Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Holy Innocents

Last Sunday, the last Sunday of the calendar year, marked the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The day's readings are a strange mixture of the tragic and the hopeful. Isaiah speaks of Rachel mourning for her lost children, and the Gospel reading talks about the subject of the feast day, which fulfilled the prophecy made six hundred years earlier by Jeremiah: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel crying for her children, and refusing to be consoled, for they are no more.' Rachel of course, had died outside Bethlehem, which makes this prophecy especially charged with meaning.

It marks the day of the killing of all children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding region, by order of the tetrarch Herod. In some inchoate and cloudy way, Herod had heard that 'the king of the Jews' was to be born in Bethlehem, and had heard of the date from the Magi, and he knew that in some way this king would be a threat to him. He thought, of course, of a political leader, a rival to his power: he couldn't conceive, any more than anyone else, of a very different sort of King. In between the reading from Jeremiah and the Gospel is a reading with a completely different tenor: the beautiful vision of the holy city Jerusalem, "prepared as a bride adorned for her husband."

The holy city, of course, represents the people of God: the "Church Invisible", made up of all people who truly seek to do the will of God as they understand it (or, if they haven't been blessed with the gift of faith, those who truly follow their conscience and the law of nature as they understand it.) The people of God are truly the "Bride of Christ", and husbands are commanded to love their wives "as Christ loved the church, who gave himself up for us." Beyond this, however, the vision in Revelation 21 paints a picture of a paradise beyond human comprehension. Our fallen and flawed minds and souls are incapable of envisioning that which is purely good: we can understand it only in negatives. The city of God is the city where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." This is the city where everything old shall be made new, where everything corrupt shall be purified, everything ugly made beautiful, the exalted cast down and the humble raised up. In this passage, Christ tells us: "It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son."

This passage speaks to the heart of everyone who has ever suffered, and particularly to everyone that has experienced the death of a child, inasmuch as this is one of the cruellest tragedies we can endure. I knew quite a few such people in Madagascar, and I have known such people in this country as well. The suffering of children is probably the most stark example of evil we can perceive in the world, and the greatest challenge to believers in an God. Because children are, definitively, innocent, incapable either of deserving or understanding the evils they suffer. Ivan Karamazov could accept the orthodox explanations for the problem of evil: that evil is the price of human and angelic free will, and that a world in which no one could choose evil would be a world in which no one could choose good. But he couldn't accept it in the case of children. This is what he said:

'Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to dear, kind God'! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones! I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself. I'll leave off if you like.'

Was it necessary that pure and innocent children suffer horrible deaths so that Herod, or Hitler, or any garden-variety child-rapist, could exercise their free will? Why couldn't God strike these scum dead in their chairs as they contemplated the act, instead of allowing them free rein to carry it out? In merciless and graphic detail, Ivan Karamazov recounts stories of horrendous abuses and atrocities done to children, that even more than a century later cause us to blanch with horror. A Russian couple who flog their daughter for sadistic pleasure, smear her face with excrement, and lock her up at night in an outhouse; an aristocratic general who is offended by one of his serfs, and who forces her five year old son to run before releasing the dogs after him and watching him be torn apart by the hounds; a regiment of Turkish soldiers in the Balkans who allow a baby to play with their guns before pulling the trigger and blowing the baby's smiling and laughing face away. These were real cases, ripped from the late 19th century headlines by Dostoyevsky, and carefully catalogued and preserved in order to make the most horrific case for human evil, and the most powerful case against the goodness and power of God. What makes them worse in a way, of course, is that for all Dostoyevsky's understanding of human evil, he couldn't begin to envision or imagine the scale of the horrors that would be suffered by children in the twentieth century: in the rubber plantations of the Belgian Congo, in the gulags of Stalin's Russia and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and in the shantytowns of India, Brazil, and South Africa.

Because Ivan's question, of course, is Dostoyevsky's question also, posed by this brilliant, flawed, tormented and conflicted believer. Let's leave aside the question of whether 'almighty' means there are really no limits to God's power- I don't think it does, but that isn't the point. If God has any power at all, then surely he must have power to destroy a Herod, a Hitler, or a Milton Blahyi. And if not, then why serve him at all? Ivan couldn't answer it, Dostoyevsky couldn't answer it, and neither can I.

What I can do, though, is to remember that whatever the solution to the problem of evil, and whatever adjustments it may require us to make to what 'omnipotence' really means, one thing remains true: while this problem has no solution, it will have a recompense. And while it has no intellectual answer, it does have an existential answer. Our Lord tells us "They have had their reward", and the corollary is that the others, those who suffer, shall in time have theirs. Whoever has lost someone they love to disease, poverty, despair, pain, torture, death, remember this: we have the promise of a world in which every bit of unjust suffering shall be recompensed, and in which all our sorrows will change to joy.

Ivan Karamazov intellectually denied God, but in his heart he knew that walking a quadrillion quadrillion miles through hell would be worth it in exchange for a mere two seconds of tasting the joys of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." We have the glimpse and the promise of a world to come in which all our griefs shall be paid for, and all our needs met, and we have the obligation to live for the sake of that world, in the world here and now. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." We can not know in which way God will recompense us for the suffering of innocent children, but we can and must believe that He shall. That is faith, its price and its reward.

