Category Archives: policy/planning

Assimilation – in the 21st century?

What does “assimilation” (in its socio-cultural sense) really mean in an age of globalization, easy digital communication, international integration, migration, and recently in the wake of recrudescent nationalisms?

Source: “The Forced Assimilation of Native Americans,” Gwich’in Steering Committee

On a vary basic level, we know that assimilation refers to a process by which individuals of a more or less distinct group (perhaps indigenous, immigrant, or formerly enslaved) are integrated or subsumed – willingly or by force – into the identity of a larger society or dominant culture. As such it has long been a goal of many plural states, and also of many immigrant groups settling in different countries.

Beyond that, the meaning of the term seems to be assumed without much clarity as to what the implications are.

Many questions

The initial question gives rise to others. For example, what are the issues/differences of assimilation as national policy, as socio-cultural process, and as personal or community aspiration? Are there different kinds or degrees of assimilation at each level?

Does assimilation necessarily require sacrifice of identities? Who decides whether or not that is the case, and what is sacrificed?

Is some kind of assimilation necessary for full participation in a society? Is equal status conditioned on type/degree of assimilation? If so, at what point – if ever – might it confer status and rights equivalent to those of the rest of society?

Considering the racist and nativist streaks in at least some nationalisms, do their definitions of assimilation exclude some peoples a priori? What is the relationship between assimilationism and racism (recognizing that there have been different treatments of various racial, ethnic, and religious minorities)?

Example of racist imagery associated with assimilationism. Source: “Chinese Immigration in the Late 19th Century: Discrimination in Action – Assimilation,” LEADR, MSU.edu

What is the burden shouldered by willingly assimilating? Or the cost imposed on individuals, communities, and cultures by assimilationist policies?

What are the benefits and costs of assimilation to the society as a whole?

What do other related terms like “acculturation” and “integration” (in its socio-cultural sense) mean in this context, and how are they different? Such terms would seem essential for fuller understanding of, and clearer discussion about “assimilation.”

Assimilation 2.0?

These questions in turn bring up other issues, such as:

Does it make any sense to talk of assimilation as we advance into the 21st century? If so, how and in what ways? If not, is there another term/concept that is more appropriate and productive for the changing realities that peoples and nations are living today?

Are we now defining an “Assimilation 2.0”? Or perhaps more fortuitously, new ways of thinking about how diverse peoples come to live together in peace, and with mutual respect and amity?

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The text of this post is adapted from the description of an email list with the same title that I ran in the mid 2000s.

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Reframing “renewable energy” & “bioenergy”

Popular usage of the term “renewable energy” is problematic, because it includes two distinct classes or sub-categories of energy sources: On the one hand, forms of bioenergy that serve as fuels for vehicles, feedstock for power plants (i.e., biomassbiofuels, etc.), and all the way down to firewood for cookstoves; and on the other hand, a set of technologies that in effect harvest energy in nature (solar, wind, wave, hydro, and geothermal, along with smaller scale energy “scavenging”). The common opposition of renewable energy vs. fossil fuels obscures this important distinction. The various forms of biomass and biofuels that are generally considered as renewables are burned – or combusted – to release energy (along with pollutants and carbon dioxide), just as are the fossil fuels they are intended to replace.

It is important to point this out at a time when headlines tell us that various countries are marking new “firsts” in replacing fossil fuels with renewables – e.g., Costa Rica, Portugal, and Britain.  It is also essential to be clear on this as we plan our energy future.

How the dual nature of bioenergy fits in the energy picture

The range of biomass and biofuels that we burn like fossil fuels, are considered renewable, unlike those fossil fuels, due to the calculation that their production and use is “carbon neutral.” That is, the carbon released in burning (most significantly as carbon dioxide) is considered to be offset by the carbon taken in by the growing of plants comparable to those burned. (There are important debates about how carbon neutrality is calculated, and whether externalities are or are not accounted for in the equations, but for purposes of this article, these will not be discussed.)

