Finding China

On Tuesday, after being in Suzhou for one full week, I accidentally found China.
It began with an early-morning jog. I shot this image from the 15th floor of my apartment building in the middle of the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). Looking west towards the Moon Bay development, you can see a not-yet open office tower, gleaming in the morning sun.
But two things have bothered me ever since I arrived here. First, where are all the people on the streets? Second: why the fancy landscaping? As a Californian, I marvel at a place which has enough water. It has barely rained at all in Berkeley in four years; but here on Monday I was caught outside in a torrential downpour. Combined with the local climate, my guess is that one could grow practically anything here–such as crops.
And yet the planning ideology of SIP is to devote this precious land to decorative office-park landscaping. Even an undeveloped parcel (pictured above) is mowed and maintained basically as a lawn, with the small exception of a pond. Based on what my students found in our study of Mountain View in the spring of 2015, I (we generally) think there are three reasonable uses for urban ground-space:
1. Food crop production. Especially vegetables.
2. Useable openspace for humans to play in.
3. Native shrub/scrub environment for local native species–especially pollinators–to live in.

Decorative landscaping is not on this list. What we found in Mountain View was that Google, LinkdenIn, and the Mountain View city planners all agreed that the office-park pattern of the North Bayshore neighborhood was a mistake. It was a nice idea–in 1975–but now they want real urbanism rather than an office park. The tech employees have voted with their feet, seeking out the most urbane environments in San Francisco as their preferred residence.
So: lots on my mind as I jogged southward to see some of the new housing that is being developed in SIP. My own building was opened in 2013. All the new development to the south is still under construction. I greatly admire China’s willingness to develop massive amounts of urban housing.
Even here at the southern edge of the developed part of SIP, the landscaped roadways go in immediately. I noticed that here, there was a bit more traffic than in the area near my apartment.
And where SIP ends, it ends abruptly. Here is the bleeding edge of new urban development.
But when I looked across this temporarily dammed canal, I saw that new urban development (on the left) was not replacing farmland or wilderness. This is a fundamental lesson about urbanization in East, South, and Central Asia: new urban expansion is only possible by either:
A. building up within existing developed areas, or
B. erasing/destroying existing urban areas and replacing them with new urban development.
As I learned in Afghanistan, there is no such thing as ‘blank’ or ‘undeveloped’ space. All useable land is already claimed, so any ‘brand new plan’ means taking space away from existing people and uses.
Directly across the canal, the land uses and building types were dramatically different.
So I walked over to the next intersection and continued further south. In the foreground in the picture above, there is a seam in the asphalt and the end of a curb: beyond that is un-redeveloped urban China.
And it looks like many places I have seen in Afghanistan, India, and Thailand. Ironically, here at the edge of this older district, most of the shops sell construction-supply materials. It seems like they are making a living off of supplying the materials for their own erasure and displacement.
Here I should amend the title of this blog: what I found, after a week living in the 21st-century ideal of urban China, is the 20th-century version of urban China. I don’t want to sentimentalize it: this ‘old school’ urban China contains some pretty scrappy environments. But it feels like a real-world, working urban district.
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SIP has expanded southward on either side of this settlement, so in the background you can see the new housing-towers in the gaps between all the nearby buildings.
I also don’t want to infer that this is ‘historic’ China. This area may have been developed in the 1980s or 1990s. But at least it makes sense to me: there are people. There is traffic.
As my colleagues pointed out, the office-park formula of SIP means that there are only a few neighborhood business centers. Over the vast majority of SIP, street-side retail is not allowed. Hence no street life and no people. I am not going to argue that this street should win a beauty contest. But it is working as a street; it feels like a place were one could live a life.
In fact, this is precisely the kind of setting where I was hoping to find housing before I arrived in China. However the whole urban landscape in the foreground is scheduled to be replaced by the urban landscape already visible in the background of this photo.
Canal-side 20th-century Suzhou.
Again, this picture looks a little too scenic. Let me temper it by noting that the two fellows in the boat are manually dredging the canal bit to clean out the garbage. I noticed that the canals here have practically no odor, even though the water is green and opaque. At this point I don’t know enough to judge whether this is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ urban hydrology.
But as an urban landscape, it is pretty scenic and distinctive. My fear is that young Chinese may dismiss this a ‘backward’ or ‘undeveloped.’ I am going to be digging into this question about ideologies of modernity in my research.
At last, here I found the kind of urban land-use that makes sense to me: where buildings are not covering the ground, there are vegetable gardens. This scale of agriculture might not make sense for grains that can be farmed on massive fields, it does make sense for vegetable crops. Even in dense urban spaces, we need space between buildings; and in dense urban spaces, labor-intensive agriculture makes sense because the laborer lives right there, next to their garden. And they can enjoy that garden as their own green-space, even as they are getting use out of it.
2 kilometers north, I am back on the grounds of my apartment complex. In a country with 1.5 billion people, this lush urban space is being used for nothing except the expression of an ideology, as far as I can tell.
At the end of the day I went out to the Moon Bay development shown in the first photo. It is beautiful: a gleaming expression of modernity, a powerful declaration that China is a modern, developed country–a peer with the United States and any country in Europe. Part of my purpose here is to educate a new generation of Chinese planners to further the implementation of that vision.
But in California we have come to doubt some of the ways that modern urban landscapes use resources like water and open space. China’s own recent urban past may hold lessons in how to do this better, more sustainably. As I was biking back to my apartment, I saw this one space, this one exception where someone is gardening just outside of the construction-perimeter fence of a new development in central SIP. On the left you can see XueTang Street, with its willow-trees and empty ground-space landscaping. Not only could nutritious vegetables be grown in the many hectares of roadside landscaping in SIP, but it might make the space more interesting; it might make us think more about a sustainable urban future.

JinJi Lake SouthWest

One of my colleagues lives on JinJi Lake Avenue, at the southwest corner of the lake. So on Saturday, I got to see this area which is opposite the Times Square/Ferris Wheel Paradise that I visited on Thursday. The tower that you can see below the tip of the lance of DonQuixote is the same Times Square tower that I showed in the previous post. More about the goofy horse below.
I took the 146 bus west across the causeway–JinJi Lake Avenue–that separates JinJi lake on the North from DuShu lake on the south. The new Oriental Gateway figures prominently in this landscape.
JinJi Lake Avenue, like many of the arterial roads in SIP, is huge. It has 4 lanes each way, separated by landscaped medians, with accompanying side-lanes, and with at least 30m setbacks beyond those to the buildings. So there are ranks of high-rises on the left, but it feels spacious.
I like these apartment towers. Look at the octagonal corners! Those make for some pretty fun room layouts, like the corner-turrets in San Francisco Victorian houses. But in this case, lots of them stacked on top of each other.
On the north side of the avenue is a low-rise commercial district on the canal-side. The arched bridges are new, and beautifully wrought with stone finishes. But the buildings are older and considerably cheaper, like the cheap waterside architecture in Marin County.