It was believed, by the men of the Renaissance, that we were entering a new age of humanity, peace, and gentleness. There followed the black plague and the wars of religion. It was so believed, again, by the men of the Enlightenment. There followed American slavery, the butchery of the Native Americans, the Napoleonic wars and the black horrors of industrial capitalism in Europe. It was so believed yet again by Marx and his disciples (who were right about many things, and wrong about many others). There followed a century in which communist revolution vied with capitalist counterrevolution to see who could conquer the world through brute force and hard cruelty. Today lots of people (do we never seem to learn) believe that we are in some way more humane and more loving than our forefathers, and that the future is always more civilized than the past, and that progress, not simply technological but moral, is inevitable. But if the suffering of children is the clearest example of evil, then a world in which tainted milk is sold to Chinese infants, in which children in Madagascar and throughout Africa die of easily preventable diseases every day, in which many millions of children in shantytowns throughout Africa and Asia waste away and die for lack of milk and nutritious food, in which children suffer the most horrendous disease, hunger and privation while those of us in rich countries prefer to spend our money on luxuries, in which the killing of 40 million unborn American children happens each year, most of them _not_ on any grounds of medical necessity, in which Indian children are forced into debt bondage on plantations and in which Burmese children are forced into the brothels of Bangkok, in which children see their parents butchered in Congo and the Sudan, in which Liberian militias sacrifice children and eat their hearts, can under no conditions be considered a civilized or humane world. Our world is, in its way, as liable to evil as Herod's, and we are every bit as much in need of being turned from evil to good, and every much in need of repentance and change.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Et Verbum caro factum est.

I spent Christmas Eve at an Anglo-Catholic parish in an inner-city section of Boston, which I go to whenever I'm in town. As someone relatively new to the faith, much of the liturgy and ceremony are new to me: this was, I think, the first actual Christmas Eve service I've attended. After the Eucharist, we read "The Last Gospel": the entire prologue to the Gospel of St. John. As a priest I know well said to me afterward, this contains the essence of the Christian faith.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

God is a Trinity, first and foremost. We know this, not merely by visions, or by Scripture, or by the Ecumenical Councils, but by reason. For we know (as per St. Anselm) that God is necessarily perfect, and that the essence of moral perfection- the most perfect moral sentiment- is love. God is love, and has been love, for ever. But if that is true, then God must be a community of persons. For no one can love himself- not with the highest, truest degree of love. True love requires an object. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This presupposes that I am separate from my neighbor, that we are two different persons. And so it is with God: He has always consisted in more than one person. Love requires an object, and a form. The Logos, the Second Person, the Begotten Son, is the object, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, is the form that love takes. "Whoever loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love." For that to be true, God must be a trinity, and that trinity must be eternal and indissoluble. This is the argument that St. Augustine makes in his De Trinitate: If, then, any one of the three is to be specially called Love, what more fitting than that it should be the Holy Spirit?—namely, that in that simple and highest nature, substance should not be one thing and love another, but that substance itself should be love, and love itself should be substance, whether in the Father, or in the Son, or in the Holy Spirit; and yet that the Holy Spirit should be specially called Love.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.
Jesus is coeternal with the Father: there was never a time when Jesus was not God, for there was never a time when the essence of God was something less than pure love.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

The Logos, the Son, is the mediator of life, says St. Augustine, as the devil is the mediator of death. Without Him, we would have nothing beyond the grave but pain, darkness, and sorrow: through him, we have a glimpse of the holy city where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." He came "that men might have life, and that they might have it abundantly." As we owe the history of the world that led to our births to the Father, and the power that sustains us from day to day to the Spirit, so we owe the life of the world to come to the Son.

5 And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.

How often it happens that the enemies of that which is good, hate it without comprehending it. As knowledge is an attribute of God, so ignorance is an attribute of the evil power. Good can subtract something from itself and thus comprehend evil, but evil can never comprehend good, for that would require something that it does not possess. The enemies of social justice- whether for the poor, for racial minorities, for the third world, for the unborn- always assume that there is a nefarious economic motive at the bottom of things, for they cannot comprehend true charity and a true thirst for justice, and believe that everyone must be as selfish as they are: and in this we see, as true as it ever was, the words of St. John enacted into reality.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

Here stands John the Baptist, cousin of Our Lord, who appears like a strange, inexplicable pillar in the desert, with no one in history or legend quite like him. People sensed, instinctively, that he was not like other men; some of his contemporaries, we are told, asked "Are you the Christ", and to this very day, in the Middle East, survive the Mandaeans who believe that, yes, St. John the Baptist was the Christ, the Son of God. I don't know exactly who or what this fascinating, enigmatic man was, but I can't credit that he was simply just a normal man.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

From before the beginning of written history men have seen light as a symbol and an image of God. We didn't know, then, that light, like God, is beyond our comprehension, but only barely so. Through evolution, intervention, and other mechanisms as yet unknown, God shaped our minds so that we would be able to just barely, almost, comprehend light: to understand that it can be a wave, and a particle, but not to understand, ever, how it could be both. Light is just barely beyond our comprehension: close enough to our powers of thought to illuminate us, but far enough away to tantalize us. And so it is with God.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Our false, foolish, selfish pride is hurt when others do not give us our deserved honor, our true worth. How much more should Our Lord have been hurt when we whom He had come to save treated him as a common criminal- mocked him, laughed at him, spat on him, tortured and killed him. Yet he matched our false pride with His true humility, and on the Cross his last thought was to forgive His tormentors, and to say to his neighbor, a scoundrel and a murderer, "Verily I say to you, this day shalt thou be with me in Paradise."

