Thursday, June 21, 2007

Cotton: Here We Go Again

Today’s The New York Times contains a story by Celia Dugger, “Oxfam Suggests Benefit in Africa if U.S. Cuts Cotton Subsidies.” Yet nowhere in the article is there suggestion of the costs that result from increased cotton cultivation. There are short-term benefits to cotton, certainly. But do they outweigh the long-term damage? The answer isn’t quite so clear.

In the late 1980s, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Northern Togo (close to the Ghana border and not far from Burkina Faso) teaching farmers how to care for the oxen and plows they had bought through a government loan program meant to stimulate cotton cultivation. As time passed, I began to shift my efforts into a secondary project, working with people in a village near mine to develop a tree nursery and then to plant hedgerows. Why? The cotton program had begun to sour for me.

Here’s what happens (or did—I don’t know if the program still exists): a farmer borrows something in the area of a thousand dollars through the government program, getting in return a pair of somewhat-trained oxen and the plow, yoke, and other equipment necessary. The farmer has to provide a stable and feed.

Because the soil in the region is meager at best, the farmer will also have to buy fertilizer—not to mention pesticide.

For the first time, probably, the farmer is starting the planting season in debt, so has to allocate an even greater percentage of land to cash crops than normal—cotton being the primary one. He (or she, but most in the program were men) will also have to plant enough more to replace the subsistence crops (millet, sorghum, etc.) that his family normally grows for its own table.

The farmer has no insurance against calamity—drought, or anything else that might destroy the crop. The debt will remain, no matter what happens. So, the farmer is taking a risk, even putting his family in danger of famine through the reduction of food crops. This program, in other words, provides a genuine avenue for making participants poorer, not richer, and financially in thrall to the government.

But that’s only one of the peripheral problems cotton presents—and one of the least serious.

Cotton may have destroyed the fertility of North Africa. Certainly, it came close to rendering the soil of the American south useless in the 19th century. It can easily do the same in West Africa.

And that’s serious.

Cotton is an extremely greedy plant. It sucks nutrients from the soil, giving little back. For this reason, it should be planted (ideally) only one year in three in any one field, with the farmer (after two cycles that include cotton) allowing the field to lie fallow the seventh year. For one of the other two years, the crop should be nitrogen-fixing (like groundnuts). Soil needs to be tended with forethought and care, if it is going to survive cotton and not decline.

Yes, fertilizers can replace some of the loss, but they are expensive and have side-effects of their own. And fertilizers can tempt a farmer to stress a field through the short-term gain it can help provide—but it is a gain built on desperation (or debt), sacrificing productivity down the road or, at best, increasing expense for fertilizer as more and more is needed.

When a farmer is desperate to survive, the fallow year disappears—and only the most cash-rich crops are planted. What good will it do to have fine soil in the future if the family has starved to death—or lost the farm—in the meantime?

West Africa’s huge savannah is depleted a little more each year, the Sahara looming a little closer. If care is not taken to protect and enhance the land, and not simply to wrest a little more from it right now, the sands will engulf those very farms that too many now see as the salvation of West African economies.

The salvation of West Africa lies not in higher cotton prices but in finding a way for the land to both support the people and be replenished. Anything less is no more than trying to close a belly wound with a Band-Aid.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Going Down the Tubes?

[This review of mine appeared yesterday on the ePluribus Media Journal.]

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (New York: Currency, 2007), by Andrew Keen

Andrew Keen has written a book that attempts to be a take-down of citizen journalists and bloggers. Before I get into a close look at it let’s set up the discussion through a little imagining:

What if I were a somewhat successful ‘Silicon Valley entrepreneur,’ having done well enough to be able to recite stories of my encounters with the big kids… what if I were something of a writer on technology, but not really breaking out of the second tier… what if I were both these things—so close to the big time, but not quite there. Might I not, to get there, consider writing a book against type, something so startling (coming from me) and so much in agreement with deep-seated fears of the Web and of common folk that it would immediately become the darling book of the fearful and powerful?

It could work, I’d think, especially today, when there are a number of real divides in understanding about the Web—even among those (like this imagined me) who were instrumental in its first successes in the 1990s. What I could do is devise an argument attacking the core success of the Web, providing the doomsayers an ally from within what they imagine is the enemy camp. What I could do is pander to the elitist instincts that make even the title of Cyril Kornbluth’s 1951 science-fiction story “The Marching Morons” still the scary image of the inevitable future.

Now, I am not going to accuse Keen doing exactly that, of thinking all this out dispassionately, planning his book simply as a career move—but it is surely working out that way—and his background is just about what I describe. Plus, in the two weeks since its release, Keen has been all over the media peddling his ‘end of the world’ scenario.

It sure could make one suspicious.

It surely would, if it weren’t that the book shows a mind incapable of the sophisticated thought such a plan would necessitate. Otherwise, I would be certain of it. But it would take a brilliant mind to see in advance that a Silicon Valley insider attacking the Web through just the avenues of greatest concern to the Luddites would bring out the remnants of the mindless (and pre-Web) commercial press like ants to honey. If anything about his book showed even a hint of brilliance, I would suspect that Keen had pulled off quite a coup. And I would admire the chutzpah, if nothing else.

But, no. This is a poorly thought and written book, amateurish in the worst ways (the best of amateurism, as we all know, is well thought and written)—which, of course, is ironic, given the topic. The book is simplistic in strategy and cartoonish in understanding—and it shows a refusal to look at anything the author doesn’t want to see. No one who wrote this ill-considered diatribe could manipulate any part of the media in the way I’ve been considering.

Keen fires a poorly loaded and understood blunderbuss, hitting a few targets, but with force so light it does no damage. After all, it’s easy to portray almost anything as inane, if that’s what you are setting out to do, deliberately ignoring the good and running through the bad so quickly that your sweeping generalizations brook no arguments. Like this:

YouTube eclipses even the blogs in the inanity and absurdity of its content. Nothing seems too prosaic or narcissistic for these videographer monkeys. The site is an infinite gallery of amateur movies showing poor fools dancing, singing, eating, washing, shopping, driving, cleaning, sleeping, or just staring at their computers. (5)

As turnabout is fair play, I’ll respond by saying that the book is filled with similar amateur attempts—unwarranted assumptions followed by something like a list that assumes completion but that is, really, a selection devised to make the whole appear to be something other than it actually is. As if we wouldn’t notice.

Sure, YouTube contains all the things. So? No one watches them unless they involve their friends—or show unusual talent of some sort. What draws people to YouTube is not the sort of item Keen lists at all.

Not that Keen cares. He’s not talking to people who know what YouTube really is, but to those who want another reason to bemoan contemporary society. He’s like the amateur magician people applaud because they want to believe he’s good—not because he is.

Like the worst sort of amateur, Keen abuses information. He writes, “The New York Times reports that 50 percent of all bloggers blog for the sole purpose of reporting and sharing experiences about their personal lives”(7). He doesn’t provide a reference, but he is likely referring to an article by Felicia Lee published on July 20, 2006 entitle “Survey of the Blogosphere Finds 12 Million Voices.” The conclusion Keen draws, which does not even adequately reflect the survey the story is about, begs the question: What about the other 50 percent? Indeed. And the only response possible to Keen is a re-phrasing of Sturgeon’s Law, making it, ‘So what if 50 percent of the blogs is crud? 50 percent of everything is crud.’ By comparison to the original, which was about science fiction with the percentage being 90, I’d say the blogs must be doing quite well, indeed!

For all his association with Silicon Valley, Keen does not understand what is going on over the Web at all. One could even accuse him of being “ilneterate.” Steeped in the older “literacy” culture, he cannot see that “neterate” culture doesn’t attempt to replace the old but to augment it—and even that scares the bejeezes out of him. He laments:

The value once placed on a book by a great author is being challenged by the dream of a collective hyperlinked community of authors who endlessly annotate and revise it, forever conversing with each other in a never-ending loop of self-references. (25)

Really? The Web has about as much chance of destroying the discrete book as did the movies, radio, and television. What we are seeing is something new, not the destruction of something old.

But Keen doesn’t get that. Nor does he understand that the new abundance of unreliable information does not change the fact that a greater quantity of reliable information of high quality is also now available, and that all it takes is a modicum of “neteracy” to dip into that while avoiding the junk.

Scared to death of those without certification, Keen spends a lot of time attacking the amateur (without ever looking to himself, of course), writing, for example, that:

The reality is that we now live in a highly specialized society, where excellence is rewarded and where professionals receive years of training to properly do their jobs, whether as doctors or journalists, environmental scientists or clothing designers. (38)

Such a slavish worship of the specialist is unbecoming (not to mention being a sign of unskilled amateurism), especially when we are constantly reminded of the failures of the specialists and the necessity of listening to the amateur. Today’s best doctors have learned that they have to listen to their patients and involve them in both diagnosis and treatment, for the individual patient knows more about—and has greater impact upon—his or her own health than the doctor ever will. Furthermore, in many fields, (including journalism and clothing design) the self-taught and skillful amateur can actually out-do the professional, and regularly does. Keen is not willing to accept the fundamental fact that “amateur” and “unskilled” are not one and the same thing—any more than “professional” and “skilled” are. Unskilled as a writer, researcher, or thinker, he still wants to believe in himself as the “professional.”

