Saturday, 30 May 2020

Rutger Bregman: What we teach and report about ourselves, we become

Time Logo - GotGame

In your new book, Humankind, you make the argument that, humans are not as intrinsically selfish as much literature would have us believe. Since you wrote it, the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. Do you stand by your argument?

Humankind: A New History of Human Nature: Bregman ...
Obviously I think I’m right! The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals. What I’m trying to do in this book is to turn this narrative around, to show that actually, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be friendly.
There’s always selfish behavior. There are lots of examples of people hoarding. But we’ve seen in this pandemic that the vast majority of behavior from normal citizens is actually pro-social in nature. People are willing to help their neighbors. That is the bigger picture that we’re seeing right now.

Is this moment a fertile time for that idea?

I hope that the message of my book is extra relevant right now. Because it’s not only the virus that is contagious, but our behavior as well. If we assume that most people are fundamentally selfish, and if we design our response to this virus with that view of human nature, then we’re going to bring that out in people. Whereas, if we assume that most people are cooperative and want to help, then we can actually inspire other people. This may sound a bit cheesy, but there’s actually a lot of psychological research that shows that acts of kindness are really contagious. They really spread throughout a social network, even influencing people who you don’t know, who you haven’t seen.
The other thing this crisis shows very clearly is how dependent we are on certain professions. Around the globe, there are governments coming up with lists of so-called vital professions. If you look at those lists, you won’t find the hedge fund managers or the marketeers or whatever. But you’ll find the garbage collectors and the teachers and the nurses, people who we often don’t pay very well, but turn out to be people we can’t live without. So just imagine what the influence of that could be for the longer term. Because there’s now a whole generation growing up that will be impacted by this pandemic. We’ll all remember 2020 as an historic year. And for decades, people will be able to say, remember 2020. Remember when things were really tough. Who did we rely on? I think that could impact a whole generation.

Why do our assumptions about human nature matter? What’s at stake in the debate?

I think everything starts with your view of human nature, because what you assume about other people is often what you get out of them. So if we assume that most people deep down are selfish and cannot be trusted, then you’ll start designing your institutions around that idea. And you’ll create exactly the kind of people that your view of human nature presupposes.

People who think other people tend to be selfish have come to be called realists, whereas people who are more trusting are sometimes called idealists. Do you think those labels are fair?

I’m trying to redefine what the realist position is. I go over all this empirical evidence in my book, and I show that actually, what you see most in times of crisis is an explosion of altruism. We’ve got more than 500 case studies of natural disasters from around the globe. And every single time sociologists and anthropologists find that it’s almost as if you push a reset button in people’s heads and they go back to their better selves. They will start helping each other. And this is the opposite of what we’ve been told for decades, for centuries even in Western culture, and what the news tells us every day.

Connected to the idea that humans are intrinsically selfish is the idea that the free market is the most efficient way to run an economy. Do you think the two ideas are connected?

Yes, but I’m not part of the generation of the Cold War when the debate was all about capitalism versus communism or market versus state, right? I don’t live in that binary world. Sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution. During the Enlightenment, there were brilliant thinkers who realized that, if you assume most people are naturally selfish and you construct the market around that, sometimes it can actually work for the common good. I just think that in many cases, it went too far. What many economists forget is that this view of humanity, the so-called “homo economicus,” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What kind of world do you hope to see if people change their minds, maybe from reading your book? What kind of world could be possible?

You could do pretty much everything in a different way. In maybe one of the most radical examples in my book, I look at how the prison system works in Norway. They basically give prisoners the freedom to do whatever they want, right? Often, they even have the key to their own cells. And you’ve got prisons there with cinemas and libraries where they can just relax around on a friendly basis with the guards. Now, if you look at that, from an American perspective, you’re like, these people are totally crazy. But then if you look at it from a scientific perspective, you look at the recidivism rate, right? The odds that someone who has committed a crime commits another one once he gets out of prison. Well, the recidivism rate is very high in the U.S. – it’s one of the highest rates in the world. But it’s the lowest in Norway. So actually the “realist” prison here is the Norwegian prison, where inmates are treated like humans and as adults, whereas many American prisons where inmates are often treated as animals, as beasts. At the moment those are taxpayer funded institutions to educate people for more criminal behavior. That’s basically what they are.

How do you explain the power of nationalism as an ideology? The process of building an idea of a nation requires excluding out-groups. And by extension, denying them certain benefits. Often violence is involved in this as well. How does that fit with the idea of human nature as inherently decent?

Well, this is the big question hanging over my whole book. We do terrible things that are not done by any animal in the animal kingdom. There’s never been a penguin that says, let’s lock up a group of other penguins and exterminate them. These are singularly human crimes. We can get the beginning of an answer if we look at this theory from biology that people have evolved to be friendly, what they call the self-domestication theory. And the idea here from some biologists is that there’s a dark side to that as well. Because, friendliness, wanting to fit into a group can sometimes stand in the way of justice and truth. We find it very hard not to be included in our own social groups, to go against the grain. You even find it with babies, studies show as young as three to six months old that they already seem to know the difference between good and evil, and they prefer the good — but they also have xenophobic tendencies. Babies do not like unfamiliar sounds, unfamiliar faces. So this is a tribal button that can be pushed in our brain.
But if you watch a lot of Hollywood and Netflix series, you might get the impression that people find it really easy to commit violence against each other. Well, we actually know from psychological studies and from the history of warfare, that people find it really, really hard. For example, during the Second World War, it’s estimated that only around 15 to 20% of soldiers actually managed to fire their gun. When they had to look the enemy in the eye and pull the trigger, most of them couldn’t do it, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t condition people to do it, you can’t make them push a button of an artillery device or something so that they can kill people from the distance. So there are all kinds of technological and psychological means to get people to commit violence, but it is not deep in our nature. For most people, it’s actually really hard to do.
The other fascinating thing unique to humans is that we blush. How could this ever have been an evolutionary advantage that we involuntarily give away our deepest feelings? This shows that we evolved to cooperate. The thing is, this works really well on a small scale. Now, when we settled down, 10,000 years ago, and we first started living in villages and cities and doing agriculture, we also lost sight of each other, literally. And some of the things that we evolved for didn’t work anymore. And I think it’s no coincidence that this is also the time in world history where you see the first wars breaking out. The reason is that the distance between people has increased.
And so obviously the simple solution that you come to if you want to do something against racism or prejudice or all these tribal instincts in our nature, the ultimate solution is obviously contact. People gotta meet each other.

