The mind of government

We often speak of government as if it has intentions, beliefs, fears, plans, and phobias. This sounds a lot like a mind. But this impression is fundamentally misleading. “Government” is not a conscious entity with a unified apperception of the world and its own intentions. So it is worth teasing out the ways in which government nonetheless arrives at “beliefs”, “intentions”, and “decisions”.

Let’s first address the question of the mythical unity of government. In brief, government is not one unified thing. Rather, it is an extended network of offices, bureaus, departments, analysts, decision-makers, and authority structures, each of which has its own reticulated internal structure.

This has an important consequence. Instead of asking “what is the policy of the United States government towards Africa?”, we are driven to ask subordinate questions: what are the policies towards Africa of the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, the Central Intelligence Agency, or the Agency for International Development? And for each of these departments we are forced to recognize that each is itself a large bureaucracy, with sub-units that have chosen or adapted their own working policy objectives and priorities. There are chief executives at a range of levels — President of the United States, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Director of CIA — and each often has the aspiration of directing his or her organization as a tightly unified and purposive unit. But it is perfectly plain that the behavior of functional units within agencies are only loosely controlled by the will of the executive. This does not mean that executives have no control over the activities and priorities of subordinate units. But it does reflect a simple and unavoidable fact about large organizations. An organization is more like a slime mold than it is like a control algorithm in a factory.

This said, organizational units at all levels arrive at something analogous to beliefs (assessments of fact and probable future outcomes), assessments of priorities and their interactions, plans, and decisions (actions to take in the near and intermediate future). And governments make decisions at the highest level (leave the EU, raise taxes on fuel, prohibit immigration from certain countries, …). How does the analytical and factual part of this process proceed? And how does the decision-making part unfold?

One factor is particularly evident in the current political environment in the United States. Sometimes the analysis and decision-making activities of government are short-circuited and taken by individual executives without an underlying organizational process. A president arrives at his view of the facts of global climate change based on his “gut instincts” rather than an objective and disinterested assessment of the scientific analysis available to him. An Administrator of the EPA acts to eliminate long-standing environmental protections based on his own particular ideological and personal interests. A Secretary of the Department of Energy takes leadership of the department without requesting a briefing on any of its current projects. These are instances of the dictator strategy (in the social-choice sense), where a single actor substitutes his will for the collective aggregation of beliefs and desires associated with both bureaucracy and democracy. In this instance the answer to our question is a simple one: in cases like these government has beliefs and intentions because particular actors have beliefs and intentions and those actors have the power and authority to impose their beliefs and intentions on government.

The more interesting cases involve situations where there is a genuine collective process through which analysis and assessment takes place (of facts and priorities), and through which strategies are considered and ultimately adopted. Agencies usually make decisions through extended and formalized processes. There is generally an organized process of fact gathering and scientific assessment, followed by an assessment of various policy options with public exposure. Final a policy is adopted (the moment of decision).

The decision by the EPA to ban DDT in 1972 is illustrative (link, linklink). This was a decision of government which thereby became the will of government. It was the result of several important sub-processes: citizen and NGO activism about the possible toxic harms created by DDT, non-governmental scientific research assessing the toxicity of DDT, an internal EPA process designed to assess the scientific conclusions about the environmental and human-health effects of DDT, an analysis of the competing priorities involved in this issue (farming, forestry, and malaria control versus public health), and a decision recommended to the Administrator and adopted that concluded that the priority of public health and environmental safety was weightier than the economic interests served by the use of the pesticide.

Other examples of agency decision-making follow a similar pattern. The development of policy concerning science and technology is particularly interesting in this context. Consider, for example, Susan Wright (link) on the politics of regulation of recombinant DNA. This issue is explored more fully in her book Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering, 1972-1982. This is a good case study of “government making up its mind”. Another interesting case study is the development of US policy concerning ozone depletion; link.

These cases of science and technology policy illustrate two dimensions of the processes through which a government agency “makes up its mind” about a complex issue. There is an analytical component in which the scientific facts and the policy goals and priorities are gathered and assessed. And there is a decision-making component in which these analytical findings are crafted into a decision — a policy, a set of regulations, or a funding program, for example. It is routine in science and technology policy studies to observe that there is commonly a substantial degree of intertwining between factual judgments and political preferences and influences brought to bear by powerful outsiders. (Here is an earlier discussion of these processes; link.)

