Archive for October, 2010

Hoorah!  The World Bank is officially recognizing that environmental impacts are an example of a colossal market failure, and moving aggressively to get the cost of these impacts built into country’s national accounts.  To quote World Bank President Robert Zoellick:

“We know that human well-being depends on ecosystems and biodiversity,” said Mr Zoellick.

“We also know they’re degrading at an alarming rate.

“One of the causes is our failure to properly value ecosystems and all they do for us – and the solution therefore lies in taking full account of our ecosystem services when countries make policies.”

Well, super.  We’ll see how this goes over when a bunch of countries see the accounts they use for planning head into the toilet – my guess is massive pushback from countries that can (China, India, pretty much the entire Global North), which means the only countries that will be forced to deal with this revaluation are those in the Global South too small to resist World Bank pressure.  Enforcing this change in accounting unevenly will be remarkably unfair, if this is how it plays out.  Think I’m a bit alarmist?  Continue reading the article, right down at the end:

The draft agreement ministers are considering in the main negotiations here calls for “the values of biodiversity” to be integrated into countries’ development and poverty reduction strategies.

But delegates are still arguing over whether to call for integration into national accounts.

Only developing countries have to create poverty reduction strategies and development strategies.  So if these values are used in these strategies, but not in national accounts more widely, we are going to be hitting the poorest countries pretty hard while doing nothing ourselves.

However, there is a larger problem here – the valuing of everything via markets.  While this is an interesting effort, neither the science nor the economics are very well worked out, so the value of many ecosystem services (the goods and processes we get from ecosystems) is hard to calculate.  So, will we end up only dealing with this in ecosystems where the economics and science is further along (forests, for example – and temperate forests, at that)?  Or will we risk arbitrary valuations that lead to their own kinds of market failures?  The first option runs into the uneven enforcement problem I raised above – not every country has well-understood forests, so only some countries would have to deal with this revaluation.  The second is not an improvement on the current situation – indeed, it would give us the false impression we know what we are doing, when we do not.

Watch this space . . .

So, today I was challenged by an old friend, and a very well-known senior scholar in my field, about working for USAID.  He did so on two of the largest listservs in my field – admittedly, because I had just posted an offhand follow-up to some AID job postings to the list inviting people to apply.  Ben is great guy, and one of the founders of what might be thought of as hazards research – he’s also got his own political positions (which are evident below).  I like him a lot – he pushes me all the time, which I find very, very productive (and that is his intent).  I think his challenge, and my reply, help articulate why more people ought to be straddling the academic and practice worlds in development.

First, Ben:

Dear Ed,

I am sure all of us involved in Africa specialty group as well as the CAPE discussion list would benefit by hearing more detail about why you feel that the land tenure team at USAID has “an outstanding reputation” and why you believe “USAID is dead serious about its goal of becoming an intellectual leader in development…”.  Furthermore, if you are correct about the agency’s dead seriousness, what are the constraints and obstacles that have to be overcome?

From my point of view, until USAID is removed from its current position within the Department of State and made an independent agency like DFID in the UK or GTZ in Germany, everything done in the development field by anyone, alas, even you dear comrade, falls under the shadow of US geopolitical special interest.  There is also a case one could make that, in particular, all research on issues of resource access, land tenure falling into this category, needs to be free of ALL national and international development assistance agencies because of their usual commitment to what UNDP calls “alignment with host country interests.”  So, for example, to follow up on the World Bank’s recent report on land grabbing, it is doubtful if any development assistance partner (USAID, DFID, GTZ, UNDP, FAO, etc.) would criticize the corrupt practices in many countries leading to land grabbing.

Those seem to me to be macro and meso challenges to your optimism and jolly invitation to join you.  Finally, at the micro scale, it would seem, a fortiori, that those of us who work in the mode of participatory action research, something as you well know from your excellent past work demands a great deal of trust, can ask our friends and informants in various parts of rural Africa to put aside generations of mistrust of the great powers that ravaged their continent with surrogate conflicts during the Cold War and which continue to prop up corrupt regimes with development assistance.

Your scholarly credentials and intelligence are so obvious to those who know you, I am sure you must have good reasons for your sojourn at USAID and for your widely disseminated invitation to others to join you there.  Please share them with us.

