The Power of Stories

A recent NYTimes article informs us about the Chinese plan to redirect massive amounts of water to their dry north from their wet south.  Here are two reader comments that show how stories can be points of contact or rather insulators between individuals, their experiences, values, and beliefs:


Sandy Lewis
Lewis Family Farm, Essex, New York (20 votes)

Edward Wong's account of China's Army Corps equivalent offers many lessons. LA is one. There are hundreds of others.

When man seeks to conquer his environment, duck. Mother Nature wins, sooner or later.

No dam will last forever. No canal will last. Nothing man builds will outlast Mother Nature.

When we oppose the forces of nature, we defy logic. It is so much easier to work with nature - and allow the natural order of things.

Many feel organic farming is a passing fad, a joke, simply silly. Well, it's cheaper, it's better, it's more tasty, and it's healthy for the soils, rivers, estuaries, oceans and atmosphere. And it's smarter by far.

The chemical giants have their need, the children have theirs.

Similarly, drought in China is but the message.

Hubris is expensive stuff. Always fails, sooner or later.

China is old, China is young, China is a despotic dictatorship, corrupt top down.

The Chinese people do not vote. The Chinese people are cannon fodder for the ruling class.

This is totalitarianism. The scale of things in China dwarfs all others.

The scale of the failure in China will dwarf all others.

There is no question where this stuff will end.

There is only the question of when.

End it will - in disaster.

Mankind needs to learn, again and again. It's almost as if there is no memory, no inherent logic.

Animals know more that we.

Seattle, WA (6 votes)

Your facile and percussive claims about mother nature don't change the way the world works. Your little paragraphs remind me of the things a child might throw around because he can't have more candy: they're not only futile, but embarrassing. Let me explain how the world works. I'll use the nice, simple sentences of which you and your ilk are fond:

We use science to make plants grow better. Science lets us grow more food on the same amount of land.

Without science, we would have less food. The remaining food would be a lot more expensive. We would use a lot more land to grow food. Land that is used for growing food can't be forests or parks or wetlands for migrating songbirds.

Organic farming makes farmers till the soil to get rid of weeds. Tilling makes the topsoil easier to wash away. The topsoil can't be replaced. Half of Iowa is already gone. Plants need topsoil to grow. Without topsoil, there is no food. Starvation is not good for children and other living things.

We need water. We know how to bring water from places with more than enough to places that do not have enough. That is a good thing. When water goes from a high place to a low place, we get free electricity by building a dam. Dams need to be fixed once a while. They work fine if we take care of them. If people like you let us.

You believe that mother nature a nice old lady would provide for us if we just talk to her. But actually, she's fierce. It's taken thousands of years to tame her. You don't appreciate that because you live in an age when we've thoroughly subdued nature. Hubris is substituting your confidence for evidence. Nature worship qualifies.

I hope the Chinese water project is a success. We should pay attention to what they're doing. We're going to need to build projects like theirs ourselves soon. Our cities don't run on antibiotic-free heirloom free-range chickens. The water mains don't need massages and soft world music. They need water.

Science is the only thing that stands between chatting with friends in warm houses and shivering in the dark while wondering what we did to make an angry god punish us with lightning. Using reason to make our lives better is not evil. It's not bad. Technology is wonderful.

What's the Solomonic way out of this conundrum? I'm afraid it's one own's experience, for we rarely exhibit signs of learning.  Nothing wrong with experience in itself, except that it's costly. 


fCh said...

Anthony C
San Francisco, CA

China is truly an unscrupulous behemoth adorned in the costume of modernity: since its 19th-century subjugation by Western powers, the formerly great civilization has been through a vacuum-chamber of a sort of rigorous Westernization process, through which the nation has been solidified into place following the 1970s, and so the current incarnation of Middle Kingdom knows nothing but the life and breath of the doctrine in pure autocratic rationality. Everything in China has been pursued and pushed forward in the name of the ultimately unsustainable notion of linear growth, a projection of the capitalist-industrial mindset that has been encroaching throughout the globe for some time now in modern history (with the U.S. being the great contemporary poster child of this progression). China has learned quickly to adapt to this model of growth; its initiation of a ruthless domestic growth policy, explosion of crowded and inhuman megacities, and suppression of free speech to protect central interests are all testament to the Chinese symptom of this worldwide disease.

The Chinese is not alone in its power trip, and this is not an issue that the rest of the world can look upon from the global spectator seat and wag its fingers at how silly they are. What we are seeing with this water diversion (or "naturecide," if you will) project is not solely China's own misguided social hubris and administrative arrogance, but an example of what everyone else in the world is doing, only this particular example is mega-boosted one within the Chinese context of a billion+ population, among other factors. One may be wise to contemplate where collective humanity is headed, as this project is intimately related to Japan's nuclear debacle, the EU's economic stagnation, the U.S.'s worldwide military presence, and other forms of oppression initiated by a group of higher-ups in favor of a society controlled to their standards of industry and efficiency by any means necessary.

We are all floating on a sinking ship as defined by the Western way of life which has been taken for granted as the normative definition, and the scary thing is that all solutions to try and stem the descent (for example, the humanitarian intent to divert water resources to support burgeoning population growth) operates within the same framework, which has the double-edged effect of putting on more weight to the burden.

Anonymous said...

Dam if you do, dam if you don't

China's remarkable transformation over the past three decades is obviously an event of major geopolitical proportions, with far-reaching ramifications in both economic and security affairs. It has also led some observers to conclude that the PRC is destined to eclipse the (decadent) United States and its various feckless allies in part because its leaders are more farsighted and disciplined and able to set a course and stick to it despite occasional vicissitudes. This view implies that our own unruly political system needs more executive power and less democracy. (I'll confess to occasional grumpy thoughts along those lines, mostly when I'm bicycling to work and pondering how China can build whole cities or an Olympic Village in a year or two, while the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston can't manage to renovate a single bridge in less than three.)
But I digress. Anyone who is convinced that China is on a relentless march to world domination ought to read today's New York Times article on China's authoritarian response to its water shortage. The basic story is that China is engaged in a historically unprecedented effort to redistribute water resources, which involves massive dam and canal construction and has all the signs of a major ecological, social, and maybe even political disaster. Then go read Chapter 12 ("China, Lurching Giant") in Jared Diamond's Collapse, which details the ecological consequences of China's rapid development in greater detail. And then follow that up with a book I've plugged before: James Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott argues that authoritarian regimes inspired by "modernist ideologies" tend to produce major socioeconomic disasters, largely because they can impose grand schemes but lack adequate feedback mechanisms and institutions of accountability to correct errors or deal with unintended consequences. By the time they realize the full consequences of their actions, it is too late to prevent enormous harm.
None of this is to suggest that we are about to see a replay of the Great Leap Forward (Mao Zedong's disastrous attempt at forced-march development, in which at least 20 million people starved) or that China won't continue to rise. But I suspect there's a day of reckoning ahead, when the ecological and social consequences of this unprecedented transformation are fully felt and the political consequences will be profound.

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