I suppose, to use a British example, the constituencies that voted most heavily for Brexit (and by extension against immigration) were generally the ones with the lowest immigration rates.

Yeah, that’s obviously the classic example. And in very diverse neighborhoods, most people wanted to stay within the E.U. And the same is actually the case during the Trump election in 2016. Neighborhoods with very little diversity voted for Trump. It is something that you should always keep in mind when you design your institutions, like schools. It matters so much that from a very early age we encounter different kinds of different people, because that’s what real life should be about as well.

You were on a panel organized by TIME at Davos last year when you called on billionaires to stop talking about philanthropy and pay their taxes. The video went viral. It’s a bit more than a year on, now. Have you noticed any improvement on that?

I’m optimistic actually. I think to be honest, that we’re living through extraordinary times. The Zeitgeist is really shifting before our eyes. You have to remember that even Joe Biden’s climate plan is more ambitious than Bernie Sanders’ climate plan was in 2016. Even Biden wants to have higher taxes on the rich. This has become the new normal right now. So I really think that, what they call the Overton window, you see it moving. And you really see it with taxes as well. So the worst period was 10 to 15 years ago, when we weren’t even talking about it.
Now of course, the coronavirus is changing everything. Maybe this can become a bigger movement that you could call some sort of a “neo-realistic” movement, right, with a new updated view of human nature. Maybe this will be the end of neoliberalism, the incredibly powerful idea that basically conquered the West since the 1970s. The ideology was that most people are selfish. Now, maybe we can move into a different era, because this whole idea that most people are selfish is simply unworkable during a pandemic. I’m not predicting this will happen. It’s just a hopeful scenario, that may be accelerated by this pandemic.

Hanging over the pandemic is another threat to humanity: climate change. One thing that we keep hearing is that in order to avert the crisis, even with systemic change, we are going to need to make severe behavioral changes, we’re going to need to give up our luxuries for the good of the human race. And yet, that kind humanity-wide decency, if we’re putting it in those terms, is very hard to achieve. How do you square that with your argument that humans are inherently good?

Well, actually, my book is all about the power of human beings collectively, right? So individually, we can’t achieve much. We’re not very smart and we’re not very strong. The strength of human beings only really comes out on a big scale. So the same is true for climate change. We’re never gonna solve anything about climate change if we keep making it into this individualistic discussion. I’m not saying that doesn’t have a role. I mean, the personal is political. But I think the message of scientists right now is that as a society, we need to go through this huge transformation. And we need to do something that’s never been done before in peacetime. Move to half emissions in 2030 and zero emissions in 2050. That means that radical is the new reality. Greta Thunberg is totally right about this. We’re now going to a world that will be three degrees warmer. And that’s the average prediction. It could be worse. Now, I’m living in the Netherlands, where big parts of the country are meters below sea level. So I’ve been interviewing experts who say, it’s not certain that our grandchildren can still live here in the 22nd century. It’s not certain that we can save this country. And so the stakes are incredibly high. But then again, it’s technically feasible. And we’ve done similar things in the past. So it’s not impossible. But this shift in the Zeitgeist needs to speed up quite a bit more.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Jared Diamond*: What, really, are our existential threats? It's not Covid-19

* Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, ‘Upheaval’, and ‘Collapse’

The Covid-19 pandemic represents a tragedy for its victims and their families, and economic hardship for the rest of us. As I write these lines in Los Angeles, 10 weeks after the state of California imposed a lockdown, some shops are reopening and a semblance of normal life is beginning to return.

But the costs have been great: in my case, the past month has brought the deaths of five friends, two of them among my longest relationships. Against that background, it seems vile to say anything “positive” about Covid-19. Paradoxically, though, the pandemic might also bring hope and permanent benefits for the whole world — depending on how we react.

Microbes have often shaped human history. Thousands of years before the Black Death, a previous spread of plague may have contributed to the intrusion of Asian steppe peoples carrying Indo-European languages into Europe. Later, far more Native Americans — including the Aztec emperor Cuitláhuac and the Inca emperor Huayna Capac — died in bed from European germs than on the battlefield from European swords and guns.

Those epidemics of the past had far-reaching harmful consequences: military defeats, population crashes, abandonments of land under cultivation and slumps in trade. They also resulted in conquests and replacements of populations, when previously unexposed peoples contracted diseases from invaders with a long history of exposure.

At the time of writing, official counts are approaching 350,000 deaths globally from Covid-19; the true figure is likely to be higher. Steep death tolls are still to come in populous countries such as Brazil and Mexico, aided by policies of denial on the part of those countries’ presidents.

Yet Covid-19 doesn’t represent an existential threat to the survival of our species. Yes, the pandemic will be a serious blow to the world’s economy, but that will recover; it’s only a matter of time. Unlike many of the epidemics of the past, the virus isn’t threatening to cause military defeats, population replacements or crashes, or abandonments of land under cultivation.

There are other dangers, present right now, that do constitute existential threats capable of wiping out our species, or permanently damaging our economy and standard of living. But they are less convincing at motivating us than is Covid-19, because (with one exception) they don’t kill us visibly and quickly.

Strange as it may seem, the successful resolution of the pandemic crisis may motivate us to deal with those bigger issues that we have until now balked at confronting. If the pandemic does at last prepare us to deal with those existential threats, there may be a silver lining to the virus’s black cloud. Among the virus’s consequences, it could prove to be the biggest, the most lasting — and our great cause for hope.

What, really, are our existential threats? There are four that I consider to be the most serious.

They start with the threat that could kill the most people in the shortest time: the detonation of large numbers of nuclear weapons, whether launched as a pre-emptive strike (for example, between India and Pakistan), as the unintended consequence of escalating responses (say, between North Korea and the US), as the response to misread early-warning signals (as nearly happened repeatedly during the cold war) or as an intentional action by terrorists.

