the better part of ten years I worked in the international aid industry. I worked with local governments, small
farmers, landless women, migrants, and refugees. In Asia. The Caribbean. Africa. The Caucasus. I worked with the United Nations. Private companies. Charities.
Somewhere in the distant past I was a farm boy. I worked in construction. I drove taxis. Ran bulldozers. Somehow or another I paid for an
education. Now I consult. Raise a family. Fix bikes for the kids. Cut the grass.
Some years ago I was on a visit trip
to Canada, playing croquet with old friends, and I had a chat with my brother
about the world order. I blithely
commented that our techno-industrial socio-economic order would be sustained
for a long time to come. I talked in
terms of one hundred years or more. Which
would take our way of life somewhere into the 2100’s. The discussion took place before the rallying
cries that were bellowed across the world in late 1991 and then 2001. Gulf war followed by Iraqi war. Many other bombardments and drone excursions have followed. Now here in 2013, in the sleepy backwater of Canada’s
capital, I have pretty much the same idea.
Only with a new flavour.
What is this world order? More to do with wealth than nation
states. Basically, some of us are
rich. We have lots of stuff and consume
quite a rather extraordinary share of economic resources. Most of the rest of folks on the planet are
not rich. They do not have much
stuff. And so?
thoughts about the human condition can never be neutral. All thought is based on belief, whether we
are conscious of our belief or not. To
believe is to be set up for contradiction by someone who believes
otherwise. Consequently, we creatures
are in constant motion: defensive, aggressive, playing off each other,
gathering, creating, exploiting, destroying.
The world theatre is dramatic, there is a plot, there are winners and
losers, there is pain and suffering, there is malignancy, there is death.
course, there is some ecological collateral damage. Meaning little more than that all things
non-human are affected by our presence here on this planet. However, this biological observation, for
better or for worse, is hardly important.
The earth is a resilient organism and there is little way of knowing how
the biosphere will evolve with or following our short presence here. Which is to say that the earth is not really
a principal worry and that our indulgence in worrying about it is somewhat
directly and of concrete concern to pretty much everyone is the problem of our
joy and happiness and, ultimately, our liberty.
We want to be free to drive a car, to have sex, to eat what we like, to
believe in which god we want. This focus
on freedom does not require wealth. So
if wealth is not really a fundamental prerequisite of being, the wizardry of
economists worrying about Gross Domestic Product is like the eco-warriers
trying to save the planet. After all these years of wandering about, from
Tibet to Texas, I am strangely surprised that I do not believe joy, happiness,
and liberty to be the prerogative of those of us who have the dubious blessing
of being wealthy.
Such complexities have always
challenged my sense of right and wrong.
On one hand, there is no doubt that the technological amenities and our
standards of health that we have created make existence somewhat of a simple
pleasure. On the other hand, neither the
amenities nor our health come cheaply.
As many are aware, the provincialism and unfortunate apathy which too
often follow sustained comfort and security keep many of us passive, ignorant,
or, as the case may be, in active denial of the fairly straight forward sets of
global relationships which allow for our standard of living – environmental
destruction and economic pauperization of masses of humans. It is a sorry state of affairs when people
contain themselves in passivity, ignorance, and denial. We are lesser for it.
I see little improvement where
people with purportedly well researched information provide exhaustive
arguments that justify our actions and condition. Such as?
Well, there is the value of democracy in liberating thought, the innate
creativity which capitalism inspires, or the social order which follows from
public education. Proving a point
equates debating ability with intelligence, which in the absence of wisdom is
sorrowfully too oft justification for the execution of terrible deeds. We proceed consciously with harm when we
believe that the means justifies the end.
of which is to say that I am an apologist for the world’s poor. In this dialectic madness, the inverse is
also true. The I-am-poor-because-of-you
argument abounds, the oftentimes illogical blaming of the other for one’s own
condition. The whole rights thing. Such arguments purportedly address everything
from neo-colonialism to economic imperialism to public housing. It is remarkable how self-absorbed people can
be with their own oppression. And, in
the context of argument, few oftentimes are clearly not wrong in their
observations, which is the esteemed virtue of the art of debate. However, many fewer are by virtue of not
being wrong, also right.
reservation of judgment on the world order stems from a belief that existence
is not a matter of right and wrong. Time
seems too infinite and the universe too grand for me to feel secure in what
seems a profoundly human sentiment – morality.
Folly in thought and deed and belief is forever knocking at my door.
Once, I was outraged by the lack of
clarity in arguments about the state of the world. Outrage, I found, required the involvement of
others. On one hand partisanship; we
band together and shake our angry fists.
On the other it requires an enemy; someone to shake that angry fist
at. But while I needed partisanship,
friends, a comforting shoulder to cry on, I caught myself blaming others for my
is me does not work very well in the end.
To heal our woe, such an enormous amount of energy must be invested in
sustained like-thinking. Which in the
end is ideological, or theological as the case may be. And it was likewise rather consuming to
sustain anger towards enemies who were simply, in the end, often people I did
not know very well – business owners, bankers, owners of yachts.
Now, I find myself sad. It is essential for me to be clear that I own
only the sentiment, not the things about which I am sad. Over those I am powerless. My sadness is sustained without much effort,
because in sadness there is a mutual extreme, which is joy. This case of mutual extremes, paired ends of
a spectrum, or harmonious opposites is a philosophical truism, which, I believe
is simple enough to be true. To suit the
case, my joy must also be owned by myself.
Like sadness, there is no ownership over the things that bring me
joy. A colorful bright red sparrow
lighting in the garden. My children
commenting wisely on an observation of their own experience. The love I have for my wife. The pleasure of simple food and wine. Company.
Acknowledging the limits of my own
sentiments has a liberating effect. Yes,
in the first instance, it would seem that I am overwhelmed by fate, that I
perceive myself to be powerless. Which
is true in a certain sense of being overwhelmed, in that all that exists
completely surrounds and permeates me.
On the contrary, if I am free to act, to choose, I can also refuse any
ownership over me. As a consequence,
whatever my circumstances, whether related to my physical opportunities or my
will, I can choose. From all that there
is, including my inseparable relationship with fate, I can choose. Rather frightening, actually, all this
liberty. And also rather exhilarating. There is nothing passive in existence.
But back to the world order. I find
that I am sympathetic to both those who suffer from being locked out of our
wealth of amenities and good health systems.
I am also sympathetic to the fear of owning wealth and health, which
arises from our provincialism and ignorance and my own selfishness. Of course, I live by and large on just one
side of the fence, the one with the computers and the cash and the medicine. It is clear which side I am on.
I did once knew Mahmadou. A
gardener. He earned less than one
hundred dollars a month, which was lucky.
He had a wife and two little kids.
He was illiterate. He had few
refined skills. He was poor then ,
probably poorer today. There are many
others like him. To explain this poverty
is simple. While the global economy
grows and the real cost of goods diminishes for those with disposable income,
there is a parallel drop in the real value of primary resources and commodities,
including labour, which are used in the manufacturing and distribution of those
goods. In practice, this means that
Mahmadou lived in an inflationary world.
Everywhere and anywhere, humans who are directly linked to the
production of those primary inputs into the global economy, share the drop in
value. It is of course convenient to
neglect all the arguments and optimism, which say that it does not have to be
this way or is not really this way.
distractions require a blind eye to CO2 build up in our
atmosphere. To the beggars who are
outside our gates. To the gunshots
resounding from Tunisia to Pakistan.
world was beyond mine. Largely, I could only observe it, even though we shook
hands each day. His younger sister, I
remember, experienced a spell while working in the market. The spell was cast
upon her by a spurned lover. The spell
was followed by a sudden onset of lunacy in which she abandoned her vegetable
stall in the market, raved, and threw off her clothes. She was treated by a Grande Dame, secret herbs,
and two months of Mahmadou’s salary.
Mahmadou and family were poorer, the sister healed and returned to her
market stall – unmarriable. I continued
drinking imported beer.
I felt as much disconnected when I
was in Azerbaijan, a peculiar little post-Soviet republic on the fringe of the
eastern fringe of Europe. Azerbaijan, it
seems, was so much on the fringe of the fringe that a pervasive cultural
schizophrenia had been part of the culture from time immemorial. Definitely not Asia, what with vodka and pork
sausages, cheese, bread, and vinyards.
