Bringing context and perspective to the chaos

One foot forward, Two steps back

For evidence that human beings are all essentially identical in make-up and temperament, I invite you to conduct a poll asking 100 randomly sampled individuals across the globe the following question: is corruption in government a pressing issue that we should be doing more to address? The answer for all individuals, though perhaps not publicly if anyone polled is a politician, will likely be yes. But the pressing nature of the issue and attention directed towards addressing it has never manifested in the development of a common solution. Frameworks and objectives exist; groups and organizations committed towards attacking corruption in government understand there are fundamental pillars that allow for the development of informal (or formal) structures of misconduct. But there is no silver bullet to fighting corruption. Which, frankly, seems odd – formal elections this year are being held in Russia, Mexico, Italy, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the DRC, Egypt and Colombia, just to name a few, and corruption is a noted agenda item on the minds of each and every voter. So if this is such a common cause, why has a common solution never been found?

For one, corruption is pervasive: found in every nation throughout the globe, both formally and informally across all levels of society. And corruption can take many forms: explicitly accepting or soliciting bribes is one more obvious way, a method used by individual policeman on the sides of highways and national governments overseeing resource extraction rights contracts. But corruption is defined as an abuse of entrusted power for private gain; it can be grand, which constitutes distorting policy to benefit the current administration or its allies, petty, which constitutes the everyday abuse of entrusted power of officials towards everyday citizens, or political, wherein institutions and procedures are manipulated to sustain power, status or wealth. But is the manipulation of an institution for personal gain easily differentiated from enacting fiscal policies that benefit the already privileged in society? Is petty corruption, actions on the local-level, easy to differentiate if it is so entrenched that it reflects an entire institutionally corrupt system? Where does one draw lines between methods and forms, and what constitutes explicit corruption versus ideological or partisan shifts? If the line we can note is an explicit admission of intention, then one who looks for it may encounter a rancorous defense of self in the form of the political double-speak deployed by any and all administrations, at which point the reality that the definition of corruption is more subjective than once thought is worrisome in itself; if we can’t even define what corruption is, how can we know when it’s happening?

Organizations such as Transparency International understand this complexity, and take a view that tackling corruption is less about drawing explicit or objective lines in the sand, and more about ensuring institutions follow procedures that make their actions and the consequences of those actions explicit, clear and enforceable. If corruption occurs, the electorate must be able to hold those in power accountable. Effective law enforcement, strengthening the role of auditing agencies, promoting transparency in decision-making, empowering citizens to engage in active democracy and the closing of international loopholes are all proven methods of tackling issues. But each holds the uncomfortable reality of being equally vague: yes, effective law enforcement is pivotal to a functioning society. But how does one address corruption in law enforcement itself? Or if laws and policies are not explicit or binding enough to dissuade inaction, what can one do to pressure a corrupt institution to better police itself?

This speaks to a fundamental issue often not explicitly said: tackling corruption is not a rational activity for an administration, unless they are explicitly newly-elected on a mandate of doing just that. Rational activities involve a codified understanding of the problem to be solved (which is difficult if definitions vary, or if only a specific incident of corruption is focused upon), evaluating any alternatives selected (where eliminating the bias of the powerful to prompt action against their own self-interest can be tricky) and implementing such solutions. An administration may come into power seeking to address corruption in the health sector that has resulted in high drug costs for citizens; without every actor working in coordination, the actual implementation of such policies will not have the desired impacts. Loopholes will be found. Or, if the problem is holistically addressed but corruption in importing drugs is still pervasive, firms may be priced out of the market entirely and tackling corruption will have become an economic disaster for an entire domestic industry.

Because of these ingrained issues, and the fundamental nature of it in the daily lives of every citizen, corruption never really goes away. It may fade temporarily, or adapt to new circumstances, but there is a reason why every election across the globe, often for generations on end, claims that it will tackle and banish this issue for good. There is also a reason why candidates seeking offices they have yet to hold can make these claims, then find themselves fending them off from the next version of themselves in the subsequent campaign. To truly address corruption, we may need to admit that it is far more present and pervasive than we care to admit – then we must take care to evaluate whether the words of one individual who claims to solve all our problems can be believed when the very flow of human civilization points to the opposite.


Modeled After Me

There a process to all things: every action can be broken down into a series of tiny steps that one must take in order to get from a state of incomplete to complete. Brushing your teeth involves hundreds of these – walking over to the sink is repetitively putting one foot in front of the other, opening the cabinet, raising your arm, opening your fingers, moving your hand over the brush, closing your fingers over the brush, and so on and so forth until one’s teeth are free of the irksome remnants of lunch everyone was too shy to tell you about that day.

Breaking down this process into emulatable pieces in essential in learning, as any computer (neural or mechanical) requires each step of the process to be codified in order to convey information and turn all the individual data units (“raise hand towards brush”) into useful information to inform a process. But between the two processing and thinking models most present in our lives, your brain and your standard computer have fundamentally different designs: Computers dissect programs into binary, simple step-by-step instructions, and when processes are coded in, computers can perform them with enormous speed and efficiency. Computers also have the benefit of holding processing power, coded into algorithms, and data separately, but as of thus far, they are limited to logical and mathematical processing. This is based on the architecture of a computer’s design, where binary code is used to process data that is more or less “pre-digested” and fed to a machine to allow for processing. Quantum computing, the capacity to process data in multiple states simultaneously, is emerging, it is not yet commonplace enough to be found in your day-to-day life (unless, of course, you work in the field or build these systems for a living).