The nuclear threat may or may not materialise, but the other three threats already have — and are getting worse. They have the potential to cripple permanently our standard of living, though they would leave many of us still alive. Those threats are: climate change; unsustainable use of essential resources (especially forests, seafood, topsoil and fresh water); and the consequences of the enormous differences in standard of living between the world’s peoples, destabilising our globalised existence.

This is the context in which the virus could actually bring us a benefit. As a motivator, Covid-19 is different from, and more potent than, those existential problems. Covid’s symptoms are palpable; they are indubitably due to the virus; Covid’s consequence of death poses no problems of definition or measurement; and that consequence follows swiftly. None of this is true of climate change, though it will do far more lasting damage to us.

But whether that motivational benefit of Covid-19 actually does emerge will depend on how the world responds to this truly global crisis. We can draw guidance from how nations respond to national crises. In my recent book Upheaval, I established a dozen outcome predictors that have made it more or less likely that a nation would respond successfully to a national crisis: among them were acknowledgment rather than denial of a crisis’s reality; acceptance of responsibility to take action; and honest self-appraisal.

For example, the outstanding success of 19th-century Japan in modernising began with the crisis provoked by the uninvited visit of Commodore Perry’s warships in 1853. Japan acknowledged its weakness; it took action by adopting a crash programme of selective changes; and it honestly appraised its military strength at every step of a cautious military expansion.

Among other national outcome predictors, I judge as crucial the presence or absence of a shared national identity, which can help a nation’s people to recognise their shared self-interest and to unite in overcoming a crisis. National identities variously depend on different things for different nations, such as a shared language and culture, pride in a shared historical legacy and shared environment, or a shared common enemy.

That last factor has proved particularly potent in times of crisis. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor galvanised Americans literally overnight. It instantly created a shared determination to accept sacrifice, for however long it would take. For Finns, the galvanising experience was the Winter War of 1939-40, when they preserved their independence (albeit at the cost of enormous losses) by fighting to a standstill the invading armies of the Soviet Union, whose population was 40 times Finland’s. For Indonesians, fragmented among hundreds of islands, 726 languages and four major religions, unity coalesced around their shared independence struggle against the Dutch, and then around one shared national language.

For all three countries — the US, Finland and Indonesia — purposeful action followed an external threat. But global problems have never generated a comparable sense of urgency. Until the unprecedented danger posed by Covid-19, there has never been a struggle that united all peoples of the world against a widely acknowledged common enemy.

As a result, we have been hamstrung in our responses, especially to climate change. All four of those dangers threaten every one of the world’s peoples. Yet nations have been dealing with them, or have been avoiding dealing with them, one by one. Even before President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change, that deal fell far short of an effective solution to the problem. Nations haven’t joined in acknowledging that climate change will ruin every nation, that every nation is contributing to causing it (some nations more than other nations), that all nations must do their share in the struggle, and that the failure of even just one nation to do its share will harm all other nations.

The one-by-one approach is as impotent for solving the danger posed by Covid-19 as it is for solving the problem of climate change. Even if all countries save one should succeed in quelling their own virus outbreaks, that remaining country sustaining Covid-19 will serve as a permanent focus to reinfect the rest of the world. Covid-19 is at last providing us world citizens with a shared enemy, an unequivocal quick killer, a threat to the inhabitants of every nation.

There are precedents for our finding world solutions to world problems. The 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol) led to regulation that reduced pollution of the world’s oceans by separating oil tanks from water tanks on ocean-going ships, and by mandating double-hulled tankers for all transport of oil by sea.

In 1980, the World Health Organization completed the worldwide eradication of smallpox, among the most devastating diseases in human history. The stratosphere’s ozone layer became protected by the Montreal Protocol of 1987, restricting worldwide the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons and other gases. The 1994 Law of the Sea Convention at last delineated exclusive national and shared international economic zones around the world.

All of those efforts resolved very difficult problems by means of high-level international agreements, even without a sense of world identity on the part of the public at large. Thus, a best-case outcome of our current crisis would be for it to create, at last, a widespread sense of world identity: to make all peoples recognise that we now face the common enemy of global problems that can be solved only by a united global effort.

Covid-19 would then illustrate, at the world level, another outcome predictor of success in national crises and individual crises: the memory of a previous crisis that was overcome, creating confidence that a new crisis can also be overcome. When I first visited Finland in 1959, 19 years after the end of the Winter War, there was still a widespread consensus among Finns.

Nothing could have been more difficult, for Finland with its population then under 4m, than fighting off the enormous Soviet Union; but Finns nevertheless succeeded then, and so they expected to be able to overcome any new problem that Finland faces today.

Similarly, if the world joins to solve the current visible Covid-19 crisis against heavy odds, our current pandemic might thus represent the beginning, not of a dismal era of chronic worldwide danger, but of a bright era of worldwide co-operation. Hopeful signs already are the rapid recent development of co-operation among scientists studying the virus all around the world, and the shipments of supplies from China and Russia to the US to combat the American epidemic.

That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario would be if we instead continued our doomed attempts to solve the virus problem one country at a time, or even one American state at a time.

In that case, we’d also entrench our doomed attempts to solve other global problems one country at a time. Which of these two opposite scenarios will the world choose?

We’ll know the answer to that question by the end of this year.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

The deeper roots of Chinese demonization

Asia Times
Pepe Escobar 

Fasten your seat belts: the US hybrid war against China is bound to go on frenetic overdrive, as economic reports are already identifying Covid-19 as the tipping point when the Asian – actually Eurasian – century truly began.The US strategy remains, essentially, full spectrum dominance, with the National Security Strategy obsessed by the three top “threats” of China, Russia and Iran. China, in contrast, proposes a “community of shared destiny” for mankind, mostly addressing the Global South.

The predominant US narrative in the ongoing information war is now set in stone: Covid-19 was the result of a leak from a Chinese biowarfare lab. China is responsible. China lied. And China has to pay.

The new normal tactic of non-stop China demonization is deployed not only by crude functionaries of the industrial-military-surveillance-media complex. We need to dig much deeper to discover how these attitudes are deeply embedded in Western thinking – and later migrated to the “end of history” United States. (Here are sections of an excellent study, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia , by Jurgen Osterhammel).