All the best,

BEN

Dr. Ben Wisner

Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, University College London, UK

Environmental Studies Program, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA

And my reply:

Hi Ben (and all):

One of the things I love most about Ben is his ability to pin me down – whether arguing about the modeling community or agreeing about the tragedy that was the Spanish anarchists in Catalunya during the Spanish Civil War.  There’s no such thing as an offhand invitation!  So I am happy to elaborate, at least as much as I can in a generally-circulated email – and please note, I am speaking for myself here.  No official agency messages coming from my mouth . . .

First, I am at USAID out of a serious desire to bridge the absurd and growing gulf between the academic and practitioner communities in development – we all know that the practitioner community is not reading the academic lit (and indeed they are not, though the reasons for this are complex, and include the fact that the agencies do not have subscriptions to the journals because they have difficulty justifying the expense [yes, this is absurd]), but the academic community does not spend a heck of a lot of time reading the practitioner stuff either – except mostly to throw (intellectual) stones without actually understanding the institutional context of the various documents they are critiquing.  Let’s be honest, the number of development geographers out there that have actually worked in a development agency (not just consulting, but actually in the organization) is tiny, which means that most of us (including me, at least until about 6 weeks ago) are critiquing something we understand very poorly, at best.  The result: two parallel literatures, and very little productive interplay.  So I am learning about how to translate between these communities to facilitate greater communication and cooperation.  It seems there is tremendous mistrust on both sides of this divide, for good reason and for not so good reasons.  I suppose I am trying to parse through those reasons as well.

That said, you certainly can call the “authenticity” of my experience into question.  I occupy a unique space here at USAID.  I am a fellow, which gives me freedom to move around beyond my obvious job description and to challenge things that I see as problematic.  Further, I am on leave from South Carolina – I did not surrender my position or my tenure.  So, I have a lot of security – I don’t worry about speaking up in a meeting (or responding to an email) in a manner that might have repercussions for my career – the worst that can happen to me is to be sacked before my fellowship is up and sent back to my tenured position.  So I cannot say that I fully understand the pressures that some of my colleagues must feel on a day-to-day basis.  Then again, I know my positionality and, trained as a poststructuralist, I’ve long thought that authenticity was sort of crap, anyway . . .

At another level, I fear that I (and perhaps many on this list share this feeling) was at risk of becoming the new extractive industry.  Speaking for myself, I found that I was going to various places in the world, doing serious fieldwork, writing it up and trying to push the literature forward . . . only to watch that work gain no traction at all in the policy and practice world. The same mistakes just kept happening.  So, all that my research really did was get me promotions and pay raises.  Going to a place in the Global South, gathering a resource (in this case knowledge and information), and then redistributing that resource in the Global North to my financial benefit?  Sounds like extraction/expropriation to me . . .  I found that untenable, and I am actively looking for ways to make my research “do something”.  Yes, this is fraught and intellectually dangerous territory.  But I found the alternative unacceptable.

Second, your critique of USAID’s position vis a vis US foreign policy is to the point – we are absolutely constrained by State’s vision for the world, and this does limit us somewhat.  That said, there is a lot of critical awareness of these limitations at USAID (much, much more than I’d expected), and significant efforts to push back and shift the views that are seen as problematic.  For example, there is excellent work on environment-conflict connections coming out of my bureau that aggressively challenges the absurd “water wars” mentality that seems to drive some corners of our foreign policy, referencing really good academic work on the nuanced, difficult connections between environmental change/resources and conflict.  Hell, they have Homer-Dixon thoroughly beaten.

At the same time, I don’t want to fall into the position of arguing from one end of a continuum (“thoroughly compromised”?), with academic research implicitly at the “free and untainted” other end.  There are a hell of a lot of unacknowledged politics in academic research (though I know from our conversations you are quite aware) – for example, NSF sets priorities all the time which are shaped by Congressional funding and partnerships with various agencies in the executive branch (CNH sound familiar, there CAPE-ers?), and we all run off to apply for these funds as if they were apolitical – a terribly naive position.  Put another way, one could argue that it is much easier to be critically aware of one’s position, role and influences when they are clearly articulated in a memo.

To answer fully, and with illustrations, your concerns for issues like land grabbing and “alignment with host country interests” is impossible in a public forum.  First, I don’t speak for the Agency.  Second, examples would invoke countries, and that is a bad idea when you can be seen (incorrectly, in my case) as speaking for US foreign policy.  Third, there are really good people here in the Agency who are actively working to address the very things you are worried about in a lot of different ways . . . many quite subtle.  It is not fair for me to place them in the spotlight without their consent.  You will have to trust me on this – which is hardly evidence in and of itself, but you do know me well.