The waterside park on this corner of the lake is also nice and well-used. In principle I think that bridge will admit small boats into the marina in the foreground, but I think its main purpose is to give tourists a better view.
My colleague Sophie Sturup is fascinated by the public art in SuZhou. Here we have Don Quixote and Pancho, rendered as cartoons. I am glad they fund lots of public art, but I think I am about as mystified by this sculpture as that kid. Maybe his dad will explain it to him.
Clowns seem innocuous in pictures, but if you have ever stood close to a live clown, the experience can be unnerving. Likewise there is something uncanny about this rendition of Pancho.
This seems to be a fusion of the Wizard of Oz, with the Lion as the ‘welcoming cat,’ and other characters turned into WickerMan abstractions; and then all touched by Midas and turned into gold. I invite further speculation.
From here you can see the Oriental Gateway from the side, along with three other towers going up to the left. The Oriental Gateway is a parabola in profile, and the arch between the two towers is also a parabola. Or maybe they got really serious and made it as a catenary, the way Gaudi did in Barcelona. Very cool concepts, but I wonder how they will keep those angled windows from leaking.
Schoolchildren sculpture.
Some mashups don’t succeed. This seems to be a restaurant that went out of business or maybe never even opened, after a great deal of money was spent on a not-so-good-rendering of a European castle. What pains me is that the finish is actual stone; this must have cost a fortune.
Meanwhile, the regular apartment buildings are pretty great.
Local designers don’t embrace the Bauhaus-Modern pretentiousness of designing featureless sterile slabs. No, these developers decided to have fun with lots of corner windows and octagonal bays. I suspect there may be problems heating these flats in the wintertime, but the view and the light from inside are marvelous.

Ferris Wheel Paradise

Sept 7: Yesterday, after posting the blog about my dorm, internet access to all non-foreign sites slowed down considerably and I could not update this site at all. It seems that the Great Firewall fluctuates in intensity. That is going to cause a problem when doing online research. During our orientation on Friday, the world wide internet also slowed to a crawl, preventing our presenter from showing us how to use some classroom software. That is not encouraging. So this posting is off to a grim start.

What I wanted to talk about in this post is much more silly: the JinJi Lake “Ferris Wheel Paradise.” My colleague Raffaele Pernice pointed out this area as a place to think about for planning, so I headed out there promptly on the evening of 3 Sept, in part to figure out how to get around the city by bus.


Oriental Gateway: the landmark tower/arch of the Central Business District of SIP.

There are many large lakes in SuZhou, including several within the SuZhou Industrial Park alone. XJTLU is on the east side of DuShu lake. Immediately to the north of DuShu is JinJi lake, which you are looking at in these images. On the west side of JinJi lake is the Central Business District of SuZhou Industrial Park–or in planning parlance, the CBD of SIP. Like most high-rises in this region, the Oriental Gateway is a mixed-use development of retail, office space, hotel, and luxury apartments in a stack.
On the north shore of JinJi lake Science and Cultural Art Center, visible on the right in the image above. The lighting on the outside of the Center cycles through the spectrum; at the moment I took the photo it was fuschia. The Center also has a large music venue; we could hear the rock band from a kilometer away across the lake.
The trees in the lakeside park are illuminated in green, and the glare from the Center caused the local sky to glow vividly. The overall effect was surreal.
Beyond the trees was a set of steps along the shore of the lake. Not sure of the expression for this kind of feature in American; I think Brits would call it a quay or quayside; Indians might call it a ghat like on the shores of the Ganges at Varanasi. In any case it was lovely and romantic.
Behind this quayside plaza is the Times Square area of Suzhou. I will discuss that district in other posts, because we will be studying that area for our urban design studio. As you can see from the office tower under construction, it is a major business district.
Back to the lakeside: this is the eponymous Ferris Wheel of Ferris Wheel Paradise. Like the London Eye, it is huge and runs very slowly, giving passengers a private and marvelous urban view for at least 10 minutes. Maybe 30; I didn’t time it.
Adjacent to this amusement park is a free pier that extends into the lake. At least 100 of us decided to go out onto this pier and enjoy both the lake view, and the view of the roller-coaster in the park. I think maybe the park developers built this pier to entice people to pay and come into the park; but with our close-up view of the roller coaster, my sense was that the crowd was thinking ‘No, let’s not ride that.’
As you will see below, the roller-coaster car goes upside-down (and backwards) on this track. I call it “the screamer.”
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Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be paying to ride that anytime soon. I would rather turn around and enjoy the lake view:

My Apartment in Suzhou

Map of local area; overlaid on BaiduMap

Map of local area; English labeling overlaid on BaiduMap

As mentioned before, my posts may be image-heavy and text-lite for a while; lots to do here. But one piece of overlap is the map above: I want to improve the maps available to faculty when they arrive at XJTLU. This map started as a screen-capture of a Baidu Map; hence the Chinese place-names. I overlaid English place-names while retaining the Chinese. Hopefully this will help recent arrivals get a sense of the district immediately surrounding XJTLU. It could also be used for bus and taxi directions, and then for beginning to learn Chinese place-name characters of the area. This is a first draft, so I am going to invite my colleagues to give input.


My humble 15-story apartment building!

In the map above, Parfait International Apartments is at the bottom right. It is recently opened, so many fellow faculty are not familiar with the location. The city continues to expand in epic fashion to the south and east of my apartment, which you will see in some images below.

The overall area of XJTLU and the surrounding district shown in the map above is the DuShu Lake Higher Education Area, which is part of the SuZhou Industrial Park (SIP). The SIP is a massive eastward expansion of the city. I will be studying this, so expect more about it in future posts.

You may notice that I am capitalizing every character in Chinese names. This is to help fellow newbies think about how many words are compound, written with two discrete characters. SuZhou is written as two characters: 苏州. SuZhou city (苏州市) is the capital of JiangSu (江苏) province (省). Note that the character for Su () is the same in both the city and province name. So! A first lesson in Chinese.

This helps for writing addresses. In China they start with the most general–the name of the country–and then get more specific. The full name for China is the People’s Republic of China, but in addresses they usually just write ZhongGuo (中国). So the first part of my address is:
(中国 江苏省 苏州市), Which translates as China, JiangSu Province, SuZhou City.


Living area of my apartment. Rather nice.


Parfait International Apartments, WenCui Plaza; looking east


Main allee through the middle of the WenCui Plaza apartment complex, looking north


View westward toward Moon Bay business district. West gate of our apartment area visible at bottom center.


View southwest; recent expansion area


View southeast just after morning rain; a fairly clear view


More typical hazy view of the same area as the image above

Arrival in Shanghai

September 01, 2015

Toll gate leaving Shanghai Pudong International Airport

Toll gate leaving Shanghai Pudong International Airport

Hi all! I have decided to blog-in-haste about my experiences in China. Some of these postings may only be pictures, or very hasty impressions (with typos, alas), because I need to get up to speed with teaching here at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou.

The first thing I need to say is that this is a lot less exotic than it might seem. I have often argued against the exoticization of Afghanistan. Here in China, even more so. There are differences, which are fun; but I imagine this is like being hired to teach in Germany or some other developed country where I don’t know the language. Arriving at Shanghai-Pudong international airport, I felt like alot of what I encountered was a mashup of prior experiences.