Brains, on the other hand, have the integrated benefit of a natural neural network. If machines are limited to the knowledge level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (a set of hierarchical models used to classify learning by level of complexity), with a simple “remember and recall” aim, then the human brain can reach the levels of knowledge, comprehension, application, synthesis and evaluation of new information, thereby allowing the brain to codify new information, independently understand it’s value in context, and apply it to new models in creative and unique ways. Brains can use content-addressable memory, meaning it forms patterns and networks within itself to connect data into information automatically, and can compute in parallel, whereas a modern machine is inherently modular. The architecture is also more layered and complex – short-term memory and RAM may appear similar at first, given that both require power to process immediately, but RAM holds data separate to that already codified, whereas short-term memory is inter-layered with connections to long-term memory, allowing for the formation of new neural pathways and networks as data is processed. Brains also hold no distinction between hardware and software – the mind emerges from the brain, and any change to one is accompanied by changes to the other.

Modern AI encounters these differences regularly – systems or devices are being designed to act intelligently using a computer architecture system designing to process data, not comprehend or apply it in novel ways. One solution currently being developed is the  Neural Network: computer systems designed to make connections based on probability. Neural Networks have an embedded feedback loop to sense whether decisions it makes, based on predicting connections with a high probability of correlation, are accurate or not; from this feedback, it can modify it’s approach in the future by weighing certain characteristics more than others to find a “correct” answer. Neural networks have shown the capacity to model complex non-linear relationships, including language modelling (which includes recognition of human speech).

Where the greatest limitation for computers lies may be in the parallel element of Bloom’s Taxonomy: computers may seek to replicate the cognitive domain, but the emotive and action-based learning opportunities for humans poses other unique challenges. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) (AI being the concept of creating machines that can carry out tasks in ways we would consider “smart”, and ML being a field of AI considering how machines can learn from data) may face difficulties in attaining the levels of characterizing information with an independent schema and of adaptation of skills or processes in unfamiliar environments, two key elements of human learning by which intelligence is measured. Creativity is a key indicator of intelligence, and one machines may need to learn to do if they seek to be truly viewed as “intelligent” beyond the operations of processes designed specifically for them.

Learning is made even more complex because of how much we simply do not know about the human brain. Scientists do not yet understand how information is encoded or transferred from cell to cell within the network of our neurons. So far, no common neural “code” or language used to aggregate data to inform processes has been found. And a lack of real understanding exists as to how the encoding of information differs within parts of the brain itself. Some of this difficulty lies with the type of language we use to describe computers – we view them as modular objects, therefore the notion of “processing” and “storage” is thought of separately – but much as we cannot imagine a new color or conceptualize what non-carbon lifeforms on other planets would look like, we may not comprehend a system if we look to break it down into individual components that are not individualized with the system we examine, or are inherently not what we understand them to be. Therefore, despite the comforting notion that there is a process to everything, the idea that what our minds and our brains define as a process may differ, making slightly eerie the concept that the brain is responsible for designing the computer in the first place, and we may not be wired at all like what we can imagine wiring to be. Best not to consider it while brushing one’s teeth.



A Class Divided

Human beings are, if nothing else, social creatures. Our conceptions of status and superiority have evolved over time through compounding layers of interactions, and the world over, have resulted in the development of complex societies with their own traditions, conventions and expectations. Part of societal development involves the categorization of individuals into groups – every person is an individual, hence why we all have our own names. Next came the division of families, then of alignment upon socio-demographic or socio-economic lines. Soon, the entirety of our individuality could be readily summed up by a series of descriptors of association into various groups – meaning we were the sum of our individual parts. Some groups had greater influence than others, thus affiliation within these categories lent a certain prestige to the individual in question, an inherent power due to the perception of importance associated with membership. As such, social stratification into classes emerged readily as a natural form of complex societal progression in which hierarchies became natural divisions within our communities.

Today’s class divisions vary based upon our definitions of class (Marx defined class as one’s relationship with their means of production, whereas Weber defines class as entirely separate from social status) and the degree to which divisions are explicit. A common example is feminism in the Western world, where a transition has been made in recent years to address the systemic gap between fostering equality and seeking equity between genders. Governments are aware of this, and often recognize that class categorization is a contentious topic within the electorate. Those belonging to a class that bestows certain privileges or prestige have no desire to share it’s inherent benefits – others view classes that hold them as systemic obstacles preventing the necessary steps towards a more equitable world. Balancing this division is important, and one trick that has functioned traditionally in helping balance this divide is the societal awareness of class mobility – if one believes that opportunities exist to move to a more favorable social status, one will be more accepting of systemic inequality within society as a whole. The self-interest associated with changing one’s own social status can have a blinding effect when referencing the more holistic picture of current issues.