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

"Sons of God" in the truest sense: by love, by adoption, by service, and by salvation. We are sons of God in the sense that God loves us as a father loves his sons. The evil power tempts us by trying to persuade us that we can be our own masters, our own Gods: but the true way to become sons of God is not by seeking power and self-gratification, but by denying them.

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

The flesh is fallen, and the will even more so: God came in the flesh so that the fallen could be made unfallen, the hills made low, the valleys made high, and everything old made new again.

14 And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

"Ho Logos sarx egeneto." "Et Verbum caro factum est." This is the core of it, right here. The meaning of Christmas. The meaning of history. The meaning of redemption. At that moment, sometime in the spring of the year, between 4 and 6 BC, several billion years after the origin of the universe, came the event that all of human history on Earth had been preparing for, and of which all subsequent history is the sequel. This is the center, the basic fact of history, in the light of which everything makes sense. The flesh, that which had been made ugly and corrupt by the brutal facts of nature- by the cruel and wasteful process of natural selection, which has no mercy for the weak and no limits on the strong; by the laws of thermodynamics that make every system, in time, become more and more disordered and chaotic; by the laws of nature that allow earthquakes to happen and viruses to evolve, tearing down everything beautiful and reducing it to ugliness- this very flesh was the flesh that the Word, the Logos, the Son, chose into which to incarnate Himself. To redeem us, to renew us, and to save us. "Behold, I make all things new." And to this singular, beautiful, incomprehensible, appalling act of love, we owe everything in our lives here and in our lives to come.

"And I am with you always, till the end of the age." Amen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A quick digression about bats....

So I was just reading an essay by David Quammen today about overhunting of the Mariana fruit bat (Pteropus tokudae) in Guam. Apparently they are a tasty game meat eaten on feast days like Easter and presumably Christmas. What I found fascinating is that the name for the fruit bat in the native Guamanian language (Chamorro) is fanihi, which is the same as the word (fanihy) for the giant fruit bat of Madagascar (Pteropus rufus).

The Madagascar flying fox, like other large bats, is predominantly a fruit eater- they like to eat the nectar, blossoms, and sometimes fruit of several native and introduced trees. They thrive on some of the introduced trees like mangoes and eucalyptus. During my last year in Madagascar, I was very interested in trying to locate a colony of flying foxes, or smaller bats. I was particularly interested in trying to locate a colony of the smaller, insect-eating bats, as their droppings are a very good fertilizer. Bat droppings (of insectivorous bats) are apparently about 10% pure nitrogen by dry weight, which is comparable to a moderate to low quality chemical fertilizer. This is a very impressive nitrogen concentration for a natural, organic fertiliser; by comparison, cow manure is only 0.5-1% N by weight, and chicken manure only 1-2%. Bat manure would be an excellent ferilzier as it has some of the soil-building benefits of an organic, carbon-based fertilizer along with N concentrations comparable to a chemical fertilizer.

I learned later that some Peace Corps volunteers up in the highlands had actually been involved in collecting bat manure to fertilize agricultural lands. This would have been a pretty awesome project to get involved with. Unfortunately, there were not any bat colonies too near where I lived. The bats close to the village had been driven away by hunting pressure, and although there were some bat colonies further out in the mangrove flats between my village and the sea, they were quite far away and it wouldn't have been economical to bring manure in from that distance. I kind of wish I had gone hunting for them though, it would have been pretty fun. I certainly do recommend trying to get your hands (as it were) on some bat manure, as it is supposed to really be an excellent fertilizer.

Anyway, how amazing is it that the word for 'bat' in Chamorro and Malagasy are the same? Both languages, of course, are part of the Austronesian language family. The ancestors of the Chamorro, and at least some of the ancestors of today's Malagasy peoples, originated in Taiwan about 3,000 years ago, and from their spread out in their outrigger canoes, all over the southern oceans. They colonized islands and archipelagoes from Easter Island to Madagascar, stretching across three continents in the biggest expansion prior to European colonization: the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, Polynesia. A few of the words in Malagasy are similar to Malay or Indonesian words, e.g. anaka or zanaka for "child", similar to Indonesian anak. Still, isn't it odd that one of the words to remain totally unchanged was the name for a fairly obscure wild animal? I wonder what the word is for 'fruit bat' in Tagalog or Malay.

Venezuelan unemployment at lowest level in 10 years

So....Venezuela is announcing that their unemployment rate fell, in November of this year, to just over 6%: the lowest level in a decade. How many other developing countries have an unemployment rate of 6%? The unemployment rate in Michigan is already around 9% and projected to increase to 10% this coming year: the unemployment rate in South Carolina is projected to be 14%. In truth, it seems like it's the capitalist countries that are being sucked into a death spiral of unemployment and economic collapse, not Socialist countries like Venezuela. And that's as one would expect, since a Socialist country has more government internvention in the eocnomy, which can be used to create greater aggregate demand.

Monday, December 22, 2008

More random notes....

Here are some more links for you to read.....

This is my brother, "Brownsox". He's a professional journalist so the writing is probably higher-quality than here.

This is a good personal friend, a one-time roommate actually.....

And another friend......

Someone I went to school with that I met randomly at a dinner party last year, interesting commentary from another Anglican interested in African issues, who actually helped write down a language for the first time.....

News and views about Venezuela, some really in-depth analysis......

A little more about one of the plants I work with.....

An inspiring place to get involved with if you live in Boston.....

Good place to worship if you live in Boston.....

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The economic triumphs of Venezuelan Socialist agriculture

One of the key pillars of the new society that Hugo Chávez wants to build in Venezuela is that it will be, in large part, a rural and agrarian society which produces its own food. His vision is of one where Venezuelans, instead of importing wheat and beef and using them to make hamburgers, will eat traditional peasant food that is grown in Venezuela, by low-input and sustainanable methods and by cooperatives that provide employment for vast numbers of people, respectng nature and the natural environment. He wants agriculture in Venezuela to switch from being dominated by large landowners and multinationals, to being dominated by peasant cooperatives where the workers and owners are identical, and where questions are settled by egalitarian debate among the peasants. He wants to empty to vast shantytowns ringing Caracas and so many big cities, and to encourage the underemployed and miserable residents to turn themselves into hard-working, strong, and proud free peasants. And he wants to do all this in a way that is ecologically sustainable, and that dos not threaten Venezuela's impressive natural endowments- soil, water, forests or natural biodiversity. There is some question about whether all these goals are compatible. I believe they are, of course, and remmeber writing an article back in undergrad for a magazine I wrote for then, about the environmental implications of land reform in Nicaragua back in the '80s and in Venezuela today. Environmentally friendly prcatices are actually more common among smaller farmers in Latin America (as well as productivity being higher) largely because the people involved depend intimately on their land and cannot afford to have it degraded.

All this of course is seriously contrary to all that "orthodox" Western thought about globalized capitalism has been saying for decades. The advocates of the Washington concensus tell us that developing countries should be trying to remake agriculture on the lines of American agribusiness, that countries should 'modernize' by encouraging people to move to the cities, that agriculture is a backward and out-of-date way to make a living, that countries should embrace a service-based economy as the United States has done, that agriculture should be done highly effciiently by a tiny minority of people, that countries should specialize in exporting what they are best at, and import everything else from abroad- comparative advantage, you know. Of course, like much of what our late-capitalist, globalized modern society preaches, these are lies and particularly pernicious ones. The government of Venezuela and its allies (in Bolivia most of all, but to some extent in Cuba) have set themselves steadfastly against these lies, and Venezuela has tried since 2000 to make agriculture a national priority, to redistribute land, and remake the agriculture sector along Socialist lines.

If the opinions of American opinion-makers were correct, this should have led to a disaster. Because more than anything else, Venezuela wasn't trying to imrpove capitalist agriculture, they were trying to destroy it and rebuild a socialist rural culture on the ruins. Ever since 2001, they have made it very clear that they will proceed by expropriating large landowners, seizing their lands and turning them over to rural peasant cooperatives, encouraging cooperative ownership rather than individual ownership, and placing limits on how large an estate one can own. They made no attempt to do away with all private estates, not yet anyway- rather, they have to date focused on expropriating estates to which the owner cannot prove title (which, in Latin America, would be a great many of them, as probably most were illegitimately acquired through excluding the peasants that worked on them) or that are larger than the limits that the state has placed on estates. Currently the limits are large (thousands of hectares) for poor quality land, but only 50 hectares for high quality land. New laws also protect 'squatter's rights', they give peasants ownership of whatever they produce on privately held land that they occupy pending the decision about the legal status of that land.

Prior to 2001, large privately held estates comprised about 6 million hectares: about 2% of the rural population owned 60% of the land. As of today, a third of those have been confiscated, and turned over to poor landless farmers. Some of this land is owned by peasants (individually or as members of cooperatives) but much is owned by the state and leased to cooperatives. (This tends to be a better, more stable method of land reform as then the workers are not allowed to sell it, which removes the danger of it ending up in the hands of the rich once more).

Naturally, the biggest impetus behind land reform were moral, not economic ones. The Chávez government wanted to give landless and destitute people some access to the means of production, and to allow them a way out of poverty. Through their stress on cooperative economics as opposed to private landholdings, they have also made it clear that they want to undermine the whole ideology of private profit and self-interest that underlies capitalism, and which has produced most of the manifold problems in the modern world. Chávez and his government want the new rural enterprises of the future to be based on people working not simply for their own private self-interest, but in larger part for the common good. They want the peasant cooperatives to devote themselves to elevating the common and collective good over the individual, to stress one's obligation to the whole over what one can expect to receive, and to emphasize discipline, sacrifice and equality rather than individual advancement. To quote from Humberto Marquez' article earlier this year:

In the back are a kitchen and a large dining table for those who are working on a given day and the families that have settled in improvised homes in the surrounding area. On one wall there are faded posters of Chávez and of the Salvadoran revolutionary Farabundo Martí (1893-1932). "We are socialists. We work as a community, according to the abilities of each, and we take turns so that we aren't always doing the same thing, and to learn about everything. We realised that if we were each on our own it would be very difficult to get ahead and leave behind our days as labourers, as employees enriching someone else," says Neptalí Quintana.

This vision of a socialism that is essentially moral, that realizes that economic equality and solidarity are useless unless they are based on a moral transformation that de-emphasizes the individual and his interests, and places more emphasize on one's obligation to others and to the collective, were articulated decades ago by Che Guevara in his "Man and Socialism in Cuba":

I am not interested in dry economic socialism. We are fighting against misery, but we are also fighting against alienation. One of the fundamental objectives of [socialism] is to remove interest, the factor of individual interest, and gain, from people's psychological motivations. Marx was preoccupied both with economic factors and with their repercussions on the spirit. If communism isn't interested in this too, it may be a method of distributing goods, but it will never be a revolutionary way of life.