Rather than renewable vs. fossil fuels, we might just as easily discuss “pure renewables” (for lack of a better collective name for solar, wind, etc.) vs. “energy from burning/combustion,” which would separate biomass, biofuels, etc. from other renewables and group them with fossil fuels. That would also reflect the substitution aspect of bioenergy with respect to fossil fuels.¹

It would be more productive, however, to think of the two broad categories of renewables and energy from burning as partially overlapping categories or sets. This can be illustrated in a Venn diagram, with biomass, biofuels, etc. in the overlap (brown region).

This portrayal highlights the unique position of these forms of bioenergy. It also raises the question as to whether we really should be talking about three categories of energy rather than two. I will come back to that but first will expand the context.

Subcategories of bioenergy & the place of nuclear power

In considering bioenergy in a broad sense, it seemed useful to account for a batch of relatively smaller inputs into the overall energy system that do not involve conversion of living matter to fuel or burning it: animal draft power (which was centrally important in the pre-industrial age, but only locally important in some regions today); human physical labor (never insignificant, even given the integration of the 20th century cohort of automation technologies into the economy); and harnessing microbial processes (from age-old use of micro-organisms for fermenting foods and beverages,² to newer technologies like industrial microbiology, biomining, and microbial fuel cells).

However, I am proposing to adding a twist in that the work of “organisms” (so as to put these diverse sources under one heading) is not treated as conversion of caloric sources (food as “fuel”),³ but is rather seen as a utilization of their energy and effort, which would have been otherwise expended had it not been harnessed or employed to accomplish some defined work. The difference here is that a machine doesn’t need energy to exist (once created), but then it cannot do anything without a source of energy. Organisms on the other hand exist (continue to live) because they are already consuming calories, and may be engaged in work from that state (although greater effort will require them to consume more to sustain the increase in activity). I’ve tentatively added these as a subset of renewables in the following diagram (the yellow circle).

So to review, there are in effect there are two sub-categories of bioenergy:

  1. One from plant matter (to include algae) burned as fuel, directly or after conversion into a more convenient form. This is the main or exclusive meaning used in most discussions of bioenergy, and it is the one I am contending should be thought of as being at the same time both renewable and burnable/combustible.
  2. Another more limited one, which involves in effect the (figurative) harvesting of work done by organisms. This accounts for only a small percentage of overall energy in industrial and post-industrial societies, and cannot yield the amounts of energy needed for massive industrial or consumer needs. Nevertheless, it is locally significant and helps us expand our thinking about energy sources and categories. (Also, development of intelligent autonomous robots with some means to sustain their own energy budgets might add another level of meaning to this sub-category.)

In this diagram I’ve also added nuclear power, although at this point it is treated as somewhat of a special case, not groupable with anything else. (Hydrogen fuel is not included here as it is more of an energy carrier than a primary source of energy.)

In the following diagram, the components of the preceding diagram are rotated and separated, to show five (5) categories of sources of energy (rather than three). These are of unequal importance, but the relative size of the elements in the diagram has no special significance.

Having disaggregated these categories, we can organize them by other criteria.

“Fuel-based” energy vs. “harvest-based” energy

In the following diagram I regroup the above categories in several ways without relying on the two main categories or sets discussed above “renewable” and “burnable”). The fundamental difference that emerges from this collection seems to be that between fuel-based (converting some kind of fuel into energy; this term is not new, though it is usually seen prefixed with “fossil”), and harvest-based (harnessing or employing energy not bound up in a fuel; this term, which is rare in this context, is not to be confused with the agricultural harvest of crops which may be converted into a biofuel or biodiesel).

Nuclear, fossil, and the biomass, biofuels group are fuel-based. Except for nuclear power, these are also carbon-emitting. The use of nuclear fuel, of course, has its own waste issues. Fossil fuels and nuclear material are extracted resources, which like other extractive industries have various economic and environmental implications. The fuel-based bioenergy sources include major use of land/soil and water resources – as well as energy – to produce plants for biomass or biofuels production.

The broad class of bioenergy, as discussed in the previous section, bridges the fuel-based/harvest-based categories. By far the main harvest-based energy sources, however, are solar, wind, hydro, wave, and geothermal.