Take Britain and the United States as a case study: a widely held assumption is that Americans are less “class-conscious” than Europeans, due to the ingrained perception of ideological egalitarianism in the American Dream, readily described as a graduation framework into a higher social class – the notion that hard work and determination can result in any individual finding themselves within the middle to upper-middle class of American society. The constitutionally-ingrained American focus upon the rights of the individual over the social group places the burden of mobility upon the individual, regardless of whichever ethnic minority / gender / religious faith within which one belongs –  within this, Britain differs, viewing class as not just a formal and informal structure, but as an ingrained manner by which power is divided within a society. Named private academic institutions still hold prestige, despite the spread of universal education standards within the primary school system, and there is a more explicit societal understanding that mobility upwards for some results in a need for others to be removed from the ruling class. Simply put, with a limited resource pool, it is impossible for everyone to be “above-average”.

But an examination of each nation, despite Britain’s ingrained acceptance of class divisions and the lack of widespread comprehension in the United States that class structures have primarily informal effects that require addressing after formal steps are taken, inequality between classes (measured in wage inequality) has remained broadly stable since the late 1990s. The increased wage inequality is offset by greater access to education that has shrunk exam performance between rich and poor children. These two can be correlated – a higher educated workforce means that the prestige of a degree is reduced, and the opportunities afforded to those with them are no longer the privilege of an exclusive few. With these actions, the barriers to mobility shift. Well-intentioned parents seeking to provide an advantage to their children take steps of passing on wealth directly, supporting their children as they take on unpaid internships at prestigious firms or pushing their children into celebrated schools. But while this may serve to boost the individuals chance of maintaining their social status, it reduces overall mobility and further cements existing inequality, fostering resentment at an upper class that is seemingly holding hostage existing wealth and preventing the relative ascendance of others.

Different governments have different solutions. Asian societies pride themselves on their status as meritocracies, within which individuals may enter the public service or pass public exams, regardless of social status, to be given preferential opportunities. But no true meritocracy can exist past the first generation – entrance into the ranks of China’s Communist Party is exponentially more likely with a recommendation from a high-ranking official, and being offered the time and capital for tutors for South Korean students to study for exams is yet another privilege offered by wealthy families. But these perceptions, while widely understood, are not viewed as limiting mobility, and therefore citizens are more accepting of less overtly-democratic regimes due to the perception that they may act in the best interests of citizens and foster the mobility needed to maintain hope. This stands as a partial explanation as to why autocratic regimes may be favorably viewed if the electorate feels they play an essential role in creating opportunities for all instead of cementing the hierarchies for some.

If the government is able to put in place policies that remove some of these barriers (inheritance taxes, imposition of minimum wage salaries on all internships and improving public school education standards), it can serve to improve net mobility between social classes, which maintains the hope necessary for lower classes to accept latent societal inequality. But if this selfish self-interest is not maintained as a flame of hope, the blow back can be dramatic, leading to the rise of autocratic-leaning populists mobilizing the masses against an elite whose primary crime is their maintenance of the status quo. Inequality in societies is an inevitable truth of living within the masses of humanity – it is the role of rulers to ensure that these power structures don’t topple over on the backs of the categorized individuals upon whom they are built.

Two and a Half Years

“God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Making the decision to get sober is not one anyone who has ever done has taken lightly. If one decides to fully cut out something they so previously relied on in their lives, a reason is needed; one strong enough to make you believe that whatever the outcome, you’re trying to do the right thing. You may want to be a better parent, partner or child. You might decide to set a new trajectory for living a longer, healthier life. Or maybe, like me, you realize that there’s no way you can ever become the person you want to be with the vice that always seems to find it’s way into your hand and slip it’s way into your thoughts.

Looking back, the part that is most visible to me is not the shame or guilt associated with substance abuse – it’s that for all the time I was using, I wasn’t growing as a person. You enter a mindset where you begin to assign blame or attribution to others for the actions you take, decisions you make that don’t turn out the way you wanted. And the hard thing about entering a mindset where you stop being honest with yourself about who you are is your image of yourself and others becomes more cemented. You stop seeing people as human beings and start seeing them as figures, with set characteristics who don’t care about you or your problems. Everyone you owe money to has it out for you personally. Every teacher who won’t accept a late assignment is completely unreasonable. Every relationship that ends because people are sick of watching you destroy yourself is because of them, not you – never you.

AA understands this. That’s why Step 2 of 12 and an entire chapter of the Big Book is dedicated to “believing in a power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity”. That type of flowery language and discussion of faith conjures an image of organized religion or God. But finding a power greater than yourself – or a higher power – is interpreted as “finding a reason not to use again”. It speaks to a notion of hope, that same hope that made you quit in the first place. We need hope – hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning, hope that we can be there for the people we love and that the things we do matter. Without hope, and the faith that that hope will be realized, we would’ve never sought help to begin with. But the thought goes that having that hope within you will boost your mental fortitude, your capacity to be resilient in the face of fallibility. It also removes a burden. All of a sudden, you understand that you have something to believe in, a reason to keep going, that makes you feel like control is within your grasp. We delegate our control to this ideal with the understanding that we now operate for a reason greater than just ourselves. It helps inform a sense of purpose and identity that your average addict lacks. And when one better understands their own story, one can start to try to find the community where they feel they belong.

