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Entries Tagged as 'policy/planning'

Late Ming China & the contemporary United States

Listening to a recorded course on Chinese history* a few months ago, I was struck by how descriptions of “gridlock” in the late Ming dynasty government of China sounded much like the US government in recent years. Typically, Americans draw comparisons – apt or not – with ancient Rome, but perhaps late Ming China (which fell in 1644) might also offer some cautionary lessons.

Some comments by the course instructor, Prof. Kenneth J. Hammond, stood out in this regard:

  • “New ideas about integrity and individualism contributed to a moralization of political life that let to gridlock in government.”
  • “… debates and controversies at [the royal] court tended to be framed not as issues for compromise and pragmatism but as black-and-white moral issues.”
  • some groups “came to act almost like political parties in pursuit of their moral programs, treating their political rivals as agents of evil rather than simply gentlemen with differing ideas.”

Wang YangmingAccording to Prof. Hammond, this situation had its origins in the thinking of the prominent neo-Confucian philosopher and court official, Wang Yangming 王阳明 (1472-1529), who held that all individuals have an “innate knowledge of the good.”

Being neither an expert in Chinese history nor a student of Eastern philosophy, I am not in a position to comment in depth on this interpretation. However, the influence of Wang Yangming’s moral intuitionism among the literati in China at that time, the inability of the government to grapple with multiple problems, and the ultimate end of the Ming dynasty, are all known facts.

Recent politics in the US has been marked by extreme, intransigent positions, mainly on the part of an influential minority, and a tendency for two main partisan sides to talk less and even impugn the motives of the other. The influence of one particular thinker, Ayn Rand (1905-1982), on some members of the US government, is arguably a key factor in this devolution.

This is admittedly a shallow comparison, but not much worse than many comparisons of the US and Rome. The advantage of looking at a range of possible past parallels to one’s current situation is in drawing lessons from them so as not to repeat history.


* Kenneth J. Hammond, 2004, From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History, The Great Courses. (CDs & course book; the quoted passages come from lecture 24 “Gridlock and Crisis”)

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A hidden class of “bike-to-workers”?

On the eve of the annual “Bike to Work Day” – which this year is observed nationally in the US on 19 May 2017 (with some exceptions like Chicago and Colorado) – here’s a quick look at a couple of aspects of bicycling that don’t seem to get much attention:

  • people who bike to work regularly, largely out of necessity; and
  • unavailability of bike racks, which seems to affect the latter most.

The question is whether there is a kind of second class of bicyclists overlooked both by events such as Bike to Work and by longer-term planning and installation of infrastructure for bicycling.

First, about Bike to Work Day – it is part of the League of American Bicyclists‘ initiative for National Bike Month and National Bike to Work Week (15-19 May this year), all of which apparently go back to 1956, as ways of promoting bicycling. In the Washington, DC area, which concerns me in this case, Bike to Work Day is a popular and well supported event, with volunteers working “pit-stops” on bike routes, food and drink available, and giveaways. Altogether a great way to encourage commuters to at least try bicycling, or to get back on their bikes as weather warms up.

But what about people who bike to work pretty much every day on less frequented routes?.

Lycra or jeans

Several years ago I observed in Vienna, a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, how there seemed to be two separate groups of bicyclists – one with better bikes perhaps in lycra, often seen on the bicycle-friendly W&OD Trail, and another with less expensive bikes, perhaps in jeans, more likely seen along the commercial main street. The latter group apparently included people commuting to lower paying jobs in shops and restaurants. Although I was not able to verify this through any systematic research, one did notice here and there bikes locked up behind or near shops. Also, research done by others has noted use of bicycles by “day laborers” in northern Virginia (a situation perhaps similar to what one finds in other areas like Los Angeles).

Where are the bike racks?

What brings me back to this topic is noting recently – or really taking the time to notice – bikes locked to trees in a couple of shopping centers near another northern Virginia suburb, Falls Church. This is actually not that uncommon, but often easy to miss (as for instance the photo below on right, where the bikes were in an area screened from the shops).

In Seven Corners area east of Falls Church (l.) & at The Shops at West Falls Church (r.)

It is my impression that there are relatively few shopping areas that have bike racks or installed stands for parking bicycles. The same was true of Vienna – where I recall personally having to lock up my bike against sign posts or railings when going into a store – and of Falls Church, especially outside of the downtown area (where some bike stands have been installed by the city).

