Power in knots

March 6, 2007

Democracy is not the fairest system, but rather a system designed to tie power up into knots. By removing the teeth from power, liberal democracies prevent the formation of dictatorships or other truly centralised power. It’s like a naturalised anti-monopoly. The wheels of power grind slower in democracies, working through the houses of government and the lobbyists and the pressure groups and all those who want a voice and attention, and by doing so, removes the danger of dictatorships forming like clots. The hobbling of power goes to the heart of democracy as originally constituted – checks and balances, branches of power, multiple parties, the parasitic relationship of the press to power – all adding layers and layers of critique. Can democracies mutate illiberally? Of course – but new democracies are more likely to sprout from autocracy than old democracies veer towards dictatorship.

Wikipedia’s dilemma

February 2, 2007

Wikipedia aims to have 250,000 articles in all languages with over a million speakers before too long. That poses an interesting conundrum for the open encyclopaedia, whose utopian dream of participatory, organic knowledge growth harks back to the Enlightenment and modern rationalism. What happens when Wikipedian articles on the same topic clash across language (and hence ethnic) divisions. Think of the Japanese textbook controversy, where China castigated Japan for whitewashing the inconveniently bloody history of the archipelago nation’s involvement in WWII. What will the articles on China’s government be like in Chinese if the site is unblocked? How can the encyclopaedia’s much-vaunted neutral point of view policy be applied to Arabic speakers writing on Palestine versus Israelis writing on Israel? The ethnicity battle is already being fought out on the comparatively neutral terrain of English, where relatively disinterested observers are able to restore some semblance of objectivity (whatever that is). But across language divides – how can neutrality be policed without bilingual readers without axes to grind?

Drought down under

January 21, 2007

AUSTRALIA is not known for its early adoption of green ideas. A settler society dependent on farming and mining, the arid country has long dragged the environmental chain, most recently lagging on the Kyoto Protocol and renewables. But scarcity of water on the island continent is forcing adaption to a bright green philosophy of decentralised water supply and reduced agricultural use. Spurred on by government rebates and a drought supercharged by climate change, Australia’s suburbanites are returning in droves to the once-popular household rainwater tanks, a simple off-the-grid technology supplementing the dwindling mains water supplies. The exodus has been helped by the unusual spectacle of large businesses (admittedly most state-owned) pleading for their customers to buy less of their product – H2O. The return to the suburban rainwater tank is a case of history repeating, with mains water becoming the status quo only in the past forty years. In the state of Victoria alone, 13,000 new tanks have been installed since government rebates began four years ago, slowly diminishing the entrenched dominance of mains water. As of 2004, 16 per cent of Australian households sourced some water from a tank, with ten percent drawing on tanks for all their water. The adaptation to an expected new era of permanent water shortages is mirrored in the agricultural industry, which accounts for almost two-thirds of Australia’s total water use. Agricultural use fell by 23 per cent between 2000-01 and 2004-05, as the record breaking drought gripping the nation intensified. Plantings of water-wasting crops like rice and cotton fell dramatically over the time period, with water use for rice dropping three-quarters and cotton dwindling nearly a third. The record-breaking drought, now in its sixth year in eastern Australia, has been reckoned by some to be the worst in a thousand years. New figures reveal that Australia is suffering more than most from the early impact of climate change, with temperatures rising faster in Australia compared to the world average. Perversely, the most populated eastern and southern areas of the continent now routinely receive less rainfall, while more rain falls on the less-populated west and north, according to the national Bureau of Meteorology. As scarcity becomes the norm, small companies have taken advantage of the market niche for water-saving products, with EcoNova building world-best bacteria/membrane based grey water plants for households and EverWater planning to export their mechanical grey water plants to water-scarce nations like Oman. US scientist Jared Diamond wrote two years ago in his book Collapse that Australia may be “doomed to a declining standard of living in a steadily deteriorating environment”. But maybe, just maybe, the monster drought may well prove to be the tipping point of positive change.