In the photo above, we are about to go through the electronic fare-collection gate, which seems to work exactly the same way as FasTrack in the Bay Area and similar systems in Chicago and New York. I was picked up by a driver from the Human Resources Dept of XJTLU. He was driving a white Buick minivan. Yep, a Buick.

Middle-class housing along highway south of Shanghai

Middle-class housing along highway south of Shanghai

We did not pass through central Shanghai. I think we passed south of the downtown on a belt highway. Suzhou is due west of Shanghai, I think about 80 km. In the photo above I managed to catch some of the character of the landscape along the highway: intensive small-plot gardens (“truck farms” was the old U.S. term for these) and middle-class housing. The housing sometimes clusters in rows along the streets with plots behind. My guess is that this is single-family housing, but I am not sure of family-structure in this area at this time.

Sun through haze at 6:00 pm, with housing on the horizon

Sun through haze at 6:00 pm, with housing on the horizon

The air is thick here on the Chinese seacoast. This is not even pollution; or mostly it is not. It is humidity. Like New York in August, the air has a pea-soup quality. At 6 pm I could look directly at the sun, as this photo indicates.

Bridge, power plant, colling towers

Bridge, power plant, cooling towers

In the U.S. these big cooling-tower structures are generally associated only with nuclear power plants and a bit of anxiety. In most parts of the world (including the UK) they are a standard part of any power-plant. As we approach this bridge you get a sense of the intense degree of industrialization and development here. I only got a glance (and no photo) of the river below, and it was busy like Rotterdam.

Sun through steam and bridge cables

Sun through steam and bridge cables

Like the eastern span of the Bay Bridge (and the Brooklyn Bridge), suspension-cables radiate out from the tower- tops on this bridge.

Going to China: first reflections

This May I was hired by Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University to teach in Suzhou, China for three years. I am thrilled for three reasons: first, because the Lecturer position within the British system is the equivalent of an Assistant Professor in the U.S. system. Second, I am aiming to use this “scheduled shake-up” of my life to shift back into intensive writing and (I truly hope) publishing. Third: as an urbanist, this is one of the great moments to be in eastern China. Not only will I be able to observe the largest-scale process of urbanization ever undertaken by humans–but even better: I will participate in it. This fall I am scheduled to co-teach urban design to third-year students at XJTLU. Since I am deeply committed to participant-observation as a research method, this is an ideal way for me to learn about urbanization and urbanism in China.

What makes me sad is that my family is staying here in California.

Lizzie is getting a lot of auditions, and Sophia is really looking forward to starting Berkeley High. That was also our aim for our children. There are very few school districts in the United States as diverse as Berkeley, and we wanted our children to experience an integrated environment. Even though our children are young, this is a moment when we need to think of family-logistics with all four of us as individuals with discrete paths. Before I accepted the offer, I asked my kids about this. They said they will be sad to be apart, but they are really glad that I will be able to do the work that I love to do. I don’t know how we will all handle this in practice, but at least I know that the kids understand how important meaningful work is to me and Lizzie.

I know I am not processing all of this emotionally yet. I acquired a habit of ’emotional firewalling’ while I was doing my PhD, just to handle the stress of that process. However, I still get indirect indicators from my subconscious about how massive a shift this will be. I have started going through my paperwork, storing things I may want to keep for years from now. But it is really eerie to be packing to move, when the rest of my family is not.

Racism and Collective Memory

Grieving about the Emanuel A.M.E. Church murders

My chest literally aches for the people of Charleston, S.C. and every African-American whose fear of racially motivated violence has been affirmed, once again. I live in an integrated neighborhood–an increasingly rare place in America–and I feel like I have to tread carefully around my neighbors. In response to the “Don’t Shoot” movement, my wife and I wonder if we need to wear “Won’t Shoot” T-shirts to signal that we might be white, but we are not so frightened that we are about to open fire at random.
I was prompted to write this because of the eerie tenor of the murderer’s comments this time: declaring that black men rape white women, and that ‘black people are taking over’. Yes, this killer seems to be insane, but his rantings are consistent with not just white-supremacist ideology, but in a subtler way with general white-American prejudices. This is not news. The pervasiveness of American racism has been a dominant theme of American historiography for at least the last 50 years. But I wonder: How does this racist narrative persist? I have, unfortunately, dealt with a friend in the middle of a paranoid psychotic break. But even as his grip on reality began to slip, he was trying to work out the validity, the veracity of his own narrative. This Charleston killer may have been insane, but he had to be drawing upon a set of narratives that are considered valid by some sort of social group. Maybe that is a tiny group, and their conversation is more extremely racist than the majority of the population. But the intensity of their racism is only a matter of degree–but not different in kind–from the prejudices held by a large proportion of white Americans. If the ravings of a madman were unconnected to prevalent American attitudes, this whole incident would only be a horrible personal tragecy for the immediate families of the murdered and wounded. But it has national implications because the murderer sought to justify his actions based on a version of a conversation that is widely shared among whites.

I will call this the myth of the Threatening Black Man. What is the relationship between this myth and actual historical events? In many ways, the TBM is an inversion: whites actually did and still do perpetrate mass violence against African Americans. Today it takes the form of segregation in communities, discrimination in job and life-opportunities, police profiling, and our prison system. But the violence is not obvious to non-Black Americans, indicated by surprising tone-deafness about crime. A good example of this tone-deafness is a recent interview of Judd Apatow on NPR’s Fresh Air. Apatow marveled at the crimes he got away with as a teenager in Long Island. Every time he reflected on how he got away with something, I kept thinking “because you’re white.” Neither he nor Terry Gross mentioned how radically different the outcome would have been if he had been black. Apatow was shooting out the windows of cars and stealing radar-detectors. Trayvon Martin was coming back from buying Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. Which one faced deadly force and died for their actions? Which one faced no consequences at all? Who is actually criminal, and what consequences do they face?

How does the myth of the Threatening Black Man persist in the face of both history and present fact? Maybe for recent white Americans the tone of gangster rap is taken as more real than actual history. But that would not explain why the promulgators of Motown were stereotyped as dangerous, 40 years ago. Maybe this inversion is some form of expression white shame? In which case the Guilty White Liberal is an inadvertent hazard, because each reminder of actual white violence may provide inversion-fodder to enhance the mythical Threat of the Black Man. I don’t know. I haven’t found a convincing answer for how, under any circumstances of ignorance or madness, a white person could somehow convince themself that the Threatening Black Man is a real and valid justification for unprovoked white-on-black violence.