Bike stands at different locations along Broad Street, Falls Church City, VA

One can easily get the impression that bike racks are a priority only in certain higher traffic areas and/or with certain types of cyclists in mind. Or at best that their locations are not thought through too thoroughly. Running an errand one Sunday midday along the main street of Falls Church, I noted several empty bike stands (two of which pictured above), but then a little farther away, two bikes and a one-wheel trailer locked up against an awning support in front of an eatery.

Bicycles & trailer locked to awning support, Broadale VIllage Shopping Center, Falls Church City

So there are really two levels of discussion on bike racks:

  1. Which areas do get them, and which simply don’t.
  2. Within the areas that do, how well placed they are for people to use.

On both levels, there are decisions about either public expenditure on racks or ordinances requiring residential or commercial properties to include provision for bicycle parking and locking. Within the city of Falls Church, there is a bicycle master plan that considers placement of racks. Outside, it is apparently another matter (both of the locations with bikes locked to trees happened to be just over the boundary in Fairfax County, a huge jurisdiction).

Who counts in planning for bicycles?

It’s not a coincidence that the pattern of provision for bicycle parking – racks or stands – facilitates certain kinds of use of bicycles more than others. The higher level regional planning for bicycle infrastructure, processes of input into policy, and the local decisions about what is installed where for bicycles all seem to happen without input from people who ride bikes to a local job where they have to lock them to trees or fences or whatever. Those same people are also the ones for which just about every day is a bike to work day.

Admittedly, part of the issue is numbers. If only a couple of people ride bikes to each small shopping area, it is not likely that they’ll get a rack for parking. On the other hand, a couple of bikes each day represents a steady traffic, perhaps enough to justify putting in some kind of rack. Still, it would probably take shoppers and restaurant clients biking in some numbers and complaining about lack of places to lock their bicycles for there to be a change. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

Another perspective is that adding bike racks in places where one sees bicycles locked to trees and whatnot would in addition to helping those less visible cyclists, also facilitate more people biking to those locations.

Maybe that’s something to think about on Bike to Work Day…

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Earth Day 2017: Let’s stop industrial-scale burning of wood for energy

EarthDay2017This year’s Earth Day (22 April 2017) has as its theme “Environmental & Climate Literacy.” In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that environmental and climate literacy require attention to the impact of industrial scale burning of forests, and the question of whether it makes sense as an investment in reducing carbon emissions.

Yesterday there were articles in the press celebrating Britain’s first full day of energy without burning coal since 1882. You have to dig in some articles (not all) to find out that they’re still doing a lot of burning to produce energy, including of imported pelletized wood, which comes mainly from a combination of waste wood (which is limited in quantity) and cutting forests in the southeast United States.

The rationale for cutting, processing, transporting, and burning massive amounts of wood to generate electricity is that it is “carbon neutral.” That is, the carbon released in burning the wood can be accounted as part of a cycle with growing trees (which captures carbon, as part of the natural plant growth process).

But is burning wood on this scale really carbon neutral? And are other externalities, such as environmental impact at points of harvest, adequately taken into account? Should industrialized countries, which otherwise have been pretty good about managing forests – and have been preaching to developing nations about forest conservation and management – be exploiting its forest resources as “nature’s powerhouse” (in the terms of FAO‘s unfortunate slogan for International Day of Forests last month)?

In a recent article entitled “Can We Have Our Forests and Burn Them Too?,” former CIFOR director-general Frances Seymour questions the rush to use wood for power generation based on the current approach to carbon accounting. and points out that the carbon cycle for trees is a very long one. A study by Chatham House, “The Impacts of the Demand for Woody Biomass for Power and Heat on Climate and Forests,” analyzes the accounting issues in more detail, concluding among other things, that “a proportion of the emissions from biomass may never be accounted for.” Similar issues are summarized in a paper on the Friends of the Earth-UK site entitled “Burning Wood for Power Generation The Key Issues Explained.”

The push to burn wood to generate energy, in short, is policy-driven (the science of the matter being read in a way favorable to certain outcomes), and may actually be worse in total impact than cleaner fossil fuels.

Big plants, big impact, small energy?

Among the big biomass/wood burning energy plants in Britain are Drax and Steven’s Croft. (BiofuelWatch has a map of all plants). Taken together, they seem to be having a big impact on forests and the “biomass market” (see for instance this EU press release about the potential impact of Drax), but surprisingly not accounting for that big a proportion of Britain’s overall energy – only 6.7% on the coal-free day, according to the UK Electricity National Control Centre (thanks to Steve Patterson for the pointer):

And the conversion of facilities from coal-burning to wood-burning was expensive (again regarding Drax, see this critical opinion piece). Might it not have made more sense to convert to gas and/or invest in other non-burning renewables?