Our usual distinction between “fossil” and “renewable” – and even my alternative of overlapping “burnable” and “renewable” – might appropriately and productively be replaced with this “fuel-based” and “harvest-based” distinction. Fuel-based systems in general seem to have a different set of constraints and possibilities than harvest-based, and to involve a different kind of infrastructure investment and commitment. Their cycles of use involve: extraction or production; refinement or conversion into fuel form; storage and distribution; machines to convert fuel to energy (which may be mechanical energy as in an internal combustion engine or the generation of electricity); and finally waste. There is also the demonstrated potential for environmental damage throughout the entire cycle of use of fuel-based energy sources – some systemic (such as ongoing carbon dioxide pollution) and some due to the possibility of error, accident, or natural disaster creating catastrophic scenarios.

Harvest-based systems (leaving aside the bioenergy subset of animal power, etc.) also involve various types of machines and infrastructure, but almost all these days produce electricity. With the exception of dams connected with hydropower, these energy sources do not carry the systemic or potentially catastrophic potential of fuel-based systems. The complexity and potential externalities after the point of harvest (solar panel, wind turbine) are much less than in fuel-based systems.

Fuel-based systems are not without advantages, and harvest-based ones do have down sides. But the emergence of increasingly efficient and cost-effective forms of harvest-based energy generation (and the storage technologies used in tandem with them) would seem to have the long-term upper hand. Solar cells and wind-turbines almost literally pull energy out of thin air – so what if rates vary with the hour or the weather?

Fuel-based bioenergy vs. harvest-based renewables?

Fuel-based bioenergy – outside of the interesting potential to turn waste into energy sources – would occupy increasing amounts of our agricultural potential in order to produce the biomass needed to replace fossil fuels. And it probably will also involve increased genetic tinkering along the way (it’s already being tried with trees). That’s an increasingly convoluted and costly game plan to keep fuel-based systems in play – systems that still put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere even if that is considered to be offset. All this seems hidden in the folds of the renewable energy vs fossil fuel dichotomy.

Harvest-based renewables (solar, wind, etc.) may not be a cure-all – the “future of energy” may indeed need a complex of sources. However, the implications of harvest-based approaches for infrastructure and a whole range of transportation and industrial technologies are different than those of fuel based, and at a certain point sooner or later, the decision will have to be made regarding shifting the dominant paradigm away from fuel-based energy of any sort.


1. Substitution depends on the context. Broadly speaking, one can say that all energy forms are substitutable given the means to convert the energy source to a particular use. The sense intended here is narrower: ethanol can be used instead of gasoline, partially or completely (though in the latter case some re-engineering might be needed), to run a car; and wood pellets can be substituted for coal to fire electricity generation (though some retrofitting of the systems may be necessary). But electric powered vehicles have a different kind of motor altogether; and solar or wind generation of electricity are different processes than that in a fossil-fuel or biomass fired energy plant.

2. The complex process of converting corn into ethanol actually uses this form of bioenergy (work of yeast for fermentation) to create the other form of bioenergy (a fuel that can be burned).

3. For example, Adam J. Liska and Casey D. Heier frame bioenergy in this context this way: “For more than 10,000 years, the foundation of society has been bioenergy in the form of grass, crops, and trees for food for humans and other animals, as well as being a source of heat.” (2013, “The limits to complexity: A thermodynamic history of bioenergy,Biofuels, Bioprod. Bioref, 7: 573-581.) I am departing from this apparently standard definition, distinguishing between food and feed “burned” as calories on the one hand, and vegetative matter literally burned (in whatever form) on the other hand. And in the former case, I shift the focus to the organisms whose effort (however fueled) is being used.

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An International Year of Millets?

India is celebrating 2018 as its National Year of Millets. This follows a proposal by the government of India to the United Nations (UN) in late 2017 to make 2018 the International Year of Millets (which I’ll abbreviate IYOM). The purpose of IYOM would have been to highlight the importance of diverse millets for for farmers, for nutrition, and for food production in the wake of effects of climate change. Evidently, and unfortunately, that proposal was too late in the year to set the machinery in motion to organize an international observance of this sort in the following year.