In practice, African-Americans murdering whites is so rare that it hampered the identification of the two “beltway snipers” in 2002. When the actual pattern of a serial-murderer became apparent, investigators assumed there was a psychotic gunman. And, based on prior experience and actual statistical data, they assumed the killer was white. Those assumptions indicated what white police officers assume aboutactual psychotic killers. Yet, in the collective American psyche, the Threatening Black Man plays a huge role. Darren Wilson could describe his fear of Michael Brown, jr. as a “monster,” even though Wilson was a Peace Officer who was trained–and swore an oath–to be a public servant. The the fact that Wilson thought he could say such things and not have every interviewer, every friend, and his own mother scream at him in outrage is amazing. And yet Wilson was correct in his assumption that he could publicly get away with his self-portrayal as the frightened victim. It was not just the Grand Jury that acquitted him. Enough Americans accepted his narrative that he lives safely as a free man in America today, when so many African-American men today remain in danger of whites who murder with impunity.

Names of Americans to remember

Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41, pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, father of two;
Cynthia Hurd, 54, regional manager of the St. Andrews branch of the county library;
Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, the mother of four daughters;
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a coach of the girls track and field team and a speech therapist:
Tywanza Sanders, 26, who had graduated from Allen University as a business administration major last year;
Ethel Lee Lance, 70, who had worked at the church for more than three decades;
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., a retired pastor from another church in Charleston;
Myra Thompson, 59;
Susie Jackson, 87.

These people–these Americans–these human beings–should be remembered and honored. The story of black liberation continues, and I don’t want this essay to only focus (as so often happens) on the madness of whites. I also seriously doubt any white-supremacist is likely to read anything I write. So I address my fellow Californians about what we can do about the persistence of racism in our own communities. First of all, we need to keep asking those awkward, reality-based questions that unravel stereotypes. Statistically, collectively, there seems to be something psychotic and pathological happening at a collective social scale. It would be too easy to just say that ‘whites are crazy’ and stop the questioning there. George Zimmerman, John Allen Muhammad, and Seung-Hui Cho remind us that all humans are vulnerable to cowardice-based violence and psychosis. So mental health, and collective work against social phobias, are projects that we need to tackle collectively as Americans.

What we can all do, at any time an in any place, is push back against the cowardly racist narrative about whites as victims. Think of racism as a form of blood-poisoning, or a curse, that we all acquired at birth. It is a hatred and fear that enslaves us; makes us less than fully human. We need to heal this poisoning in ourselves and those we care about. We need to face it aggressively in the people closest to us as an act of love. Guilt and shame will only prolong racism; if we hide it, we will end up holding onto it. Facing it bluntly when we look in the mirror, and into the eyes of our friends–that is the path to our own emancipation.

Charlie Hebdo: an Iconoclastic Perspective

Honoring the irreverent dead

The satirists who were murdered at the comic-journal Charlie Hebdo prided themselves in being iconoclastic. The purpose of this essay is to critique the Western group-think of both political leaders and journalists, in their unified reaction against the terrorist acts in Paris last week. Critique does not mean total disagreement. I agree that the murder of people for their beliefs is a profound crime. It is an act against God in all the Abrahamic religions, and a political crime in the Western modern worldview. So if I offend readers with the rest of the content of this essay, then at least consider that I honor the spirit of the irreverent dead at Charlie Hebdo in the best way I know how: by taking an unpopular political position in the hope that it will encourage critical thinking.

Murderers in search of a cause: How to react?

Killing political journalists is murder, and it is a terrorist act intended to have a specific set of impacts upon a society. That society gives a victory to the murderers right away by acting traumatized. One of the great strategic errors of the Bush Administration in mid-September 2001 was to promote Osama bin Laden to a highly prestigious position by declaring him the leader of a war against the United States. As many (unpopular) critics of the time pointed out, the 9/11 attacks could have been characterized and treated as a criminal act. Rhetorically, the treatment of attacks as criminal is a deliberate disregard of their political intent. Right away, political and cultural leaders can deny a victory to murderers through a strategic rejection of the reaction that the murderers hope for. The Bush Administration and popular American media did not have to hand al Qaeda that early victory. Nor do the French have to hand a victory to political extremists now.

There is another advantage of treating these acts as criminal, rather than as acts of war. The instrument we use to pursue crimes is law-enforcement. The instrument of war is the military. We design the institutions of law-enforcement to be perpetual. The sustained pursuit of the Italian-American Mafia by the F.B.I. is a classic example of a relentless pursuit, over many decades, that has crippled and largely dismantled a highly-organized, extremely violent organization embedded within a civilian population. Early in his tenure as Attorney General, Eric Holder tried to close Guantanamo prison by bringing al Qaeda suspects to the United States for trial. Holder was blocked by Republican politicians from bringing these prisoners into the scope of Constitutional rights and law-enforcement. One political consequence of this Republican move is to declare, very openly to the world, that the United States remains terrorized. We are willing to openly violate our own Constitution by holding prisoners for more than a decade without due process, without accusation, without trial, and subject them to torture. In other words, more than a decade after 9/11, Americans continue to hand political victory to terrorists. I hope the French do not fall into the same trap that American political leaders fell into.

Political leaders in Boston did far better after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The act was treated as criminal, first and foremost. Civil rights were not suspended. Political leaders in Boston portrayed the Tsarnaev brothers as humans who committed murder and mayhem, and undermined the sincerity of their supposed religious motivations. In a similar way, the Guardian undermined the Islamist justifications for violence of two Britons who went to fight for the Islamic State. Rather than violence as a result of religious devotion, the Guardian points out that these men knew so little about Islam that they had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon. In other words, they are men prone to violence who adopted jihad after the fact in an attempt to justify their lust for violence. Undermining post-facto justifications for violence is another effective countermeasure that denies legitimacy to any political justification for violent acts.

But an insistence on never suspending civil rights is perhaps the most effective denial of terrorist demands. In fact, the Republican refusal to allow our judicial system to handle the Guantanamo prisoners expresses a lack of confidence in our police, our courts, and Constitutional due process. I accept that we have seen some dramatic failures of the American judicial system in recent years (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner), but a healthier reaction would be to reform the judicial system to bring it closer to our American ideals of justice, rather than disparage it by keeping enemy combatants outside of that system for more than a decade.

It may seem incongruous to bring controversies of American racism into this discussion. But the question, in France as in the United States, is whether the Western system is just. The many loud assertions that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were an attack on free expression suggest that Westerners feel a need to assert a right to mock the Prophet Muhammad as part of a universal right of free press. Western leadersmarching today with Franois Hollande, the president of Franceinsist that this right is part of a universal set of rights and freedoms that are the basis for the credibility of Western political systems. Credibility is the central issue here for Western political leaders, just as fair treatment of black people in the U.S. and in France is a question of credibility for Western regimes. The messages sent by Western regimes is crucial in both of these issues, and it is a geopolitical message in both cases. Furthermore, it is a message that overlaps. Many of the Muslims in France and the United States are of African descent. Outside of the West, Muslims and black Africans have endured a pretty ugly history of colonization, enslavement, and occupation by Westerners that cannot be ignored in the geopolitical effort of Westerners to assert their credibility. I do not mean to imply that a Western track-record of enslavement and imperialism invalidates Western beliefs in equal treatment and freedom of expression. But we need some historical perspective to understand this present moment through the eyes and hearts of the people who are the ostensible targets of this aggressive assertion of Liberal freedoms.