“Transgenic” forests in the future?

As bad as the pelletizing of forests for electricity generation is today, it could get worse. Research on genetically engineered trees aims to enhance growth and change wood characteristics, with one of the main aims being production for energy (pellets but also biofuel). The continued use of wood to generate power on an industrial scale will generate funds and interest in further developing and planting these organisms, unfortunately probably without regard to impacts on the environment.  (Two older pieces give some perspectives – in The Guardian, 2012, and Earth Island via Salon, 2013.)

Missing the “sweet spot” for wood energy

I have some small experience with wood energy, and my perspective on the larger issues comes in part from two sources. The first began with work on forestry projects in Mali and Guinea which had as part of their purpose, helping rural people grow trees for firewood to use in cooking, rather than cutting natural growth. I’ve maintained an interest and awareness of the problems involved in this source of energy, and various programs and proposals to ameliorate environmental, health, and other problems associated with it. The second is installing and using a fireplace insert in our home, which uses purchased local firewood (coming from cleared and fallen trees in the region), as well as smaller branches and in a couple of instances fallen trees near our residence.

Five key concepts are involved here (I discussed four of these – not transfer – in more detail in the post, “Biofuels reconsidered“):

  1. local;
  2. small scale;
  3. minimal processing;
  4. more direct transfer of heat energy; and
  5. use of waste – that is wood that would otherwise go into a landfill, I am told.

When you get these five together, that’s what I’d consider the “sweet spot” for wood energy, the optimal position for energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable wood use. Sometimes it is hard to stay in that spot, or next to impossible, such as in communities in West Africa I have known – so small scale plantations, and medium-distance transport of wood becomes necessary. Or in the US, the market drives producing wood for fireplaces and firepits (those small mesh-packaged batches of split wood for sale outside supermarkets).

On the scale of, say, Drax and its suppliers, however, they’re off on all counts, pretty much by design: long distance between supply and use; very large scale; medium processing (not as bad as wood to liquid biofuel); indirect transfer (the heat released from burning only indirectly produces electricity, so there is energy loss); and due to the scale of demand, live trees are harvested and plantations made, with all kinds of externalities. Industrial scale burning of wood for energy in advanced economies, in other words, misses all the five criteria for optimal energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. So, if the “carbon neutrality” of this practice is also contested, why are we doing this?

Decoupling forests and energy

Which brings me back to the FAO’s disheartening – from the point of a former (re)forester and lifelong environmentalist – slogan for International Day of Forests (IDoF) on March 21: “The forest: nature’s powerhouse.” Their effort to link the small-scale household use of firewood (which for many is a simple necessity, not a preference) with industrial scale power generation from pelletized forests was misguided, in my opinion (and I believe that of many others). Their attempt to point to a long-term role of forests in energy generation and need for policy support to that end seems shortsighted. Do we really expect to devote a significant percentage of our dwindling forest lands to inefficient energy generation? (I annotated their infographic, which is included at the end of this post.)

Wood energy is a reality for many today, but it is not a vision for long-term development. It is time to plan for the gradual split between energy – the technology for which is “ephemeralizing” away from burning and combustion – and forests – which have critically important climatic roles in addition to supplying wood and other forest products for our use.

Of course, we will always like to sit by a wood fire on a cold night or at a campsite, or to grill over charcoal, but that kind of use should be as close to the “sweet spot” of optimization as possible.

Ms. Seymour in her article cited above had a memorable summation of the arguments she made (it’s not a long read, and highly recommended): “Whether temperate or tropical, we can’t have our forests and burn them too.” Hopefully FAO and other major agencies and organizations concerned with the future of forests and/or energy will take that assessment to heart.

Comments on FAO infographic “Forests and Energy” from IDoF 2017.

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WAWDT: USDA, animal welfare, and responses

On February 3, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) abruptly removed from its website access to inspection reports and other information on animal welfare, citing a review process. This is the kind of action about which I’m asking “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT).

SDG logoAt issue, according to Science, are “tens of thousands of reports that document the numbers of animals kept by research labs, companies, zoos, circuses, and animal transporters—and whether those animals are being treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act“,” as well as “inspection reports under the Horse Protection Act.” National Geographic has more on why these reports are important. This information had been accessible on the website maintained by the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The USDA’s action elicited a “swift” backlash, and restoration of a small number of the documents two weeks later. There is also a private effort to collect and publish all the removed information.

Although USDA says the review process leading to removal of the information was started last year, and there is speculation that a lawsuit by some horse trainers catalyzed the move, this action does seem to confirm fears about such removal of access to data and information long made available to the public by the Federal government.