Only Whites civilized
Way beyond the Renaissance, in the 17th and 18th centuries, whenever Europe referred to Asia it was essentially about religion conditioning trade. Christianity reigned supreme, so it was impossible to think by excluding God.

At the same time the doctors of the Church were deeply disturbed that in the Sinified world a very well organized society could function in the absence of a transcendent religion. That bothered them even more than those “savages” discovered in the Americas.

As it started to explore what was regarded as the “Far East,” Europe was mired in religious wars. But at the same time it was forced to confront another explanation of the world, and that fed some subversive anti-religious tendencies across the Enlightenment sphere.

It was at this stage that learned Europeans started questioning Chinese philosophy, which inevitably they had to degrade to the status of a mere worldly “wisdom” because it escaped the canons of Greek and Augustinian thought. This attitude, by the way, still reigns today.

So we had what in France was described as chinoiseries — a sort of ambiguous admiration, in which China was regarded as the supreme example of a pagan society.

But then the Church started to lose patience with the Jesuits’ fascination with China. The Sorbonne was punished. A papal bull, in 1725, outlawed Christians who were practicing Chinese rites. It’s quite interesting to note that Sinophile philosophers and Jesuits condemned by the Pope insisted that the “real faith” (Christianity) was “prefigured” in ancient Chinese, specifically Confucianist, texts.

The European vision of Asia and the “Far East” was mostly conceptualized by a mighty German triad: Kant, Herder and Schlegel. Kant, incidentally, was also a geographer, and Herder a historian and geographer. We can say that the triad was the precursor of modern Western Orientalism. It’s easy to imagine a Borges short story featuring these three.

As much as they may have been aware of China, India and Japan, for Kant and Herder God was above all. He had planned the development of the world in all its details. And that brings us to the tricky issue of race.

Breaking away from the monopoly of religion, references to race represented a real epistemological turnaround in relation to previous thinkers. Leibniz and Voltaire, for instance, were Sinophiles. Montesquieu and Diderot were Sinophobes. None explained cultural differences by race. Montesquieu developed a theory based on climate. But that did not have a racial connotation – it was more like an ethnic approach.

The big break came via French philosopher and traveler Francois Bernier (1620-1688), who spent 13 years traveling in Asia and in 1671 published a book called La Description des Etats du Grand Mogol, de l”Indoustan, du Royaume de Cachemire, etc. Voltaire, hilariously, called him Bernier-Mogol — as he became a star telling his tales to the royal court. In a subsequent book, Nouvelle Division de la Terre par les Differentes Especes ou Races d’Homme qui l’Habitent, published in 1684, the “Mogol” distinguished up to five human races.

This was all based on the color of the skin, not on families or the climate. The Europeans were mechanically placed on top, while other races were considered “ugly.” Afterward, the division of humanity in up to five races was picked up by David Hume — always based on the color of the skin. Hume proclaimed to the Anglo-Saxon world that only whites were civilized; others were inferiors. This attitude is still pervasive. See, for instance, this pathetic diatribe recently published in Britain.

Two Asias
The first thinker to actually come up with a theory of the yellow race was Kant, in his writings between 1775 and 1785, David Mungello argues in The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800.

Kant rates the “white race” as “superior,” the “black race” as “inferior” (by the way, Kant did not condemn slavery), the “copper race” as “feeble” and the “yellow race” as intermediary. The differences between them are due to a historical process that started with the “white race,” considered the most pure and original, the others being nothing but bastards.

Kant subdivided Asia by countries. For him, East Asia meant Tibet, China and Japan. He considered China in relatively positive terms, as a mix of white and yellow races.

Herder was definitely mellower. For him, Mesopotamia was the cradle of Western civilization, and the Garden of Eden was in Kashmir, “the world’s paradise.” His theory of historical evolution became a smash hit in the West: the East was a baby, Egypt was an infant, Greece was youth. Herder’s East Asia consisted of Tibet, China, Cochinchina, Tonkin, Laos, Korea, Eastern Tartary and Japan — countries and regions touched by Chinese civilization.

Schlegel was like the precursor of a Californian 60s hippie. He was a Sanskrit enthusiast and a serious student of Eastern cultures. He said that “in the East we should seek the most elevated romanticism.” India was the source of everything, “the whole history of the human spirit.” No wonder this insight became the mantra for a whole generation of Orientalists. That was also the start of a dualist vision of Asia across the West that’s still predominant today.

So by the 18th century we had fully established a vision of Asia as a land of servitude and cradle of despotism and paternalism in sharp contrast with a vision of Asia as a cradle of civilizations. Ambiguity became the new normal. Asia was respected as mother of civilizations — value systems included — and even mother of the West. In parallel, Asia was demeaned, despised or ignored because it had never reached the high level of the West, despite its head start.

Those Oriental despots
And that brings us to The Big Guy: Hegel. Hyper well informed – he read reports by ex-Jesuits sent from Beijing — Hegel does not write about the “Far East” but only the East, which includes East Asia, essentially the Chinese world. Hegel does not care much about religion as his predecessors did. He talks about the East from the point of view of the state and politics. In contrast to the myth-friendly Schlegel, Hegel sees the East as a state of nature in the process of reaching toward a beginning of history – unlike black Africa, which he saw wallowing in the mire of a bestial state.

To explain the historical bifurcation between a stagnant world and another one in motion, leading to the Western ideal, Hegel divided Asia in two.

One part was composed by China and Mongolia: a puerile world of patriarchal innocence, where contradictions do not develop, where the survival of great empires attests to that world’s “insubstantial,” immobile and ahistorical character.

The other part was Vorderasien (“Anterior Asia”), uniting the current Middle East and Central Asia, from Egypt to Persia. This is an already historical world.

These two huge regions are also subdivided. So in the end Hegel’s Asiatische Welt (Asian world) is divided into four: first, the plains of the Yellow and Blue rivers, the high plateaus, China and Mongolia; second, the valleys of the Ganges and the Indus; third, the plains of the Oxus (today the Amur-Darya) and the Jaxartes (today the Syr-Darya), the plateaus of Persia, the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates; and fourth, the Nile valley.

It’s fascinating to see how in the Philosophy of History (1822-1830) Hegel ends up separating India as a sort of intermediary in historical evolution. So we have in the end, as Jean-Marc Moura showed in L’Extreme Orient selon G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophie de l’Histoire et Imaginaire Exotique, a “fragmented East, of which India is the example, and an immobile East, blocked in chimera, of which the Far East is the illustration.”

To describe the relation between East and West, Hegel uses a couple of metaphors. One of them, quite famous, features the sun: “The history of the world voyages from east to west, Europe thus absolutely being the end of history, and Asia the beginning.” We all know where tawdry “end of history” spin-offs led us.

The other metaphor is Herder’s: the East is “history’s youth” — but with China taking a special place because of the importance of Confucianist principles systematically privileging the role of the family.

Nothing outlined above is of course neutral in terms of understanding Asia. The double metaphor — using the sun and maturity — could not but comfort the West in its narcissism, later inherited from Europe by the “exceptional” US. Implied in this vision is the inevitable superiority complex, in the case of the US even more acute because legitimized by the course of history.

Hegel thought that history must be evaluated under the framework of the development of freedom. Well, China and India being ahistorical, freedom does not exist, unless brought by an initiative coming from outside.

And that’s how the famous “Oriental despotism” evoked by Montesquieu and the possible, sometimes inevitable, and always valuable Western intervention are, in tandem, totally legitimized. We should not expect this Western frame of mind to change anytime soon, if ever. Especially as China is about to be back as Number One.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Harnessing the Green Swan in an increasingly challenging world

Ethical Logo
John Elkington, author, advisor and serial entrepreneur

A copy of an ancient Apple ad graces the walls of our Somerset House office, now stilled and silent in lockdown. Against a black background, the poster features an energetic shock of white hair, framing the mischievous face of Mark Twain, and reruns one of his provocative dictums: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” A lifelong mantra of mine.
But a very different Twain-ism was rattling around my brain as we walked around the ancient temples of Delphi a few weeks ago, with Covid-19 literally snapping at our heels, with each successive hotel closing its doors immediately after we left.
So that second Twain aphorism? You may have heard various versions of this second quotation, but it runs along the following lines: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." I confess that over the years I have sometimes souped it up by rendering that last bit as “... but by God it rhymes!”
As Cov-19 disrupted and then ultimately truncated our trip, I was left both a little breathless and intrigued to know whether the ancient wars between Athens and Sparta might hold clues for today’s superpower rivalries? Having looked into the history a bit, it was very clear that there are now a number of rhyming patterns at work.
So, for example, when the plague hit ancient Greece in the midst of the bitterly fought Peloponnesian War it wounded more open, more urban Athens much more severely than it did the more dispersed and yet disciplined Sparta, with the result that the latter leapfrogged over the former to become the dominant regional power.
Might we now see similar dynamics as Covid-19 disrupts today’s power blocs, with the closed outcompeting the open?
These were the sort of questions, alongside more humdrum concerns, that people brought to such oracles as Delphi back in their heyday. As it happens, I first turned up in front of the gates of Delphi more or less exactly 50 years ago, with five companions exploring the world, only to find them closed for refurbishment. Looking back, though, I’m not sure I fully grasped the historical importance of the site, which for hundreds of years was considered the “centre of the world”.
The Oracle, voiced by the Pythia priestesses, was famously gnomic when it came to its prognostication. Among the most well known of the millions of words of wisdom offered over the centuries came when the fabulously wealthy Croesus, king of Lydia, asked whether he should join the Greeks to fight the Persians?
He was famously advised that if he attacked the Persians a great empire would be destroyed. Little imagining that the empire in question might be his own, he trundled off to war. And the rest, as they say, is history.
More recently, forecasters struggling to cope with uncertainty, and perhaps aiming to cover their bets, have used tools like scenarios. Either this or that, or maybe something else entirely. One way or another, the chances are that at least some elements of such forecasts will be borne out by events. But scenarios can be constrained by emergent realities, for example by systemic crises like the climate emergency.
As I have tried to get a better grip on at least some aspects of the future since announcing the “product recall” for my 25-year-old triple bottom line concept, two big birds have powerfully influenced my thinking. Not through the subtle art of divination, delving into their entrails, but by symbolising two very different dynamics in our increasingly exponential world.
Most notably, I have been inspired by the work of Lebanese-American author, risk analyst, and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his 2007 book The Black Swan, Taleb provides a series of timely lessons about the “impact of the highly improbable”, as his subtitle put it. His timing was impeccable, spooky even, as the global economy descended that same year into a financial meltdown few had seen coming.
Early on in his book, Taleb noted that he was sticking his neck out, in claiming that “against many of our habits of thought . . . our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according to our current knowledge) – and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated.”
The second bird competing for my attention, this time a creature of my own conjuring, has been the Green Swan. My new book, Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism, riffs off Taleb’s black swan metaphor. He has long argued that black swans are unpredicted, and generally unpredictable.
So he now insists that Covid-19 is not a black swan, as many have tried to label it. Just such a pandemic has been repeatedly predicted, he recalls, but the powers-that-be decided to ignore those warnings. Still, this latest coronavirus outbreak shares with true Black Swans the characteristic that in its wake reality will have been transformed; our world shifted on its axis.
In Green Swans, I explore ways forward for capitalism, democracy and sustainability, here riffing off the language of the Chinese communist party. Just as the world’s most populous nation vaunts “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, I have been investigating aspects of capitalism, democracy and sustainability with either “black” or “green” swan characteristics, often a combination of both.
A green swan is a profound market shift, generally catalysed by some combination of wicked problems and, among other things, shifting paradigms, values, mind-sets, politics, policies, technologies and business models. Along the way, a green swan delivers exponential progress in the form of economic, social and environmental wealth creation.
At worst, it achieves this outcome in two dimensions while holding the third steady. There may be a period of adjustment where one or more dimensions underperform, but the aim is an integrated breakthrough in all three dimensions.
My assumption in writing the book was that the world has been heading into some sort of historic U-bend, as illustrated in the diagram, which I have been using for several years now. This is well beyond a single, normal recession; instead I believe that we are seeing a period where the established macroeconomic and political order goes down the tubes, and new ones surface. As we head deeper into the bottom of the U-bend, we enter the period of maximum confusion, uncertainty, fear and anger.
Rather than being mysterious about the future, let me now try to nail this jelly to the wall. First, the primacy of shareholder value, which aims to keep social and environmental impacts (negative or positive) at arm’s length, will be increasingly contested around the world.
And as governments are forced to bail out businesses and sectors, there will be growing pressure to provide quid-pro-quo outcomes. Radical decarbonisation, anyone? Ultimately, if we are to truly transform capitalism, then a key task must be to transform capitalism’s master discipline of economics.
But if economists are to be genuinely helpful in spotting and reining in Black Swan trajectories and blazing Green Swan pathways, they must work out how to embrace the “too difficult” worlds of environmental and social impact, and linked forms of valuation.
The further we dig into the relationships between capitalism and democracy, the more sustainability looks like the natural bridge between the two, focusing as it does on intergenerational equity and balanced, inclusive and environmentally sustainable value creation, and distribution over extended timescales. Today’s global challenges are so far beyond our collective experience that they demand a radically different kind of engagement from senior leadership teams in the private sector. And, over time, a radically different kind of leader.
Meanwhile, in a new project commissioned by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) as part of its refresh of its Vision 2050 roadmap launched in 2010, Volans has been exploring the implications and likely impact of Covid-19. Among our early conclusions:
Covid-19 has temporarily weakened what Milton Friedman called “the tyranny of the status quo”, creating a context in which radical, systemic change is suddenly possible.
More specifically, Covid-19 has the potential to be a catalyst for a Green Swan transformation of the global economy: a profound shift in the rules, norms and institutions that govern markets, which could unlock a wave of exponential changes with positive consequences for people and planet.
Many companies were spectacularly poorly prepared to deal with a crisis like this. They went into the crisis carrying huge amounts of debt and with complex supply chains so tightly optimised for efficiency that there was no slack in the system to enable them to adapt. This lack of preparedness is not an unfortunate accident: it is an entirely predictable result of companies' relentless focus on efficiency and short-term shareholder value maximisation.
As predicted in Green Swans, we are seeing an accelerated expansion of the sustainability agenda; from responsibility to resilience and regeneration. The value of building resilience is self-evident in the wake of Covid-19. Regeneration matters because it is only by regenerating our economies and communities, and the wider biosphere, that we will be able to achieve true resilience.
Hopefully, whether we choose to hear it or not, the message is now rather clearer than it was for “poor” Croesus. Indeed, you don’t need to be a Delphic priestess to know that we now have a once-in-a-working-lifetime opportunity to change the economic system so that it delivers the future we want, the future sketched in the UN Global Goals. It’s time, as we put it at our Tomorrow’s Capitalism Forum in January, for us all to either step up – or get out of the way.

Monday, 16 March 2020

The Silk Road: the trip you wished would never end

Charly Wilder
The sky over Tajikistan was a deep deoxygenated blue as we sped through the desolate mountain landscape of the eastern Pamirs. For days we had been driving one of the world’s most treacherous roads, the Pamir Highway, which snakes through the highlands of Tajikistan before turning north toward Kyrgyzstan along the border with China. We had just crossed the highest pass yet: nearly 15,000 feet above sea level with views to the Hindu Kush. Now the road stretched out, empty and endless, over a glaciated, monochrome terrain of ridges, gorges and craters.

“On a clear day, you can see 7,000 mountains from here,” said Omurbek Satarov, our 38-year-old Pamiri driver, gesturing toward the Himalayas. He pointed out places of intrigue: the site of what was once a clandestine Soviet biological laboratory; a mountain laced with gold deposits that the Tajik government recently traded away in a “secret deal” with China; a cliffside Russian Empire checkpoint built in 1912 and held together with a paste of mud and camel fur; a flock of spiral-horned sheep running across a rock face.

The sheep are called Marco Polos, named for the Venetian explorer who passed this way when it was part of the ancient Silk Road, a vast network of trade routes running from China to the Mediterranean, spreading not only silk and other goods, but art, technologies, ideas and belief systems across the globe.

Omurbek pointed out another checkpoint, built, he said, on the site of a mass grave of Basmachis, anti-Bolshevik Muslim guerrilla fighters who rebelled against Soviet rule early in the 20th century.

“They say it’s haunted,” he said from behind wraparound sunglasses. “Border guards see ghosts there — poltergeist.” He knew this because his father, uncles and grandfather had all been Soviet border guards. He himself had been a counternarcotics officer pursuing drug traffickers bringing Afghan opium and heroin up toward Moscow, where it is redistributed — a newer, more pernicious East-West trade network.

“It wasn’t a pleasant job,” said Omurbek, who now works in Tajikistan’s expanding tourism sector.

My husband, Roham, and I were at the two-thirds point of a trip I’d been dreaming about for years: following a section of the Silk Road through the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a part of the world that for centuries was a cradle of civilization — the holy grail of empire-builders from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan — but that, until recently, has been difficult, if not impossible, for Westerners to visit.

For generations, the region’s Buddhist and Zoroastrian temples, ornate mosques and madrassas, ancient bazaars and breathtaking natural landscapes were hidden behind the Iron Curtain, then enveloped by dictatorship, poverty, social turmoil and war.

But in recent years the tide has been turning as relative economic and political stability settles over the region. The death in 2016 of Uzbekistan’s brutal, long-ruling dictator Islam Karimov has led to reform and a tentative thaw: the “Uzbek Spring.”

Tajikistan has undergone remarkable reconstruction since the end in 1997 of its devastating six-year civil war, and the rioting and unrest that plagued Kyrgyzstan a decade ago are fading into the rear view. Borders are opening and visa restrictions are lifting: As of 2018, citizens from more than 100 countries, including the United States, can travel visa-free through Uzbekistan for up to five days with proof of an onward flight, and a new e-visa system makes longer stays relatively easy. There are even plans for a “silk visa,” offering access to five Central Asian countries.