Iconoclasm: a hint from the deeper past

It was horrific, sickening, and yes, an unambiguous attack on the core democratic principle: free speech. Bob Garfield, On the Media

Normally I am extremely supportive of the critical approach of the WNYC program On the Media. But I think they missed a crucial distinction by lumping all forms of speech together. They do go back several decades to understand Charlie Hebdo in historical context. But I need to go further back, and beyond France, to explain why some distinction between different forms of Western political speech are important. During the program, Laurence Grove of the University of Glasgow called Charlie Hebdo iconoclastic. This term has been used by many Western media organizations (Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, National Review) to characterize Charlie Hebdo. I will use this ancient termiconoclasmas our guide for a more historically-informed perspective.

Iconoclasmthe opposition to icons, the movement to destroy sacred imageswas a Christian movement that arose in the late Roman Empire. First it was directed against the various non-Christian images and statues of the older Roman pantheism. In the eighth and ninth century in the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire it re-emerged as Christians destroying Christian icons and statuary. Islam was founded during this era of Christian iconoclasm. Like their Jewish and Christian neighbors, Muslims condemned the visual portrayal of prophets, especially the Prophet Muhammad. That is not an absolute rule; some Shi’ites in Iran do accept respectful representations of Muhammad. There is also a Sunni tradition of veiled or allegorical representations of Muhammad.

But for the majority of Muslims today, any visual representation of Muhammad is problematic, and mocking images of the Prophet are not considered an incitement to critical thought. Instead, they are considered an attack that is part of a Western project of colonization, occupation, and a violent expression of imperial privilege. Note that a billion Muslims havenot reacted violently against these images, but many are dismayed by a well-armed Western civilization that does not tolerate polite requests to distinguish irreverent political satire and deliberate acts of hate-speech. We ban the “n-word” in most of American political discourse because, when used by whites today, it still does harm; it still reaffirms white privilege in a society that remains violently racist. For most Muslims, insulting portrayals of Muhammad are an act of hate-speech. Furthermore, for whom are the cartoons actually productive, in the sense intended by sharp political satire? For Westerners who already have a negative prejudice against all Muslims, do these cartoons provoke self-questioning? Does a vigorous defense of the cartoons support political critique? Or does it conflate the hard work of self-questioning with the self-congratulation of a Liberal West that regards its policies as the exact pattern that all other societies must adopt?

Christians resumed visual representations of Jesus in the late Middle Ages. But opposition to graven images is not culturally alien to Christian societies. The disappearance of many pre-Christian European images and statuesfrom Greece to Rome to Scandinaviais a testament to the image-erasing tradition of Christendom. Rather than call Muslim iconoclasm something ‘oriental’ or ‘exotic’, a quick historical look reveals how much it is the shared tradition of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the modern world, iconoclasm means something new. It means irreverence, and a critical view of sacred beliefs. This need for irreverencethis need for freedom from religionarose during the Wars of Religion that defined Western civilization.

The past is never dead

William Faulkner once wrote, The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past. We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. –Barack Obama, A more perfect union, 2008.

Faulkner was arguing against political-historical amnesia. Barack Obama cited Faulkner to argue that any understanding of political injustices in the present requires an historically-informed perspective. This also pertains to Christian-Muslim relations over the last two centuries of European colonialism. And furthermore, it also pertains to the very nature of Western identity itself.

Before Wars of Religion, Europe wasnt even called the West; it was called Christendom. But the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of 1535-1648 were so intractable, and so violent, that they threatened to destroy Christendom as a whole. Between 1600 and 1630, about one third of the population in what is now Germany was killed in religious violence between Catholics and Protestants. The Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1644 was a stark reminder that while Christians were busy butchering each other, the Muslim Turks were well-organized and ready to subject a self-destroyed Europe to Muslim rule.

In a very peculiar move, Europeans decided to save Christendom by denying its existence. In the various political and social negotiations that came to be known as the Westphalian Settlement, Europeans decided to expel religion from public political life, at least in rhetorical terms. Christendom was re-branded “the West.” This didnot mean that it was non-Christian or post-Christian, but rather it was the imposition of a taboo against calling it Christian. Elizabeth I of England insisted that English subjects had the private right to believe whatever they wanted, but the public obligation to worship and coexist together as Anglicans. Although one of the titles for British monarchs remains defensor fidelisDefender of the Christian Faithin practice the British political leadership has tolerated tremendous religious plurality, and the right of the British press to be irreverent. Americans carried forward this tradition not just through the First Amendment, but also through the awkward practice of attempting to avoid discussing religion and politics during Thanksgiving dinner.

Likewise, France is ostensibly secular, meaning that the Roman Catholic Church is not allowed any formal political role in the Republic. Most French Jews were exterminated or exiled in the Middle Ages, and French Protestants were likewise slaughtered or exiled in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French Revolution marginalized the role of the Roman Catholic Church in French politics. The right of the French press to be free from Christian censorship is vigorously defended. But there remains an assumption that being French means being Roman Catholic, or descended from Roman Catholics.

Westerners insist that this explicitly-secular-but-implicitly-Christian identity should be accepted by all other peoples of the world as not just Western, but in many ways as the universal norm for being modern. I think Talal Asad laid out the best criticism of this position. If Europeans want to be secular, thats fine. Europeans have very good reasons to fear the entanglement of their own religion with their own political identity, because of the outrageous levels of violence between Christians during the European Wars of Religion. But that was not a universal experience, and Muslims were not participants in the Westphalian settlement. Muslims were not consulted about whether the best solution was to privatize religion and formally exile the role of religion in public politics. If Muslims had been consulted, they might have come up with very different solutions. Instead, Europeans declared their particular history and consequent political assumptions as universal history and a universal set of political values. Using modern industrial weapons, Europeans then proceeded to impose their universal attitudes about the relationship between religion, politics, and the press on non-European peoples through colonization of Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

Political-historical amnesia

I have always been very sensitive to the long shadow that the Wars of Religion cast on Western societies because my father is Roman Catholic and my mother is Lutheran. Despite how tolerant and supposedly integrative the United States may claim to be, Protestant-Catholic marriages remain relatively rare and socially awkward. Part of my parents’ solution was to move into a predominantly Jewish suburb, where I grew up with kids whose parents were trying very hard to live quiet, suburban lives after the horrors of World War II. History was very alive to me as a child whose playmates had no uncles, aunts, or grandparents because most of their families were killed in the Holocaust.

The tension between my own parents and grandparents about a Lutheran-Catholic marriage also made the Wars of Religion hard to ignore. Even though they occurred 400 years ago, I have always been surprised by the political-historical amnesia towards the Wars of Religion and their present role in our understanding of the meaning of political liberty. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were both religious-political refugees from the conflicts in England. That brutal state of nature that Hobbes described in 1651 wasnt some neolithic cave-man scenario. It was the brutality of a failed-state condition in England at the timea brutality that is only possible when a civilized society tears itself to pieces. Westerners have good reasonsdeep-seated, unacknowledged historical reasonsto strongly fear the intersection of religion, politics, and violence. But so long as we dont look at the specific, European, Christian context of that brutality, we mistake that as a universal concern that all civilized people should share. From the outside, I think that presumption of universality looks and feels imperialist, even if that was not at all the intention.