Personally, when I heard this story it was hard to see an angle from which one could give USDA the benefit of the doubt. Such a vast amount of documents (from almost 8000 facilities) simply removed from view, when there may have been issues of legal or other concern relating to only a handful. From the descriptions, it seems the information was (is) a very important part of assuring humane treatment of animals in diverse contexts where they are used commercially or for research.

Data copying efforts

The abovementioned effort to copy (and at this point retrieve) and publish (on the MemoryHole site) the information deleted by APHIS is part of a larger semi-organized movement begun before the new US administration took office last month to copy data and other information from government websites. A major concern has been climate data, with DataRefuge site evidently playing a coordinating role (see also the presentation on PPEH Lab‘s site).

Other concerns regarding data

In addition to loss of access to data, there is a longer term concern, per FiveThirtyEight, that “the the integrity of U.S. government data could be compromised more subtly and more systematically over the next four years.”

 

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“Security triangle” without the triangle

Having in the previous posting referenced the security triangle used in development and humanitarian work, I thought it would be worth taking another look at the concept. As I mentioned, the three elements in this model are (with brief definitions I adapted from other sources):

  • Acceptance: Reduce the threat by fostering acceptance and positive image in the community.
  • Protection: Reduce the risk (but not the threat) by addressing vulnerabilities – hardening the target.
  • Deterrence: Counter the threat through reliance on appropriate and legitimate force.

As I also mentioned, this model represented new thinking when it came onto the scene around the turn of the millennium – a way to reframe the traditional approach or posture of aid work – “acceptance” (and a range of positive human and community relations) – and bring in practical dimensions that were always in the background but imposing themselves to varying degrees in different work environments – “protection” (which may previously be limited to bars on the windows and locking doors to deter theives) and “deterrence” (a last resort).

Having been away from scenarios where this model was discussed, I hadn’t been aware that the triangle itself, as a way of presenting these 3 factors – which are still the basis of discussion for security in aid work – was downplayed. “Downplayed” is my term reading the Humanitarian Practice Network’s (HPN) 2010 revised edition of the Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (GPR8). HPN’s webpage about the report actually uses the word “abandoned.”

So what was the problem?

The below diagram, from a 2011 post entitled “SSOS – A Concept to Mitigate the NGO Security Dilemma” illustrates, I think, the kind of issue that GPR8 had with the triangle – that is seeing the 3 key factors in security in terms of trade-offs.

The details of the SSOS approach illustrated in the diagram are not the issue – the question is whether and to what degree a security strategy sits in one place or can shift reliance on the different factors as implied by this kind of diagram. Which might be compared to a very different use of a triangle with three elements that indeed are in trade-off relationships: a soil texture diagram:

Sand, clay, and silt are physical substances in soil that exist in different proportions with the result being different soil textures (there are more complicated versions of this diagram). So you can have a soil like sandy clay loam, which apparently has 74-80% sand and 20-35% clay. But an analogous breakdown of emphases on different security factors would be hard to imagine (protectiony acceptance safety?).

So the way I understand the current GPR8 thinking, one can accent more than one factor in different ways at the same time. Can one emphasize acceptance in a security strategy while approaching protection in a way that is effective, but relatively unobtrusive from the community point of view?

Even the SSOS example I cite can be interpreted in that way when it suggests using technology in the form of a “low profile tracking device” with a vehicle or team to effectively bring deterrence into the equation while not displaying it in the immediate picture.

In other words, the three elements of a security strategy are not mutually exclusive, as a 2015 discussion of “Acceptance strategies in conflict” also points out.

It is also worth reiterating GPR8’s observation mentioned in the previous post that acceptance turns out to be the most important factor in security for development and humanitarian work, even as protection and deterrence are recognized as also being essential.

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WAWDT: The “Muslim ban” breaks the “security triangle”

Certainly the biggest “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) policy decision among many under the new administration so far is Executive Order (EO) 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” but widely known as the “Muslim ban.” (The latter term is controversial, but seems appropriate based on its perceived effect, background, related discussions, and related statements.)

A lot has been written about this issue, and the courts have so far examined the several problems with this EO, so there is no need for me to recapitulate all the arguments. On the whole, however, it does seem to me that the EO does nothing beyond what current exhaustive vetting procedures already do to achieve its stated premise – keeping America safer. And furthermore, it seems that among its many secondary effects may very well be dynamics making this country and the world less safe. As such it will certainly put Americans overseas, as well as people associated with the US in other countries, at risk. We’ve already heard of impact on working relations of US troops with Iraqi military, and there is the obvious dilemma presented to people who have worked with Americans as interpreters.