Not surprisingly, Keen resorts to cliché for his insults though (of all the questionable sources!) he turns to Matt Drudge, at one point, as his expert:

Most amateur journalists are wannabe Matt Drudges—a pajama army of mostly anonymous, self-referential writers who exist not to report news but to spread gossip, sensationalize political scandal, display embarrassing photos of public figures, and link to stories on imaginative topics such as UFO sightings or 9/11 conspiracy theories. Drudge, who once wrote that “the Net gives as much voice to a thirteen-year-old computer geek like me as to a CEO or speaker of the House. We all become equal,” is the poster boy of the citizen journalism movement, flashing his badge of amateurism as a medieval crusader would wield a sword. (47-48)

Where to start? That Keen presumes to know what he is talking about when he speaks of citizen journalism is astonishing, given the rash of gobbledygook in this passage. “Pajama army”? A cliché with no basis in fact. His list of “amateur” stories? Sounds a lot like what one finds in the commercial news media. Equality on the Web? Sure. But that’s the starting point. One still has to prove oneself—and the CEO or Nancy Pelosi will generally outshine the thirteen-year-old, and do so quickly. Equality doesn’t mean a forced sameness, here—we’re not talking of the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” Drudge as citizen journalist? Come on! He’s not part of that movement in any of its aspects. And that last analogy? Few amateurs write so badly or to less purpose.

Enough. Now I’m just being mean.

Still, sometimes, when someone is deliberately ignorant, it gets under my skin. When someone refuses knowledge and starts getting attention for just that, I get distinctly annoyed. Keen shows all the expertise of the Web that David Horowitz, who thinks he can reform our system of higher education (yet who told me in an email that he hasn’t been in a college class but once in the last decade) has about universities—and that, for all their claims, is less than little.

If you want to complain about amateurism, Mr. Keen, you might want to first spend a little time becoming an expert on it. Come over here: we amateurs can help you. Sit down, listen, and learn. You’ll find that we amateurs know more about the Web than many of you experts. Certainly, we can teach you something, if you’ll just become willing to learn.

Come on. You might as well. After all, as your book proves, you are one of us—not the skilled amateurs, but amateur nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Whaddya Think We Are, Stupid?

Yesterday, The New York Times published a piece by ‘guest columnist’ Roger Cohen of The International Herald Tribune entitled “The Long View in Iraq.” If I were inclined towards paranoia, I might believe it to be the result of a secret decision to convince Americans that we are going to be in Iraq for decades, no matter what. Certainly, it is the conceit du jour.

Cohen writes:

I see four core American interests in Iraq that cannot be abandoned. There must be no Afghan-like Al Qaeda takeover of wide areas. There must be no genocide (say a Shiite sweep against Sunnis). There must be no regional conflagration (for example, a Turkish invasion). And there must be no return to the old order (murderous Stalinist dictatorship).

“Cannot be abandoned,” huh? And the only alternative is American troops?

The simple-mindedness of that “either/or” aside, there are problems with every part of this list.

First of all, an “Afghan-like Al Qaeda takeover” is not in the cards. Even if it did manage to wrest control of any large part of Iraq, Al Qaeda would then have its hands full just trying to control it. The organization would be effectively neutralized. Also, the impact of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has already been so positive that it doesn’t need a base in Iraq. It already has one in Pakistan, may be developing new possibilities in Afghanistan, and has reached out even to rebel groups in Algeria. Thanks to the Americans, Iraq has served its purpose, for Al Qaeda.

Strike Interest One.

No genocide in Iraq? It seems to me that our presence is making that easier and more likely—and it’s not as though the various groups aren’t killing each other with abandon right now. The only way to stop the possibility of genocide is to ease the pressures behind it (and religious differences won’t be the spark—Sunnis and Shi’ites have been living in relative peace in Iraq for a long time). The killings and forced removals (and even the start of refugee “tent cities”) going on right now increase those pressures. We Americans aren’t helping stop genocide. If anything, we’re making it more likely.

Strike Interest Two.

No “regional conflagration”? We seem hell-bent on one, what with our saber-rattling aimed at Iran. What with our failure to expedite a solution for the Palestinians and Israelis. What with our unwillingness to talk to Syria. Furthermore, if the European Union makes it crystal clear to Turkey that it will never join if it attacks the Kurds, and the US adds its own pressure, that will never happen—especially if a way is found to start the Turks and the Kurds talking. And that could be done.

Strike Interest Three.

No return to “murderous Stalinist dictatorship”? You mean, what the Iraqis have right now is better? Certainly, you don’t mean to say that the US could never get along with a dictator? Sure, we prefer democracies, but we don’t insist on them elsewhere. Why in Iraq?

Strike Interest Four.

My question is this: Why all the specious reasons for staying in Iraq? Cohen isn’t the first to say that the US will “have” to be there for along time.


The only reason that I can come up with that contains even a hint of rationality (though a disgusting one) can be summed up in one word.