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April 17th, 2008


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02:38 am - The Third World: A Balance Between Hope and Despair
I was reading this excellent article on the impact of cell phones on lives of people in the third world and it made me think about the predicament of the third world. For the first time in the industrial era, how inequality between the first and the third world is (at last) decreasing. Increasingly inexpensive wonders like cell phones and cheap laptops are changing the lives of people whose parents may never have seen an electric light except in the far distance. This is amazing, powerful, and above all hopeful. When you add in the potential for 3-d fabricators to transform third world manufacturing and the fate of the inhabitants of all but the poorest and most desperate nations starts looking far better than it did 20 years ago. This is part of a progression we've seen before – 25 years ago, South Korea was an impoverished nation on the barest edges of the first world, and now their consumer electronics and life spans are better than ours in the US. Similarly, while its government is very far from ideal, China's middle class is growing very rapidly indeed.

I've read some pieces despairing about such changes and the loss of "traditional ways of life", to which my response is to both ask how many of us would willing give up electricity, indoor plumbing, or the internet. I'm reminded of a short bit on Anthony Bourdain's brilliant travel show No Reservations, where he talked to someone living in a traditional Amazonian village and who had regularly encountered first world tourists. When asked how he liked life in his village, the man answered by asking Anthony Bourdain how he'd like to trade. That's really what it's all about, people all across the world want real medical care, indoor plumbing, electricity, cell phones, and suchlike and these advances bring real and largely positive changes into their lives.

However, that's only part of the story. I'm deeply unimpressed with the various apocalyptic predictions about the first world – fuel shortages and the various similar problems are problems to be solved, that have a multitude of solutions – some good, and some not, but in 30 years we're still all going to have food, fuel, and all that. However, I've seen a number of predictions that indicate that the tropics (IOW the third world) is going to be affected considerably more by global warming than we are. It looks much like sea levels will rise 1.5 meters in the next 92 years, which will be a big deal for millions of coastal people in the third world, and even mildly higher fuel and food costs are going to have a major impact on people in the third world.

For me, one of the hardest parts of this situation is that we don't know the end of that story – will technical advances win out or will rising costs and environmental and economic problems keep these people living in conditions none of us really want to imagine. Also, there's very little that we as individuals can do directly. I started a career in international development, and gave up in disgust, because most people in the field were either fools or actively evil. What the residents of the third world need is engineers to help them solve their problems and more people like the person in the article about third world cell phones. What they definitely don't need academics discussing what they think the problems these people face are or how best to solve them, in part because such externally-lead efforts so rarely succeed. Given the growing negative reaction in Africa to various forms of international charity – it seems the best answers are various forms of fair trade efforts (as opposed to the ill-named predatory "free trade" that is so common and often so horrid) and foreign funding of local efforts like the astoundingly successful Bangladeshi microcredit loans. Imagine the world we might have if the US spent half the money it's wasting on its various wars on such efforts and on policing the various US-based transnational corporations so they were not brutal union-busting horrors overseas. I'm certain that in 30 years life in the first world will be amazing beyond our dreams, but I also hope that the residents of the third world benefit from those wonders considerably more than they benefit from the many wonders we now take for granted.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(22 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:alobar
Date:April 17th, 2008 10:22 am (UTC)
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> It looks much like sea levels will rise 1.5 meters in the next 92 years,

This is one of those times when I hope you are right and I am wrong.

It would be nice if those numbers turn out to be real. I have seen predictions of 15 meter sea level rise over the next 20-30 years. If the numbers I have seen turn out to be valid, civilization as we know it will probably disappear.
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From:aekiy
Date:April 17th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
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The fact that so much of our water is disappearing will likely inhibit an extreme rise in sea levels.
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From:mindstalk
Date:April 17th, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC)
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Our water is not disappearing. Groundwater is being depleted and glaciers are melting, so our freshwater availability is decreasing. But what do you think is happening to the water molecules? There's no Water Disposal Unit lying around. Glaciers melt into the ocean. Used groundwater evaporates or gets flushed into sewers, and goes into the ocean. Nothing's *going away*.
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From:aekiy
Date:April 17th, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
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It isn't all going to the ocean. There is a large amount of water unaccounted at this point. Until we actually know what's happening to it all, it's considered missing.
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From:mindstalk
Date:April 17th, 2008 04:48 pm (UTC)
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Citation?
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From:aekiy
Date:April 17th, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC)
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hm.. don't have any. It was discussed in a series of shows on the Science Channel I caught some months ago.
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From:mindstalk
Date:April 17th, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
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I don't have time to do more research, but http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_level_rise has 28-34 centimeters from 1980 to 2100, taking into account a long term acceleration of sea level rise.