Is it the same thing for Charlie Hebdo to mock Muhammad and mock the Pope, or Jesus? Since French citizens are mostly Roman Catholic or descendants of Roman Catholics, mockery of the Pope and Christianity are forms of self-mockery and self-criticism. However, most of the colonies of the French Republic were in West Africa and the Middle East. In other words, the historical relationship of France to the Muslim world is Western-Christian-Imperialist to Muslim-colonized. Furthermore, because of that colonial history, most of the poorer, disenfranchised immigrant populations in France are Muslim or Muslim-descended. So: is there a political difference when a Parisian satirical magazine engages in self-satire of Christian symbols and icons, in contrast to mocking a Prophet revered by peoples whom the French have subjugated and colonized? Based on this very brief glimpse of history, I think there is a substantial difference.

But should immigrant populations, subjected to systematic and well-documented discrimination in France, accept French standards of freedom from religion? Should they graciously accept even mocking portrayals of Muhammad? That depends upon whose measure of equal treatment is used as the standard. Most Muslims have opposed any visual portrayal of Muhammad for 1300 years. They do not practice a double-standard when they condemn non-Muslims for representing Muhammad. It is a policy which they equally and consistently impose upon themselvesas do Jews, regarding representation of their own prophets. It is a strict policy, but an equitable one.

Compared to that standard, the French official policy of allowing mockery of Muhammad bears an unfortunate parallel to the French colonial project: a very asymmetrical French imposition of political will on Muslims in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Syria. Furthermore, an historically-informed French policy of press freedoms would be much more particular, and not at all universal: French journalists and politicians have specific, legitimate reasons for insisting on freedom from Christian institutional domination. Beyond that, other press freedomswhich are not absolute even in Franceneed to be considered through the eyes of all the people who are intended as the audience. Is a cartoon critical self-satire? Or is it a hellish repetition of French colonial domination and condescension towards peoples whom they call barbarian?

Stereoscopic critique

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at ones self through the eyes of others, of measuring ones soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. –W.E.B. duBois

It may seem that I have contradicted myself in both praising the courage of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, and then criticizing the very cartoons that were used as a pretext by their murderers. My main critique is not of the journalists themselves, though: it is towards Western policies, and the current international reaction which asserts a very specific type of press freedom as a universal right. But I also want to acknowledge the apparent contradiction here through a lesson I learned on Friday as I moderated a public panel discussion on justice.

One of the panelists was Jonathan Jansen, who is the Rector of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. On his Facebook page, Jansen had already expressed similar views to those I have just argued; and he provoked a storm of criticism. But Jansen accepts that he will be considered controversial. When he became Rector, he refused to prosecute several white students in his university when they produced a video mocking some of the black staff-members of the university. Jansen sensed that the public might use its sense of righteous indignation towards these students as a way to avoid facing the larger racist context in which they had been raised. As a black South African himself, he is more committed to the long-term transformation of the cultural assumptions and structural relations of his country. So, instead of prosecuting and expelling the students, he opposed prosecution and asked them to stay at the university and engage in reconciliation with the staff. One of the students now does outreach across the region, challenging the way that white South Africans are raised as racists.

Jansen argues that, to understand why and how he made these choices, you have to hold two truths in your mind at the same time. On the one hand, he called the boys actions cruel and stupidon the other, he saw that they were behaving in a way that was consistent their upbringing. Shining a bright but narrow light of condemnation on them would have left the larger context of bigotry unchallenged. During the panel discussion, Jansen expressed concern that Americans tend to insist on only one truth at a time in relation to both the Charlie Hebdo crisis and in terms of American policing policies over the last year. In this essay, I am echoing Jansen by analyzing these two issues together. In the case of American policing, he pointed out that Americans seem to portray police through one lens at a time: either as racist brutalizers in Ferguson, Cincinnati, and Staten Island or as victims, such as the two officers murdered in Brooklyn in an apparent revenge attack. Jansen insists that we need to understand both realities, both narratives as simultaneously true. Likewise, he argues that we need to see the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly simultaneously as disaffected youth in a society that systematically discriminates against them, and as murderers whose actions cannot and should not be justified. Jansen argued that we can only make ethical sense out of current events by holding multiple truths in our minds at the same time. His argument reminded me strongly of W.E.B. duBois concept of double consciousness. But it is not just the double-consciousness of a people subject to discrimination. As a cultural leader, Jansen has to employ insight and vision in a way that sees beyond immediate acts to their longer-term structural relations. I call this ‘stereoscopic critique.’

Given what Jansen has achieved at the University of the Free State, I would go further to argue that this double-consciousness, this stereoscopic critique of unfolding events has enabled him to enact policies that are not only ethical, but revolutionary in how he has transformed a specific incident of cruel racism into an instrument in the long fight to dismantle racism in South African society.

Likewise, an effort to see the tragedy in Paris with stereoscopic critique is a radical challenge, because it requires some degree of compassion with two profoundly different worldviews. Compassion does not mean agreement with, nor exoneration from acts of murder. But it does mean seeing beyond the glare produced by the spotlight of righteous indignation, to discern the shadowy outlines of a massive structure of violent inequality and cultural condescension that ties directly to those gruesome acts of violence.

If I have pissed off the irreverent deadand those who only see the dead through a single lens as victimsthen I have done so in an effort to honor their own example.

A Leftist pitch for competition and economic growth

A common conservative disparagement of liberals and leftists is that we are anti-business. I often use Adam Smiths arguments to show precisely the opposite. Leftists dislike monopolies and oligopolies. Oil companies and phone companies are two examples of oligopolies: their products, services, and pricing are so similar that their collusion with each other is pretty obvious. In classical (i.e. Smiths) economic terms, cartels dominate both markets, suppress competition, suppress innovation, and charge prices far higher than they could charge in competitive markets. In other words: like monopolies, oligopolies are market-failures.

Like Smith, I believe that competitive markets promote more innovation. I also agree with Smiths argument that competition is a mechanism for providing strong, consistent downward pressure on prices for goods and services. And I agree with Smiths arguments for supporting the mechanisms that maintain competition. In Wealth of Nations(1776), Smith argues for a strong system of civil courts and police enforcement of property rights, including the right to collect royalties and license-fees on intellectual property. In other words, a strong regulatory regime is necessary for competitive markets. So, in Adam Smiths terms, deregulation is a bad economic idea because the absence of regime-enforcement re-opens markets to their natural tendency toward monopolies and oligopolies.

I use natural tendency with caution, because Gramsci warned that references to a natural world order are often used to forcibly suppress the questioning of assumptions that should be questioned. Is there really something inherent in the mechanism of markets that tends toward concentrated domination, if left unchecked by the police power of regimes? I can give some empirical evidence. Where do markets operate within weak enforcement-regimes? Narcotics trade in Afghanistan. Blood diamonds in central Africa. These practices are strongly dominated by a few cartels, a few warlords, because there is no regulation of activities which are illegal in themselves. Even in legal regimes, the rich get richer because they have discretionary wealth (meaning something above bare livelihood) that they can risk on investments.

