31 10 2011



On the road in Yunnan

12 06 2011

There’s this concept in physics called the observation effect. It says that sometimes, just watching something will stop it from happening. Observation results in interference, which is its own input into the system, thus changing the system. Just see it and it’s already gone.

One good place to ponder this concept is on the smooth, sealed Dăli – Lìjiāng highway,  southwest China, while you try to avoid getting squashed by all the thundering progress. Anyone who says that progress marches is misguided. Colonial soldiers march. Brass bands march. Progress is more of a 10-tonne truck that barrels down the highway, shaking the foundations of nearby houses and kicking up the dust. And there are lots of trucks on the road in southwest China.

Of course, trucks have plenty of company. There are home-made farm vehicle frankensteins, with ute/tractor hybrids proving popular; motor scooters; workers on bikes; workers on foot; and the occasional glossy expensive car. But the trucks are the rulers of the road and there are sheer mobs of them. What am I doing here? I’m on a bike, blinking in the dust, and searching for that genuine Lonely Planet backpacking experience.

I’m looking for old China.

So far, I’m really not having much luck. From what I’ve seen in the last 6 weeks, this country has all the heritage preservation of an amnesiac. There just isn’t any old to be found. What’s to be found is Old China Lite. Old China Lite means grandiose temples and buildings that are at maximum 20 years old. If the past is a foreign country, then Old China Lite feels like going to a foreign restaurant in your home town, and just knowing that everything on the menu has been reworked to suit local tastes. Old China Lite has bright lights and loud music and the tackiest souviners that you can imagine. It’s a theme park. It’s everywhere, and it’s full of rich middle-aged tourists from the cities. They apparently love this stuff.

Currently, however, it’s occurring to me that this plump shuffling crowd might have their reasons to prefer a low-authenticity version of the past. Middle-aged? Check. Educated and urban? Yep. This marks them. They may have been here before as part of the re-educated generation.

At the time that my parents’ generation was heading off to university or on their OE, their counterparts in China were getting sent off to become peasants. Young people were lifted from the cities and dumped into labour in the countryside. Sometimes they had no idea of if or when they would come back. Marriage could become a life sentence to exile because any children would be legally locked to their birthplace. Backpackers, I think, can enjoy the experience of stark and simple rural beauty because it’s not the rest of their lives. But to face a future of rusticated poverty and boredom… I can understand why middle-aged wealthy China is interested in a comfortable, airbrushed past. Progress thunders on.

I’m thinking these thoughts as I turn off the highway , and the road reverts to something more along the lines of what you would picture for rural China. Meaning: the seal ends and the dirt begins. A metre-high, baked-on mud spatter coats the house walls next to the road. Even now, in the dry season, there’s a definite aroma of pig poo. In the wet – it doesn’t bear thinking about. So I press on past the houses and into the countryside, where people in the fields work pump-action spray bottles with dubious contents. Every so often a heavy construction vehicle rumbles past. There seem to be a lot of earth works going on.

Then I round a corner, enter the village and hit genuine old China. Not restored, not rebuilt, not bulldozed in the first place. Noone has ever gotten around to it – yet. The alleys between the houses were very obviously designed by people who were not thinking about motorised transportation. They form a maze that leads down to the water and up to the rocky outcrops. The walls are whitewash, mud and stone, layered one on top of the other over time like strata deposits. The clear light here bounces off the white. Old people sit and play mahjong in the temple. People wear their traditional clothing simply because it’s what you wear, like I would wear jeans.

Down by the water is a hostel. It’s sandwiched between the cliff and the shore, and most of the view is blue water or blue sky. There’s a courtyard where everyone eats a communal dinner which tastes like cosy home cooking. What’s really remarkable is the other backpackers. They are young, curious and university educated. Barring me and one Irish girl, they are all Chinese, but they graciously switch to excellent English for our benefit. I think that it says something about a country when it starts to produce backpackers. When you have enough freedom to step out of the rat race because there’ll be a good job to come back to, when you have enough education to wonder about how the rest of the world lives, when you can live on a shoestring because it’s not the rest of your life.

I’m only here for one night, then I have to bike back and catch my flight. It’s a sunny day and I wander back through narrow alleyways, listening to the lakewater slapping at the rocks. The whole village, with its stonewashed walls and traditional clothes, has the weird feeling of being suspended over the edge of a precipice. Any minute now, the drop will begin; in fact it already has. Already the waterfront is too expensive for the locals. It’s all been bought up by folks from out of town, and they’re bringing in out-of-town labour – rural backwater  time doesn’t sit well with city time schedules, and besides they trust people from their home province more. The backpacker owner is planning out the conversion of the backpacker to a luxury resort. And on the trip back, I get a good long look at what all those 10 tonne trucks are building. It’ll be a wide sealed highway, suitable for tour buses full of people after souviners and loud music. I bet they’re planning out the theme shops already.

I spend a lot of the ride back to town contemplating the observation effect.

The Unrealistic Institute – part 1

12 03 2010

The Force

22 09 2009

You know, I wouldn’t mind betting that however gorgeous Helen of Troy may have been, the thousand ships had more to do with Troy’s position in the middle of a major trading route.

Similarly, Columbus sailed west partly in the name of God, but also in the name of Europeans’ developing predilection for pepper and cinnamon. Slightly later, Europeans became overly fond of tea and coffee: Britain hooked the Chinese on opium and started a war; the Dutch simply reduced Indonesians to coffee serfdom. And apparently most people were taking sugar with their caffeinated beverage, because vast numbers of slaves were shipped out to the New World to produce it.

So much of human history is built on the simple human desire for stuff.

This desire has been slapped with the name “capitalism”. Capitalism has been variously described as a shining light of freedom, the natural progress of societies, and a dark art practiced by imperialists to corrupt the developing world with McDonalds and Coca-Cola. But this phenomenon has its roots much further back than any modern ideological construct. The average consumer is unlikely go about their business thinking: “Whoopee, I’m participating in a free market system that allows all parties to compete, which ensures the best and most competitive project emerges.” We are more likely to think: “Score!! That’s the cheapest price for boots I’ve ever seen!” In fact, I can think of two things that would lead to the canny acquisitiveness in action at department store sales, and neither of them involves a degree in economics. Firstly, getting a good bargain for food and warmth has been crucial to the survival of any species on earth. Secondly, curiosity and fascination with new things is right up there with opposable thumbs as a defining human characteristic. So the way societies seem to run, sometimes almost exclusively, off their constituents’ desire to acquire things… this isn’t capitalism in action so much as a demonstration of a force of nature. Meaning: almost unstoppable and likely to work in unforeseen ways.

Like any force of nature, the power of the consumer can be harnessed. In fact, this also has a name already: enterprise. Enterprise can be one of the most positive human phenomena, where individuals’ drive and creativity powers a community’s prosperity and development. However, there is a dark side to the force, because there will always be individuals who aren’t squeamish about the way they capture consumer power. Hundreds of years ago, the clamour of consumers for affordable cotton and sugar meant the misery of the slave trade; and as we speak, the blood diamond trade is funding conflict in Africa by banking on people’s desire for bling. The power of the consumer sometimes means child labour or environmental destruction. It can even mean men in suits quietly cutting deals and carving up countries with wars, coups and torture.

It can be very difficult to get a handle on the social and environmental devastation that is wrought in the name of our purchasing power. I once watched Cry Sea, a beautiful documentary on the ugly reality that European fishing trawlers have hoovered the fish out of Senegalese waters and left the locals unable to feed their families. (The EU, of course, countered that a hefty compensation package was provided, but the president of the Senegalese fishermen’s union told the camera that the compensation had yet to materialise. Presumably it is held up in processing by Government ministers. So it goes.)

So, big, mean, nasty Euro fishing trawlers. But halfway through the documentary, this thought occurred: what’s at the other end of all this isn’t the trawlers. It’s me at the supermarket picking up fish. That’s all it is: someone, multiplied by hundreds of millions, deciding that they’d rather have fish for dinner tonight. How bizarre to imagine worldwide changes pivoting on such a boring event. It was like meeting the God of Social Change and realising that He/She still lives with their mother, wears socks with sandals, and collects stamps. No wonder it’s so difficult to make a connection between our everyday shopping desires and the actions of those who aim to satisfy them; the whole thing is faintly ridiculous.

I wish this sort of thing was included in the small print on the back of the packaging, next to the ingredient list and calorie count, especially if it said something like Sourced from 100% Pure Unsustainable Fisheries or You Didn’t Really Want That Rainforest, Did You. It would be great to be able to confirm that you’re not buying something that wreaks havoc in some unnamed part of the world. The wonderful thing is that this concept – social and environmental transparency – is a product as much as anything else. Thus, it is subject to the power of the consumer: if enough people want it, companies will fall over themselves to provide it.

Coffee in New Zealand is a prime example. Fifteen years ago, it came out of a can as a powder that was as artificial as pork-flavoured sausage, and had similarly dubious origins. Now fair trade flat whites are available in Starbucks, petrol station cafes, and Pak’N’Save. It looks like the proportion of customers who prefer sustainable coffee has become large enough to be a force for natural selection in the jungle of free enterprise, and companies are deciding that fair trade product is a distinct evolutionary advantage.

The truth is, when we as consumers buy something, we’re not just buying the product but also the way in which it has been made available to us. In a way, the product sitting on the shelf is just the visible interface. Behind it sits a series of processes that lead all the way back to original producer. When we hand over money for something, we endorse the way it was made, processed, transported and sold, whether or not all of this is visible. So maybe I have it the wrong way round when I talk about the ridiculous banality of world events pivoting on everyday purchases. You can make it work the other way too: your everyday purchases change the world. (This at least could make the regular slog through the groceries a little more entertaining, and lend credibility the concept of rush hour supermarkets as war zones.) You can buy chocolate that sends children to school, purchase logging of sustainable forests, and put in tenders for fishing practices that ensure that fish will be around for our grandchildren. If it feels a little silly, remember that you are using the same power that has started and ended wars, inspired great voyages, sent slaves to America – and the same power that, later, stopped the slave trade, and replaced the Netherlands’ bondage-for-coffee with social benefits and education.

So go on. Use the force. Buy yourself something good.

The garbage miracle

6 02 2009

Have you ever wondered about the miracle of transition from desired to despised? What I’m referring to here is the garbage paradox: most of the things in your bin were wanted at some time. Whether it’s the two-week-old leftovers of that delicious prawn salad or the lucky blessed undies that got a little too holy, once it goes in the rubbish, you never want to see it again.

This treasure-to-trash phenomenon became a problem for the City of Naples in late 2007, when it was discovered that all its landfills were, well, filled. Neapolitan politicians blamed the Mafia – the thought occurs that cities in which this excuse would fly are few – and hunted around for a new site. The new site was not forthcoming, and the rubbish had no place to go but the street. Bags were piled high. Schools were shut. A state of emergency was declared. The army was called in.

It’s difficult to contemplate old prawn salad being a job for the military, although, to be fair, things left in my fridge do tend to describe a trajectory towards biochemical weaponry over time. But there it is: the simple inability to move rubbish to a place where it could not be seen forced a move somewhere in the general direction of martial law. Until the eventual development of a (presumably Mafia-sanctioned) incinerator some months later, Neapolitans got a direct look at their garbage. And they didn’t like what they saw.

Indonesians, on the other hand, have had a long time to get used to the view, and the view involves plastic. I could see an effort to tame it in the larger cities, where the streets are swept by little broom-wielding men, men who all resemble clones of Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid but have more on their minds than heavy cliché and bad sequels. The sea of plastic parts before them and closes behind them. Seasoned backpackers drift on through like lost ships, resigned in the knowledge that their daily water bottles will end up somewhere here later on in the day. In most places in Indonesia, if you’ve bought it, you have it, until you burn it, toss it on the street, throw it in the sea or bury it in the back yard.

Some time after I read about the City of Naples and visited Indonesia, I worked clearing the office rubbish bins for a public organisation. This organisation shall stay nameless (especially since they could arrest me), but I can tell you that they had the best-insulated trash that I have ever seen. Rubbish that could have been mined like asbestos and used to fill roofs. This was because the organisation housed hundreds of employees, each with their own rubbish bin and an instant coffee habit. Bins were lined with plastic that changed daily and coffee was held in styrofoam cups. It was likely that they could have gotten away without plastic bin liners, except for all the coffee spillage from dead styrofoam. In other words, they were hoeing through at least a thousand styrofoam cups a week for the sake of avoiding those little passive-aggressive notes in the kitchens about cleaning your own mugs. Instead, the only person who got to see the dirty coffee cups was the cleaner tipping them into a rubbish bag.

What would you do if, like cleaners, Indonesians and Neapolitans, rubbish stayed around long after you got tired of the sight? What would you do if you had to keep everything you bought – including the packaging?