However, it's necessary to keep economic factors in mind too, at least at this stage. We need to assess, how successful has Venezuelan Socialism been at producing food? Many Americans seem to be under the impression that land reform, expropriation and cooperative economics must necessarily lead to declining food production, through pernicious incentives or something like that. I'm not sure why so this view is so common, but it is. So let's look at some statistics on Venezuelan agricultural production over the last ten years.

Production of rice and corn, the major locally produced staples, is up by 72% and 150% respectively over 1998.

Production of vegetables is up by over 50%.

Production of milk is up by over 33% (so much for the so-called milk shortages).

Production of chickens is up by 33% since 1999.

Production of coconuts is up about 60% since 2001, when the revolution effectively started.

These are not the effect of government subsidies. Unlike the capitalist U.S., Venezuela doesn't really subsidize agriculture, although they do extend cheap credit and supplies like fertilizer and tools to farmers. Quite the opposite, really: agricultural production has risen in spite of adverse government incientives caused by low fixed prices for commodities. (Since last year, in an effort to increase production even further, the fixed prices have been raised and set closer to the market price.) It would seem that cooperative-socialist agriculture is simply much better suited to the Latin American context, in an economic as well as a social and moral context. (Small-scale, socialist production is also better from the environmental point of view, and the revolutions in Nicaragua and Venezuela both included a great flowering of environmental concern, but that's a separate issue). The carping of the chattering classes in the United States and the parasitic elite in Venezuela about the inefficiencies of Chavista agriculture is nothing but propaganda, pure and simple. We should give the Chávez regime our congratulations for increasing agricultural production to such an extent, for giving unemployed people from urban areas the opportunity to become self-sufficient cooperative farmers, for emphasizing collective socialism over individualist capitalism, and for taking steps to solve the problem of swollen shanytowns by encouraging people to go back to the countryside and live out their true essential nature. In the Bolivarian Revolution is the answer to the modern world's pernicious and unnatural separation of work and reward, of the rich and the poor, of people from their essential natures. As the modern agribusiness complex in the United States begins to fall apart, more and more communities will find that they have to look within themselves to set up new networks of food production that are approriate to a poorer and more resource-deficient world, and in that day the good example of the Bolivarian Revolution will save the lives and livelihoods of many.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Random notes....

So I've added links to a couple blogs below.

"Oil Wars" is mostly commentary on Venezuela, from an American married to a Venezuelan, I believe. He's quite a bit more centrist (liberal, social-democrat) than me, but is generally slightly more favorable to Chávez than to his opponents. The comments run the gamut from moderate-conservative to communist, so the debates get quite interesting.

"Gravity's Rainbow" is by a super-smart (quite a bit smarter than me) young botanist. Naturally I don't agree with all the opinions expressed therein, but she is a friend of mine and you should definitely read her blog!

"In Medias Res" is from an, again, super-smart, Christian-Socialist viewpoint. The owner is, interestingly, a follower of the Latter Day Saints church. Having always lived either in the Northeast or Midwest, this isn't a church I have much experience with, but I'm always interested to learn more.

I have to work now on a teaching presentation for early January, so I will get going. In the background I am listening to an old favorite, "Freedom Train" by Toots and the Maytals. As with a lot of songs, it sounds like it maybe has double meanings. Is the "freedom" that the singer talks about just referring to the U.S. Civil Rights struggle, or perhaps the struggle for Jamaican independence? Or is it also talking about the freedom from sin and death, the freedom in Christ, when he says, "Gonna ride on that freedom train/ Ain't gonna live this way again"? In Toots Hibbert's beautiful gospel-inflected reggae tones, it could be both, which is what makes his songs usually so interesting. (Toots Hibbert was, interestingly, an Adventist, which is not a particularly common or well-known confession in the United States. I did get to know some Adventists in Madagascar, through the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and let me tell you they do some amazing work, truly living out the spirit of Matthew 25 in their lives. It's not surprising that so many people in the developing world are attracted to the Adventist church.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Like a grain of mustard.....

I've debated with myself for some time about whether, and how to tell this story. It touches on friends of mine- friends of mine who the readers of this blog will probably never encounter, but friends nonetheless. I worry that this will be too much of a betrayal of their privacy. But on balance, I don't think it is. I tell this story "ad majorem Dei gloriam", and because I want to reveal a portrait of what strong and good people in a developing country look like: to provide a humanized portrait of what people are like in a very poor peasant society. I think they would approve of that goal, and that's why I am telling this story.

I worked with several different villages, when I lived in Madagascar, about seven over the course of the couple years I was there. In one, I had some neighbors- a couple that we can call 'Norbert' (the guy) and 'Liva' (the woman). He was in his late thirties, she in her early twenties (the same age as my brother). When I first met them, they were among the poorest people in the village. He was a heavy drinker, as are many of the underemployed men in rural Madagascar, and was visibly intoxicated on some of the occasions I saw them; she already had one child and was about to have another. They didn't have any land, beyond what they could ask friends or relatives to lend them- when I met them 'Norbert' was working on a little garden patch with some sweet potatoes and pumpkins, that I occasionally helped him weed. They made a meager living largely from working for other people as day laborers. They lived in a tiny, dark little cottage, on land that wasn't their own, with no land of their own, no trees, no rice paddy or corn field.