The question at this point is what is the possibility of organizing a future international observance for these important but not fully appreciated grains. Will India’s experience with its current National Year of Millets help generate interest for an eventual IYOM, or take the steam off that proposal? Or will it lead to a year with a related but broader topic, covering something like “underutilized crops”?

It will take some time to know the answers. In the meantime, here’s some information on what has and hasn’t happened with respect to both the national and international years.

India’s National Year of Millets, 2018

The purpose of the National Year in India is similar to that mentioned above for the IYOM. One apparent concern is that even as millets are adapted to diverse conditions and have good nutritional profiles, cultivation of them has declined significantly relative to the main grain crops like wheat and rice.

OMITF-2018In January, the southwest Indian state of Karnataka – a major producer of several types of millet – held a previously planned Organics and Millets International Trade Fair in Bengaluru (logo featured at right). But it is not clear from available information what actions are being planned specifically for the year. At such time as more information is available, I will post about it.

India is a veritable crossroads of millets – cultivating most of the millet species grown in diverse parts of the world, and even exporting some. So its success with its National Year of Millets will be important to watch.

Background on the IYOM proposal

As for the IYOM proposal, apparently the agricultural ministers of India (Radha Mohan Singh) and of Karnataka state (Krishna Byre Gowda) first brought up the idea with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last October. The formal national government level proposal, in the form of a letter from Minister Singh to the UN Secretary General (António Guterres), came a month later.

Soon the Hyderabad, India-based International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) joined in, with a graphic presentation on the proposed IYOM and support for Minister Singh’s letter. The “Indian Father of the Green Revolution,” Prof. M.S. Swaminathan tweeted his support. Supposedly other countries were interested. But stepping back to look at the planning and lead time given for other international year observances, this idea, however laudable, did not have enough time to generate the support, means, and thinking needed to put together a successful world-wide observance for 2018.

According to the UN, most observances such as international years “have been established by resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly [UNGA], although some have been designated by UN specialized agencies.” So perhaps FAO could have declared a year of millets, though as Minister Gowda was quoted as saying already last October, “The FAO is of the view that it takes time to decide.” One would imagine that a decision by the UNGA to establish such an observance would carry more weight, since it speaks for the whole UN. However the UNGA only meets for a limited time each year, and its agenda is usually set several months in advance. Of the three International Year observances scheduled for 2019, one – Indigenous Languages – was decided in a UNGA resolution in late 2016, and the other two – Moderation and the Periodic Table – were set in late 2017. Talking must have begun at least a year earlier in each case. Looking at the calendar, some observances are scheduled already scheduled for 2022 and 2024.

In any event, as of 4 February 2018 (the most recent update I could find online), Minister Gowda is quoted as saying that they are still awaiting a response from the UN about the IYOM proposal.

Apparently one of the reasons 2018 was proposed for IYOM was that there were no other observances scheduled for that year. However, the same is true for 2020, and moving the proposed IYOM to that year would probably allow enough time to put together a successful campaign and observance for these important but often overlooked grains.

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Concluding 2017, looking forward to 2018

This year has been one of some personal transitions, hence less posting on this blog than originally planned. As 2017 comes to a close, I wanted to touch on a couple of topics among several related to the blog content.

IY2017First, 2017 is the U.N. Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Usually I try to get out quick mentions of such observances early in the year, but this time had planned a longer treatment mentioning two places I know in different ways – Djenné, Mali and Lijiang, Yunnan, China. That material will have to come out later in different form. However the topic of this year will remain important even as the calendar changes.

Early in the year, I posted several “why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) questions about policies that seemed ill-considered. That is, beyond the level of agreement or disagreement on particulars, but questions about the soundness of decisions from whatever viewpoint. Very quickly it became apparent that any attempt to continue such inquiries would become all-consuming. That in itself is a comment. In any event, I’m not planning any further WAWDTs for now.

Looking forward to a productive 2018, and sharing ideas and information here on Multidisciplinary Perspectives.

 

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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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