Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Could There Be an Environmental Silver Lining in Trade War Disputes?

Its incredible what this bizarro upside-down world of US and global politics will do to someone. Lately I’ve been pondering President Trump’s decisions to impose trade tariffs on Chinese and Mexican imports to the US. Not that I take any decision he makes too seriously, given his habit of flip flopping on decisions and making bellicose announcements as negotiation tactics. However, all the press around it has made it hard to avoid (yes, this belies my continued overconsumption of US media from down here in Cape Town).

The point I’ve been considering, though, is whether one can make (or go along with) the “right” decision for the “wrong” reasons. I’ve been pondering this as Trump has reversed course on many policies and institutions that are suspect from the perspective of certain elements within the environmental movement—from over-reliance on foreign imports to deference to the WTO. This mirrors the Brexit question in the sense that exit from the EU could potentially provide the UK with more sovereignty over national decisions, including those concerning the environment (although admittedly UK environmental policy has probably benefited from EU nudging).

The strain of environmentalism that potentially (perhaps only theoretically) aligns with some of these isolationist policies is bioregionalism and the self-reliance movements, which argue for increased control of and reliance over local resources, goods, and services. In this way, the re-assertion of local (or national) control over political and economic decisions, and state support—directly or indirectly—of local economies seems to align bioregionalism and isolationist thinking against neoliberalist globalization. Could it be that enviros might get behind some of these economic “isolationist” policies, or at least leverage their outcomes?

It can be a little concerning to consider how fine a line there might be between hyper-nationalism and bioregionalism. I recently came across reference to “Swadeshi”, an Indian anti-colonial movement advocated for by Gandhi that argued for domestic production of goods rather than reliance on British imports. Molly Scott Cato discusses the deeper meaning of the term, which literally means “of one’s own country” in Sanskrit. Cato quotes Gandhi as describing a far broader interpretation: “It does not mean merely the use of what is produced in one’s own country. That meaning is certainly there in swadeshi. But there is another meaning implied in it which is far greater and much more important. Swadeshi means ‘reliance on our own strength’”. (Cato, 133). [Note: I don’t pretend to be an expert on Swadeshi or its nationalist or political implications—I speak largely from a place of ignorance but curiosity regarding the term’s etymology.]

That seems like a nice interpretation, but how can we be sure people don’t make use of the literal meaning in a xenophobic manner? Cato anticipates the potentially isolationist, nationalist, or even xenophobic implications of a bioregional or swadeshi approach by distinguishing between globalization, which essentially focuses on exploitation and competition, and internationalism, which is more cooperative and collaborative while preserving self-reliance. Again, its an important (and good!) distinction, but not one clearly derived from the literal meaning of the words used to label these concepts.

Back to Trump’s tariffs. Using them to extract trade concessions that allow the US to export products such as industrial mono-cropped soybeans and corn-fed beef is probably not the most environmentally friendly policy (snark). The measures that seek to help US farmers weather the storm aren’t any better, which, as I understand them, essentially incentivize farmers to plant whatever tariff-affected crop the government has agreed to purchase at market rate only to get the subsidy! This is insanity, and the farmers know it. As one US farmer on the radio recently put it, he doesn’t want a subsidy, he wants a market for his crops.

So why can’t we use the tariff war as an opportunity to create local markets that incentivize farmers to plant crops that are consumed in the US, rather than crops that we can’t export to China and instead have the US government buy to destroy? Is there potential for partnership on this polarizing issue?

I’m concerned that many Democrats and liberals who might otherwise take advantage of this are blinded by its Trumpian glaze. Certainly in the media, the focus is on the harm to farmers and the potential economic chaos that tariffs will create, rather than the opportunities. Of course, there is good reason for this, given that any economic downturn could hurt large swaths of the US. Beyond that, I’m also concerned that supporting the tariffs is supporting Trump’s economic policies more broadly, which are decidedly not (or are they anti?) environmentally or socially enlightened. Even still, it seems too defensive and simplistic to focus on the harm to the economy without considering, and even working towards, dismantling some of the global capitalist system that, at least in its current form, is so environmentally destructive.

Thus, back to my initial quandary: could I support tariffs if I thought they could be used to promote self-reliance, or swadeshi principles, as those concepts are understood by bioregionalists? Should I be looking at the tariff war in this light, rather than in reaction to Trump’s self-serving motives? Presidential nominee and former vice-president Joe Biden recently included the prospect of using tariffs as part of his climate change strategy. Perhaps Trump has opened a door previously jammed shut. Perhaps this is the silver lining to the havoc he is wreaking on the “establishment”. Or perhaps to go along is just doing a deal with the devil.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Happy Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! There's a lot of reason to worry about Mother Earth and our relationship with her, but I think its also important to inspire hope and celebrate success (as incomplete and limited as it might be) when it comes to our environmental plight. For that reason, I'm linking to my recent article for CityLab covering how Cape Town survived Day Zero last year. I have found inspiration in the progress Capetonians have made in reducing water consumption, and in how people can adapt behaviorally to reduce over-consumption. Lessons like this are important for us. Afterall, Earth will likely be around a lot longer than we will--we're the ones we need to save!

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Drones and Human Choice at the Frontiers of Innovation

Not long ago, a drone sighting shut down Gatwick Airport, the second busiest airport in the U.K., for 36 hours. In what officials described as an “unprecedented” event, multiple sightings within the airport’s secured perimeter affected 1000 departures, upending the Christmas travel plans of over 100,000 travelers. In response, Gatwick officials and their counterparts are pursuing countermeasures like the secretive, military-grade anti-drone technology. Whether intentional or not, the incident has brought to light a real potential downside of a burgeoning personal drone industry, and has put pressure on politicians and regulators everywhere to figure out how to address it.

It is fair to say that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about drones and their societal role. I’ve just come off spending the better part of the last several months pinging back and forth between South Africa, Rwanda, and Tanzania interviewing drone companies, pilots, regulators, and funders to better understand civilian drone development. This work, part of a broader ongoing study of robotics and society conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute and South Africa’s University of Cape Town, seeks to understand how and why drone experimentation is taking place in these countries. Policymakers in these global hotbeds for drone innovation are at the forefront of wrestling with how this new technology is woven into, or disrupts, existing institutions, communities, commercial markets and governance structures. The idea in researching this process is to provide guidance on how governments might develop drone policies.

The research topic raises a number of interesting considerations revolving around the choices made, explicitly or implicitly, in the process of innovation: Do individuals, or corporations, or the government, have a right to use the space above our heads, and for what reasons and on what terms? Are drones best controlled through embedded technologies or laws and regulations? Is it justifiable to promote an industry for its own sake, or should we ask first where it is headed? The answers to these questions affect the process of innovation itself, and ultimately how we perceive and engage with the resulting technology. The cycle is iterative and continuous, but the inputs may radically alter where we end up.

Technological innovation in many ways defines modernity. It enables our lifestyles and shapes our identity. And like identity-shapers of the past, its impact becomes naturalized and invisible to us. We take for granted both the benefits and costs that our technologies present, and forget that the consequences are, to a great degree, choices we have made and continue to make. This complacency can, in my opinion, bring us to places where we can assume carelessness and unkindness through technology that might otherwise horrify us.

The potential to wake up, to remember technology’s role, is what I find captivating about some of the most profound technologist thinkers of the past century. People like Lewis Mumford, Bruno Latour, and Ivan Illich have in their own ways sought out means of showing the dynamic relationship between society and technology. I think there is a lot to be learned from these thinkers, and to be applied to drone development, which is still in its infancy. We have the chance to be thoughtful about how drone innovation can be valuable and beneficial, before its infrastructural composition ossifies. A prerequisite, however, is for us to recognize that we have the choice to dictate the terms in the first place.

Over the next few months I plan on following up on this stream of thought, to provide a more complete picture of how choices being made today in Africa are driving drone innovation, and how those choices may well become embedded in the drone infrastructure of tomorrow, and along with it our modern identity.

Looking forward to it!