Regional transportation has improved, in part because of China’s controversial, trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, a colossal infrastructure project stretching from East Asia to Europe that aims to expand China’s political and economic influence and which critics worry could lead to a debt crisis across the region. Only the tightly controlled police state of Turkmenistan remains closed-off.

The journey begins
Bypassing the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, we began the trip in the ancient, holy city of Bukhara. Second only to Baghdad as an intellectual lodestar of the Islamic world, Bukhara was a center of trade, scholarship, religion and culture stretching back millenniums. It was where the great Persian poets Ferdowsi and Rudaki composed their most important works, and where Avicenna, the so-called father of modern medicine, wrote the treatises that would imprint centuries of scientists and philosophers from Cairo to Brussels.

The trip from Berlin had not been easy, but two days of low-cost air travel hell were forgotten the moment we stepped out at dawn into the 17th-century Lyabi-Hauz plaza. Two blue-tiled madrassas flanked a vast stone reservoir, along with a Sufi cloister and a teahouse, all of which stood empty and blanketed in mist, silent but for the screeching of birds in the mulberry trees.

We slept for a few hours at Lyabi House Hotel, one of several bed-and-breakfasts in Bukhara housed in 19th-century Jewish merchants houses, and then headed for the Po-i-Kalon religious complex, the city’s architectural highlight. Located south of the ancient Ark citadel, Po-i-Kalon includes the exquisite 12th-century Kalon Minaret, one of only two buildings in the city spared by Genghis Khan. For centuries, condemned criminals were thrown from the top, leading to the minaret’s nickname: the Tower of Death. Some believe the ornate diamond patterning of its kiln-fired brickwork is the inspiration — via Marco Polo — for the Doge’s Palace on San Marco square in Venice.

In a kind of trance we walked the town’s maze of blue-domed mosques, mosaic-tiled courtyards and former caravanserais (essentially inns where travelers could rest with their animals), all threaded together by ancient arcades only partially defiled by tacky tourist development. Between two domed bazaars, where locals now hock handicrafts of variable quality and authenticity, we visited the Maghok-i-Attar, Central Asia’s oldest mosque and a palimpsest of Bukharan religious history: a 16th-century reconstruction of a ninth-century mosque built atop the remains of a fifth-century Zoroastrian fire temple, which was itself built on top of an earlier Buddhist temple.

Then we decamped to the 350-year-old Bozori Kord Hammam to be steamed, scrubbed, massaged and rubbed with honey and ginger by various members of the Iranian-Uzbek family that now owns it.
By sunset we had a table on the terrace of a restaurant called Minzifa, overlooking the sun-bleached domes and rooftops of Bukhara. There we made our way through a greatest-hits of Central Asian cuisine, which was shaped by diverse culinary cultures, from East Asia to the Mongolian steppe to the Persian Gulf.

A salad of Chinese cabbage, cucumber, onion and beef in a soy-sesame chile dressing was followed by plov, or rice pilaf, the Persian-influenced Central Asian staple that probably originated in the culinary methods of the Islamic golden age, pollinating national rice dishes from Spanish paella to Indian biryani. Rice is browned with meat — usually lamb or mutton — then stewed in a caldron called a kazan with onions, garlic and carrots, and spiced with cumin, coriander, barberries or raisins, marigold and pepper. Minzifa’s version was delicate and flavorful, an ideal lead-in to well-charred shish kabob of lamb and beef, washed down with the ubiquitous Central Asian green tea.

Foodwise, the trip would go downhill from there. While it’s possible to find good and even great versions of plov, the East Asian-style dumpling called manty, and other dishes, I had to agree with the adage that you don’t visit Central Asia for the food.

The treasures of Samarkand
We set out early the next day on the sleek high-speed train line that has drastically reduced travel times in the country, running, as of 2018, all the way from Tashkent to the Silk Road city of Khiva in the west. Cotton fields flashed by in the blue of morning until we finally reached Samarkand, a city as old as Rome or Babylon, whose architectural riches surpass even Bukhara’s — many built by Timur (also known as Tamerlane), the Turco-Mongol conqueror of the late Middle Ages who made it his capital.

At the Ulugbek Observatory, one of the first and finest in human history, we gazed down into a trench at the remaining quadrant of the great meridian arc that allowed early astronomers to measure time and celestial objects with breathtaking accuracy.

From the Registan, Samarkand’s ancient central square with its triptych of madrasahs, we walked to the forgotten-feeling Old Jewish Quarter, then headed to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, a vast labyrinth of blue-tiled, honeycomb-vaulted mausoleums where pilgrims and tourists wander in awed silence among the mosaic and majolica.

The sites were extraordinary, but even more than Bukhara, Samarkand suffers from overdevelopment of its tourist attractions. Shah-i-Zinda was aggressively restored in 2005, and pushy souvenir-sellers now clog the beautiful, holy madrassahs of the Registan.

It’s an issue that’s been pushed to the forefront in Uzbekistan, particularly after the bulldozing of a 1.2-mile-long tract of medieval residential buildings in the southeastern city of Shakhrisyabz nearly led to the revocation of its UNESCO status. It remains to be seen whether the right lessons were learned.

The next morning, we took a taxi out of Samarkand and deeper into the lush Zerafshan Valley, passing cotton and wheat farms and fields of blood-red poppies, until we reached the Tajik border. There we walked a fenced-in border zone hovered over by sun-faded billboards of the Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, and Karimov’s successor, the Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, triumphantly clasping hands. It’s one of several Uzbek-Tajik crossings to reopen in the last few years — part of an easing of tensions between the two countries that followed the death of Karimov.

In Tajikistan, frescoes, hot springs and ruins
On the Tajik side, we caught a ride with one of the burly drivers jockeying for our business and headed for Penjikent, an ancient town just beyond the border. After stopping to look at Neolithic ruins on the outskirts, we headed to the Rudaki Museum, which is devoted to the great Persian poet but is best known for its phenomenal eighth-century Sogdian frescoes that depict court life and scenes from epic Persian literature.

We marveled at the frescoes, evidence of the great wealth and sophistication of the Sogdians, the main caravan merchants of Central Asia from the fifth to the eighth centuries, who played a major role in bringing Buddhism to China and silk to Europe. I was so deep in historical reverie that I hardly noticed I had walked into a room filled with rotting taxidermied animals, warped into grotesque expressions of agony and terror. But by this point, we were used to such surprises.