The desire to become an intellectual leader in development seems sincere.  Sure, broad public statements may or may not have much meaning.  However, I have been struck by the pride folks have in the mission of this organization – and the rage they feel over the ways in which the Agency was downsized and stripped of many of its best thinkers over its recent history.  This is not merely a front office “feel good” thing – I see this as a feeling that permeates the agency, from the administrator down to the line offices and the field missions.  To that end, they are staffing up – and they seem sincere about bringing highly qualified people in to develop cutting-edge programming.  How this will play out if those highly qualified people start pushing back against existing programs and policy, I have no idea.  But this agency is not a monolith, and a lot of people I interact with are very open to criticism and respond very quickly and positively to it – again, to an extent I have found surprising.

And it is from this that I issued the invitation – either to apply for these jobs, or to consider taking an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, or for you more senior types (am I more senior?  Nah) a Jefferson Science Fellowship, and serve a sabbatical or leave year at AID.  They want good people.  Most of the folks I work with want to be challenged constructively.  And if those of us who have the training, experience and critical faculties don’t apply for these opportunities, we cede the field to a bunch of people with MAs in Political Science who for their research likely ran massive regressions on the relationship between conflict and natural resources without bothering to contextualize either the type of conflict or the natural resource in question (yes, I have actually seen this very project proposal – structured because they could not get a large enough N to regress if they parsed by natural resource.  Mercifully, the researcher in question is not here at AID).

Finally, your point on addressing generations of mistrust is an excellent one, and one that I have no good answer for.  USAID is particularly challenged in this regard because it implements so little of its own programming – basically, most of the agency’s programs are contracted out, and AID staff are generally limited to monitoring the contractors and their products.  This creates a major problem for the agency – I think there is a real gap between what people in the agency know about what is really happening in the world, even at the level of the field missions, and actual events in the world.  This was a central point of my book <<plug alert>> (Delivering Development – forthcoming from Palgrave MacMillan in February, available for preorder at all major booksellers now!) and it seems to be borne out by my experiences thus far.  But given budgetary constraints, likely to be tightened starting roughly a week from today, USAID will never be allowed to staff up to levels necessary to implement its own programs, and therefore get that handle on what really happens in the world.  I will be interacting with country missions quite a bit over the next several months, and I suspect I might pick up some insights along the way . . . or at least I hope so.

I’ve spent way too much time on this response, and anyone still reading at this point probably wants the last 10 minutes of their lives back.  Ben, I am genuinely thankful for you and the challenges you pose – you make me a better thinker and person.  And one with less sleep, dammit.

Best,

Ed

things often go wrong.  Take, for example, the climate change vulnerability index produced by Maplecroft.  At first glance, this looks interesting – a scale of risk that can be mapped to visually represent the levels of challenge presented by climate change to any particular place.

© MapleCroft

However, look more closely and it becomes clear that the product isn’t really useful at all.  Anybody who takes 42 variables and aggregates them into a single category (vulnerability) has created something sort of useless.  OK, so the vulnerability is high.  But vulnerability to what?  Flood, drought, crop failure due to temperature, coastal fisheries collapse?  All of these things are problems related to climate change, but they are not present in all places at all times, and they all have different impacts on people (and Maplecroft should probably note that they have different impacts on investments) that require different interventions.  So the index does not tell you anything diagnostic about this vulnerability.  It is, at best, a first step to thinking about vulnerability and how to address it.

On top of overselling the product and its value, their underlying data is problematic – if you download the map you can see the size of the grid they used for the data – it is huge.  This suggests that they have used global circulation models (GCMs) for their climate projection variables.  The use of global scale data in local cases is highly problematic – downscaling these models to regional or even local levels has proven very difficult because the factors that most influence the global climate are not necessarily the most important factors at regional or local scales.  For example, local deforestation can have a huge impact on local precipitation patterns over time without having a very large impact on global circulation as a whole – so the downscaled model (focused on global circulation) will not capture the importance of this local factor in determining local climate outcomes.  Just looking at Ghana on their free map (you can download a copy from the page above), I can tell you that they have missed a really distressing trend toward the loss of the minor rainy season in the forest (Southern) areas of Ghana . . . which is going to have a massive impact on both cocoa production (national economic impact) and rain-fed agriculture.  If they got this wrong, I am guessing they have missed a hell of a lot of other things.

This is what happens when the business community starts jonesing for climate change, but won’t go to the scientific community to get solid advice on how to get the information they need.  Look at Maplecroft’s core team – only one of the six has really engaged with climate change or global environmental change more broadly in any meaningful way – and he is trained in Business Studies, not climatology, biogeography, ecology, anthropology, political ecology or any other number of fields that produce the people who develop basic knowledge on climate change, environmental change and their related human impacts.  In short, they really don’t know what they are talking about, but they have made a nice looking product that might mislead people into thinking that they do.

What drives my concern here is not some sort of academic/governmental territoriality.  When people approach the issue of climate change and its human impacts without a serious consideration of the science behind these broad issues, there is the potential for very serious problems.  You should see the REDD+-related business proposals circulating out there . . . I’ve seen crazy stuff, like people wanting to plant genetically-modified super-fast-growing eucalypts in the swamps around the Amazon to enhance carbon uptake in otherwise not-so-forested areas, without the slightest consideration for the ecological impact of such a species (which would, according to my biogeography colleagues, surely go invasive immediately).  Without meaning to, people might end up doing a hell of a lot more damage than good if they just run off willy-nilly.

There are a lot of us out here who would love to work with you – we want to help, and we’ve already made a lot of these mistakes.  Let us save you time, and save the folks suffering these vulnerabilities a lot of unnecessary pain.

Blog The NonSequitor has a post on the use and misuse of anecdotes in discussions of climate change.  It is an interesting, well-reasoned piece that I largely agree with.  However, I think the post sort of misses the point of the politics of climate change – to get anything done on this issue requires thinking very carefully about how to communicate findings and ideas with the public.  While I agree, in principle, that arguing against climate change or climate change science by picking at an imperfect anecdote (i.e. Al Gore making it seem like 20 meters of sea level rise is impending) does not really address the underlying science, or the soundness of the underlying argument, the assumption that John Casey is making in this post is that science and truth are driving political decision-making.  They do not.

The simple difference between politics and science: in science, there are problems and solutions (or at least means of coming to a solution).  In politics, there are issues and interests that require debate, consideration and compromise.  Science and data are just fodder for that process – they always have been.  Scientists fundamentally fail to recognize this when they engage the political process, and tend to become frustrated when what seems self-evident to them ends up debated, and when obvious solutions get watered down or buried.  Folks, we are not doing science when we engage in policy – we are doing politics.  And that means accepting that people will, in fact, “weak man” your arguments by finding one imperfect anecdote and using it against the whole argument.  Yes, it’s intellectually dishonest.  It is also reality.

Politics does not deal in truth, it deals in tactics.  And that means we have to be tactically aware of what we are doing when we lay out examples and anecdotes.  It also means that we have to be aggressive in addressing efforts to “weak man” the evidence for climate change, instead of dismissing such efforts as not requiring attention (see the IPCC’s botched handling of the misrepresented melt rate of the Himalayan Glaciers).  It is good to know the fallacious arguments being used against the science – but only if we are willing to address those arguments.

Whee!  Huge price drop on the book at Amazon, which really only brings them into line with Barnes and Noble . . . still, the book gets more affordable all the time.  Of course, this also means my royalties are falling all the time, so be sure to buy two!

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication recently put out a report on Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change.  The findings are pretty interesting, but at times really problematic.  This project has a history of putting out cool products that address the complexity of communication and opinion surrounding climate change, such as their Six Americas project.

This graphic, from that report, shows that dividing the country (or indeed any group of people) into global warming alarmists and global warming sceptics is a gross oversimplification of public feeling and perception.  The poles of alarmed and dismissive are less than 25% of the population.  Disengaged, doubtful and dismissive are only 34% of the population.  Alarmed and concerned are 41%.  Note that neither category is a majority (though alarmed and concerned is a plurality).  Anthropogenic global climate change is NOT dead in public opinion at all.

Well, how did we get to this spectrum of opinions?  The new report suggests that while we spend a lot of time talking politics, the larger issue might be education and outreach.  There are some really interesting findings in here – for example:

Majorities of American adults correctly understand that weather often changes from year to year (83%) and that “climate” means the average weather conditions in a region (74%). Majorities, however, incorrectly believe that the climate often changes from year to year or that “weather” means the average climate conditions in a region, suggesting that many people continue to confuse weather and climate.

Yep.  And I blame the media, who seem to constantly conflate these two on all ends of the political spectrum.  A heavy snowfall does not discredit climate change (or even warming), but a heat wave is not a signal of warming unto itself, either.