John Maynard Keynes (1936) and Robert Heilbroner (1953) both argued that Smiths metaphor of the invisible hand was misused by neo-classical economists. Hayek and Friedman implied that the invisible hand means that markets are naturally self-regulating without government interference. Like Smith, Keynes argued that markets are not inherently self-regulating. Smith did argue for market-Liberalization: he wanted commoners to have the right to engage in private contracts that would be enforced by the public courts if something went awry between the contracting parties. Smith also argued for the removal of direct aristocratic control of small businesses. That is Liberalization in the sense meant from about 1780 to 1860. Smiths argument for removal of aristocratic control can also be understood as an argument that rich elites should not dictate the terms of local nor long-distance commerce. The 7th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution echoes this sentiment.Commonersmeaning people like you and mehave the right of access to courts to protect our property claims. We need that for the same reason that Keynes argued: markets are not self-equilibrating.
The application of the term free to markets is a beautifully deceptive piece of neoliberal propaganda. When the courts and regulatory agencies are underfunded and weakened, commoner-rights get weakened and wealthy elites are able to concentrate more wealth unto themselves. Markets are either competitive or non-competitive. If a market gets deregulated, it quickly gets dominated and therefore noncompetitive.

In search of better macro-economic metaphors

In addition to the invisible hand metaphor, there is another metaphor (mis)used to imply that the growth of one big firm will naturally lead to broad-based economic growth. The expression is A rising tide lifts all boats. In this metaphor, what does the rising water represent? Cash? Available capital? Why is that water self-leveling? Why does it self-redistribute under all boats? Does cash naturally self-distrubte in an even way under all the individuals in an economy? No. And not even a 21st-century Leftist would want an economic system designed to distribute wealth out to a dead-level condition. First of all, that would undermine the incentives for harder work, risk-taking, and innovation. Secondly, we have already seen the disastrous consequences of the kind of state-Communist regime that can force all the wealth in an economy to distribute in a leveled-out way. Totalitarian regimes like Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot are another form of market-failure, in which the oligarchy becomes the oligopoly: the political regime can impose the same sorts of marktet-domination and anti-competitive distortion as a dominant corporation, like ATT or ExxonMobil.

So: the right-wing interpretation of rising tide metaphor is misleading in its implication that a deregulated market is a self-equalizing market. But even a simplistic Left-wing interpretation of the metaphor would mean disaster. Furthermore, the metaphor makes too many assumptions. Rising water only self-levels because of many factors: stable temperature; the orbit of a nearby moon; the gravity that pulls the water down; and the ground underneath that holds the water up.

A better metaphor for a deregulated market would be the formation of a planetary system. Deregulation, in this metaphor, means taking away all the other factors except for gravity, which we will leave as the force that represents the profit-motive in markets. What happens? A nebula of more or less evenly-distributed resources collapses together into a single mass. Too simple? Yes; add in one more forcemomentumand observe how the nebula collapses unevenly into a spinning disk. Perhaps momentum represents the competition among elites, who secure domination in a few different economic sectors. What is the result, in planetary terms? A nebula of roughly-even distribution of resources collapses into one or two primary stars, eight or nine planets, and perhaps fifty smaller moons and outer-system dwarf planets. The uneven distribution of resources in a planetary system begins to resemble the radical inequality of a deregulated market.

So maybe we should return to the Rising-tide metaphor and retool it as a rhetorical weapon against deregulation. What keeps the temperature even enough to keep the water liquid? Thermal regulation represents government regulation. And let us be explicit in saying that the water represents an even distribution of opportunity: which is why all children, rich and poor, deserve excellent, well-funded universal public education, decent housing, safe neighborhoods. What does the underlying ground represent? The underlying supportive structure of the regime that prevents the water of equal-opportunity from draining away.

Let us extend this metaphor further to bring in the lifeguards and rescue-boats of a welfare system. We want to see better-performing boats (firms) designed through constant, competitive innovation. We want to ensure the freedom of the whole population to use its weird, unpredictable genius to build better boats, boats that perform in ways no-one had imagined before. But we know that in a flotation free-for-all, 80% of the boats will fail. If we simply allow innovators to drown when their boats fail, we will promote a risk-averse population that will stick with older, already-proven boat designs. If we want to promote a culture of design innovation and risk-taking, we need to have an active rescue-system that prevents failure from being fatal by ensuring the welfare of the whole population. Furthermore, a big part of this population is not gifted in boat design (business innovation), and many of the people never learn how to swim. But they do other things like row, keep the ships clean, and cook better food than the boat-designers. The welfare system of lifeguards can and should prevent them from economic drowning too; it should not assume that they can swim in the waters of opportunity. Furthermore, the same safety-net system that supports the non-swimmers is the one that protects the real risk-takers. Not only is the lifeguard system affordable by the society as a whole; but it is actually a vital component of the promotion of risk-taking, innovation, and economic growth.

(Over?)population and our urban future

Several of my students still express anxiety about “over”population as part of urbanization. This anxiety is shaped by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The population bomb. The book has been highly influential ever since it was published more than 40 years ago. This is unfortunate, because it contains a glaring conceptual flaw that demographers have known about since 1929.

In 1929, Warren Thompson published “Population” in the American Journal of Sociology. In this article Thompson describes two demographic transitions:
First Demographic Transition: improvements in public health and hygiene practices drop the death rate. More children survive into adulthood, and the population grows rapidly.
Second Demographic Transition: after one or two generations, families realize that the risk of child mortality has abated, and they tend to have only two children. So the growth-rate of the population levels off.

Britain was the first country to go through both demographic transitions, and the United States had just gone through the Second Transition in the 1920s, just before Thompson published his observations. Meanwhile, as Thompson (1945) and Kingsley Davis (1965) pointed out, other countries began experiencing the two transitions after the “early-industrializers.” Starting in the 1940s, rapid population-growth had shifted to “developing” countries where new health-regimes had dropped the death rate. In the U.S. this First Transition of falling death-rates happened especially in the 1900s and 1910s due to the Progressives and their urban-hygiene movement.

Thompson’s arguments were not secret; “Population” remains a classic in the canon of demographic research. Anyone competent in population-research knew about the two-phase transition in the 1930s–and as Davis’ research shows, they remained aware of it in the mid-1960s. So Ehrlich’s scholarship, in 1968, was at best incompetent.

