Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Do Gooder" Imperialism

There’s a website called Bloggingheads.tv that I follow regularly because of the mostly civilized way public affairs are discussed there. I know. This already sounds dry and boring, and maybe it is. Maybe that’s just the way I roll.

Anyway, I do like the site’s format, which is a recorded discussion between two people, usually bloggers, journalists or academics. They appear in side-by-side screens via webcams as they talk about various topics of the day, usually related to US politics or science or whatever is currently happening in the world. Often the two “bloggingheads” (as in “talking heads”, get it?) represent different political points of view, liberal and conservative

Mother Jones’ David Corn, who broke the story in 2012 about Mitt Romney’s “47 per-cent” remark, used to be a regular, as did Matt Yglesias, who now writes for Ezra Klein’s Vox Media.

These BhTV discussions are almost always civil and decently thoughtful. They bring together contrasting points of view without a high level of hysteria, completely unlike some cable news I can think of. It’s a site where echo cambers can face off and sometimes introduce a take on well-worn topics that is fresh to viewers unaccustomed to hearing opposing views.

A case in point is one such discussion I watched about a year ago featuring Glenn Loury.

Loury, who is an economics professor at Brown University, was talking with blogger Ann Althouse about gender politics – this was, after all, the Valentine's Day 2014 edition of Bloggingheads. 

The discussion about gender identity led Loury to recount an insight he had while visiting colleagues in Africa. He explained how these fellow academics, whom Loury respects as thoroughly modern and intelligent people, surprised him with their strong criticism of America’s “high-horse lecturing” of African countries on the subject of homosexuality.

Specifically, they explained to Loury how they were tired of being told that the attitudes of traditional African societies towards gays are “wrong” because they don’t meet current American standards.  

Loury paraphrased the feedback he got from his hosts this way: “No, we don’t accept your latter-day morality about these matters...We don’t need you to you to come in here and tell us how to do our things.”

While not fully endorsing this view, Loury admitted that his African colleges had a point. Though drawing a line at the legal persecution of gays, such as Uganda seems to be bent upon, Loury agreed that the treatment of homosexuals in African countries may not be the legitimate concern of the West. He conceded that the American’s finger-wagging at Africa, Russia, and the rest of the world on the acceptance of gay rights could be seen as “arrogant and imperialistic in the extreme”.

He went on to say, “Africans are not all benighted people who need to be led out the dark age by European liberal missionaries who have discovered what human rights are, and neither are Russians.”

To a Western liberal like me, it was a thought-provoking point of view, perhaps even shocking. (Before anyone gets the idea that Loury is homophobic, it should be noted that he is very supportive of his openly gay son.)

What right do Western societies have, Loury was saying, to expect countries in other parts of the world to instantaneously adopt the attitudes that have taken the West itself years or decades to reach? In other words, the West has no business telling the rest of the world what to do, as much as the impulse to do so evidently seems irresistible. 

In the year since listening to that diablog, I have noticed variations on the same idea popping up everywhere.

A week after Loury’s discussion with Althouse was posted, events in Ukraine took a critical turn. President Yanukovych fled the capital Kiev, a new government took over, and a huge amount of anti-Western commentary gushed forth from the far corners of the Internet.

In the following weeks, I saw the theme of American/Western arrogance on the world stage come up again and again in heated on-line debates and in broadcasts on Russia Today, mostly as a way of excusing Russian aggression in Ukraine.

At the heart of this criticism is the belief that interference by the US and the EU in Ukrainian affairs in 2013 led to the chaos in Kiev, requiring Moscow to take action. The US and EU, so the narrative goes, were playing with fire in Russia’s backyard and deserved to have it all thrown back in their faces. I heard this expressed by a caller on the NPR’s Diane Rehm talk-radio show yet again just a couple of weeks ago.

I found such opinions to be startling and more than a little disheartening, especially since I see no reason not to believe that the protests and occupation of the Maidan arose organically from the genuine desire for reform on the part of modern-thinking Ukrainians.

Not so fast, say the Internet chorus of anti-Westerners. It was all a conspiracy, they say. As in so many other global hot spots, the US government was pulling the strings. The EU and NATO were blatantly, and cynically, threatening Russia, hoping to break it up. This was the alternate reality of anti-establishment types challenging the mainstream Western view of events. It was an odd point of view to me, one that didn't ring true.

As this on-line argument was extended to the myriad other sins committed by the West over the years, the mendacity of NGOs also somehow got mixed into the accusations.

I guess in the past I’ve encountered a few extremely cynical individuals. But until the events of last year I had no idea (thanks Internet!) how many people really hold to the absolutist view that – solely in the “West” it would seem – no person, no group, no country, no one ever does anything except out of naked self-interest. Ever. I hope I'm not overstating that view, but that's the impression you get from some of the more bombastic folks on the Internet.

Should I take some comfort in thinking that a certain proportion of these Internet cynics are actually professional trolls, paid for their online nihilism, whether it’s genuine or not? Reporters from Finnish broadcaster Yle recently identified at least one trollitehdas (“troll factory”) in St. Petersburg, housed in a bland four-story office building, where 9-to-5 "commenters" engage in debates on American websites, trying to influence Western public opinion.

Headline: Yle at St. Petersburg's troll factory – in this way Russian
propaganda is cobbled together around the clock

Even without the trolls for hire, there seems to be enough like-minded amateurs out there, true cynics happily echoing the same sentiment I’ve seen on display repeatedly in endless online comment threads.

It can be summed up like this: The US government isn’t working alone to impose its will on the world. It’s aided by the media, mainly, but also by non-government organizations. They are striving together for Western supremacy, for the spread of pernicious Western “values”, often motivated simply by a desire for monetary or political gain.

I was especially surprised by the indictment of NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, in this kind of thinking. Again, I find this disheartening, since I think there is such a thing as altruism, and I admire people (and organizations) that try to make the world a better place. I do believe there are people who sincerely want to help others. Internet cynics would say I’m a fool.

To be fair, perhaps I shouldn’t accuse those super cynical folks lashing out against the West via their keyboards of distrusting and maligning all Western NGOs equally. You would hope they make a distinction between international organizations that are more obviously humanitarian in nature and those others that might justifiably be seen as acting on an agenda that is mostly only the concern of people living in the First World.

I would hope folks in Africa and other places where NGOs operate make that distinction and welcome the help wholeheartedly.

(Unfortunately in Pakistan, the humanitarian motivations of the Red Cross/Crescent have been severely tarnished by the fake vaccination program used by the CIA to discover Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. That travesty no doubt brought a certain kind of gleeful self-satisfaction to Internet cynics everywhere. See, they were right! Does that mean I should stop donating blood to Punainen Risti? Who knows what those fiends really do with it!)

Anyway, I tend to think most types of NGOs, at least the mainstream ones, try to be positive, well-meaning forces for change, change that usually aligns with my worldview.

But I can appreciate that local people who don't share my worldview, like Glenn Loury’s African colleagues, might see some NGOs, say Greenpeace or Amnesty International, as simply advocacy groups meddling in non-Western societies. They might see them as trying to impose on them alien, first-world standards, such as gender equality, wildlife conservation or gay rights.

Looking at it that way, why shouldn’t non-Westerners resent the First World nagging them incessantly?

Why shouldn’t they ignore the demands of Westerners not to slice off the clitorises of own their prepubescent daughters (as Rand Paul has said, children are “owned” by their parents)?

Why shouldn’t they slaughter dolphins, whales or other traditional prey, or harvest ivory from elephants within their own borders?

Why shouldn’t they flog discordant bloggers or imprison journalists at will?

Why not? Why should traditional, authoritarian societies refrain from these acts just because they offend the sensitivities of rich, liberal suburbanites leading comfortable lives in faraway America?

I don’t mean to be facetious here. Looking at it objectively, these can be uncomfortable questions.

Folks who don’t believe “the West” has any moral standing or any actual interest in social and political progress or human rights would probably answer “No, it’s not the place of Westerners to interfere in these matters. They don’t really believe in any of it anyway.”