Ideally we would like to imagine a process of government decision-making that proceeds along these lines: careful gathering and assessment of the best available scientific evidence about an issue through expert specialist panels and sections; careful analysis of the consequences of available policy choices measured against a clear understanding of goals and priorities of the government; and selection of a policy or action that is best, all things considered, for forwarding the public interest and minimizing public harms. Unfortunately, as the experience of government policies concerning climate change in both the Bush administration and the Trump administration illustrates, ideology and private interest distort every phase of this idealized process.

(Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction offers an interesting analysis of the process of expert factual assessment and prediction. Particularly interesting is his treatment of intelligence estimates.)

Low income and wellbeing

source: J. G. Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World

A recent post on Rawls’s critique of capitalism closed with an intriguing mention of a contrast Rawls draws between economic growth and human wellbeing. He is particularly critical of the consumerism that is enmeshed in the social psychology of a growth-oriented market system. This point is worth focusing on more closely. 

We seem to work on the basis of a couple of basic assumptions about income, lifestyle, and community in this country that need to be questioned. One group of these clusters around the idea that a high quality of life requires high and rising income. High income is needed for high consumption, and high consumption produces happiness and life satisfaction. Neighborhoods of families with high income are better able to sustain community and civic values. And symmetrically, we assume that it is more or less inevitable that poor communities have low levels of community values and low levels of the experience of life satisfaction.

All these assumptions need to be questioned. As any social service agency can document, there are ample signs of social pathology in the affluent suburbs of American cities. These suburban places aren’t paragons of successful, happy human communities in any of the ways Robert Bellah talks about (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American LifeGood Society). And there is little reason to believe that the consumption-based lifestyles that define an American ideal of affluence really contribute consistently to life satisfaction and successful community.

But here I want to focus on the other end of this set of assumptions: the idea that non-affluent people and communities are necessarily less happy, less satisfied, and less integrated around a set of civic and spiritual values. So here is the central point: people can build lives within the context of low income that are deeply satisfying and rewarding. And communities of low-income people can be highly successful in achieving a substantial degree of civic and spiritual interconnection and mutual support. It doesn’t require “affluence” to have a deeply satisfying human life and a thriving community.

There are many reasons for thinking these observations are likely to be true. One is the example of other societies. Consider village life in Spain or Italy, for example, where many families still live on incomes that are a fraction of American affluence, who incorporate gardens into their regular lifestyle and household economy, and who enjoy admirable levels of personal and social satisfaction. Or think of stable farming communities in India or Africa that have successfully achieved a balance of farm productivity, a degree of social equality, and a strong sense of community. Or consider examples of communities in the United States that have deliberately put together lives and communities that reject “affluence” as a social and personal ideal.

Of course it’s true that extreme poverty is pretty much incompatible with satisfaction and community. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and untreated disease are counterparts of extrme poverty and destroy happiness and community. But “non-affluence” isn’t the same as extreme poverty.

What everyone needs, at every level of income, is decent access to the components of a happy life: healthcare, nutrition, shelter, education, dignity, and security. These are what an earlier generation of development thinkers called basic needs. And it is self-evident how these fit into the possibility of a decent and satisfying life. But access to these goods isn’t equivalent to the American dream of affluence.

So here is a fairly profound question: what steps can be taken to promote the features of personal wellbeing and robust community relations that can make “non-affluence” a sustainable social ideal? And how can we help poor communities to strengthen their ability to nurture these positive values according to their own best instincts?

This line of thought converges closely with the striking arguments made by James Gustave Speth in The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. The graphs at the top represent Speth’s summary of the environmental catastrophe associated with the idea of permanent economic growth. Much of Speth’s critique of consumerism and growth is summarized in this account of a talk he gave at McGill in 2008. Speth argues that a radical rethinking of well-being is necessary if we are to achieve a society that is environmentally sustainable.

Food and water


It seems likely enough that one of the largest global security issues in the next fifty years will be food and water.  There is a brewing food crisis underway already, with prices for staple grains rising world wide, and poor countries are beginning to experience the consequences.  But a crisis in fresh water seems not too far in the future as well.  Both these necessities depend on inherently scarce resources: arable land and large sources of fresh water.  Along with energy, these goods are crucial to every person and every country in the world; and this in turn suggest the possibility of serious conflict over these resources in the future.