The truth is that in order to enjoy this kind of trip through Central Asia, you’re going to have to be on reasonably amicable terms with the weird and unexpected, with greasy meat dishes, bleak squat toilets and frequent incidents of abject, often hilarious, transactional chaos.

Over the course of our 12-day trip, we were drawn into several road crises, spent countless hours searching for functional A.T.M.s in the company of a ragtag group of “helpful” locals, and were once cornered in a border zone by a hulk of a man in military fatigues with a mouthful of gold teeth, insisting we get in his car because the other drivers are “not normal.” We woke up one morning to a taxi driver banging on our hotel room door insisting on bringing us to another town, and once, in a banquet-style restaurant, were served a glistening chalice of mayonnaise.

And yet we also rode horses at dawn through mountain pastures of frosted wildflowers, watched Afghan camel caravans cross the Wakhan Corridor in a snowstorm, and bathed in hot sulfur springs in the mountain air, laughing with locals. It was difficult and chaotic and grueling, and it was without a doubt one of the most memorable trips of my life.

From Penjikent we continued to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, to explore its wide Soviet boulevards and monuments, which have undergone dramatic beautification since a new mayor came to power, Rustam Emomali, son of President Emomali Rahmon. The elder Emomali has led the country for 26 years, stabilizing it, but with increasing authoritarianism. His son is widely expected to be the next president.

Yet there are other forces at play — from East and West. Tajik teens in Nikes and Adidas cluttered the streets of Dushanbe, and on our way to have beers on the grand terrace of the Soviet-era, Persian-style teahouse Chaykhona Rokhat, we passed a crowd gathered around a makeshift stage, holding up smartphones under a banner that read, “Huawei Tajikistan Selfie Show.”

In the morning we met a driver from a company called Roof of the World — the nickname for the area known as High Asia, including the Pamirs, the Himalayas and Tibet — and an adventurous 29-year-old Russian coal executive whom I’d found on a message board looking to share the $1,200 cost of a driver from Dushanbe to Osh. It’s usually a six-day drive; we decided to do it in four, which meant making it on day one to the mountain town of Khorog, a 16-hour journey.

It should have been grueling, but it was mostly wonderful. Dushanbe’s outskirts gave way to undulating blue-green vistas and the fantastical aquatic terrain of the Norak water reservoir, a major hydroelectric energy source. Cloud shadows passed over cliffside hamlets glimmering in the evening light as chimneys spat smoke.

Eventually we reached the Panj River, separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which we would follow for the next two days, seeing as much of Afghanistan’s untroubled rural north on the other side of the river as we did Tajikistan.

We stopped at hot springs and hiked to the ruins of Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples and fortresses that once formed a network along the Silk Road. At night we would stop to eat and sleep along the chain of homestays that links the region today. Every mountain village has a few, where hospitable Pamiris offer visitors a hot meal and a bed or a spot on the floor.

Into the mountains
As we climbed higher and higher into the eastern Pamirs, its wild remoteness closed in around us. Great gorges and rock faces stretched across the horizon, interspersed by streaks of green — agricultural plots worked by farmers using traditional methods that languished during Soviet times, when goods were largely imported.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, nowhere was hit harder than the Pamirs, the poorest and most isolated region of the poorest country in the former Eastern Bloc. The Pamiri took the losing rebel side in the war, leaving them doubly decimated. Yet in the last decade, they have seen remarkable recovery, in part because of foreign assistance, much of it from the foundation of the Swiss-born Aga Khan, a spiritual leader of the Pamiri population.

But tourism is also making a huge difference, explained Ruzadorova Bakhten, a beautiful 48-year-old homestay proprietor and wife of a yak herder, as she served us a heaping platter of fried fish in the remote village of Bulunkul. “Every year there are more and more visitors. This makes us very happy, not only because they spend money,” she said, “but because sometimes they come and help in other ways.”

Last year, she said, an American who first came as a tourist returned to install a new weatherproof roof on the school, of which Ruzadorova is also the director. After lunch, she walked us through the school, heated with rudimentary ovens and plastered with peeling posters in Russian, Pamiri, Tajik and English, then through the rest of the village, which sits on a vast, wind-ravaged plateau ringed by soaring snowcapped mountains.

“It’s beautiful here,” my husband said in Farsi to some local men making repairs to solar panels donated by a German N.G.O. “Oh yes, so beautiful!” retorted one of the men with a sarcasm so sharp it broke the language barrier as children rode rusted bicycles in figure-eights around dwellings built from clay and yak dung.

That afternoon, we moved higher into the eastern Pamirs, stopping to marvel at the shimmering freshwater lakes of Yashil Kul and Bulunkul. In the high-Pamir town of Murgab, at 12,000 feet above sea level, we met Omurbek, who had the right papers to bring us into Kyrgyzstan.

The drive was climatically jarring to say the least. Within little more than an hour, the blazing-white, snow-blanketed peaks of the Taldik pass gave way to the rolling green of Kyrgyzstan’s Alay Valley. Cows and horses grazed in the hills and occasionally wandered into the road.

The green turned greener still as we descended into the Fergana Valley, the lush ancient corridor between Greek, Chinese, Bactrian and Parthian civilizations, finally arriving in the Silk Road city of Osh. We were too early in the season to visit the extraordinary high mountain pastures, or jailoos, of Son-Kol, Kochkor or Karakol, so after a night we headed an hour out of town to the Kyrgyz-Ata National Park. There, we stayed in a yurt set high on a hill near the home of a shepherd and his family.

We spent our last days in Central Asia riding horses through dense juniper forests and up mountains, learning the Kyrgyz riding style, often left unattended to ride in the wilderness. Brambles scratched my legs, and I was so sore from riding it became difficult to walk. There was nothing to eat but plov and day-old manty, and a late spring snowfall battered the yurt, dripping down into the sides, leaving much of our bedding sodden. We woke up shivering under blankets, gazing up through the center of the yurt to the pale spring sky. It was tortuous. We hoped it would never end.