Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, May 20, 2008

I’m a bit behind in my writing and Weekly Links. I recently moved out of my apartment and so I’m currently living as a sort of vagabond, squatting from place to place. As such, my internet time has been rather, in the best of ways, limited. Here are some recent gems, in any case.

1.) Exchanging Glances across Cultural Oceans. In Stopping Traffic in the People’s Republic, Vivian Toy offers up an interesting cultural anecdote about the Chinese:

We were visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing, part of a two-week family
vacation to China, when a young woman pulled down her antipollution mask and
stared, open-mouthed, at my 7-year-old son, Patrick. She didn’t seem dangerous,
just amazed, so I let the moment pass and we moved along to the next stop on our
tour.

During their trip there were several instances when the Chinese locals were shocked by the appearance of these half-Chinese, half-American children. Many stared. And some, even, asked to touch, talk or take pictures with; much to the shock of their American parents. While this anecdote speaks initially to what surprises the Chinese (namely, these culturally/racially mixed children) and subsequently of the Americans’ surprise and aghast towards certain reactions (namely, the touching of children not your own), it ultimately attempts to explain why the Chinese act in such a way through a number of varyingly true and/or superficial stereotypes: the Chinese have a more collective mentality, their sense of personal space is different, etc. Moreover, we see through this anecdote that cultural reactions towards children, even the children of complete strangers, are not the same as those towards adults.

2.) Conflicting Moral Obligations. American lawyers are swore to and obliged to keep their client’s secrets. But, as Adam Liptak examines in When Law Prevents Righting a Wrong, are there—err should there be—limits to such an all-binding, eternal oath, especially when certain secrets lead to unjust situations? The current example challenging this is case of Mr. Hughes who:

Twenty-two years before, he said, a client, now dead, confessed that he had acted alone in committing a double murder for which another man was also serving life. After his own imprisoned client died, Mr. Hughes recalled last week, “it seemed to me at that point ethically permissible and morally imperative that I spill the beans.”

Clearly, there are numerous legalistic questions and debates around such a question. One side argues that there is no limit to such an oath, even the death of one’s client. On the other hand, numerous states provide exceptions to breaking lawyer-client oath in situations of life-and-death, namely to stave off an execution.

3.) The “bottom billion.” With a growing list of storylines around the world in connecting with the food crisis, Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, adds his view to a growing list of worldwide leaders, including former French president Jacques Chirac (see previous Weekly Link a few weeks ago), on how to reach a “solution.” His solution calls for “home-grown, grass-roots solutions for grass-roots problems.” He writes:

There was, last week, a glimmer of hope in the world food crisis. Expecting a
bumper harvest, Ukraine relaxed restrictions on exports. Overnight, global wheat
prices fell by 10 percent. By contrast, traders in Bangkok quote rice prices
around $1,000 a ton, up from $460 two months ago.
Such is the volatility of today’s markets. We do not know how high food prices might go, nor how far they could fall. But one thing is certain: We have gone from an era of plenty to one of scarcity. Experts agree that food prices are not likely to return to the levels the world had grown accustomed to any time soon.

Moreover,

In Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaoré told me how desperately the nation
needs help. Half his people live on $1 a day or less, the vast majority of
them
small farmers. The foreign minister, Djibril Bassolé, spoke especially
forcefully. The crisis in food, he said, is a greater threat by far
than
terrorism. “It makes people doubt their dignity as men,” he said. And
he added: “The issues of hunger and survival and how to live have become burning
issues for the international community.”

**

His plan of action is the following:

  1. The first imperative is to feed the hungry. The World Food Program helps 73 million people. But to do so it requires an additional $755 million merely to cover its rising costs. Some $475 million of has been pledged. But promises don’t fill stomachs, and the agency has only $18 million cash in hand.

  2. To ensure food for tomorrow, we must act today to give small farmers the support they need to better their next harvest. That is why the Food and Agriculture Organization has called for $1.7 billion to support an emergency initiative to provide low income countries with seeds, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs required to boost production. The International Fund for Agricultural Development will make $200 million available to poor farmers in the most affected countries. The World Bank is considering the establishment of a global crisis-response facility for this purpose.

He is optimistic…

It is a huge chance to address the root problems of many of the world’s poorest people, 70 percent of whom live as small farmers. If we help them - if we offer aid and the right mix of sound local and international policies - the solution will come.

4.) A World of Unequaled Waste. Some don’t have not enough to eat, while others are overeating, overbuying, and simply throwing away. Against this political backdrop of the world food crisis, one should not forget how modern, Western, industrial countries are currently throwing away a good portion of edible food. As Andrew Martin writes in One Country’s Table Scraps, Another Country’s Meal:

As it turns out, Americans waste an astounding amount of food — an estimated 27
percent of the food available for consumption
, according to a government study —
and it happens at the supermarket, in restaurants and cafeterias and in your
very own kitchen. It works out to about a pound of food every day for every
American.

Another statistic:

In 1997, in one of the few studies of food waste, the Department of Agriculture
estimated that two years before, 96.4 billion pounds of the 356 billion pounds
of edible food in the United States was never eaten. Fresh produce, milk, grain
products and sweeteners made up two-thirds of the waste. An update is under way.

And another…

the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total
waste stream
. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills;
by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted.

This isn’t just an American evil…

In England, a recent study revealed that Britons toss away a third of the food they purchase, including more than four million whole apples, 1.2 million sausages and 2.8 million tomatoes. In Sweden, families with small children threw out about a quarter of the food they bought, a recent study there found.

Statistic of the Week:
“Between 2001 and the end of 2007, the dollar’s share of the world’s total foreign exchange reserves shrank from about 73 percent to 64 percent, as the euro expanded from about 18 percent to more than 25 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.”
- The Dollar: Shrinkable but (So Far) Unsinkable at New York Times

Quote of the Week:
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
– James Madison, Federalist Paper 51