A majority of Americans (73%) correctly understands that current conditions are not colder than ever before in Earth’s history, but a majority (55%) incorrectly believes the opposite – that the Earth’s climate is now warmer than it has ever been before (this is false – global temperatures have been warmer than current conditions many times in the past).

Wait, who ever said it was the coldest it has ever been?  I get what they are trying to do, but that is just an odd thing to throw in.  And the fact a majority thinks we are at our warmest point ever speaks to a deeply distressing lack of understanding of our history – things have been warmer in the past, and we know from the geologic records associated with those times what sorts of sea level rise, etc. we can expect.  We are not in terra incognita entirely right now – we have records of sudden changes in the state of the global climate as it warmed beyond where we are today.  The past is prelude . . .

There is a lot of this sort of thing in the report.  All of it is interesting.  But it needs to be read with a careful, critical eye.  I am worried about some of the questions in this study – or at least their phrasing and the interpretation of the results.  For example:

Thirty-nine percent (39%) say that most scientists think global warming is happening, while 38 percent say there is a lot of disagreement among scientists whether or not global warming is happening

At first, this simply seems to be an illustration of the wide divide in the public on the understanding of the nature of the scientific consensus around climate change.  But this question is too broad to really capture what is going on here.  Answers probably varied greatly depending on the respondent’s level of knowledge (highly variable, as the report noted) – for example, a well-informed person inclined to think that the human causes of global climate change are overstated could take the real and significant (but very narrow) debates about the exact workings of various greenhouse gases, or how to best model the climate, and argue that this represents significant disagreements about whether or not anthropogenic global warming is happening (which is a serious mischaracterization), while someone who is more environmentally inclined but has less understanding of the field might simply assume there is no debate in the science at all, which is not true.  To get to 38% thinking that scientists are debating whether climate change is happening or not suggests that something like this happened on this question.  There is more or less no scientific debate, and very minimal public debate, over whether or not the climate is changing – the instrument record is pretty clear.  The question is how fast, and by what exact mechanisms.  Nearly all skeptics agree that some change is taking place – they just tend to doubt that humans are the cause.  If only 7% of the study’s respondents thought that climate change was not happening at all, why would they think that scientists had a greater level of debate?

I really dislike the following questions/data:

Respondents were given the current temperature of the Earth’s surface (approximately 58ºFahrenheit) as a reference point. They were then asked what they thought the average temperature was during the last ice age. The correct answer is between 46º and 51º. The median public response, however, was 32º – the freezing point of water – while many other people responded 0º.

Americans, however, did much better estimating the Earth’s surface temperature 150 years ago (before the Industrial Revolution). The correct answer is approximately 56º to 57º Fahrenheit. The median public response was 54º.

When asked what temperature they thought it would be by the year 2020 if no additional actions are taken to reduce global warming, the median response was 60º, slightly higher than the scientific estimate of 58.4º Fahrenheit.

Realistically, this is a bunch of wild guesses.  We Americans are not so good at simply saying “I don’t know”.  Hell, I would not have nailed these, and I work in this area.  The question requires too much precision to have any reasonable expectation of meaningful data.

Finally, a few moments of oversimplification in the data analysis that bother me – even though I like the idea of the report, and I generally agree with the premise that climate change is anthropogenic:

Majorities of Americans, however, incorrectly believe that the hole in the ozone layer, toxic wastes, aerosol spray cans, volcanic eruptions, the sun, and acid rain contribute to global warming.

Again, the analysis assumes a uniform, low level of understanding of climate change across the sample.  However, a well-informed person would know that the sun is, in fact, technically a contributor to climate change – it is a small forcing on our climate, dwarfed by that of greenhouse gases, to be sure, but still a forcing.  Had I been asked this question, I would have gotten it “wrong” by their analysis . . . but their analysis is predicated on an incorrect assumption about the drivers of climate change.  I could make the same argument for toxic wastes, as depending on what they are and how they are stored, they may well change land cover or decompose and release greenhouse gases, thus impacting climate change.  The analysis here is too simplistic.

I’m a bit surprised that this sort of a report would be full of problematically phrased questions and even more problematic interpretations of the data (i.e. predicated on misunderstandings of the science).  This is amateur hour stuff that any of my grad students could pick up on and address in their work long before they got to publication . . . too bad, as the effort and some of the information is really interesting.  It would have been nice to have a consistently interesting, rigorous report.