So what makes food and water a global security crisis? How does the possibility of dearth at the family level get transformed into the possibility of international conflict? Rising food prices create social unrest at the national level long before they lead to famine or malnutrition. International grain markets have been unstable over the past decade, with periodic upward spikes in prices. And grain riots have occurred as a consequence in a number of developing countries. This piece from DemocracyNow from 2008 documents demonstrations and riots across a range of African countries (link), with an interview with Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.  Here are some updates from the Christian Science Monitor (link) and Energy Bulletin (link), including riots in Algeria in 2011.

The bottom line of several of these reports is fairly simple: the international trade system for grains, including especially rice and wheat, periodically undergoes abrupt and prolonged price rises, and these price increases have dire consequences for urban poor and middle class people in the developing world.  When a large population mobilizes in protest against rising food prices, national governments are at risk. And this is where the security risk comes in: when countries like Algeria or Morocco suffer serious instability, this has the potential of leading to international instability in the region as well.

Here is another, more distant cause of international tension that comes from the food crisis.  Governments are interested in taking steps to provide greater food security for their own populations.  And this sometimes involves taking actions that are harmful for other countries or for other populations.  One symptom of the pressures mounting on the world food system is a widespread land grab of agricultural land around the developing world.  Here is a report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on this issue (link) and a piece from the Guardian that describes the situation a few years ago (link), and here is a FastCompany story about China’s land purchases (link). The FAO report documents a significant transfer of land ownership from developing countries to middle and upper income countries; this implies serious future constraints on the development possibilities available to those countries.  And it suggests a new form of colonialism — not direct governance, but substantial absentee ownership.  This too has the potential for stimulating international conflict.

So what about water?  Here is a recent report by the Council for Foreign Relations on the interconnected consequences of fresh water shortages in different parts of the world (link).  In this piece the effects of China’s water crisis are traced internationally.  Here is an inventory of resources by GlobalPolicy on international conflicts over water (link); it is a long list of potential conflicts.  Here is the introduction the editors offer:

As demand for water hits the limits of finite supply, potential conflicts are brewing between nations that share transboundary freshwater reserves. More than 50 countries on five continents might soon be caught up in water disputes unless they move quickly to establish agreements on how to share reservoirs, rivers, and underground water aquifers. The articles and analysis below examine international water disputes, civil disturbances caused by water shortages, and potential regulatory solutions to diffuse water conflict.

Chinese-financed dam projects in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia indicate how high the stakes are. The great rivers of Southeast Asia now face a major of challenges as a result of plans for hydroelectric dams regulating flow to downriver users. Here is a piece from the Irrawaddy on the controversies surrounding the Myitsone Dam in northern Burma; link.  Similar issues arise on the Mekong River and other great rivers in the region; link.  The problems that have arisen with regard to dams in Southeast Asia include displacement of villages and towns, serious environmental damage, and significant lowering of water levels in many of the great rivers of the region.  Here is a background piece in Global Policy Forum on China’s massive expansion of hydropower; link.

These sources of conflict over the most basic necessities of life suggest the need for serious international planning today to arrive at equitable and sustainable regimes for resolving conflicts over resources in the future.

Poverty, growth, and sustainability

The extent and depth of poverty in the world today is a crushing and immediate problem. The economies of most countries in the world continue to reproduce life circumstances for the extremely poor that make it all but impossible for them to participate in normal, productive lives. The Millenium development goals that were endorsed by the United Nations and other national and international organizations are still far from realization (link). At least a billion people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America live in extreme poverty (defined by the United Nations as per capita income less than a dollar a day), and a larger number are subject to hunger and malnutrition. This is an accumulation of misery and despair that cannot be tolerated. (Here’s an earlier post on food security and hunger.)

So poverty alleviation must be a crucial and high priority. Nations and regions need to give their strongest efforts to enacting economic and social reforms that consistently work in the direction of reducing the scope of poverty and increasing the degree of human fulfillment that is feasible in the world. Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time), Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), and Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It) have all made good contributions on the pressing urgency of this issue and some ideas about strategies that can work.

