: such remove is chilling. At least it is easy to relate to the loss of human life; the death of other beings, particularly undomesticated ones, does not have the same effect. Invertebrates have it especially bad because most of us find them revolting. And yet, there is a kind of irony to the fact that the earth system depends on the lives and toil of tiny creatures that carry out decomposition, pollination and revitalize the soil.

Children's films such as “A Bug's Life,” “Bee Movie” and “Antz” may be less trivial than we assume: they may serve an important purpose by sensitizing young people to their place in the ecosystem. Production companies profit, for sure, but perhaps it helps to develop a sense of care for the environment. In contrast, analysts predicting Great Recessions or Great Accelerations rarely take us down to forest floor or underwater to put things in a different perspective and on a small scale.

That is why I was surprised to read a review of the renowned biologist E. O. Wilson's novel Anthill, through which he hoped to reach “a wider readership for urgent ecological messages.” The reviewer, Margaret Atwood, says: “The mirroring makes us nervous: Are we not enough like ants or are we too much like them? Our ambivalence shows: being compared to an ant can be either a compliment or an insult.” Wilson's story “takes place on three planes of life—human, insect, and the biosphere that contains both.” If a Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist is trying to convey the centrality of insects in the world through fiction, perhaps we need to look more closely at our connections to nature at the most basic level. We have a tendency to not think of ourselves as animals first and foremost; animals that are displacing virtually all others in the kingdom. Visualizing oneself as part of a complex system is disorienting; the opposite of anthropomorphizing would be even more so. Even with all our mental faculties, humans cannot truly feel what it is to not be human. For other species, that isn't exactly good news.

  • Do you see this monetary attachment to various natural processes as man's only way of connecting to them? Your point about people having particular difficulty seeing our natural reliance on other species and our necessity for their survival, particularly "revolting" ones, was quite accurate. Do you think that attaching digits to each of these processes is helping the cause of these various beings, as it does bring the plight of their processes to light in a way that is very easy for us, as people, to understand on a larger level, or do you think that it is absolutely destroying it? You bring up the great question, "Is it possible to delink the economic value of non-human species from their actual worth?" I would say no, within today's world, it is not. Similar to the recurring point brought up in class, that it is difficult to get people to care about what effect their actions will have after they are gone, the actual worth of these species means little to nothing. Money, however, is what gets people to pay attention. Rjackson
  • It's a minor part of your essay, but the colony collapse disorder debate may be interestingly inistructive... You say "insecticide poisoning is favored culprit", but there are other arguments (parasites is probably more 'favored' explanation in scientific research community, in fact). There's no definitive answer yet. Does the source tend to affect which explanation is 'favored'? For example, might groups or organizations who, for whatever reason, oppose the use of insecticides, tend to favor one explanation over another in their publications when the story is unresolved?Kwoods 14:02, 12 April 2012 (UTC)

Page III - May 9, 2012 - Building Global Trust

Lester Brown highlights many points in "Eradicating Poverty and Stabilizing Population." Most intriguing is his advocacy of a Orwellian-sounding Department of Global Security (DGS); he champions it without a sense of irony. As he notes himself, international aid programs are often met with resistance because they are perceived to be furthering sinister agenda. Says he: "In effect, the DGS budget would be the new defense budget." I, for one, am vehemently opposed to aid being packaged as a "defense" issue (not because it isn't, but because it complicates matters) or looked at primarily through a national security lens. This takes away the semblance of the "pure" motivations of aid: to help people.

Particularly in places where the national consciousness rides with the religious and sociocultural values of the people, international assistance is seen as a imposition. Brown mentions two countries, Nigeria and Pakistan, whose attitudes are telling. Aside from deeming vaccinations as vectors of sterility and AIDS, people also view family planning as foreign. Nigeria's Muslim-majority northern region has a fertility rate of 7.3 compared to the national average of 5.5.But only so much can be attributed to religion: the southern region is also more prosperous. With these many variables at play, education seems to be the most important one. Ignorance can be source of fear, which in turn can be fanned into jingoism and xenophobic suspicions of the "Other."

Perhaps public endorsement of all programs by donor agencies would make for a more transparent process. "Branding" aid might controversial, but at least it gives credit where it is due. How else can the USAID, for instance, hope to counter anti-Americanism if the ordinary citizen of the recipient country is unaware of who is helping them. It's unsettling to view beneficiaries as a target audience—as if they were customers being advertized good will—but perhaps this would be more efficient than coaxing them into healthier practices. Brown's instincts are spot on when he recommends more people-to-people exchange; devising a national security policy should have a human as well as a military aspect. We usually hear such terms as "soft" versus "hard" power, and "winning hearts and minds" (the latter is repeated so often, it has become something of a joke). Policy and military wonks usually try to apply cookie-cutter solutions to everything. This can only been avoided if the energy, creativity and resources of the voluntary sector are used.

Last FWT, when I was working with Save the Children in Swat Valley (a once-Taliban-controlled area in Pakistan), coworkers were frustrated by the conspiracy theories regarding international NGOs but more so by the red-tape of the bureaucracy, due to which work would stall or be hindered. Recently, it has been revealed that there was some truth to the allegations against Save the Children. Although the NGO was not complicit, it appears to have been used as a cover by CIA operatives. This is where things get murky: to mix defense with development and diplomacy (the 3 Ds of proposed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) is to poison the chalice. Not to get mired in semantics, but security and defense are not one and the same. Ensuring "global security" means building mutual trust, which cannot be bought through money. Akhwaja 02:57, 10 May 2012 (UTC)