I first became acquainted with them when "Liva" came to my house one day to ask to borrow some food. This is the kind of thing that happens not uncommonly in what is around the 12th poorest country in the world. Situations like this were often a topic of argument among people that I knew- should you just give food away, or does that just encourage people not to work? Whatever one's answer to that, I didn't feel like I could turn someone away hungry, especially if they had a baby. When Jesus said, "For I was hungry and ye fed me, thirsty and gave me to drink...." that was a command, not a friendly suggestion. I gave them, I think, some rice and salt fish, and they took it home and cooked it.

In the weeks after that, I would go over there, occasionally at first but then more often, and check on how the family, and their new baby was doing. Their older child had some developmental difficulties, but was a sweet and well-behaved kid- occasionally I gave them bus fare to the nearest hospital to go get him checked out at the doctor (and when the baby got a bit older sometimes they would go to the hospital and get him checked out as well). I brought them gifts when I went to the city on work, sometimes, and started working with them on a regular basis as well.

I worked with lots of people in the seven or so villages that I covered, in a variety of capacities. I gave presentations and 'sensibibilizations', and taught environmental education classes in the elementary school, and I also obtained materials through grants for a couple of projects- fruit tree planting, poultry raising, beekeeping, etc. But I also worked on a much more intensive basis with a few model farmers- I think about 15-20 or so- and tried to make their little plots of land demonstration areas where neighbors and other people could observe demonstrations of improved agriculture techniques, tree plantings, etc. and hopefully replicate these techniques on their own. I'm not sure why I decided to work on an intensive basis with "Norbert", "Liva", and their family, but perhaps it was because I was spending so much time over at their home anyway that I figured I should use that time for working. As it turned out, they were receptive to learning about new agricultural techniques. Planting cover crops (cowpeas, pumpkins, etc.) in between their corn, planting the corn in lines, planting soil-improving cowpeas and pigeonpeas, even planting a little bit of sorghum (a seriously under-utilized, but very well-adapted plant for that region.) At first there was some resistance, as you would expect; people like to burn their fields, partly because it saves labor and partly because it's always been done, and it took me a while to explain why it might not be a great idea. There was resistance to the idea of mulching, too, since the fear was that it might foster insects (which, often, it does), so I talked with them about this and how the problems might be overcome. "Liva", I later found out, was a migrant from the highlands (of which there are many in the West), and a member of the tribe that is widely considered be culturally the most hard-working of all the tribes in the country- and in my limited experience, they were often very open to innovation as well.

I also, of course, enjoyed hearing from them about their experiences and opinions, and often learned from them. On one occasion I remember bringing a book I was reading about Venezuela out to the field- "Liva" asked what it was, and this started a long discussion about land reform and politics. We talked about a lot of things, and I learned a lot about everything from leprosy, to folklore, to village gossip. We spent a lot of time working out in their fields, and entertaining ourselves by sharing gossip- "Liva" liked to tell tall stories about friends of her from school, how many guys they had slept with, and so forth.

I remember visiting their field a little over two years later, just about the time I left, and looking at their little plot of land. It couldn't have looked more different. Instead of a bare, dusty dry patch of red soil, there were papaya trees growing in small, well-tended circles....just about high enough to start bearing small fruit. There were pumpkins covering the ground between the corn stalks, preventing weeds from growing, and there were plenty of soil improving legumes planted that in the years to come would enrich the soil. Their home was small and modest but it was well kept and, in a way, quite pretty, with a fine fence made of tall slender tree trunks, and a loft underneath the thatched roof. They probably had more papaya trees growing, and better maintained, than any of the other families I had worked with, and quite a few people passing through from other villages commented on how beautiful and productive their garden was, and about the interesting new agricultural techniques that they were using; I believe someone even asked them to give them some papaya seeds for planting.

This wasn't the only change in their lives, interestingly enough, though it was the only change that was really due in large part to my working with them. Shortly after I began working with them, "Norbert" stopped drinking, for good. Two years later he hadn't picked it up again. I'm not sure why- he didn't talk about it much and I heard from his wife. He got a short-term job as a guardsman for a road repair project, and applied for and got title to land formerly owned by the community: for a house, and for a cornfield. He became a kind of lay official at his Lutheran church, and gradually became more and more of an important person in the congregation. He was fond of telling me about how he and his wife refused to ever go to a "medicine man", because he was a Christian. "Liva" started telling me about how she was going to send her youngest child to school, and about the big plans that they had for the future. They might start a little brick-making business (we actually tried a little abortive experiment on those lines), make papaya jam and sell it, etc. Their neighbors in the village perceptibly talked about them with more respect and admiration, and there was definitely a pride and happiness in the way that they walked and carried themselves that there hadn't been before.

That was about the time I left. I haven't heard from them since then, but I am planning to write later today, and I hope to try and go back to Madagascar in the next couple years and re-awaken my friendship with them. But I can't help wondering about what a transformation came about in the lives of this truly destitute family during the time I was there. That transformation, of course, was one that they made for themselves, through their own tremendous effort. The kind of extraordinary effort it takes to lift yourself out of suffering and despair, and to become a well-regarded free peasant with a beautiful home and field, is something I can't even imagine, and it testifies to the great strength and goodness that was in "Norbert" and perhaps even more in his wife. But I wonder, was my intervention and my obvious interest in working with them and trying to help them out, something of a catalyst? Did the fact that their company, their well-being, and their insights and experiences were obviously valued by a young foreign technician from a developed country, make them realize how valuable they were as people, in the eyes of God? Did they come to realize that if I valued them and their company, it didn't necessarily matter so much if the village looked down on them- and that truly, the condescension of some of their neighbors was something they had the power to overcome, and even to reverse? Did the fact that I showed some care and concern for them give them hope and faith that led them to truly escape destitution through their own efforts?

I don't know, truly. We never know to what extent things that happen are influenced by what we do, and we never know how much what we do is influenced by what happens to us. No one can truly separate the concatenation of causes, except for God. But this I do know. Simone Weil says somewhere that the error of too many liberals and socialists (she was, of course, a Christian socialist herself), is that they assume that what suffering people lack, most of all, is money and the things money can buy. That's true, but it's only part of the truth. People need food, and shelter, and money: but they also need respect, and love. You can't truly respect the dignity of a hungry person without giving him food, but neither can you fully respect him without trying to build a world in which he can be a productive, participatory member of society whose work, whose beliefs, and whose feelings are valued. This is what true Christian love is, I think, and we are under the obligation to show it at all times. Jesus said that faith as little as a grain of mustard seed can move mountains. Similarly, even a tiny bit of love- love as little as a grain of mustard- can have far-reaching consequences: and this is a lesson that, when I look back on my experience with "Norbert" and "Liva"- two of the truly strongest, hardest-working, and most progressive people that I remember meeting- that I can never escape from.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A long post on tilapia

You've probably all seen tilapia as a popular item in grocery stores, usually in the frozen fish section. What many people don't realize is how important an aspect of the world's food economy it is, why it's becoming increasingly important, and what some of the advantages of tilapia are from the point of view of sustainable food production. A famous (or, alternatively, infamous, depending on whether you believe it or not) Nature paper from two years ago claimed that currently the world supplies of large pelagic fish were at about 10% of their pre-modern abundance. This is frightening enough, even if one can quibble with the methodology (what counts as 'large pelagic'? How do you really assess how many fish are out there?) It was widely sold however as saying that eating fish is bad for the environment. Well, as usual it's more complex than that. I gave a presentation on overfishing and sustainable fish production at a teacher training a while ago (as part of my government science-education fellowship) so I'd like to just just run over a few of the points we covered; I also learned a bit about tilapia raising when I lived in Madagascar, so I want to mention what's interesting and useful about tilapia.

Tilapia are any of a number of species (about 100) in the cichlid family, native to Africa and known for its capacity for rapid diversification. By legend, tilapia fisheries are what St. Peter the Apostle specialized in by trade (what with moringa and now tilapia, Scripture turns out to be a veritable handbook for sustainable food production). They are tropical fish, that vary in size up to 1 or 2 pounds (but often quite smaller), and don't survive well in water that gets below 68 degrees F- their lethal temperature is 50 degrees F. The most commonly raised species are in the genera Oreochromis, Tilapia and Sarotherodon.

One of the biggest advantages of tilapia as a farm-raised fish is that unlike most fish, at least unlike most fish that people eat, tilapia are largely herbivorous. Another Nature paper from, I believe, last year, classifies different kinds of edible fish and aquatic animals by their 'trophic level'- in layman's terms, how high on the food chain they eat. Tuna have a trophic level of about 4.2- top predators, like eagles or wolves. Sea turtles, being mostly plant eaters, have a trophic level of about 2.0, as do mollusks (plants would be at 1.0). Tilapia are at 2.7, meaning that they're largely plant eaters although they do supplement their diet with small crustaceans, etc. In fact, they will eat a lot of green matter that isn't useful for much else (algae, floating phytoplankton) and unlike, say, pigs or chickens don't need to be fed on relatively high-quality food. (Of course, in the U.S. with subsidized grain production, we do feed corn to both tilapia and cows, which are both adapted to feed on green matter- this is neither good for us, the animals, or the environment.)

Trophic level is actually extremely important in determining how efficient any type of livestock is from a natural-resource perspective. Most terrestrial birds of mammals only use about 10% of the energy they consume as food (actually, between 5% and 20%) to construct their body tissues; the rest goes into metabolism, to keep the animals' bodies functioning and to keep them warm. Ultimately this energy is 'lost', mostly as heat but some in the animal wastes. This means that when we eat a cow fed on grain, we ultimately 'lose' about 90% of the total food energy that was in the grain. That's why meat is often relatively expensive (especially from those animals like pigs or chickens that eat grains, roots, and other calorie-dense foods). Of course this isn't a direct tradeoff- cows can be raised fairly sustainably by eating grass, which obviously isn't a food that humans can eat, and in this way they serve the valuable function of converting food energy that isn't usable at all by humans, into a form where it is usable- this is a win from our standpoint, even if 90% of the energy is not usable it's better than a grass field where none of the energy is available to us in an edible form. Nevertheless, trophic level is pretty critical in determining the efficiency of different types of food production. Raising carnivores for food, since you have to feed them meat or fish, would involve even greater energy losses- on the order of about 99% of the total energy in the grass is lost if we first feed grass to, say, rodents, then feed the rodents to hawks and eat the hawks. That's why no culture has ever raised hawks for food. (The few cultures that raised dogs for food, like the Polynesians, fed them largely on plant matter).