Poverty alleviation can be understood to mean a variety of things: ensuring that families have higher disposable income, ensuring that families have access to the goods necessary to satisfy their basic needs; or creating social safety nets that help to provide the means of health, nutrition, and education that are fundamental to improving the productivity of the poor. And all of this implies two important consequences: the world economy needs to grow consistently for a very long time, and the purchasing power of the poorest 40% of the world’s population needs to increase more rapidly than the growth rate. Overall inequalities need to decline as economic growth proceeds. Getting out of poverty means, among other things, having access to more of society’s resources for the sake of consumption: better diet, healthcare, education, transportation, housing, clothing, and other goods. And this is critically important, because as Amartya Sen has argued throughout his career, poverty obliterates human potential and opportunity. It destroys the individual’s “capabilities and functionings” for life.

Now consider the environmental side of the coin. Sustainability means designing a social and economic system that is eventually … sustainable. It means using non-renewable resources in a way that permits future generations to have the ability to achieve the things they will need to do; it means using renewable resources in ways that permit replacement; it means managing water and air quality in such a way that we’re not locked into a downward spiral of worsening quality in these essential resources; and, of course, it means managing human activity in ways that permit control of global climate change. People like James Gustave Speth (The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability) have argued that these goals can only be met by damping down the consumption patterns of the world’s affluent billion (post). But how will that work for the world’s poorest billion?

Here is the hard point, however: the goals of poverty alleviation and sustainability appear on their face to be inconsistent. If we want global poverty alleviation, then it is hard to see how we can have a sustainable economy in the next fifty years; and if we insist on sustainability, then it is hard to see how we can achieve enduring and improving poverty alleviation. It appears inescapable that if we succeed in doubling the real income of the poorest 40% of the world’s population, this means even greater increases in the consumption of energy and other resources. And the production of energy is the primary cause of failures of sustainability. If part of alleviating poverty in China or India means making it feasible for three times as many poor families to own a motorbike or automobile — this implies a significant increase in the consumption of fossil fuels and the production of greenhouse gases. And yet improving mobility is an important cause and benefit of alleviating poverty. And this is true for a wide range of categories of products: being less poor means having the ability to consume more of these products.

Here is a hypothetical effort to think through the consequences of alleviating poverty for aggregate consumption of various resources from my The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development.

This isn’t a rigorously developed model; it simply makes some basic assumptions about current and future consumption levels for the world’s population and then aggregates them for the full population. It is generally recognized, for example, that there is something like a “nutrition transition” that occurs as income rises for poor people, as they have the ability to substitute more meat and fish for grains and vegetables in their diet. But this implies a disproportionate increase in the amount of farmland dedicated to livestock. And globally, this implies a reduction in forests and grasslands — processes already underway in Central and South America — which has major consequences for CO2 increases and species extinction. Likewise, this impressionistic projection implies a tripling of the consumption of metals and grain; more than tripling of meat consumption; and 2.4 times the level of energy consumption. So it seems that poverty alleviation all but guarantees that the demand for environment-stressing commodities will increase significantly more rapidly than population increase.

So here is the key question: are there pathways for increasing the quality of life of the world’s poorest 40% that are also compatible with reaching a sustainable global environment? The forthcoming World Bank 2010 World Development Report focuses on climate change, and there should be some important new ideas there about how to combine poverty alleviation and sustainability. These are the hardest problems we face today, and we need some fresh ideas.

Agendas for Chinese sociology

The challenge for Chinese sociology is the challenge of Chinese society. Chinese social sciences are presently in a period of deep uncertainty. Marxist ideas about method and theory are no longer governing, and new paradigms have not yet taken full form. This transition is especially important because of the magnitude and novelty of the social changes that China is experiencing today. Now is an important time for engagement between innovative Chinese and Western sociologists and philosophers in an effort to arrive at models of social research and explanation that work well for contemporary China.

Here is a brief inventory of some of the many social processes and challenges that are underway in China today, and that constitute an agenda of research for a distinctive China-centered sociology of the future.

Most visible among China’s current social changes is the economic transformation associated with market reforms in the past two decades. The reform of agriculture in the 1980s had massive effects that continue to reverberate in Chinese rural society. The reforms in the 1990s of the institutional setting of manufacture and international trade have created large currents and pressures in Chinese society: smashing of the brass rice bowl, stimulus to massive internal migration, creation of new ensembles of powerful players, creating of wealth, immiseration of some workers, …

Seen from a narrowly economic point of view, the question is this: How can China sustain 10% rates of economic growth? What further policy changes and institutional reforms will be necessary in order to both support and accommodate rapid economic growth?

Seen from the broader point of view, the question is: What are the social implications of this massive economic transformation? What changes have occurred within factories? How do workers reason about the choices they are faced with when privatization occurs? What is happening to displaced workers? What implications are emerging for public health, for the care of the elderly, or for access to education? What are the conditions of social well-being across China? How much inequality is resulting from these reforms, and how is it distributed across region and sector? How are these circumstances changing over time?

Something like 70% of China’s population is rural, with a sizeable percentage swinging back and forth between rural residence and low-paid urban work. The transformations that are underway in the countryside are very important. There is a profound readjustment of property rights underway, with a corresponding struggle between farmers and power-holders over ownership and control of land. The inequalities that have commonly existed between city and countryside are evidently more extreme than ever since 1949; incomes are rising rapidly in the urban manufacturing and service economy, and farmers’ incomes are stagnant. Western provinces such as Shaanxi continue to witness rural incomes in the range of $300 per year—the World Bank’s standard of extreme poverty. And farmers’ access to social services is very limited, including access to education; so opportunities for inter-generational improvement are much more limited than those presented to urban people.

Corresponding to some of these points about rural property ownership and inequalities, is a dramatic increase in the volume of rural protest and collective action. Tens of thousands of instances of collective protest and unrest occur every year in the countryside—and the incidence is rising. The state is concerned about conditions in the countryside; but its response is muted and confused. At some points the rhetoric of the state has been pro-farmer in the past few years; but there is also a “law and order” thread that offers the stick rather than social reform. Complicating the issue is the disconnect between the central government’s policies and the actions of local and provincial governments. The interests of the local and provincial governments are often tilted towards “development” and modernization – with corresponding lack of support for farmers’ rights. The central state appears to lack the ability to control the use of coercion by local authorities in putting down peasant collective action and protest.

A common cause of rural unrest is the fact of local corruption and abuse of the powers of local authorities. The study of corruption, and the institutions of state and market that might help to control corrupt practices, is an important subject for Chinese social scientists. Parallel to corruption is the question of the extension of the system of law. To what extent are players able to appeal to their rights and to gain access to processes of law enforcement? Are there emerging non-governmental organizations and other independent organizations that support workers’ and farmers’ rights? How can this institutional framework be extended and made more effective?

Internal migration and the status of ethnic minorities are other important subjects for study by Chinese social scientists. Once again, these are processes that are changing rapidly; it will be important for Chinese demographers, social policy analysts, and ethnographers to put together effective research programmes that will track and explore these processes.

The social behaviors that affect the environment and energy use, including changes in the volume of transportation and motor vehicles, present evident challenges for the future of Chinese society. Social scientists need to provide insight into the drivers of these behaviors, and social scientists can help to design social policies and institutions that might steer Chinese consumption patterns in directions that are more compatible with China’s longterm environmental sustainability.

Many Chinese intellectuals are posing questions about the role of values in Chinese society. Are there traditional Chinese values that might help secure a stable and harmonious future for Chinese society? Are there strategies or policies that might help to stabilize a social consensus about the legitimacy of governmental institutions and the distributive justice of China’s economic development? Social scientists can probe these questions at a variety of levels, asking the empirical question of the current distribution and variation of social values and the institutional question of the forces that influence future developments in social values.

Finally, the social challenges that will be posed by an aging Chinese population, in the context of a dramatically smaller cohort of younger workers as a result of the one-child policy, will be increasingly important in the coming two decades. Health care, income support, housing, and mental health services will all be important challenges for Chinese society, and once again, there is very little precedence for the magnitude of these challenges in other parts of the world.

Plainly, there is an urgent need for a new surge of effective social-science research in China. But equally, it is clear that these many areas of change represent a mix of different kinds of social processes and mechanisms, operating according to a variety of temporal frameworks, with different manifestations in different regions and sectors of Chinese society. So we should not expect that a single sociological framework, a unified sociological theory, or a unique sociological research methodology will suffice. Instead, Chinese sociological research needs to embrace a plurality of methods and theories in order to arrive at results that shed genuine light on China’s social development.