For those interested in things environment and development, the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in DC (actually in the Ronald Reagan Building along with USAID and EPA) runs a very cool, interesting blog The New Security Beat.  It’s going in the blogroll to the right – check it out . . .

Er, read the NY Times editorial page today.  Holy Crap.

In Climate Denial, Again

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has to be smiling. With one exception, none of the Republicans running for the Senate — including the 20 or so with a serious chance of winning — accept the scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for global warming.

The candidates are not simply rejecting solutions, like putting a price on carbon, though these, too, are demonized. They are re-running the strategy of denial perfected by Mr. Cheney a decade ago, repudiating years of peer-reviewed findings about global warming and creating an alternative reality in which climate change is a hoax or conspiracy.

Some candidates are emphatic in their denial, like the Nevada Republican Sharron Angle, who flatly rejects “the man-caused climate change mantra of the left.” Others are merely wiggly, like California’s Carly Fiorina, who says, “I’m not sure.” Yet, over all (the exception being Mark Kirk in Illinois), the Republicans are huddled around an amazingly dismissive view of climate change.

A few may genuinely believe global warming is a left-wing plot. Others may be singing the tune of corporate benefactors. And many Republicans have seized on the cap-and-trade climate bill as another way to paint Democrats as out-of-control taxers.

In one way or another, though, all are custodians of a strategy whose guiding principle has been to avoid debate about solutions to climate change by denying its existence — or at least by diminishing its importance. The strategy worked, destroying hopes for Congressional action while further confusing ordinary citizens for whom global warming was already a remote and complex matter. It was also remarkably heavy-handed.

According to Congressional inquiries, White House officials, encouraged by Mr. Cheney’s office, forced the Environmental Protection Agency to remove sections on climate change from separate reports in 2002 and 2003. (Christine Todd Whitman, then the E.P.A. administrator, has since described the process as “brutal.”)

The administration also sought to control or censor Congressional testimony by federal employees and tampered with other reports in order to inject uncertainty into the climate debate and minimize threats to the environment.

Nothing, it seemed, could crack the administration’s denial — not Tony Blair of Britain and other leaders who took climate change seriously; not Mrs. Whitman (who eventually quit after being undercut by Mr. Cheney, who worked for the energy company Halliburton before he became vice president and received annual checks while in office); and certainly not the scientists.

In 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most definitive statement on the human contribution to climate change, Mr. Cheney insisted that there was not enough evidence to just “sort of run out and try to slap together some policy that’s going to try to solve the problem.” To which Mrs. Whitman, by then in private life, said: “I don’t see how he can say that with a straight face anymore.”

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to recall that in 2000, George W. Bush promised to cap carbon dioxide, encouraging some to believe that he would break through the partisan divide on global warming. Until the end of the 1990s, Republicans could be counted on to join bipartisan solutions to environmental problems. Now they’ve disappeared in a fog of disinformation, an entire political party parroting the Cheney line.

I agree with basically everything in this editorial.  And I wish more people knew about the censorship of science in the executive branch agencies under the Bush administration – it was horrible and wrong.  And it really happened.  But mostly I am surprised to see the mainstream media actually go after this issue with a vengeance.  It’s about damn time.  I feel less lonely now.

Remember that little rant I went on about funding the humanities a few posts back?  Well, the NY Times is really following this one up with a whole series of people discussing the issue.  And they are all more thoughtful than I am . . . worth the read.

The BBC professes to be shocked (yes, shocked!) by the find of archaeological evidence suggesting Chinese contact in East Africa in the early 1400s.  In a previous life I was an archaeologist (still sort of am, actually), and I worked in Africa . . . and it has long been well-known that there was Chinese contact, and certainly extensive global trade, that brought Chinese goods to Africa well before European exploration and colonization began.

Given that, one wonders what the Chinese are doing here, and why people profess to be so interested and excited about it.  This strikes me as a pretty routine dig that is fleshing out some details of what we already knew, not a really big deal.  However, archaeology is rife with examples of using the past to justify issues in the present, the best example being the case of Great Zimbabwe and the Rhodesian (Rhodesia is modern Zimbabwe) government – the Rhodesians more or less refused to acknowledge that a native African population could have constructed the buildings at these sites, as this construction severely stressed the idea of black inferiority.  Here, it seems to me that there is an interesting effort to emphasize a shared Chinese-African past just as the Chinese are extending their interests into Africa.

The past is rarely innocent.  Same goes for archaeology.