Then there's
http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/03/catastrophic-sea-level-rise-more-evidence-from-the-ice-sheets/
from a couple years ago, which talks about 4-6 meter possibilities but over thousands of years, then in a comment "Sea level is going to rise somewhere between 1/2 and three feet in the next century or so. It could be much much more (say, two times as much)."
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From:heron61
Date:April 17th, 2008 07:37 pm (UTC)
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Obviously, the more catastrophic figures are not merely unlikely, but physically impossible, but given some of the information about the acceleration of glacier and ice-sheet movements I've encountered, the 1.5 m seems possible, but could also easily be considered an upper bound. The data it's based on is new, but it also looks reasonable.
One meter could also happen, especially if we manage to stabilize CO2 release levels within the next 50 or 60 years.
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From:mindstalk
Date:April 17th, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC)
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Well, not sure what you mean by physically impossible. Certainly the water's there. Antarctica has (crude estimate) 1/60th the water of the oceans, mostly as land-based ice, so could raise ocean depth by 1/60th. 3000m/60 = 50m.

And Hansen argues the ice can flip suddenly:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_global_warming#Sea_level_rise
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From:heron61
Date:April 17th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC)
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Well, not sure what you mean by physically impossible.

I meant that because the main antacrtic icesheet is well below freezing, it would take well more than any predicted global warming to get it to melt, much less do so in any relatively short-term timescale. The rest of the ice (Greenland, the West Antarctic ice sheet...) is considerably more vulnerable, but I don't see it all melting within the next century - OTOH, there's a lot we don't know about global warming, so I think a range from 0.5 - (at most) 12 m (the later could only happen if both Greenland glaciar and the West Antarctic melted completely) a reasonable range for predictions of sea level rise in the next century, with my own guess on the actual rise being on the lower end.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:April 17th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC)
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"I've read some pieces despairing about such changes and the loss of "traditional ways of life", to which my response is to both ask how many of us would willing give up electricity, indoor plumbing, or the internet. I'm reminded of a short bit on Anthony Bourdain's brilliant travel show No Reservations, where he talked to someone living in a traditional Amazonian village and who had regularly encountered first world tourists. When asked how he liked life in his village, the man answered by asking Anthony Bourdain how he'd like to trade. That's really what it's all about, people all across the world want real medical care, indoor plumbing, electricity, cell phones, and suchlike and these advances bring real and largely positive changes into their lives."

Thank you! That's what I'll say the next time I run into a fundy or other member of the Spiritually Correct who whinges about the loss of tradional ways of life.

BTW, there is something especially scary about all those apocalyptic predictions you cited if one is female, because they all imply that a return to male-dominated society is inevitable. Until the middle of the 20th century, equality was impossible because reliable contraception did not exist. Women had to adhere to the double standard or become mothers, like it or not. This kept women in line or in poverty. Ever since the Pill, women have been able to attain freedoms that were out of their reach previously. Without technology, women will lose control over reproduction and have to submit to the double standard once more.
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From:heron61
Date:April 18th, 2008 04:53 am (UTC)
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Thank you! That's what I'll say the next time I run into a fundy or other member of the Spiritually Correct who whinges about the loss of tradional ways of life.

I've actually run into them most often on the far fringes of the environmentalist and anarchist movements. The worst nuts are the ones describing themselves as an anarcho-primitivists, they are from my PoV utterly delusional.

BTW, there is something especially scary about all those apocalyptic predictions you cited if one is female, because they all imply that a return to male-dominated society is inevitable. Until the middle of the 20th century, equality was impossible because reliable contraception did not exist.

An excellent point, and likely a reason that almost all advocates of such ideas that I've read about have been male.
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From:lupagreenwolf
Date:April 17th, 2008 04:00 pm (UTC)
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I think the biggest issues I have with introducing postindustrial technology to indigenous populations is that rather than helping people incorporate the technology into their own cultures, the people pushing this technology also push a postindustrial culture on them as well. While American culture, for example, has a lot of wonderful things, like antibiotics and the internet, we also have increasingly unhealthy patterns of behavior, including isolationism, hyper-materialism, and the perpetuation of a concept of "adulthood" that is really a stunted form of adolescence with different trappings. Not that indigenous cultures are all 100% healthy; however, we need to be careful what we're importing along with the positive benefits.

I do think that the U.S. could most definitely spend its money on better things than wars. I look at what Kiva.org is doing, for example, and I wonder why it has to just be the individual citizen doing this sort of thing.
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From:heron61
Date:April 17th, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC)
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I think the biggest issues I have with introducing postindustrial technology to indigenous populations is that rather than helping people incorporate the technology into their own cultures, the people pushing this technology also push a postindustrial culture on them as well.

Much of the issue with this is that indigenous populations are doing this to themselves. Just like residents of modern first world nations did in in the last two centuries, these people are moving to cities in droves (half the people on the planet are now living in cities, and the trend is continuing, with predictions of 80% of all people living in cities by 2050. They want to live in cities, they want running water, electricity, good jobs, telecommunications, and consumer electronics, just like we do.

However, from what I've read (and talked to Alice about) people in China are well on this road, but they are also culturally very different from anyplace in the first world. Heck, Western Europe is significantly different (and less screwed up) than we are in the US. Similarly, India and much of the rest of the more functional parts of the third world are making their own way. Also, given that two of the big and consistent cultural changes are rapidly declining birthrates and the more gradual rise in status of women, I'm all for many of the cultural changes. In any case, I dislike the idea of US culture spreading, but our days as the premier nation of the world are rapidly coming to an end (the EU's economy is already larger and healthier than ours). So, I'm really not to worried about this. South Korea is a thriving first world nation, and it doesn't look particularly much like the US anymore than Sweden does (actually it's considerably less similar then Sweden).

I look at what Kiva.org is doing, for example, and I wonder why it has to just be the individual citizen doing this sort of thing.

Dear gods yes.
(Deleted comment)
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From:heron61
Date:April 18th, 2008 04:40 am (UTC)
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While that is likely a contributor, I don't buy it as a major cause of third world urbanization. There was no significant climate change going on in the 60s and 70s and people were still moving to cities in large numbers in those 3rd world nation that were then able to support large urban populations. This has happened throughout history - cities = more opportunities and more chances to get out of poverty, it's pretty much what they do.
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From:onyxrising
Date:April 17th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
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I thought you would enjoy that article.
The predictions the article made about slums were creepy. I've been meaning to pick up a copy of Planet of Slums and learn a bit more about it, but haven't had the opportunity yet.
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From:heron61
Date:April 17th, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
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True, but over the past 30 years, we've seen a consistent pattern of 3rd world shanty towns, squatter settlements, and slums gradually upgrading into fully functional parts of cities with running water and electricity. We're rapidly becoming a highly urban species, with the latest figures being that 80% of humanity will live in cities by 2050.
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From:onyxrising
Date:April 17th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)
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And a high likelihood that at that point, around 25% of the world's population will be living in slums, without access to clean water or other necessities.
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From:heron61
Date:April 17th, 2008 09:59 pm (UTC)
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Very true, but it's not like these people are doing any better now, almost all of the people moving to these slums are moving from rural areas that are even worse.
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From:moominmuppet
Date:April 17th, 2008 07:18 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the reminder; I just went and donated to a microloan program.
(Deleted comment)
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From:heron61
Date:April 18th, 2008 04:50 am (UTC)
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I've never been of the opinion that preserving traditional ways of life should involve becoming a Luddite. Language and cultural preservation doesn't equal not using vaccines or antibiotics. Granted, there are probably nuts out there who think that way, but I'm certainly not one of them, nor have yet to read articulate complaints about it advocating that view.

I very much have - mostly on the far fringes of the environmentalist &/or anarchist movement - the sort of off-grid back-to-nature nutcases who are happy (or in some cases simply talk about how happy they would be) to give up refrigeration and to "live simply". They aren't common, but they definitely exist and some of them quite vocal.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:April 18th, 2008 04:37 am (UTC)
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Yes, but the usual pattern is inequality gets worse before it gets better. Also, in many places the change is from everyone but a small & wealthy elite being relatively poor, to life staying the same or getting slightly worse for some and significantly better for others. I know that in Thailand (which I studied extensively in grad school) life didn't get worse for the rural poor with growing industrialization, because it was already as bad as it could get and still allow people to survive, which is why those people moved to cities in droves as soon as there was the opportunity to do so.

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