I, as a liberal Westerner and a big believer in secular enlightenment, can’t help reject that way of thinking.

Human rights should be universally recognized and applied, for gays in Africa as much for anyone else. Natural habitats and resources should be protected on a global scale as much as possible, even if that might go against the interests of locals. That's just my bias.

I think there’s nothing wrong with the West  through some committed and altruistic-minded NGOs  having a leading role in promoting these goals, even if it doesn’t always live up to them itself in every instance. And I'm convinced the motives of the major Western "do gooder"  organizations are sincere.

If that makes me Pollyannaish, so be it. If that makes me an arrogant imperialist, I guess I’ll have to live with that. If that makes me paternalistic, I certainly don’t mean to be.

I just think it’s a less corrosive worldview than the extreme cynicism so rampant now on the Internet that tells the world that everything happens for a reason, it’s always a sinister one.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Taking Out The Trash, Finnish Style

We have, behind our coat closet, a narrow enclosed space where our sauna used to be. That was before we did a big house renovation almost ten years ago. I call it “the pantry”, since we keep various foodstuffs there, among other things. It is also were we collect our recycling, and taped to the wall is a piece of paper, you might say an improvised "recycling chart", to help me keep track of plastics.

My "Energy Waste for Dummies" visual aid.

I created this little visual aid back when my daughter became involved in her school’s ympäristöraati (environmental council). She wanted to make sure that we sorted all our plastic refuse properly for energy waste. She was amused at the time that I would need any printed guideline for this little task, since the basic rule comes down to this:  all categories of plastic could be put in the big cardboard box we used for energy waste except for one type, “Number 3” plastics. This is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.

At the time, only the other six recyclable types of plastic could safely be disposed of as energy waste. This meant they could be burned in electric power plants, specifically “waste-to-energy” plants that use such trash for fuel, an overall appealing alternative to burning fossil fuels.

PVC, because of its high chloride content, was different. Incinerating it in Finland's current WtE plants would result in unacceptably high levels of dioxins, one of the more hazardous of chemical pollutants. Instead of being mixed in with our energy waste, PVC needed to go in our regular trash to be hauled away and buried in a landfill.

While we haven’t normally accumulated more than our share of energy waste, which consists mostly of food containers and such, the box in our “pantry” often overflowed well before we got around to emptying it. This was because there weren’t really many places to take it, unlike regular recycling.

According to my very unscientific observations, Finns are avid recyclers. I take it to be part of the nature-loving, conscientious, and thrifty character of Finns. In our house, we fit in very well into that stereotype.

I’m not really sure how recycling is organized in metropolitan America, since I’ve never lived in any US city of any size (no bigger than, say, 70,000), and even that was some 30 years ago. Still, my impression is that recycling for most Americans is often a curbside affair, with folks putting their paper, glass, what not, out on the sidewalk for scheduled pickups.

They don’t do that here, at least not in Helsinki. Instead, there are public ekopisteet (eco points), large dumpster-like bins for household recycling strategically scattered around the city.

Our local ekopiste, on one of the rare sunny days this winter.

You generally don’t have to go far to find one. In the back lot of a grocery store a five-minute walk from us is a 15-meter-long (50-foot) row of dumpsters for cardboard (kartonki), paper, small metal, colored glass, clear glass, and used clothes (for donation to two different charities). But nothing for energy waste.

There’s a second, smaller ekopiste, also a five-minute walk away, for just paper and donated clothes. Plus, most apartment complexes have their own, private ekopisteet. Like I say, they're not hard to find.

Because we make regular visits to these local ekopisteet to unload our latest accumulation of paper, cardboard, glass and metal, there isn’t that much left to go into the normal trash container under our sink.

In fact, because we also compost all our veggie waste, we manage with having our sidewalk garbage can (240 liters, or some 60 gallons) emptied only every four weeks. (In Helsinki, you can choose how frequently the garbage truck comes by. Four weeks is the maximum interval.) The monthly garbage pick-up has always worked fine for us, and that was even when all three kids were still living at home.