We do, however, raise (and catch from the wild, in vast numbers) carnivorous fish- tuna, salmon, etc. The energy tradeoffs here are somewhat less acute- being cold-blooded, fish,mollusks and crustaceans convert about 10-40% of the energy they consume into body tissues, instead of only 5-20%. This is related to the fact that they don't spend much energy regulating their body temperature ("poikilothermic" is the term these days for what we used to call "cold blooded") and can use more for building tissue- edible reptiles like turtles and iguana are also considered highly efficient converters of fodder energy to human food. It's generally a big problem that so many of the fish and crustaceans we like to eat are high on the food chain (salmon, tuna and shrimp are all about 4.0), because their abundance in the wild is relatively low, and because when we raise them, it costs a lot of energy and protein to feed them, and places heavy pressure on wild fisheries (the Peruvian anchovy fishery, for example, largely gets turned into feed for the world's shrimp farms.)

Tilapia, on the other hand, are largely herbivorous fish that don't need to be fed on fishmeal, and don't contribute to the depletion of natural fisheries. They are incredibly prolific, and have a short life cycle of only about 3 months (roughly synchronous with rice crops which makes them useful as an adjunct to rice farming). Tilapia are a highly nutritious, low-fat fish; though there have been some concerns that they're much less nutritious when fed on corn, they are extremely nutritious when fed on green matter as they should be. Farmers often raise them by 'fertilizing' their ponds with submerged compost heaps or additions of manure: the nutrients will support algal growth, and the fish then eat the algae. You can also supplement their algal diet with additions of grain (corn, etc.), rice hulls, green leaves like sweet potato or taro leaves, etc. The nice thing about feeding tilapia is that much of their food, like algae or rice hulls, is inedible by people, so it's not like they are competing for food.

If left to themselves in a pond, tilapia won't ever grow very big, since they put most of their energy into reproducing. You can solve this problem by treating the pond with a sterilizing hormone. Methallibure (a dithiobiurea derivative) will reduce reproduction in tilapia while not eliminating it completely. But if you'd prefer not to, you can just settle for smaller fish. Tilapia can also be good for the environment. A recent study found that tilapia (and other herbivorous fish like catfish and carp) can actually significantly improve water clarity and reduce algal blooms in eutrophic waters. 'Eutrophic' by the way, means waters that have been subjected to abnomally high nutrient enrichment (usually from agricultural or industrial runoff): eutrophic waters are dangerous because they can result in a sudden explosion of the algal population,l which in turn attracts zooplankton and fish: when these animals die they decay and this decomposition reduces oxygen in the area, resulting in a 'dead zone' where little can grow. Temporary explosion of life, followed by prolonged barrenness. We already knew that some mollusks, like oysters in Chesapeake Bay, could help clean up algal blooms in eutrophic waters, but this is nice scientific proof of the same thing (Ask me for the reference, I have it on hand but can't look up articles on this computer right now.)

In tropical countries, tilapia are raised in all kinds of aquatic systems- small lakes, ponds, canal systems, rice paddies- and in much of Africa exist in the wild too. In the U.S., they can only really be raised indoors (and perhaps, outdoors in parts of the South). Nevertheless, many people do raise tilapia in indoor systems in Northern states. I've seen a guy in Massachusetts raising catfish before in 55 gallon barrels.....the little fellows literally swam around and around, and appeared to be doing OK. It was a low tech system, he changed the water by hand. No doubt tilapia could probably be raised in a similar low-tech way. All in all, they are definitely a fish that I would encourage trying to raise, on a small scale, to educate yourself a little in what a sustainable food production system looks like, and perhaps to get a tasty meal at the end of the day as well. (Tilapia, I should add, is a lean white fish that tastes rather 'earthy' and goes well with all kinds of recipes, but especially green vegetables and is quite tasty smoked or dried as well as fresh.) Tilapia are widely eaten throughout much of the developing world- in Central America, Southeast Asia, South America, West and East Africa, and Madagascar at the very least- and are particularly important in the diets of peasant families and poorer people.

I didn't actually get to build a fish pond in my village in Madagascar, as there wasn't enough water available (this was a dry forest region, with an average of about 800 mm annually, and sometimes less than half as much, and with hardly any elevation change.) I did see some beautiful terraced fish pond systems in the plateau though, including on the road from the west coast up to the capital (somewhere south of the capital and north of Antsirabe, I believe, some enterprising farmer has a series of ponds proceeding down a hillside that empty into each other.) I did help my host family during training (up in the plateau) dig an area for a fish pond, and I observed and offered technical advice to people on building them. This is something of a side interest of mine and if I work in the tropics in future, which I hope to do, I'd like to do what I can to encourage incorporation of tilapia raising into integrated farming systems.

Back to blogging.....

I've been on hiatus from blogging for a while (and, to a large extent, from sleeping as well). What with wrapping up fieldwork, completing two mammoth assignments for my advanced statistics class (remind me to comment on the first of those, a re-analysis of an old 1899 paper on sparrows with modern statistical techniques), a couple teacher trainings, my regular teaching work, wrapping up some fieldwork/lab work, applying for a grant, and preparing a presentation for my research group, I have been up to my ears in work. However, I have some free time this morning- no deadlines for a while, and school was delayed this morning, which means I got here with two hours to spare. In the next week or so, hopefully I will find time to comment on some of the following topics....
- To what extent flowers and fruits of plants can support their own carbon needs through photosynthesis
- Tilapia and its advantages as an acquaculture fish
- Mexican axolotls and how they are becoming endangered
- Rafael Correa's debt default in Ecuador
- The horrible and fiendish bombings in Bombay (not "Mumbai", please.....I am a Tamil, not a Marathi, and see no need to use a Marathi term for the city)
- Christmas, and the mystery of the Incarnation: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us."
- Overfishing and alternatives to it