Were we approaching the “carrying capacity” of the Earth in 1968? Are we now? That depends upon a lot of variables other than the raw number of humans on the planet. The politics of food access plays a greater role in famines, such as the deliberate starvation if Igbo peoples by the Nigerian regime during the Biafra conflict of 1968-1971. Pictures of starving African children were misinterpreted as evidence of Ehrlich’s argument about an ‘absolute’ excess of people in Africa. Is that racist? Well, Africa actually has a startlingly low overall population density: 28 people/square kilometer. In contrast, the population density of France is 119/km2; the U.K. is 259; and the Netherlands is 495 (World Bank, 2011 data). In terms of land area alone, Africa is in fact significantly underpopulated. It has large deserts, yes; but so does the United States (34 ppl/km2) and India (411 ppl/km2). The under-population of Africa today has more to do with diseases that have co-evolved with hominids there for millions of years, and political conflict since the European slave-trade and colonization began 400 years ago. But through Western ignorance about internal (and geopolitical) particulars of the wars in Nigeria, Angola, and the Congo, a public figure such as Ehrlich could continue to imply that there were ‘too many Africans’–an argument with unpleasant connections to the eugenics movement in the United States and Germany from the 1870s to 1945.

But the highly-normative term “overpopulation” is not just used by those who think there are ‘too many colored people.’ The overpopulation-argument has gained a much wider acceptance as a ‘truth.’ The argument is assumed to be ‘self-evident,’ ‘obvious,’ and ‘natural‘ in what Gramsci would call a hegemonic level of dominance. My students at SF State often accept the “overpopulation” argument as a given. Yet most of them are working-class and nonwhite. If Ehrlich’s arguments ever gained traction as enforceable policy, my students would be likely targets of ‘fertility-restriction’ programs implemented by upper-class Americans.

The usefulness of critique: What we see with a little more clarity

One purpose of this blog-post is to debunk the “overpopulation” myth. I will refer my students to this post from now on to save time. But I have a second, very different reason for writing this post as well: I am more concerned about a demographic shrinkage than I am about a continued increase in population. We need to carefully think through the implications of a Third Demographic Transition: the decision by highly-educated families to have fewer children than the previous generation.

In the Third Demographic Transition, women (as individuals or as part of a family) choose to have fewer than two children, on average. The fertility-rate that will maintain a stable population is 2 children per woman, plus the infant/child mortality rate. In the U.S. the mortality rate of children from 0-18 years is about 0.05%, so a fertility-rate of 2.05 would maintain a stable population. But since the 1970s, two things have changed in the U.S.:
1) working-class male wages have flattened since 1973, so women have had to enter the paid workforce to supplement household incomes.
2) women have been getting advanced degrees at a far greater rate. In 2012, 68% of the admissions to SF State were women. Nationwide, the rate is about 55% women in undergraduate programs. Equal pay for equal work is still not protected in the U.S., so the two changes don’t mean that women have achieved equality. But with much higher expectations about how they want to live their lives, many women are very reluctant to take 3 to 10 years out of their career-path to bear and raise young children.

Other factors contribute: marriage is increasingly seen as a middle-class and even upper-middle-class privilege by a growing majority who know they are no longer “middle class” in the 1950s sense of the term. One indication of this change is that almost half of children are born out-of-wedlock in the U.S. today. Ironically, conservative-Americans use the ideology of “family values” as an instrument of political disparagement against liberals. Rather than a punitive bludgeon, we may need to rethink family-support as an agenda of compassion–or at the very least as a series of public policies to salvage our economy in the future.

Which brings me to the problem with the Third Demographic Transition. Our economic system is designed around the assumption of growth. For example, the largest financial asset of most American households is their house. What happens to the value of those houses when a declining population stops bidding on a large fraction of them? If investors risk money with the expectation of a growing market that will return profits on their investments, what happens when Americans start consuming less? For environmental reasons, we need Americans to consume less. I am not disputing the widespread concern over resource-depletion. But what happens when Americans really do start consuming less? The problem is, I don’t think we know how to manage this transition in an economically healthy way. Not only do we lack the theory to shape good economic policy around shrinkage; behind that under-theorization lies the fundamental problem that we have difficulty imagining it.

But we better grasp the economic-policy implications of the Third Demographic Transition pretty soon, because it is upon us. Japan has been struggling with economic stagnation since about 1990, and demographic shrinkage is a major, underlying structural factor. The fertility rate of Japan is less than 1.39, and the median age is 45. Hundreds of thousands of Philipinas have been encouraged to migrate as elder-care workers. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese work in Japan’s western cities (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and the local governments are considering granting them the right to vote as an inducement to stay. Given the strongly ethnocentric history of Japan, that is a shocking change in policy. And yet economic growth in Japan has been anaemic, even though the same country, with the same structural political economy, succeeded in three decades of astounding economic recovery and growth from 1950-1980.

Japan’s persistent economic difficulties may be a cautionary tale of our near future. Demographically, the U.S. is maintaining its population and relatively young median age only through its relatively welcoming immigration policy. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the total fertility rate (TFR) in the U.S. has dropped to 1.89. Educated white Americans, in particular, and not replacing themselves demographically. The TFR of college-educated white women in 2012 is 1.6 (WSJ, 2013). Economically, the decline in consumption has already begun. BP’s 2013 World Energy Profile marks the fifth year in a row that energy consumption in wealthier (OECD) countries has declined. The decline is not large–only a few percent per year–and it is more than compensated for by growth in consumption in China, India, and Brazil. But what that means, in terms of policy, is that two processes are happening at the same time. The first process of demographic/economic growth is still happening in some parts of the world; however a second pattern of long-term demographic/economic shrinkage has apparently begun in North America, Europe, and Japan. Petroleum companies are still profitable because some countries are “still catching up,” but that only buys us some time before the same transitions affect their economies as well. Education among girls and women worldwide is increasing. Again this is good news, especially in the sense of ethics and justice. But it also means that the human race as a whole is moving not only towards the Second Demographic Transition (stability), but towards the Third: towards planet-wide population decline.

Drops in per capita consumption, and voluntary declines in population, may be exactly what the planet needs in terms of “sustainable development.” Sociologically, it may be a good thing if couples who don’t really want children feel no normative pressure to have children. Overall it may be a very good thing if we learn to live elegantly with less material consumption. In fact, maybe we should push for all these changes. But in that case, we need to figure out how this will work economically. “Recession” implies economic harm, even though it technically means only a shrinkage in production. Can we improve the overall wealth and welfare of Americans (and humans more generally) as both our population and economy shrink? This is one of the most urgent economic questions of our generation.

Beyond alarmism

Once we peel away Ehrlich’s anxiety about the First Demographic Transition, we see a very different problem revealed by the Third Demographic Transition. But I emphasize that it is a problem, not a catastrophe. We do need to figure out a fundamentally different macro-economic model, but not because we teeter on the edge of oblivion. Figuring out how to increase welfare for a decreasing population can be considered a marvelous, even joyous project; not one we must undertake out of fear or threat.

As we reject “overpopulation,” we also need to reconsider the very meaning of a current human population of 7 billion people. It means that parents have committed to bearing and raising all of these living humans. It is one of the most prodigious acts of labor (in all senses of this word) ever performed by the human species. It is a tremendous achievement. It could contribute to a human and environmental disaster if we fail to innovate and change; but then, that is what we can and should do. And that is what we mean by planning. We cannot control the future. We cannot even predict the future. But we can look at some hints and trends, and then apply our juicy brains towards imagining how that future can work.