Democracy and Truth

If you look closely at the stream of information emanating from China, some of it looks suspiciously “complacent”, which is to say, looks like PR spin. Where is the critical view, where the alternative, competing views?

Newspapers speak of the environment but do they go far enough? Are they, perhaps, simply writing for link-minded readers, perhaps a form of window dressing for general viewing.

The difficulty in cultivating a national democratic culture lies in encouraging vigorous, outspoken debate without fear that factions will gain the upper hand tearing asunder the “hard won” polity as it was following the Cultural Revolution, and as it might have been had the regime not suppressed the student demonstrations and occupation of Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Wherein then lies authority? With capitalism at its doorstep and modernisation a preordained outcome, how might the Chinese nation have encouraged national debate without unleashing sectarian violence?

Topography and Geomorphology: environmental debate in China

The following OpEd piece is reproduced in its entirety from the August 20, 2010 issue of The China Daily. This opinion by a senior editor of the “national English-language newspaper” may be read as a reflection on Chinese environmental sensitivity. The writer argues for placing “conservation” at the center of an ecological approach to the stark geographical and environmental realities that confront the PRC.

This article helps allay one’s fear that the Chinese pursue growth policies without regard to environmental consequences. Everywhere we visited there was evidence the Chinese are discreetly aware of the environmental cost of their success. But, while there may be no point in being alarmist, the issues are pressing.

Whatever success the Chinese may have in building a more just and equitable society, whatever the challenges of soil and water conservation, the Chinese are tributary to a “youthful” geomorphology characterized by frequent earthquakes, flooding and progressive “natural” desertification.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop

By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-20 06:10

Asia is home to half the world’s population yet it has the least volume of freshwater of any other continent, except Antarctica if we discount its ice sheets.

And among all Asian countries, the situation in China is perhaps the gravest: It’s home to more than 20 percent of the world’s population but has only 7 percent of global water resources. Worse still, its per capita freshwater availability is one-fourth the world average.

Till the heavy downpours triggered floods and landslides, killing hundreds of people across vast stretches of South, East and even Northwest China, a large part of the country had been under the grip of drought or drought-like conditions. The blame for this unusual weather rests primarily on global warming. But the tragic developments – drought one moment, floods the next – teach us a lesson, too.

That lesson is not necessarily [that we should build] huge dams, diverting water from South to North, although such measures might in the short term, solve the problem. By far the most important lesson to be learnt is how to conserve water.

Almost half of China’s more than 660 cities face, what in modern terminology, is called a water crisis. Beijing, unfortunately, sits somewhere at the top of that list.

As if that was not enough, Beijing’s underground water table is said to be receding, and receding fast. China’s capital doesn’t enjoy the luxury of being situated on a major river. It has to depend on underground water for a large part of its freshwater supply.

The problem is that the more water it pumps out from the ground, the faster the water table recedes and the drier the city becomes. That’s an invitation to desertification, which has been checked, at least for the time being, by the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees in the northern part of Beijing and its neighboring provinces. But these trees, or afforested areas, as hardy as they may be, need a certain amount of precipitation to survive. And precipitation depends partly on the water table of an area, which tragically is receding.

Studies have shown a large percentage of the cities’ groundwater and a majority of rivers and lakes are polluted. The result: millions of people have to make do with contaminated drinking water. Beijing residents are not among such people. But the signs are ominous.

There’s a saying among Indians, irrespective of which of the many Indian languages they speak: Tiny drops go on to make a pond. Every drop of water is precious, every drop of water counts – more so in China.

That’s precisely why one is surprised to see tree trunks on streets beautifully guarded by immaculately paved tiles, with just one-meter-square of bare soil. The rest of the pavements, as the term suggests, are paved. And shockingly enough, the moment a tree is chopped off or uprooted for some construction project or the other, even that one-square-meter of bare soil is covered with tiles.

Beijing has all the trappings of a modern city: glitzy high-rises, wide, tar-bitumen carpeted roads, beautifully laid-out pavements and paved walkways (as we see in the Olympic Green). None of these surfaces allow the little rain (and snowfall) that Beijing receives to seep into the soil. The precious water flows into gutters, and ultimately into the nearest sea or river, which, in turn, flows untapped into a sea.

It’s no secret that groundwater tables are replenished by water seeping through the soil. But the logic of human beauty teaches us to keep cities (and if possible, the entire country) dust-free, and thus “concretize” every possible inch of space. The tragedy is that nature doesn’t follow our logic.

A 2006 UN report says: “There is enough water for everyone” and “Water insufficiency is often due to mismanagement, corruption, lack of appropriate institutions, bureaucratic inertia and a shortage of investment both in human capacity and physical infrastructure”.

China neither has enough (fresh) water nor smart management to harness freshwater (harvest rainwater for instance), which otherwise flows into seas.

If we cannot build reservoirs in which rainwater can be drained into, can we at least let as much water as possible seep through the soil, especially in cities like Beijing?

For further information, the reader might take a look at the website “China’s Environmental Issues” (, a site produced by students for students and hosted by the Oracle education foundation, ThinkQuest ( Alternatively, one might have a more detailed look via the website, Facts and Details

Elise’ First Steps

Françoise and I spent Monday with Elise and Liam. We played soccer, spent a long time on the swings, played under the hose and… helped Elise with her walking. The following is a first for me and you will probably agree, leaves much to be desired. But I will do more and better over the next few weeks.


The Stone Wall at Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York

Today’s note is inspired by a Google photosearch for an image to illustrate the word “commons”.

The Stone Wall at Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New YorkThe idea of a commons implies both freedom and its opposite. As we use the word, a commons is a place where the representatives of a free people meet in a rite of political comity. It is also however, an enclosure, a space secured by law and to which access is restricted. One might speak of a such a community as a community “bound by a commons”.

What is needed is a new understanding of the commons as being either “socialized” or “wild”. Looking at the problem in this light, a “wild commons” would be established by common agreement as beyond property limits, beyond the pale of “socialized” spaces. Such agreements should govern the oceans, the Antartic, the noosphere, outerspace and as much of a national territory as can be reasonably set aside. In short, we are speaking of creating “public parks” on a global scale, somewhat like Antarctica. What could be more important?

Such distinctions are already possible. We live in “socialized spaces” we consider “public” and cultivate intimacy in our “private spaces” and anything that is outside of “socialized space” is considered “wild”. The problem we face in the 21st century however, is that such “wilds” are no longer wild and are hardly self-sustaining.

A “wild commons” is needed to protect biodiversity, much as zoological establishments (“zoos” in plain English) today are focused on preserving and cultivating biodiversity. Such establishments for the promotion of biodiversity could not exist without agreement of the “socialized commons”, which is to say, without comity and collective authority.

Would a new authority be required to implement a “wild commons”?

I think not. Yet, if man has learned anything from his history it should be that authority cannot exist without enforcement and that the first requirement of enforcement is submission to a rule.

Submission entails surrendering the will to resist but it can also be understood as a negotiation whereby some rights are surrendered in exchange for the preservation of others. This is the art of compromise and it is more than ever necessary in promoting the stewardship of our public spaces. Acknowledging the necessity of a “wild commons” implies diversity and long term sustainability.

In order to return to the idea that enclosures are systems which produce “commons objects” (sic), perhaps what we need is to rethink the commons not as a space of shared activity but as a regulated space of non-activity.

If you are interested in exploring this further, you might have a look at the classic economics text The Tragedy of the Commons. Alternatively, a great deal of literature is currently being generated with respect to the strategy of developing networks of Marine Protected Areas. These are an absolutely indispensable first step toward the preservation of marine diversity and the safeguard of trophic marine systems.