Because we see what we choose to, I began to view the world with new eyes when I got sober in the summer of 2015: Instead of looking for distractions or assigning blame, I sought to see how the role I played in my life and others impacted the people around me. I wanted to understand why I did what I did, and understood that I needed to be honest with myself and open-minded enough not to reject the answers I got in return. I learned to listen, to accept and to have hope. Continuing in sobriety means that when times get rough, you have to be self-sufficient and accepting enough to know that every moment of discomfort is a lesson you’ll someday appreciate learning, that every opinion you disagree with is a perspective you may lack the context to understand, and that hope and faith come in all forms – Who am I judge a zealot for having a purpose, hope in their faith and for being happy? If no one else gets hurt along the way, then their life may conclude with the sense that it was lived to it’s fullest and was the best possible one that could be lived. It’s hard to argue with that definition of success.

But life isn’t a tale of one person’s journey to manhood through sober thought. People get hurt and killed every day. Every action we take has repercussions, and every relative advantage one assumes has a very real trade-off for another person. A zealot may be happy, but if their happiness comes at the expense of the safety of another, then we must make a decision as to who we think should come first. If a man kills another, our own inherent values system can help us make that judgement call. But where we differ on subjects of abortion, gun control, the line between religion and extremism, immigration, terrorism, energy and food production, the sanctity of marriage and transgender rights, then we have to disagree. I’d expect nothing less – our backgrounds differ. My perspective is informed by my history and my context, yours by your own. It’s only right that we stand by our values and act in the way we think is morally correct.

None of these are easy decisions, nor are they easy conversations to have – that’s why, within the traditional ideals of nationhood, the electorate should together to appoint a representative group of voices from within society to speak on their behalf. Civilizations understood that the role of this governing group would be to make complex societal decisions on their behalf so that ordinary citizens might go about their day. In return for this power, this appointed body would be subject to the electorate, held accountable in their actions and decisions made, and removed should they be deemed unfit to hold the power they wield. The Greeks understood that without this body, this early representative democracy, their society would be consumed by in-fighting and divisiveness, plagued by battles that would sow divisions between families, friends and communities. If direct democracy was attempted – where the people sought to come to a consensus on their own for every decision – inertia would be inevitable. Removing the intermediary voice, the arbiter of dispute, would create an anarchic system where thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of voices would drown each other out in screams, where noise would rule until the only thing that has ever cut through the din of the masses rose above it – a might strong enough to demand silence.

With the age of the internet came the democratization of information, and with that the sense of the death of expertise. The internet sought to level the playing field by equalizing access to information across the globe, and it’s bounty has been harvested exponentially to incredible results. But with that access came the elimination of a fine barrier, one that separated those with access to information from those with the same information and the context to understand it’s value. That is the value of higher education – not the content taught, but the context that explains it’s value to a scope beyond our own. Understanding third-wave feminism is conceptually interesting, but understanding how power structures influence the systems in which we exist is essential in understanding arguments made in international development, civil rights movements, Women’s suffrage and sexual assault advocacy. If all that’s given is information, without the context, where we don’t attempt to find the perspectives of others to learn, then we cannot be surprised when our opinions differ, especially if we don’t attempt to understand why others do the things we do. No party can claim immunity from this – until you have truly put yourself in the shoes of another, you cannot claim to understand their lives and claim an objective or moral superiority.

My journey to sobriety has been one of uncomfortable truths, of self-reflection that has at times made me break down, and one of consistently forcing myself to give up control and commit myself to learning the things I think I already know, for a sense that I may hold the information but may not understand why we stare at the same puzzle pieces and see two different things. But today’s push towards a more direct form of democratic discourse, fueled by an engagement platform that allows us to remove the intermediaries from debate, has lead to something more akin to being spiraling drunks – we seek at attribute blame and intent to others without admitting our own roles, we seek to ignore context and magnify fallibility in an effort to discredit every party involved, and we decided that we only need the hope our team can provide, looking away from those who speak the things we don’t agree with to turn to those whose words we have already in our own minds.

As to how we move forward, the Greeks failure with democracy has lessons the Big Book does not – namely, the Greeks first system of democracy was a direct one, where the people voted on every issue directly. Voting was exclusionary and reserved for those who held power. And while it lasted for a time – attributable primarily to the fact that only those who already controlled resources made decisions as to who should have them – it collapsed when citizens began to gain their franchise through grassroots organization. Citizens came together to make their voices heard, appointing from within those they trusted and engaging with each other to better understand the issues faced and what solutions would result in the largest overall benefit. Not everyone was happy. But it’s politics – it’s not about being happy and it’s not about being right. It’s about the community, the entire community, every community we find ourselves being a willing or unwilling member in, and making hard choices so that we can all move forward together.

I choose to live my life based on the principles of seeking serenity to create a sense of unity within myself, finding courage in darker times, and looking for wisdom that can help me better function in the service of something greater than myself. When we use and attribute our problems to others, we cease to grow and start to become scared of the discomfort associated with forcing ourselves to. A metaphor I’ve come to enjoy is that living in fear is like having lead pulsing in your veins. If you don’t do anything about that fear, it’ll poison you slowly. But if you take that same fear and direct it, wielding it like a pencil, you can create incredible, beautiful things that solve problems, build bridges, thrown down walls, illicit tears and bring people together. But what we do with those tools is our choice, each and every one of us. And it’s one we make every single day we don’t reach out and engage, every time we dismiss an opinion, every time we read a news article and mock a perspective that seems ludicrous.

It’s not your job to reach across the aisle every time you read something on the internet. But it is your job to know whether you’re pushing yourself outside of your personal bubble, whether you’re admitting your role in your community, how you fit within the larger systems and the impacts the decisions you make have. It’s not never you. It’s easy to be better than everyone else if you don’t see them as people. It’s harder to look them in the eyes and say the same.

I made my choice two and a half years ago – what’s yours?

Long Days, Longer Nights

Signs of a changing climate tend to be illustrated with the most visible elements one can imagine: malnourished and starving white bears, dirty glaciers shrinking to reveal layers of sand and rock, tales of Northern communities uncertain whether the ice roads they depend on to import the goods needed to survive will endure the coming winter warmth. And much as the impacts of climate change will be felt disproportionately in poorer communities, the earth’s natural declination ensures that the impacts will be concentrated at the poles as well. Therefore, there is a semblance of cruel irony that accompanies the realization that the primary strategies for reducing energy poverty in Northern communities involve installing gas and diesel generators to provide communities with the energy needed to keep the lights on. The areas where development is most sought is also those where it will be most damning – watching it unfold in slow-motion brings with it a Kafkaesque shiver.

Understanding that the needs of Northern communities are often heavily reliant upon balancing complex environmental, social and economic considerations, a growing area of study up to this point has been focused upon installing renewable energy systems in Arctic communities. The current outlook shows that the majority of communities use diesel generators, primarily for their reliability to provide both heating and lighting in days of -40 degrees C and utter darkness. Well intentioned governments have long subsidized the cost of diesel fuel for small-scale power plants and generators to ensure communities stricken by systemic problems can at least keep their lights on and houses heated. Such subsidies are determined through economic analyses, which outline the cost of operating and potentially replacing generators, as well as the costs of fuel itself.

When examining the economics of renewable energy systems, primarily wind energy, the same methodology is applied. This fails to account for three key factors: the reduction in operating hours for generators that renewable power can offset, thereby reducing the lifespans of both, the societal costs of localized air pollution, and the role of localized utility companies who may not possess the technical capacity to manage embedded variable energy systems. If these factors are internalized and the real cost of diesel becomes reflected, the cost of subsidization to wind systems would reach something close to the break-even quotient needed to justify project investment.

Wind energy offers no perfect solutions – turbines are only operational to -40 C, provide variable power that requires fossil fuels still be used for non-generating periods, and can quite simply cost more than a community can afford in a grid system. The law of diminishing costs with economies of scale also apply less in the North, where shipping costs for each individual component remain high regardless of scale and individual communities cannot justify purchasing at large enough volumes given a lack of localized demand. Solar equally faces problems – namely of being inactive in winter and over-generating in summer, leading to a difficult energy source to manage without the use of long-term storage technologies, which at this point are not deployable in Arctic climates.

However, the benefits of renewable energy remain the same as elsewhere – namely lower operating costs, emissions-free electricity and the potential to generate revenue for community members while reducing reliance on centralized systems. And overcoming these barriers can be done through a combination of regulatory, subsidization and pricing programs targeting key barriers. First, local hydro companies should be encouraged to work with Northern communities directly to develop clean power projects. Second, governments should design strategies to increase uptake of renewables within communities where it makes sense to do so. Finally, utilities should be encouraged to take the lead by developing programs to subsidize community-level uptake, driving demand forward by supporting renewable energy in the same way fossil fuel energy is supported at multiple institutional levels.

Saving the bears and repairing glaciers is the work that we may be too late to begin just now. But ensuring that the people whose homes will be most impacted by a changing climate are not some of the ones actively contributing to it in meeting their basic needs – that just makes sense.




Roses and Concrete

England in the 18th and 19th century was a beating heart of activity, much of it illicit, some transformative. The launch of the Industrial Revolution was sparked by these and other factors, but a key theme evident throughout it’s history is the redistribution and reallocation of power in ever fewer hands for the sake of increasing efficiency. With that process came a few firm societal divisions: one could work in cities or the country side, each with their associated costs and perils. To work the land required capital for farming and the enclosure of land, offering both a financial and literal barrier to entry that drove many to factory work. The perils of the worker are well-noted, with the depressing reality noted with the Marxist theory defined during the mid-19th century generating enormous support in Sinclair’s turn of the century novel about factory workers in Chicago, The Jungle. But less conceptually prevalent in the mainstream is the acknowledgement of that divide, one that we must choose to cultivate in the countryside or create in the capitals. It prompts one to ask: why not both?

Humans need food, and humans are now urban dwellers, with an estimated 66% of the population forecasted to be living in urban areas by 2050. Urban agriculture, defined as the growth, processing and distribution of food in and around cities to feed local populations, has been touted as the future of agriculture by community planners and skyscraper architects for years. The evidence is all around – community gardens and even growing vegetables in one’s backyard are common practices, some artisanal and others for reasons more fundamental to the food security of a region. But as we look to meet the Sustainable Development Goals laid out at the turn of the century, what sort of role does urban agriculture play in addressing the common problems we face as a species moving into tomorrow?

The short answer is that it’s role is already being played; more than 800M people the world over practice urban agriculture (UA), with a statistically notable percentage of practitioners operating in the developing world. Current UA practices include working on vacant lots, community gardens, balconies, greenhouses and indoor farms, which fit into the categories of controlled environment agriculture (where environmental conditions are controlled; greenhouses and vertical farming are examples) and uncontrolled urban agriculture (where environmental factors are not controlled, as is the case in community gardens and rooftops farms). UA has been identified as a potential solution to address four different sustainable development goals (ending poverty, ending hunger, ensuring sustainable consumption patterns and sustainable resource management), and currently uncontrolled urban agricultural systems are far more prevalent than controlled for predictable reasons of cost and infrastructure limitations.

A 2015 UN Brief outlined that UA would require roughly 1/3 of total urban area to meet the global vegetable consumption of the current urban population. That is substantial – opponents of UA also state that each comes with risks. Uncontrolled environment agriculture can lead to excess nitrogen leaching into water systems or the spread of botanical disease. Controlled environmental agriculture, while less resource intensive than any other form of agriculture, is often simply too cost-intensive to be taken seriously. Building a $248M skyscraper and attempting to generate profits through the sales of cash crops is an idea that would give any accountant a measure of pause.

Policy-types can argue that regular farming also heavily subsidized, and the societal benefits of agriculture can provide non-monetary benefits that governments should support. But the true impediment to it’s growth may be the question of increasing efficiency at a quick enough pace to lower costs. Questions of land rights also emerge: is it efficient for a planner to allocate the finite resource of urban land towards farming, or increasing housing to keep costs lower for a growing population? Any individualized cost-benefit analysis will need to factor in the unknown variables of a changing climate and water stresses as well to understand what the explicit and implicit costs of investing in UA may have.

The Industrial Revolution reshaped the globe when power became concentrated and efficiency paramount. We sit now on the edge of the precipice dug by our predecessors working towards these very objectives. Perhaps letting a little more natural back into our cities would be a step towards reclaiming that old mindset – or perhaps it’s precisely that thinking that got us there in the first place. Either way, only one thing is clear – No rose comes without thorns, whether they grow from windswept fields or concrete jungles.



The Importance of Photos of Cats

Every generation has their myths – men and women (mostly men) who have exploited new technologies to create opportunities and processes that change the very nature of society. Henry Ford’s car went beyond reshaping personal transportation, serving to sculpt a landscape with asphalt roads and mass production we now understand to be the norm. Early tech giants, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, typified the mass consumption of technology through positioning it as a tool for the individual instead of a robotic overlord in waiting. And today’s giants, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page, have focused on the value of the internet in building a network, in connecting the world and becoming the “third space” outside of work and home we so need when defining our own identity. With each, access to information and our contacts sits at our fingertips at any connection point. It’s impossible to now imagine a world without connection and networks to the degree we have now.

The first step in the spread of technology to the consumptive mainstream was reducing it’s inherent sci-fi fear factor. The second was making it cool. The third was making it intrinsic in our daily lives. So what comes next? Marketing campaigns batter consumers each day about the value of the next technology, but some focus is also given to the existing problems faced in our new accessible era. Monetization for content developers is still minuscule and targeted advertising has resulted in the ideological silo-ing of consumer bases. Technology in networks has, at times, resulted in the best of humanity being exponentially spread through our family and friends. But such stories are shared with same vigor as memes about cats and sports teams. Technology has not provided a panacea to replace the compassion and trust we must place in each other, nor has increased connection seen this process become an ingrained norm. But is it reasonable to expect that we can simply innovate our way towards a more utopian humanity?

Some believe so – Blockchain, an encrypted ledger recording transactions currently underpinning Bitcoin and one of the top buzzwords of the last 36 months, has been touted as a solution to “automate trust”. A bold claim – the theory goes that the ledger technology will shift networks towards a more decentralized model that tracks content posted and uses an open-data model out of the control of any single party. Users can add new “transactions” to the ledger but it’s history, once entered, cannot be changed, making the entire ledger (record of transactions) public, readable and traceable back to the source. If someone shares dubious content on a network, it can be traced back to the source account. If someone is curious about the source of an advertisement, it can be traced back. In theory, we can all access all information to hold all people accountable all the time.

A privacy argument is often made here – it lacks the context that users who sign up for Facebook agree to terms and conditions stating Facebook owns any content posted and sells it onwards to advertisers. Information revealed will simply be publicly available as opposed to available only to Facebook, who can choose to sell it to anyone they please (hence the targeted advertising seen on networks). Facebook faces a trust deficit unlike that seen since the launch of the network in 2005. A lack of transparency into the giant’s internal operations for decision-making and ad-reviewing, as well as a too-late push away from the stance that Facebook faces no responsibility for the content shared on it’s site, have positioned it as a dubious operator in the eyes of public institutions and public opinion. The question of which fickle party can inflict greater damage remains to be seen.

Different pundits advocate for the use of Blockchain in different ways – some call for an inter-company ledger for user data that can be sold to advertisers, thereby placing an objective value on consumer data currently disproportionately valued by firms and consumers, some call for the creation of an ad-tech protocol using the ledger that is managed by independent actors so consumers can see exactly where content comes from, and others call for a complete re-invention of social networks towards a decentralized model to remove biased actors and ensure data is owned by those who create it.

Within this, a risk emerges – every technology positioned as capable of solving the world’s problems has solved some and created others. The attractiveness of Blockchain stems from the increased transparency embedded, which does have applicability outside of tracking transactions – it’s use as a tool in development to overcome the fallibility of humanity is well-noted. But building a decentralized social network would serve only to remove the current intermediaries, giving more power to content creators. There is no guarantee that power would be used more responsibly, or that decentralization will result in a better-off society. Anarchistic and network theory are abound with examples of self-organization collapsing without a common set of rules of engagement.

But more distinctly, a moral question emerges: has innovating our way past our humanity ever actually worked? Choosing to address the deficits in networks by installing technologies that bypass these flaws and automate our processes seems an expensive alternative that may not solve our actual problem. Social networks were supposed to democratize information, not result in further ideological splitting. Access to information was supposed to make everyone better informed, not differently informed. Ford and Jobs wanted to change the world to suit their visions, and their mythos has shaped the way we view our world. A shame they didn’t seek instead to focus on how pushing their world towards a technological utopia in ours could serve to bring the rest of us with it as well.

Crime and Punishment

War isn’t what it once was. The age of bloody conquests is still upon us, but new instruments of destruction are readily deployed the world over to win territory and inflict losses. Some, like UAVs armed with RPG rounds scouting the deserts of the globe, are focused upon gaining a direct tactical advantage – facilitating the execution of existing strategy. Other tools, more strategic in focus, take a holistic view of conflict as both a militaristic and political exercise wherein groups struggle for power or control. This strategic view can often take a less tangible approach. People don’t need to be killed directly if support for their cause can be eroded, or their cause itself loses it’s sheen. Wars are easier won and less often fought when those who fight lose the hope for a better day.

One such way of accomplishing their means is through the imposition of economic weaponry – tools used to limit a regimes access to global markets to reduce economic access and potentially deter impending risks. One such form is economic sanctions, often deployed against illiberal regimes to force cooperation with international law, contain a threat to peace or condemn actions deemed not in keeping with the values of the world order. But just as a drone is designed to kill with maximum efficiency and minimal external casualties, a sanction must be designed to impede the dangerous actions of a government as effectively as possible without placing an undue burden or strain upon the populace. In other words, a targeted sanction should impede inappropriate actions with maximum efficiency and inflict minimal damages on surrounding humanitarian causes.

Sanctions come in different forms – the two standard designs are comprehensive and targeted. Comprehensive sanctions, or trade embargoes, focus on an entire economy, and create sweeping bans on trade, diplomatic relations and financial activities. Targeted sanctions impose embargoes on specific items or restrictions on peoples or groups, and are more strategic in their design. While each has it’s place, full-scale embargoes are often more effective in toppling regimes or containing military targets. However, they are less readily used given that a full embargo upon an entire national economy requires coordination, and traditional thought dictates that the relative effectiveness of comprehensive sanctions has been eroded by globalization and a world of interconnection. While this is not completely true, such interdependence has made it easier for states to evade sanctions by working under the table with others. Therefore, the trend in recent years has been towards “smart sanctions”, or more targeted approaches to handicapping an opponent.

A 2012 study from the Graduate Institute in Geneva found that only 31% of UN targeted sanctions are deemed “effective” in meeting their objectives, with the deployment of sanctions being more effective in signalling or constraining a set target than actually fueling behavioral change. In fact, sanctions focused on coercement were only shown to be effective 13% of the time, with sanctions focused on targeting key sectors to slow industrial development achieving a 43% success rate. Additionally, secondary sanctions, which focus on the actions of non-native citizens interacting outside of national jurisdiction, have also been shown to be highly effective, but require greater governmental cooperation, as a Chinese citizen doing business with North Korea’s energy sector must now have their whereabouts tracked by American intelligence operatives, requiring the barrier of coordination between Beijing and Washington.

Despite the differentiation of types, the desired impacts of a sanction remain the same: inflict maximum pain with minimal casualties. But as seen above, the impact of just sanctions is limited. Often, pairing embargoes with positive inducements (trade deals or financial support) has a higher success rate, notably in the area of nuclear weapons proliferation and most publicized within the Iran Nuclear deal framework. The removal of sanctions, despite it’s political unpopularity, assured a higher chance of compliance between Iran and the UN Security Council members, a trade-off deemed necessary to achieve the ultimate objective of slowing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

This means a great deal of thought must go into the design of sanctions themselves – What constitutes compliance? What is the current baseline of conditions, and what are the desired changes made explicit to all parties? What will the humanitarian impacts and functional consequences of the embargoes be? In this, multiple UN assessment tools exist to determine the exact impacts of any given sanction, and numerous methodologies speak to how they should be derived. But no tool offers the answers the question of just how much damage is acceptable to inflict upon a population if it increases the likelihood of success or topples an enemy regime.

If sanctions are viewed as a tool in arsenal of militaristic or economic weaponry, this answer will drastically differ from one where sanctions are viewed as a pre-combat mechanism to reduce geopolitical tension. But the categorization of the sanction does not change the fact that sanctions themselves are designed using the same methodology drones are. And the mindset of the designer, regardless of the nobility of their intention, is reflected in the strategic approach taken to the new-era of combat. It just so happens our battlefields have shifted to now include boardrooms as well as bombs.


A Patchwork Planet

An effective writer understands the need to create empathy between the reader and the story. One must be able to feel themselves in the shoes of another to truly be drawn into the world and the realities outlined therein. And one of the most effective tools a journalist uses to order to foster that empathy is to paint an image of tragedy, or success, or accomplishment, and then explain in greater context why the reader should care. If it’s an issue of corruption in local politics, this tether is easy to hook. But engaging middle-aged Caucasian white collar workers in the depths of tragedy of the current Kenyan and Ethiopian famines is one that requires greater leadership on the part of the writer – one where a reader must be ushered, potentially unsuspectingly, from A (apathetic) to E (engaged).

A common tool is to proclaim that whatever is being discussed is not a local problem, it is a global one – that the issue of the day is one that affects us all. But a single person cannot conceptualize the scope of their small-scale actions having a global compounding impact. Most people feign interest at the concept of compounding interest, therefore it’s not hard to understand why a single grocery trip seems inconsequential in the scheme of things. But groceries, like anything, are an investment with a dollar towards the causes we care about. We make decisions as single-actors every single day about what we like and dislike, and those are reflected in the world. Writers know this – and in order to convince you that what they have to say is worth the limited time and attention we have to care about such things, they have be bundled in a way that makes you care and potentially convinces you of the value of change.

This week, the International Finance Corporation, an investment group within the World Bank that provides capital and financial products to support burgeoning private sectors in the developing world, released a report entitled Climate Investment Opportunities in Emerging Markets. The report, like every other report published by international institutions tasked with promoting international development, takes a favorable view on “climate-smart investments” in developing nations, gauging the investment potential of regions based on abundance of natural resources (ie. how much solar potential does one region have vs. another) and local physical and political infrastructure levels (ie. what are the opportunities that lie in developing the electricity grid? What potential exists for local groups to champion industrial energy efficiency?).

The report goes region by region, framing the opportunities that may fuel growth and greater emergence in the coming years. Here are a few highlights:

  • Sustainable transportation solutions make up almost 60% of green investment potential in Latin America, valued at $1.56T USD in investment opportunities;
  • Infrastructure solutions, whether investment into refurbishments and efficiency upgrades or a focus on building railways and ports, have a concentrated investment potential in Southeast and South Asia, with the region stretching from Bangladesh to the Philippines seeing the majority of it’s $18.2T USD investment potential concentrated in these areas;
  • The greatest opportunity for on-grid and off-grid clean energy growth lies in the African continent, with over $200B in investment potential across sub-Saharan and North Africa;
  • Eastern Europe has over half of their $665B USD investment potential concentrated in new green building development and efficiency upgrades.

Investment potential by region

Figure 1: Investment potential by region and technology/sector (IFC, 2017)

Key themes can be seen therein: the greatest investment potential lies in regions with high levels of industrial activity, developed nations can see the greatest returns from efficiency and infrastructure upgrades, and the majority of the global south would see drastic increases in QOL from greater access to basic resources. The report claims that greater push for climate-smart investments has come following the emissions reduction commitments states made within the Paris Agreement. None of this is groundbreaking or revelatory.

But the IFC’s mandate of private-sector development offers a perspective that shines a light on those who create changes at these levels through a look at where the report’s data was taken: from people and firms. The first step in defining what the investment potential of sustainable infrastructure is in sub-Saharan Africa could be involved drawing a scope – too often, data didn’t exist for the capital cost of investments to be projected at a macro-level. Therefore individual pilot projects or emerging technologies were used to project future impacts. These projects, especially in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, were developed by entrepreneurs and visionaries striving to create change at a local level. They sought not to save the world, only to make life easier for a few people. And from that investment, those impacted by this change were able to realize their own potential, thus spawning a ripple effect throughout a community.

It is in communities that change occurs. Groups of dedicated individuals, firms who care about their employees, others who see chronic problems and wish to remove the barriers to progress that hold back them or their neighbours. The IFC report outlines the large-scale investment potential for the region, and speaks of a need to unify public and private sector efforts to catalyze change and seize opportunities – but those macro figures refer to changes that will be implemented one at a time, with each action contributing towards a target and progressing towards a milestone we have all collectively agreed is in our best interests. We act together not because we must, but because we can – such is the nature of empathy when we feel we are in a position to make better the lives of those we love.

If each person was entirely rational, no writer would ever need to convince us to care. But the work of Keynes and Laffer does not inspire the same emotion as that of Fitzgerald, the same pull as that of Hemingway, the same spiral into imaginative fantasy as that of Tolkien. We are emotional, subjective and often irrational – and therefore have a capacity in us to adapt, to create and to drive change for the good of others that is not always apparent in forecasted trends and modelling. We vote with our wallets, but we engage with our humanity. And even when discussing the investment potential of solar energy in the sprawl surrounding Kampala, a seemingly global problem with impacts with cannot conceptualize, when we can see the faces of the children reading their schoolbooks at night time, it feels an awful lot less like sacrifice and more like we are driving forward the stories of change in a community we care about. And any community, global or local, that you care to participate in is one where you can affect change. And if that’s not engaging, well – I’m not sure what is.

Read the report here:

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