Energy waste was the only part of the recycling routine that has been less than convenient, and that’s mostly been down to the issue of what to do with it.

Generally, there have been surprisingly few places in Helsinki where you could drop off energy waste, and these were mostly in the parking garages of some cross-town shopping malls that we didn’t often frequent.

That changed last September. Alongside the Porvoontie highway in Vantaa, sits a strangely modern-looking, massive blue-toned building, a new waste-to-energy power plant, the biggest in Finland.

Vantaa Energy says its new plant, fed with household garbage from the wider Helsinki area, will reduce the company’s consumption of fossil fuels by 30% while providing not only electricity for Vantaa, but also almost half of the city’s district heating.

I’ve read that a number of America’s biggest cities also use district heating (where the heating for entire neighborhoods is piped in from a centralized source), but I have no idea how widespread it really is. I can’t recall ever hearing of its use anywhere in Georgia, at least not on a large scale. But then again, having enough heat isn’t usually much of a concern in a state known for its long, sweltering summers.

In Finland, where the only thing sweltering (and sometimes long) are its saunas, about half of the homes are heated this way.

Our house, built in 1980 when the subdivision that now surrounds it on one side didn’t exist yet, is off the grid in that sense. We supply our own heating, previously with an oil-burning furnace that of course relied on liquid hydrocarbons pumped from the ground and delivered every year or so to our home by truck.

When we did the big renovation almost a decade ago, we could have chosen to also tap into the district heating that warms the row houses across the street.

The neighborhood's other ekopiste.

Instead, we nudged ourselves even a bit more off the grid and switched to a source of heat closer to home. In fact, right beneath our home. In the ground, no less. We had a geothermal system installed, provided by a transplanted Canadian who has set up what is apparently a thriving business selling earth-heating systems here.

It works great. It keeps our house plenty warm enough in winter (at our normal setting of 20 degrees C, or 70 Fahrenheit). 

That is, unless the weather outside turns especially cold, something like -20C (-5F), for more than a day or two. Then we have to switch on the system’s electric back-up heating to get some extra BTUs into the radiators. This year, that hasn’t been necessary even once.

We don’t generate our own electricity, of course, but we have some control over where it comes from. We buy our power from one of the many companies here that provide it only from renewable sources, which last year accounted for over a third (36%) of the 68 terawatt hours generated in Finland. The comparable figure for the US is 12%.

Though not blessed with the mountainous terrain of, say, Norway (which despite being an oil-producing country gets nearly all its electricity from hydropower), Finland still generates more than half of its renewable energy from water. Most of the rest comes from burning wood waste, mostly byproducts from the forestry and papermaking industries. Wind power is negligible, so far.

Another third of Finland’s power comes from fossil fuels, mostly coal and gas (for the US that’s 67%). You could also arguably throw into this category one of the fasting growing sources of fuel – peat. While not exactly a “fossil” fuelnot yet anywaypeat grows so slowly in the abundant bogs of Finland that it’s hard to think of it as “renewable”. It’s considered one of the dirtiest sources of energy here.

The cleanest source, at least in terms of greenhouse gasses, made up the remaining third of power production last year. That's nuclear power. Finland’s reliance on nuclear is a bit higher than the EU average (27%), but lower than neighboring Sweden (43%) and much lower than atomic powerhouse France (73%). And it’s way ahead of nuclear-shy America, which gets only 20% of its electric needs from splitting atoms.

Graphic by Tomia

With the opening of Vantaa Energy’s new plant, even my family has become a tiny source, sometimes a smelly one, of power, as our humble household garbage is now destined to help turn some giant turbine just off Porvoontie.

And because the new plant is also designed to burn even PVC cleanly (so we’ve understood), Type 3 plastic is no longer a concern for us. We can now just lump it in with all our other refuse, instead of letting it spill out all over the pantry.

Maybe I could also finally take down my improvised recycling chart and toss it in the trash...ah, I mean, in our recycling.