Retreat of the Elephants

Mark Elvin’s title, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, is brilliantly chosen to epitomize his subject: the human causes of longterm environmental change in China over a four-thousand year period of history. How many of us would have guessed that elephants once ranged across almost all of China, as far to the northeast as what is now Beijing? And what was the cause of this great retreat? It was the relentless spread of agriculture and human settlement.

In other words, human activity changed the physical environment of China in such a profound way as to refigure the range and habitat of the elephant. “Chinese farmers and elephants do not mix.” This story provides an expressive metaphor for the larger interpretation of environmental history that Elvin offers: that environmental history is as much a subject of social history as it is a chronology of physical and natural changes. Human beings transform their environments — often profoundly and at great cost.

This is now a familiar story, when we consider the anthropogenic influences on global warming in the past fifty years. What Elvin’s book demonstrates is that human activity is an integral part of the story in the long sweep of history as well. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in Elvin’s treatment of the perennial problem of water management in China. Seawalls, canals, dikes, drainage, irrigation, desalinization, and reservoirs were all a part of China’s centuries-long efforts at water control. And each of these measures had effects that refigured the next period in the water system — the course of a river, the degree of silting of a harbor, the diminishment of a lake as a result of encroachment. (Peter Perdue’sExhausting the Earth: State and Peasant in Hunan tells a similar story about the fortunes of Hunan’s Dongting Lake.) The waterscape of late Imperial China was very much a moving picture as human activity, deliberate policy interventions, technology innovations, and hydrology and climate interacted. There is a particular drama in seeing a centuries-long history of magistrates attempting to control the hydrology of the great rivers and deltas of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, to counteract silting and flooding and the massive problems that these processes entailed. Here the local officials made their best efforts to absorb the history of past interventions and their effects in order to design new systems that would obviate silting and flooding. This required planning and scientific-technical reasoning (137); it required large financial resources; and, most importantly, it required the mobilization of vast amounts of human labor to build dikes and polders. But always, in the end, the water prevailed.

Elvin’s history is fascinating in a number of ways. He is an innovative writer of history, bringing new materials and new topics into Chinese historical research. His interweaving of agriculture, population growth, technology, and environmental change is masterful. He combines economic history, cultural history, and natural history in ways that bring continual new flashes of insight. He makes innovative use of literature and poetry to try to get some inklings into the attitudes and values that Chinese people brought to the environment. And he returns frequently to the dialectic of population growth and resource use — a rising tempo of change that imposes more and more pressure on the natural environment.

(See The High-Level Equilibrium Trap for a discussion of one of Elvin’s earlier and highly influential ideas — the idea that Chinese agriculture had reached a stage of development by the late imperial period in which technique had been refined to the maximum possible within traditional technologies, and population had increased to the point where the agricultural system was only marginally able to feed the population. This is what he refers to as a “high-level equilibrium trap.” He returns to something rather similar to this idea in Retreat of the Elephants by offering a theory of environmental exhaustion (“Concluding Remarks”): a measure of the degree to which population increase and economic growth have placed greater and greater pressure on non-renewable resources.)

Social change in rural China

Contemporary China is a vivid demonstration of the fact that sociology is not a “finished” science. The processes of change that are underway in both rural and urban settings are novel and contingent. Existing sociological theory does not provide a basis for conceptualizing these processes according to a few simple templates — modernization, urbanization, structural transformation, demographic transition. Instead, a sociology for China needs to engage in sustained descriptive inquiry, to untangle the many processes that are occurring simultaneously; and innovative theory formation, in order to find some explanatory order in the many empirical realities that China represents. The social reality of China is complex — many separate processes are simultaneously unfolding and interacting; and it is diverse — very different conditions and processes are occurring in different regions and sectors of Chinese society.

Consider one complex example, the wide and heterogeneous range of processes involved in the transformations of rural society: the explosive growth of a periurban sector that is neither city nor village; the rapid expansion of businesses and factories; the creation of an entrepreneurial social segment; the migration of tens of millions of people from rural areas to cities and from poor areas to more affluent areas; the emergence of new social groups in local society; the push-pull relationships between central government and regional and local government; the shifting policy positions of the central government towards rural conditions; the occurrence of social disturbances — rural and urban — over issues of property, labor, environment, and corruption; the rise of ethnicity as a political factor; various permutations of clientelism as a mechanism of political control; and the social consequences of family planning policies (e.g. skewed sex ratios). These are all social processes involving policy makers, local officials, entrepreneurs, farmers, workers, business owners, activists, and other agents; they are processes that have their own dynamics and tempos; they are processes that interact with each other; and they aggregate to outcomes that are difficult or impossible to calculate on the basis of analysis of the processes themselves.

In other words: we can’t understand the current and future development of rural society in China based on existing theories of social change. Instead, we must analyze the current social realities, recognize their novelties, and perhaps discover some of the common causal processes that recur in other times and places. And we should expect novelty; we should expect that China’s future rural transformations will be significantly different from other great global examples (United States in the 1880s, Russia in the 1930s, France in the 1830s, etc.).

I began by saying that China demonstrates that sociology is not a finished science. But we can say something stronger than that: it demonstrates that the very notion of a comprehensive social science that lays the basis for systematizing and predicting social change is radically ill-conceived. This hope for a comprehensive theory of social change is chimerical; it doesn’t correspond to the nature of the social world. It doesn’t reflect several crucial features of social phenomena: heterogeneity, causal complexity, contingency, path-dependency, and plasticity. Instead of looking for a few general and comprehensive theories of social change, we should be looking for a much larger set of quasi-empirical theories of concrete social mechanisms. And the generalizations that we will be able to reach will be modest ones having to do with the discovery of some similar processes that recur in a variety of circumstances and historical settings.

There are some excellent current examples of research on contemporary China that conform to this approach. Kevin O’Brien attempts to discover a mechanism of social protest in his theory of “rightful resistance”(Rightful Resistance in Rural China); C. K. Lee identifies a set of mechanisms of mobilization in her treatment of “rustbelt” and “sunbelt” industries (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt); and Anita Chan identifies some common mechanisms of the exploitation of immigrant labor in China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Each of these books is a positive example of the kind of sociological research that will shed the most light on China’s present and future: empirically rich, theoretically eclectic, and mindful of contingency and multiple pathways as state, society, environment, and other social processes interact.

Is industrial agriculture sustainable?

The world’s food system depends largely on a farming system with post-green-revolution techniques: new seed varieties, substantial use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, large-scale irrigation, machine-based cultivation, production for large markets, and separation of production from consumption by long distances. This system shows the highest productivity the world has ever seen, whether measured in terms of labor, land, or cost. And the system does a fairly good job of producing enough food for the world’s 6 billion people.

But is this system sustainable?

Several large issues arise. First, the system is energy-intensive, so it poses significant demands on the petroleum economy. The use of petroleum and energy pervades the process: fuel for cultivation and transport, energy and inputs into the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, energy consumed in irrigation. So a part of the sustainability question has to do with the energy challenge the globe faces.

Second, industrial agriculture has massive environmental effects. Fertilizer and animal waste runoffs lead to groundwater and river pollution (extending into the Gulf of Mexico). Degradation and loss of topsoil is another large and longterm environmental effect with serious consequences for future agricultural productivity. And methane produced by large-scale cattle- and swine-rearing represents a measurable component of global warming. So the environmental effects of industrial agriculture are very large–once again raising the question of global sustainability.

Finally, industrial agriculture, and the integrated global commodity markets from which this system is inseparable, have large and destructive consequences for traditional agriculture and the communities built around traditional farming. The effect of NAFTA and the export of US corn to Mexico has been massive in its disruption of maize-based culture and communities in Mexico.

Three questions are central. First, is this system sustainable in the narrow sense, or will it collapse of its own burden of soil, water, and air pollution in the next 50 years? Second, is it a potential part of a larger sustainable global system of production and consumption from an environmental point of view? Or does global sustainability require radical change in agriculture? And finally, are there feasible alternative systems that would be less environmentally harmful, more sustainable, and less disruptive of agrarian communities? Are these alternatives scaleable to the needs of mass societies, large cities, and a global population of 6-8 billion? Can alternative systems achieve the productivity needed to feed the world’s population?

Environmentalists, global justice activists, and food activists have argued that there are alternatives. The Fair Trade movement is trying to get first-world consumers to favor fair-trade-certified products in their consumption–giving greater security and income to third-world farmers. Organic farming advocates argue that a system of smaller farms, organic fertilizers, innovative pest control, and farming techniques more suited to the local environment would have a smaller environmental footprint. “Local food” activists support the idea of shifting consumption towards products that can be grown locally–thus reducing transport and refrigeration and giving more of a market for small farmers.

So there are alternatives in technique and policy that could result in different farm characteristics that are more favorable from the points of view of justice, sustainability, and community. The hard question is whether these alternatives could be scaled to the volume needed to feed a mass population. And this is a question that demands careful scientific analysis.

(An excellent current critique of industrial agriculture is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.)

Is globalization unjust?

Globalization has many aspects. But consider this narrow definition: extension of international economic interdependence through unfettered international trade and investment. This process leads to a shifting of centers of economic activity as investors and entrepreneurs seek out favorable locations for business activity–mining, manufacturing, financial services, transportation and logistics, etc. Businesses will seek out low-cost environments for doing business activities. Among other factors, labor costs, environmental costs, and resource availability will drive patterns of investment. The process results in economic growth — that is, an absolute increase in the wealth and income created by the system as a whole. The resulting patterns will have consequences for incomes, environmental effects, and the flows of wealth among places on the planet.

Neo-liberal trade theory asserts that this international trading system will be welfare-enhancing overall: the gains to winners will exceed the losses to losers. The theory also disaggregates: a poor country will make better use of its resources and will be better off than before globalization. Let’s take these points as true for the sake of argument — though many critics of neo-liberal economic theory would dispute the assumptions that this assessment makes.

So, once again, is this process just, or does it simply perpetuate the debilitating effects of past injustice?

Before we can even begin to answer the question, we have to decide what we mean by “justice” in a global economic setting. Is a just system one in which everyone gets what he or she deserves? Or one in which everyone’s outcome corresponds to his or her contribution to the product? Or one in which everyone’s outcome is sufficient to permit him or her to satisfy basic needs for human development? Might we say that a just system is one that treats all parties fairly? And where does “fair equality of opportunity” come into the formula — would we want to say that an outcome is just whenever it has resulted from a non-coercive, rule-governed process in which conditions of fair equality of opportunity have been assured for all participants? And, of course, what do each of these formulas come down to in practical terms?

One reason why problems of justice are so difficult to think about in the context of global development, is the fact of the extreme inequalities that existed, and continue to exist, internationally — both before and during the processes of globalization. Many of these
inequalities were manifestly unjust — because they derived from coercive and unfair relations between countries of very unequal power (colonialism and conquest, for example). So what would be a just pathway of transition, from an unjust prior distribution of wealth and
power, to a later more just distribution of wealth and power?

We might also say that the situation of global justice is a bit similar to the situation of bargaining among parties with grossly unequal prior assets. Some people would judge that an unforced agreement between two parties is guaranteed to be fair by the fact of consent; the fact of consent implies that each party judges that he/she is better off with the agreement than without it — so each has improved his/her welfare. (This is what underlies the theory of Pareto-optimality.) But if the bargaining situations of the parties are significantly unequal, then it is easy enough to see how the stronger party can “take advantage” of the weaker party (the central result of bargaining theory). The division of the benefits of cooperation will be tilted towards the more well-off party; so is this a fair division of the fruits of cooperation?

So consider three different answers to the question, is globalization unjust?

* No, globalization is not unjust in the ideal circumstance in which every country and region can make free choices about the use of its resources and the agreements it makes with other parties. Each country will strive to make the choices that maximize the creation of
wealth and income it produces within the global system. What would make globalization unjust is if the process depends on coercion, corruption, and fraud.

* Yes, globalization is unjust, because the benefits of global cooperation are enormously biased to favor the interests of the rich and powerful. And even if the rules of international cooperation are unbiased (a claim that is often disputed), the superior bargaining situation of the wealthy nations guarantees a division of the benefits of cooperation that favors the wealthy over the poor.

* It is too early to say either way. The answer depends on what the outcomes are in fifty years. If international trade theory turns out to be true; if every region is able to develop its resources and human talent; if every region experiences significant economic growth and improvement of human development — then we may judge that globalization was a just process. If inequalities and human deprivation are even greater in some parts of the world in fifty years, then the process has proven to be unjust.

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