Expectations

It’s only six days until we board a train for Paris and begin our outbound trip for China. I continue to experiment with my blog and the possibilities the Arras template (a WordPress template) affords for media integration

Just how does the “Chinese awakening” constitute a “catalogue of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability”?

Contemporary Chinese culture is the expression of 4500 years of cultural learning. The virtue of continuity arises, not so much from the continuous occupation of an unusually rich biotope but in sustained interaction with that space and vigorous competition for the honor of ruling with “Heaven’s Mandate”. In this sense, China’s history is a long history of upheaval and renewal.

What is unusual is that the inventive spirit functions so well in this “old nation”.The Chinese are credited with many firsts–paper, gun powder, the compass, iron foundries, the crossbow. One innovation that is sometimes overlooked however, is their grasp of the social narrative as a tool for nation building. It was the Chinese who invented the professionalized civil service, admission to which was by competitive examination. China may be justly recognized as first among bretheren, simply because we could not have invented a narrative of continuity extending over 4000 years, or spatial scales and social organization adapted to a population of 1.3 billion people. These are products of time and cultural learning and cannot be invented.

I look forward to exploring how the Chinese inhabit their landscapes as well as the cities and monuments they have grown out of their rich geography. Our trip will take us from the Ming capital, Beijing, across the northern rim of the Yellow River Valley and through coal mining country to Xi’an on the Wei, a tributary of the Yellow River. It was here that the Qin finallly wrested power to themselves, transforming forever zhongguo (the Middle Kingdom) into China.

From the “uplands” of the Yellow River we will travel across the lower Yangtse to the historic city of Suzhou, the oldest continously inhabited city in the Yangtse Valley (2500 years), home of the Wu clan (one of three kingdoms competing for Heaven’s Mandate) and today, a city of 5.5 million people and an important center for China’s silk industry. Suzhou is located on the Grand Canal, a public works project begun 486 BC.

From Suzhou we will travel the last 100 km to Shanghai, that XIXth century port city whose role in international trade was consecrated by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. There, of course we will be dazzled by glass and steel skyscrapers, a bustling Bund and the 2010 Shanghai Exposition.

In addition to the “built” environment, I look forward to Chinese railroading and to verifying (however superficially) the credibility of reports that the Chinese are destroying their environment. Such reports are pervasive in the European press even while there is no shortage of bucolic, beautifully lighted photographic cliches of the countryside under snow, of cherry and apple blossoms. How are these facts reconciled?

Finally, of course, I look forward to exploring market places and menus.

I approach this trip with a certain humility. I anticipate problems with language but do not anticipate resolving these simply by opening my wallet. I anticipate a certain amount of physical discomfort due to knees and joints with no obvious relief beyond anti-inflammatory medication. I anticipate self-restraint and an otherwise ascetic experience of an unfamiliar environment. This will be a first.

China, summer 2010

In July 2007 I wrote that the Chinese “great awakening”

might be apprehended as a mirror of Western society and a unique opportunity to see ourselves in a new light. There are perhaps as many ways to tell a story as their are stories to tell. But for those who listen and observe, the Chinese awakening is a catalog of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability.

This summer Françoise and I will travel to China to meet Katie and her travel companion, Pauline on their return trip from Sydney. Katie and Pauline arrive in Beijing on the 8th. From there we will travel to Pingyao, Xi’an, Suzhou and Shanghai spending two-plus weeks in China. We return to Aix via Moscow and Paris on the 22nd of August.

In the three years since I wrote that entry, China has emerged as a world power. 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty and a vast middle class has emerged. China hosted a dazzling media event, the 2008 summer Olympics and is hosting the 2010 Shanghai Exposition, a world’s fair on par with anything the West ever organized. And yet, desertification continues in China’s far west, torrential rains and flooding dog Hubei province and the mid-Yangtse, and coal remains the fuel of necessity.

The image we in the West hold of China is that of a proud country in a rush to claim its place in the comity of nations. This is inevitably only a small part of the story and undoubtedly the story told by well-meaning and thoughtful men and women, news and assignment editors who decide which stories will get underwritten and published.

We all live in an attention economy where the rule is that “change originates beyond the pale of consciousness”. In visiting China we will meet Chinese people from all walks of life. We will sample the infinitude of spaces in which the Chinese live and move and we will get a glimpse the magnitude of their national project. But it will be a challenge to reconcile the tourism imperative–buildings, monuments, museums, landscapes, temples, mausoleums and parks–with the spontaneous exploration of people, places and community enterprise.

But even these obey the laws of the attention economy in a material marketplace, where the question “whence my next meal” trumps poetry, and where the ruckus of public life is but an note in a natural harmonic scale.

Defending and promoting the commons in a globalized world

All of life is local.

One might be forgiven for quickly passing over such a banality. And yet, the local is at the very heart of our system of values and the “globalization” debate.

Vital goods (organic matter, oxygen and drinking water) and the biological communities that evolved under these conditions are the quintessence of “localness”. As biological communities grow and become more dense–somewhat like the mega cities of the 21st century–they become more specialized and diversified. Historically that which was produced locally was consumed locally and, according to the first law of thermodynamics, the total energy in an isolated system tended to remain unchanged and in the system. (This of course, raises the issue of scale and interoperability between systems, matter for another debate and discussion.)

The Mediterranean biotope is such a “closed system”, naturally defined as a subtropical marine system conditioned by the earth’s orbit around the sun, producing warm dry summers and mild rainy winters. Within the Mediterranean biotope there are a number of micro-environments formed by mountain systems (Alps, Atlas, Pyrenees), river and estuarine systems (Nile, Rhone, Danube) and a marine topography dominated by coastal systems, continental shelves and deep water environments.

At some point in the evolutionary process, Man’s penchant for socializing led to the creation of local commons as specialized communities producing regular surpluses. Such surpluses were traded as a reliable means toward increasing the material well-being of the commons. Such local surplus led to the development of a class of professional merchant traders and then, to entire societies specialized in colonial settlement.

The expansive colonial settlement practiced by the Romans eventually proved unsustainable and gave way to a system of competing city-states and then to nation-states whose purpose was to serve an ever greater collective interest more or less democratically defined. Individual will was subordinated to the collective weal (the commonwealth) and predatory colonization once again became the order-of-the-day.

In the latest transformation, mechanized transportation, telecommunications and rights enforcement once again threaten the commons (sedentary communities locally nourished) and a new collective ideal is called into existence. But the question precisely, is what can be the validity of such a collective ideal? Who will negotiate it and, under what authority?

My participation in and adherence to a local commons is welcome and indisputable: my existence as a human and the greatness of anything I might accomplish depends on the commons and the nature of relations with distant commons. Such a system is disrupted when relations between commons become unequal and the self-sufficiency of one is threatened by the predatory practices of another.

In the end, why would I want to “harvest” my fish, my wheat or olives beyond the limits of local sustainability? Why would I want to pollute my rivers or disfigure my landscapes when the surpluses acquired are non-sustainable or when market practices predatory? And, what should we do about biological species (such as ourselves) that are not by nature sedentary and thus defy assignment to one or another geographic locality?

Defending and promoting the commons in a globalized world is perhaps the highest calling.

122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas

The independent news organization, The Media Line (www.themedialine.org) published a story this morning about a series of natural gas discoveries off the Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese coast in the Eastern Mediterranean.

One might think “Wow!” and “Praise Allah! this geographic area will now be blessed with economic prosperity”. In the post-industrial view however, other questions immediately come to mind:

  • Will the general mistrust that appears to characterize regional society predominate so that the neighbors will find themselves fighting among themselves, each looking for his advantage, all of them fearful of losing a relative advantage?
  • Will this new wealth further distort Mediterranean feedback loops by siphoning to the Eastern Mediterranean already strained biotope resources in water and fisheries?
  • What will be the prolonged effect of this new extraction, given that we do not know what these hidden fossil resources contribute to climate and orbital stability?

And yet, extract these resources we will and must.

The alternative to a negotiated form of governance is prolonged antagonism with the potential this represents for loss of control and collateral damage. So the question becomes, “What form of governance arrangement, what sort of commons will the parties accept as the price of avoiding self-destruction?” And further, “When will the parties understand that creation and nurture of a commons is an alternative to mistrust and bickering?”

Narratives

Finding one’s voice is a process that occurs over time, the time of a life-span.

The “ages of man” are simply a progression of voices, changing over time, modulating, acquiring gravitas, trilling, detached, reflective. One’s voice is how one presents oneself; One’s narrative is what that voice communicates.

If narrative is what one says about oneself, the sense one gives oneself, it is just as importantly, the sense one finds in others, what others say about themselves, about the world they live in and how they fit into it.

The Narrative Voice blog is a collection of notes and insights into the lifestyles and narratives discovered or experienced over the course of a life unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic.