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This lecture, which I attended at the University of Alberta, and later read the book was one of the cornerstones of the awakening of my intellectual curiosity about the world and how human societies work.

Each time history repeats itself, so it’s said, the price goes up. The 20th century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology, placing a colossal load on all natural systems, especially earth, air, and water — the very elements of life.

The most urgent questions of the 21st century are: where will this growth lead? Can it be consolidated or sustained? And what kind of world is our present bequeathing to our future?

In A Short History of Progress Ronald Wright argues that our modern predicament is as old as civilization, a 10,000-year experiment we have participated in but seldom controlled. Only by understanding the patterns of triumph and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age, can we recognize the experiment’s inherent dangers, and, with luck and wisdom, shape its outcome.

Ronald Wright was born in England, educated at Cambridge, and now lives in British Columbia. A novelist, historian, and essayist, he has won prizes in all three genres, and is published in ten languages. His nonfiction includes the number one bestseller Stolen Continents, winner of the Gordon Montador Award and chosen as a book of the year by the Independent and the Sunday Times.

His first novel, A Scientific Romance, won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction and was chosen a book of the year by the Globe and Mail, the Sunday Times, and the New York Times. His latest book is the novel Henderson’s Spear. Ronald Wright is also a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, and has written and presented documentaries for radio and television on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

Found the whole lecture on youtube and will link to the CBC archive as well.

 

It seems like William Greider was frighteningly correct with the thesis of his book from 1997. This snippet from Counterpunch has raised my curiousity enough to make it point to borrow or buy the book.

“Back in 1997, Greider wrote a book, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, which warned that competition from the developing world would put downward pressure on the wages of manufacturing workers and that large trade deficits could lead to serious shortfalls in aggregate demand, meaning weak growth and high unemployment. The book was widely trashed by economists, including the leading liberals of the day. In particular, they ridiculed the idea that trade deficits could lead to unemployment, after all, the Fed could just lower interest rates to make up any shortfall in demand.

Two decades later, most of the mainstream of the profession accepts the idea of “secular stagnation,” meaning a sustained shortfall in demand that leaves the economy operating well below its potential level of output. With interest rates having bottomed out at zero following the Great Recession, most economists would concede that the Fed does not have the ability to boost the economy back to full employment, or at least not with its traditional tool of lowering the federal funds rate.

While economists generally do not like to talk about the trade deficit as a cause of secular stagnation, fans of logic and arithmetic point out that if we had balanced trade rather than a deficit of 3.0 percent of GDP, it would provide the same boost to the economy as an increase in government spending of 3.0 percent of GDP or roughly $650 billion a year in today’s economy. There is little doubt that would be a huge boost to demand and would have gone far towards ending the problem of secular stagnation. (There is no magic to balanced trade. I only use it as a point of reference.)

There were certainly things that Greider got wrong in One World, Ready or Not, as he did in his other economic writings. He was a journalist not an economist. Still, as one great economist commented, it is better to be approximately right than exactly wrong, a position that described many of his economist critics.”

 

The book, read now, will probably read like a fairly large “I told you so”, but I think it would be interesting to see what evidence he used to make the assertion.

 

 

How you are treated in society is dependent on your sex. Men never had to deal with bullshit like this.

“In the Victorian period, the lack of public facilities for women was intentional as a way of controlling their movements and keeping them out of public spaces, argues Dr Clara Greed, emerita professor of inclusive urban planning at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

There was a negative attitude towards building women’s toilets as it was considered improper for women to use public facilities, she adds. “This is why women simply would not come out of their homes for long periods.”

Public institutions, including educational buildings, workplaces and recreational spaces, were designed around the needs of men. Women tried to cope with the lack of toilets in a variety of ways, including drinking less water, holding in urine for hours, and spending less time in public spaces, says Meghan R Dufresne, architectural designer at the Institute for Human Centred Design in Boston in the US.

It wasn’t until the rise of the suffragette movement in the late 1800s – and the popularity of department stores and cafes, which encouraged women to stay and browse – that public toilet use for women became more acceptable, says Dr Greed. “

Just a small historical inkling of how deeply patriarchy is entwined with the fabric of our society.

 

JSTOR always serves up interesting articles with a solidly researched background.  How we think of human waste is dependent on the spatial location not only geographically, but historically as well.  Compare and contrast human waste usage and disposal in18th century Japan versus England or France, the differences are remarkable.

Appreciating the different historical and cultural approaches to human waste management has lead to creative solutions in the developing world, see the rest of the article on JSTOR for details. :>

 

“When left untreated, fecal matter leaches into lakes and rivers, contaminating drinking water and causing disease outbreaks, including cholera, dysentery, and polio, along with intestinal worms and other parasites. The lack of proper sanitation facilities and treatment plants remains one of the biggest challenges of the developing world. According to a report from the American Society of Microbiology, researchers estimate the burden of gastrointestinal disease in developing countries at more than 26 billion cases per year.

Yet, in eighteenth century Japan, biosolids were an esteemed substance. Japanese citizens did not view human waste as unwanted muck, but rather as something of value. What fostered this view, so different from ours? The answer lies in the soil. Compared to many European and North American countries, blessed with an abundance of forests and fertile grounds, Japan had much less land that was suitable for agriculture. Large parts of Japan had soils that were sandy and low on nutrients. Without continuous fertilizing, they didn’t yield rich harvests. When the Japanese population began to grow, people needed more food—and farmers needed fertilizer to produce it. Ultimately, it was the citizens who produced the fertilizer that put the food on the table. Population dynamics, particularly in large cities like Osaka and Edo, which later became Tokyo, drove up the value of human excrement, which sometime is referred to as humanure.

The historian Susan B. Hanley writes that in the early years of the Tokugawa regime, a historical period that lasted more than 200 years, farmers sent boats to Osaka packed with vegetables and other produce—and in return they received the city’s night soil. But then the fertilizer prices climbed—and the night soil became a prized item. As its price went up, different organizations and guilds, which had the rights to collect night soil from specific areas of the city, began to form.

In Osaka, landlords had the rights to their tenants’ solid waste, but the renters retained the rights to their urine, which was considered to be of lesser value. By the early eighteenth century, night soil was highly coveted. The price of the fecal material from ten households per year was valued between two and three bu of silver or over one half a ryo of gold. Put in perspective, one ryo could buy enough grain to feed one person for one year.

The groups wanted to keep their monopolies on waste collection, so occasionally fights and disputes would break out. According to Japanese records, such tiffs happened more than once. Moreover, as prices surged, the less fortunate farmers, who couldn’t afford to buy the precious manure, sometimes would steal it. Stealing excrement was a crime punishable by law, carrying a penalty that included prison time.

The excremental bull market had a very positive effect on cities’ overall cleanliness. Because every drop of waste was gathered and used, Japanese cities did not have a problem with overflowing latrines, stinky street gutters, or other sanitation issues that plagued urban Europe at the time. In the eighteenth century, European cities were filthy. In Berlin, city waste was piled up in front of St. Peter’s Church until a law passed in 1671 obligated peasants who came to town to take a load home on every visit. London was infamous for its mucky streets and overflowing public latrines. In Denmark, the cleaning of the latrines was the job of the hangman. Paris, famous for its art and culture scene, was nonetheless infamous for its filth. The wealthier Parisians emptied their chamber pots out the window, and poorer ones relieved themselves wherever possible. Even the Louvre was a mess: its inhabitants used its stairs and balconies as toilets.”

 

 

A thick meaty discussion of the western political economy and the checkered history that has led us to the current financial mess we happen to be in. Great viewing, get some popcorn!

History fun. :)

The armament industries have lead the way in the conquest and modernization of the world. One of the key policies of British Empire was to keep manufacturing technology out of the hands of her far flung colonial conquests while denaturing and appropriating any of the native craftsmanship/technology solely for the benefit of the empire. Priya Satia writes about a historical technological divergence that happened around the 1800’s and how that manufactured divide laid the ground work for much of the present economic system and associated cleavages, we have today.

“Bengal, Mysore and Maratha are just three of many places in the Indian subcontinent where Britain at great expense and effort restricted, curtailed or closed down knowledge and capacity for arms manufacturing in India. The near parity between India and Britain in small arms made British conquest of the subcontinent slow, costly and difficult, and made the crushing of indigenous arms manufacture essential.

Perhaps many polities had the potential for industrial growth, but imperial ambition, generating military commitments requiring mass levels of supply, ensured that Britain became the site of industrial take-off – and a global arms depot. In addition to its geological and geographical advantages, Britain had coercive colonial policies enabling jealous control of know-how. Eighteenth-century Britons believed in the government’s right and obligation to use its might to promote industrial prosperity at home and strangle it abroad. We too must recognise the way that war shaped the entwined industrial fates of Britain and its colonies, and the way that power always shapes knowledge-sharing.”

The rest of Satia’s essay is quite heavy on historical specifics, but worth the read if you have the time.

 

 

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