Admissibly not quite Europe, what with all the exotic hand knotted
carpets flying around the country.
of the contemporary confusion seems to stem from the hapless luck of the Azeri
peoples having grown up over pots of easy oil beneath their feet. The Nobel brothers of the famous Nobel Prize
were the first to seriously pump the goop out of the ground. Hitler tried to get his hands on it. Now the Europeans and the US have tubes in
the ground. So if you arrive in the
capital Baku, with the nice airport and the nice shops and the nice little
touristy things to do, you could say, if you wanted, that this was a place you
could get to know because maybe you know it already just a little bit. We are all pretty familiar with oil culture.
what about the, oh, one million or so Azeri persons who were forced out of
their traditional homelands by a little war somewhere around 1990. These homelands had never had much if
anything to do with this century’s oil.
These people had experienced some reciprocal fair trade in the context
of the Soviet Union, exporting cotton and horticultural goods in exchange for
social services and basic infrastructure.
This all evaporated with the demise of the Bolsheviks’ dream. The displaced people, virtually all the rural
population, and the majority of the urban population are decidedly poorer
today. The oil, of course, leaves the
country in pipelines. The reciprocity
agreements that the population had with the Soviet Union poofed into clouds. Today, my thoughts are alive with the memory
of multi-lingual, university educated Agalar Mahmood. He was thirty six years old, married, kids. His three brothers died in various wars. He wished to immigrate to Canada, to escape
Before Azerbaijan, I was in
China. The lower mainland and Tibet to
be precise. A couple of things stared
me in the face. On one hand, my mind
boggled at the vast numbers of humans swimming in unimaginable levels of
atmospheric and ground pollution and the perplexing parallels of incredible
efforts at environmental regeneration. On
the other hand, in every corner one had the sense that China had been around
for a long time, in a variable though remarkably consistent form.
the Three Gorges Dam, a technological wonder if there was one, the construction
of the world’s highest elevation railway into Tibet, the urban skyscrapers of
Shanghai, these are nothing more than redundant examples of the process of
resource extraction and consumption.
They will only intensify the
already bloated concentration of industrial production of pigs and chickens in
southern China, there to feed the population (in a manner of speaking), which
serve as perfect breeding grounds for new diseases like Sudden Acquired
Respiratory Syndrome. What about the
impossibility of hundreds of millions of the working poor all wishing to own a
car? And a mobile device? To fly in an airplane?
with some refreshment, I was inspired and enlightened when I watched and walked
among families in their fields in Tibet.
Men and women, young and old alike, tilling their fields with ards
pulled by yaks. Voices singing in motion
with the swing of wooden implements that broke clods of soil to cover hand
strewn barley seeds. The voice of
eternal non-change singing somewhere in the back of my mind.
Acknowledged, my romantic notions. And my Luddite emotions? I am responsible, of course, for my own doubt,
which arises in part from my own naiveté.
For I was raised on liberal democratic ideals. I had a mandate, did I not, to improve the
quality of life for individuals in poorer countries?
not really. I had an economic and very
material dependency on poverty. No
poor. No job. No international travel. No quaint rural retreats and bucolic
vacations. I was an ideologue. An ideologue backed by big purse strings, to
which all international workers are attached.
We were and remain oddly unaccountable to local authorities. At any time, each of us could always get into
a plane, leave, go home. None of us, for
all practical purposes, subject to independent judiciaries, taxation, or a rule
of law in those countries in which we worked.
Ignorant or blind to my own studies
in history. Shallow in my observations
of human nature and organizational behavior.
Too tolerant of the propaganda in the language of the international
organizations. Blind to the severity of
the little jingle: “You are either in the game, or out.” It has taken quite a blasting for me to wake
up. The invasions of Afghanistan and
Iraq. Drones. Housing market crashes. Syria. Global surveillance systems. Yes, you are either in the game, or you are
My initial observation, I believe,
remains correct. My techno-industrial socio-economic
order will remain for some time to come.
A wealthy order, no doubt. And so
long as I do not rock the boat, a comfortable one.
a world order from which a little something has been shaved. Which is the matter of choice. Choice has been compressed into a little
marble, now flicked off the game board.
slice of choice, of how to live, shaved off the idea of liberty.
was nice having it while it lasted.