The “security triangle”

Part of the reason this EO cannot achieve its ostensible aim of greater safety, and may actually accomplish the opposite, is that it effectively  knocks out one corner of the so-called “security triangle”: acceptance. The security triangle is a concept based on recognition that “security” has several dimensions, and highlights three complementary factors:

  • Acceptance: Reduce the threat by fostering acceptance and positive image in the community.
  • Protection: Reduce the risk (but not the threat) by addressing vulnerabilities – hardening the target.
  • Deterrence: Counter the threat through reliance on appropriate and legitimate force.

With this EO, the administration seems to be putting all its chips on protection, supported by deterrence, no matter what the cost in terms of diminished acceptance. That is, not reducing the threat worldwide, while trying to reduce exposure to potential risk by keeping broad demographics (country, religion) out of the US, which in turn may actually augment and energize the threat.

The security triangle model emerged from the international humanitarian community around 2000,1 but I would argue that it is more broadly applicable to national security concerns in the context of terrorism and so-called asymmetrical conflict. Keep in mind that many humanitarian operations are conducted in environments that are unstable or involve conflict, and attacks on humanitarian workers have become more frequent. So this model, and identification of its three elements, comes out of experience.

The triangle itself apparently caused confusion as some saw it as asking organizations situate themselves in relation to the three elements (as if a trade-off).2 The revised edition of Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (GPR8) downplayed the triangle, but still discussed its three elements at length.3 The main point therefore remains, and that is that a combination of approaches addressing acceptance, protection, and deterrence, is essential to assuring safety and security, while at the same time maintaining the good relations essential to effective work in these contexts. The exact mix will depend on the situation, but it is interesting that 2010 GPR8 notes that despite increased security risks in many parts of the world, acceptance turns out to be the most important factor:

Given their mission and values, aid organisations find acceptance by far the most appealing security strategy. Indeed, acceptance can and should be the foundation of all security strategies. But acceptance will not be effective against all threats. (GPR8, p. 56)

So what are the implications of all this for national policies that affect international relations?

Acceptance & “soft power”

Historically, the US government has had a whole range of messages, initiatives, and structures from “winning hearts and minds” to public diplomacy, and from USAID’s clasped hands to Peace Corps, aimed in different ways at cultivating positive images of the country. These arguably are analogous to the strategic concern of development and humanitarian organizations with “acceptance” in communities where they work. Scaling up to the level of the international system is tricky, but the US is a member of the community of nations, and its actions can affect how it is “accepted” by other nations and most importantly for this discussion, their populations.

The range of messages mentioned above also fit under the cultivation of “soft power” – “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.” And indeed, at least one article in the wake of EO 13769 asks how the Muslim ban might broadly undercut American soft power. One might tentatively consider “acceptance,” an element of a security strategy, as being a benefit of soft power. That would mean a diminishing of soft power would be reflected in lower acceptance and higher threat levels.

Pres. Trump has spoken on several occasions about wanting as immigrants “people who love us….” Well such love doesn’t just happen, and it can be lost through accumulation of negative perceptions. Policy decisions that in effect tell citizens of whole countries or members of a religion that they are not wanted (even if “temporarily”) are going to have a negative effect on love, acceptance, soft power, and ultimately security (on top of legal and moral questions about such measures). And all that is, or at least was, avoidable.

Better to have a policy begins with recognizing the strengths of existing practice, then carefully evaluates what gaps if any may exist, reviews these and measures to address them with appropriate experts in and out of government, and finally plans how to implement the measures with attention to avoiding unwanted negative secondary effects.

(See “Security triangle” without the triangle, for more on acceptance-protection-deterrence.)


1. It appeared for instance in the first edition of Operational Security Management in Violent  Environments: A Field Manual for Aid Agencies (Good Practice Review 8, Humanitarian Practice Network, ODI, 2000; authored by Koenraad Van Brabant; p. 10). Daniel Paul’s article, “The Relevance of the Security Triangle: An Examination of Literature on Perspectives of Humanitarian Security,” cites some other literature.
2. This was the impression I had when I first learned of the security triangle in the early 2000s while on the Peace Corps staff in Niger. Peace Corps, like most development organizations, had traditionally relied primarily on acceptance, although without putting that label on it. But the changing environment worldwide required attention to protection (deterrence, beyond normal police protection, would in my opinion undermine the whole purpose).
3. Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (Good Practice Review 8 [revised edition], Commissioned and published by the Humanitarian Practice Network at ODI, 2010).

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