The Visual Du Jour – It’s Crowded

Via Flowing Data:

If I wanted to nitpick, I would note that population does not grow homogeneously but largely in the periphery while overconsumption of resources is a core and semi-peripheral phenomenon. But, heck, it is a preview and one needs to read the full feature:

“People packed into slums need help, but the problem that needs solving is poverty and lack of infrastructure, not overpopulation. Giving every woman access to family planning services is a good idea—“the one strategy that can make the biggest difference to women’s lives,” Chandra calls it. But the most aggressive population control program imaginable will not save Bangladesh from sea level rise, Rwanda from another genocide, or all of us from our enormous environmental problems.

Global warming is a good example. Carbon emissions from fossil fuels are growing fastest in China, thanks to its prolonged economic boom, but fertility there is already below replacement; not much more can be done to control population. Where population is growing fastest, in sub-Saharan Africa, emissions per person are only a few percent of what they are in the U.S.—so population control would have little effect on climate. Brian O’Neill of the National Center for Atmospheric Research has calculated that if the population were to reach 7.4 billion in 2050 instead of 8.9 billion, it would reduce emissions by 15 percent. “Those who say the whole problem is population are wrong,” Joel Cohen says. “It’s not even the dominant factor.” To stop global warming we’ll have to switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy—regardless of how big the population gets.”

In this sense, the dual power of US fossil fuel sector and religious fundamentalists is a threat to the planet and our species.

The Visual Du Jour – Work Longer, Die Quicker

In the context of the coming dismantling of Social Security in the US and retirement reform in France, both of which amounts to making people in the lower half of the social ladder work longer, the EPI offers this:

As the article notes,

“During a panel on Social Security and overall retirement security, experts Nancy Altman of Social Security Works and Teresa Ghilarducci of The New School stressed that raising the retirement age would reduce benefits, particularly for those lower-income workers with shorter life expectancies, who depend on Social Security for the bulk of their income. They also stressed that workers are often unable to choose when they retire and must stop working when they are no longer able to perform physically demanding jobs, or when they suffer a layoff and cannot find work.”

Well, yes, and that is the point.

The Visual Du Jour – It’s Crowded in Here… Or Maybe Not

Via Boing Boing, variable density:

It is a nice visual, but, of course, one understands that populations are not evenly distributed across a given territory. Australia, for instance, is way more crowded on the coastal areas than one the central, more desert-like areas. As a rule, rural areas have a much lower density than metropolises. Mexico City might probably have a higher density than what is mentioned in the visual. And Monaco is a piece of rock with lots of casinos.

The next step, of course, would be to determine the impact of density on behavior.

The Visual Du Jour – Global Migration

From the New York Times (via Mireya Marquez):

This graph accompanies a full article on the globalization of migration:

“The United Nations estimates that there are 214 million migrants across the globe, an increase of about 37 percent in two decades. Their ranks grew by 41 percent in Europe and 80 percent in North America. “There’s more mobility at this moment than at any time in world history,” said Gary P. Freeman, a political scientist at the University of Texas.”

The article also notes the differences between the current migration trend and the previous ones:

  1. It is global
  2. The importance of remittances ($317 billion last year, three times the total foreign aid)
  3. It is feminized
  4. It is transnationalized through ICTs
  5. It is strictly controlled by national governments (as opposed to the globalized regulatory regimes in global trade and finances)

This is an interesting article but there is nothing in there that globalization scholars have not been writing about for 15 years. Also, the article does mention the rise of anti-immigrant fervor in the US. It would have been worth mentioning Amy Chua‘s work showing that one of the sure signs of imperial decline is a rise in ethnocentrism and xenophobia.

Failing Global Food System: Failure of Entitlement, Land Grab and Neocolonialism

Let’s start with Amartya Sen’s insight on entitlements:

“Economist Amartya Sen (1990:374) suggested that people command food through entitlements – that is, their socially defined rights to food resources. Entitlement might consist of the inheritance or purchase of land on which to grow food, employment to obtain wages with which to buy food, sociopolitical rights such as the religious or moral obligation of some to see that others have food, or state-run welfare or social security programs that guarantee adequate food to all. Not all of these kinds of entitlements exist in all societies, but some exist in all.  From this perspective, hunger is a failure of entitlement. The failure of entitlement may come from land dispossession, unemployment, high food prices, or lack or collapse of state-run food security programs, but the results are that people may starve to death in the midst of a food surplus.

Viewing hunger as a failure of entitlements also corrects ideological biases in the culture of capitalism, the tendency to overemphasize fast growth and production, the neglect of the problem of distribution, and hostility to government intervention in food distribution. Thus, rather than seeing hunger or famine as a failure of production (which it seems not to be), we can focus on a failure of distribution (see Vaughn 1987:158). Furthermore, we are able to appreciate the range of possible solutions to hunger. The goal is simply to establish, or reestablish, or protect entitlements, the legitimate claim to food. Seeing hunger as a failure of entitlements also focuses on the kinds of public actions that are possible. For example, access to education and health care are seen in most core countries as basic entitlements that should be supplied by the state, not by a person’s ability to pay. And most core countries see basic nutrition as a state-guaranteed entitlement, in spite of recent attempts in countries such as the United States to cut back on these entitlements. Thus, by speaking of entitlements, we can focus on the importance of public action in dealing with world hunger.” (Robbins 2008: 186)

In this article, what Felicity Lawrence describes is precisely a pattern of failure of entitlement alongside a neocolonial system of food production, resulting in overproduction of some items, and scarcity of others:

“The root cause of hunger and famine is rarely crop failure alone. It is about who controls and benefits from the land and its resources. About 1 billion people, or one in six of the global population, go hungry today, even though more food is being produced than ever. And yet, around the same number of people are overweight or obese and likely to have their lives cut short by diet-related disease. We have, in other words, a food system that is failing.

It is a food system that is profligate with finite resources – with fossil fuels for agrochemicals, artificial fertiliser, processing, packaging and transport, with water that is increasingly scarce, and with soil that is being eroded and degraded.

It delivers an excess of food that is unhealthy for the affluent and yet is incapable of producing enough calories for the poor. And it is a system in which the value of the food chain has been captured at each point, from seed to field to factory to shop, by powerful transnational corporations. (Rich countries don’t like to do empire these days so they have privatised it.)”

One should add that the IMF and the World Bank, as their structural adjustment program requirement, often demanded that government end subsidies or price support for food products, often resulting on food riots (IMF riots already mentioned in previous posts).

This is indeed a neocolonial system that we can see at work in Africa, for instance, where a new land grab is at work:

The World Bank is still promoted land grab programs that it acknowledges have no benefits for the affected communities:

Presentation of initial results fo the World bank study during the  panel, "Is there a global land rush?" at the World Bank Land  Conference, April 26, 2010.“The partial glimpse of the [World Bank] study presented in Washington last week sheds some light on an answer. The Bank initially wanted to do a comprehensive study of 30 countries, the hot spots for the land grabs. But it had to cut back severely on its expectations because, as it admits, the governments would not provide them with information. The corporations wouldn’t talk either, we were told by people writing the country chapters. This in itself is a powerful statement that says volumes about the hush-hush nature of these deals. If the World Bank can’t get access to the information, who can?

The Bank decided instead to base its study on the projects that have been reported by the media and captured on the website. The Bank identified nearly 400 projects in 80 countries in this way, nearly one quarter (22%) of which are already being implemented. The study thus makes it plain that the global land grab is very real and moving along faster and further than many have assumed  (See box for a basic glimpse of what the study is expected to say.)”

The Bank’s most significant findings, however, are about the impacts of these projects on local communities. Its overwhelming conclusion, shared at the land conference last week, is that these projects are not providing benefits to local communities. Environmental impact assessments are rarely carried out, and people are routinely booted off their land, without consultation or compensation. The Bank even revealed that investors are deliberately targeting areas where there is “weak land governance”.”

Euphemism du jour: “weak land governance”. I am currently working on a piece on landless peasants and this directly apply to most such movements, from the Brazilian MST to Via Campesina. The conditions and deprivation of entitlements may vary but the results tend to be the same at the local, national and global levels:

“It is a system of extraordinary sophistication and yet also of startling fragility, vulnerable to climate shocks and energy price spikes. But it has not been created by accident. US and European government policies postwar have fostered it – with agricultural subsidies that have encouraged surplus of their own commodity crops, and with trade agreements and loans through international financial institutions that have forced markets in poorer countries open to take those crops and the processed junk diets their manufacturers like to make of them.”

The Millenials: Cultural Or Social Progressives?

There has been a lot of Internet discussion regarding this Pew studies on the Millenials. Specifically, this has attracted a lot of attention:

If one looks closely, it is easy to see that most bullet points refer to cultural issues. It seems undeniable that the Millenials tend to be more culturally progressive. Although I have doubt on the last bullet, which is not very clear to me.

But that is a far cry from being politically progressive, that is, to support mechanisms of redistribution and certain ideas regarding collective struggles against systemic forms of oppression. Indeed, the emergence of what has been termed new social movements seem to reflect the kind of activism Millenials might be culturally attuned to: environmentalism and other cultural and identity issues.

However, social theorists (Bauman, Beck, and Sennett, to name only a few) have demonstrated that cultural progressivism can also correlate with individualization, hence, the lack of social progressivism. The support for interracial marriage, or even LGBT rights can be interpreted as “rights of individuals to be themselves”, that is, as an identity issue, not a socially progressive one.

When political activism means changing one’s avatar on Twitter for a day, one can question commitment and efficacy. We already know that these young voters definitely leaned towards Obama (which is not to say that they lean Democratic) as part of individualizing and individualized celebrity pop and political culture (hence the lack of mobilization for health care which is NOT a cultural but truly a social issue, along with labor issues).

Since this research is a work in progress, we will have to wait for more results but I will stick my neck out and predict, again, cultural, rather than social progressivism; sensitivity towards identity and cultural issues rather than social ones; individualized forms of participation rather than collective ones especially thanks to social networking technologies (the Millenials are causewired); individualized problem-solving orientation rather than understanding of structural problems of oppression; greater tolerance for the mechanisms of the surveillance society; low trust in institutions such as the state, organized religion or education.

Book Review – Metatropolis

Customary sociological statement: good science-fiction is good sociology.

Disclaimer: I’m an idiot when it comes to short stories and novellas. I always feel like I am missing something or that something has been kept out of the story.

Metatropolis is an interesting project: five established science-fiction writers produce stories on a common theme with some, but not too much, overlap (AKA the shared-world genre). Initially, the project was released as an audiobook, then turned into a book (with a great cover design, in my opinion). John Scalzi is the editor and the author of one of the stories. The other authors are Jay Lake (whose story opens the collection), Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear and Karl Schroeder.

All the stories take place in a post-affluence, post-fossil fuel future. The oil is finally largely gone. Environmental degradation has finally vanquished the unsustainable lifestyles of Western societies. So how do people live in what were the major structures of the post-scarcity world, the cities? In a way, it’s like all the authors sat down with Saskia Sassen and got the run down on global cities and global flows.

The basic premise of all the stories is to explore how people live and work as the major social institutions institutions and structures collapsed, including capitalism. What economic systems emerge out of the rubble? Which categories of people come out on top? What does the post-national, post-capitalist world look like? And what of the new technologies, the Web 2.0 stuff? What use are they in this context? What kinds of social solidarity.

Indeed, all the stories revolve around a character trying to find his/her place in this new world and navigate its omnipresent dangers, risks and insecurities. The stories depict a world of thorough surveillance society combined with some measure of anarchy as many groups successfully manage to create their own parallel realities, real or virtual. In all the stories, precarious conditions are the norm. Certainties are gone. The main characters hop from odd job to odd job without much direction. They are perpetual consultants based on their skills but always literally and figuratively out of place.

And so, each story proposes its own version of social structuring after the end of oil. In Jay Lake’s story, it’s the Cascadian neo-anarchist, living-in-harmony-with-nature commune. In Tobias Buckell’s story, it’s the eco-terrorist collectives reclaiming of urban space for sustainable, vertical agriculture. In Elizabeth Bear’s story, this reclaiming takes place partly outside of the city. In John Scalzi story, we see more clearly the return of the medieval, yet high-tech, zero footprint, city-state, sovereign and autonomous, and closed-off to The Wilds (everything outside of it) fighting off the “Barbarians at the Gate”. And in Karl Schroeder’s story, the new cities / societies take the form of alternate virtual realities.

All the stories are stories of struggle: the main characters struggle with the consequences of their past actions, struggle to find their place in this new world but are often nomads. Surviving doing odd jobs, they find themselves in the middle of power plays between different groups, often the remnants of the oil society who try to hold on to what is left, using the security company Edgewater (does that sound familiar?) to do their dirty work of cracking a few eco-freaks and anarchist skulls versus the urban renewal groups. Metatropolis is a world in flux. Old boundaries have disappeared (including boundaries between the real and the virtual) and the major societal struggles are between those who wish to erect new barriers and those who accept to live in a world of flows.

Which means, of course, that social inequalities have not disappeared. There are still privileged classes (those who have access to the remaining resources and hold on to them) and the disadvantaged masses, trying to figure out how to survive in the dislocated (literally and figuratively) world. In this context, the forms of solidarity that emerge are of the tribal or network type. Whatever security is to be found in the real world come from joining a tribe and in the virtual alternate realities, from plugging into networks. Indeed, in Karl Schroeder’s story, Manuel Castells’s network society has found it full incarnation (an inadequate term for virtual societies overlaid over the real one).

In other words, Metatropolis raises the perennial sociological question of the possibility of social order in the post-affluence, post-fossil fuel world and each other provides his/her specific answer. The city, in all the stories, remains at the heart of social structuration, albeit in a permanently conflicting and blurry way. These globally-connected cities truly are Saskia Sassen’s global assemblages.

When Increasing Social Distance Breeds Dehumanization

One of the quotes that I noted as important in The Spirit Level was the following:

"Inequality increases the social distance between different groups of people, making us less willing to see them as "us" rather than "them". (62)

Social distance can be created in different ways: physically through patterns of urban development that segregate different areas of a city based on social class, or through gated communities or other modes of geographical segregation. But social distance can also be created through stereotypes and ideas about "these people" (whoever they happen to be) and reinforced through the media so that contacts between groups will be limited not by physical barriers but by social ones (physical barriers may then follow as one would not want to live near "these people" or let them move in the neighborhood).

I was reminded of these points when I read this article in Le Monde:

For the non-French readers, the article deals with the apartment-cages in Hong-Kong, occupied mostly by immigrants trying to make it there, available for rent for € 150.00 per month:


One can easily imagine the living conditions in these cages. But one stroke me in particular was the fact that the authorities in Hong-Kong tried to get rid of this type of housing by starting a program of low-income housing development. Under Tung Chee Hwa, the plan was to build 50,000 units a year between 1997 and 2004.

Then, the increasingly wealthy, property-owning class got scared of this social initiative and in effect killed it. There is no more low-income housing being built because the wealthy classes were afraid that it would drive down the value of their property. So, who cares if some people have to live in cages as long as property value is maintained.

The majority of cave-dwellers / renters are recent immigrants from continental China. They are "these people", those that wealthier property owners want to keep at bay, at distance, and whose value is irrelevant compared to the value of prime real estate.

Social distance breeds dehumanization.

Where is The Bailout Money / Stimulus Package for This?

If I were a humanitarian worker, I would be outraged non-stop that billions after billions are used to save failing banks and sustain business as usual while this is going on:

And, of course, the global economic crisis has made the situation worse for international refugees and internally-displaced people. But they are equally hurt by the changing nature of warfare. Also, nice to see António Guterres underline that refugees are mostly in poor countries. The xenophobic imaginary nightmares of floods of refugees coming to Europe or the US have never materialized. Rich countries only provide the weapons that fuel the wars that create these masses of refugees.

Indeed. António Guterres is the United Nations high commissioner for Refugees.

Sociology and (Good and Bad) Science-Fiction

I have mentioned before how much I like science-fiction and how much I think good SF is good sociology. In a recent post, A Very Public Sociologist shows us that the opposite is true as well: bad SF = bad sociology, but bad SF also deserves a sociological theory of its own.

Go read the whole thing.

Mind Over Ship As a counterexample, I would like to recommend some great SF that is also great sociology. David Marusek’s Mind Over Ship is a sequel to its stunning debut novel Counting Heads, and is obviously not the last volume in what is already a great series (see his blog for updates).

In both volumes, Marusek creates a very thick and rich social context that certainly evokes the idea of the surveillance / transparent society where AI and other devices make privacy a luxury for the wealthy who can afford null rooms and the necessary flushing drinks to purify their systems of all AIs. This is a society that just emerged from the drastic consequences of Risk Society in a full-fledged form.

In this context, people live their lives in a highly stratified society divided between, among others, "affs" (affluents) and a variety of clone lines (Iterants) bred for the specific traits of their original, and cohorts of proletarians grouped into Franchises.

Counting Heads Unsurprisingly, the earth is grossly overpopulated and with life-extension technology, children are prohibited except for the elite. Add to that the increase in the massive power of the corporations and a government limited to surveillance and repression and you have a pretty disphoric view of things for the masses, and enormous luxury for the affs.

Against this already rich background, both novels follow the trajectories of several characters with their complexities, from affluent and powerful (and later murdered) Eleanor Starke, her husband (later seared) artist Samson Harger, along with clones Fred Londenstane (a Russ, great for bodyguards and cops) and his wife Mary (an Evangeline, great for their capacity for empathy).

That is where, for me (and Phil BC can correct me), this is where you get great SF: the seamless weaving of rich and multi-layered social texture with due consideration for social stratification and power, along with complex characters (even clones have their own dilemmas, they are not simple copies) and where social relations are mediated by AIs and holograms and scores are settled through computer attacks against one’s competitor’s or opponent’s virtual reality arsenal.

Indeed, there is a lot in both books in the way AIs, virtual environment and other simulation technologies come to actually substitute for social relationships and showing in realbody at meetings is the exception more than the rule because it can be so risky or simply an inefficient use of one’s time in an era where multitasking is taken to the extremes.

p style=”text-align: justify;”>In many ways, this is the future society one could have imagined after reading William Robinson‘s work, with the dominance on the Transnational Capitalist Class, the Transnational Corporation and the Transnational State. And since Robinson is one of my favorite sociologists, I mean that in a very good way.

I look forward to the rest of this series.

And if Abstruse Goose had read the books, he/she could not have come up with a better comic: