Saturday, March 11, 2017

The deserving poor, renunciates and Buddhism in the West

This post has been stimulated by a dialogue with a western Buddhist nun, trying to raise funds for better living conditions for Western-born monks and nuns.

When I was introduced to the oral transmission of the Mahayana Buddhist teachings in 1976 (in two intense courses, one for 10 days in silence, the other for 21 days, the last 10 with a single meal at lunch, also in complete silence) I was particularly attracted to the teachings on bodhicitta - the wish to help all. I was also taught that the Mahayana path (the "great" vehicle) was superior to the Hinayana (Theravada), because its aspiration was to help more people. But over time I met many selfish (normal?) followers of the Mahayana and some generous followers of Theravada; so I started calling the two traditions the "Northern" and "Southern" to reduce the pejorative implied by "Maha" (great).

Getting a largely non-Buddhist Western population to financially support a Buddhist monastic population, is a formidable task; especially in the Tibetan tradition, given the tiny number of Tibetans here, even though quite a few people here are interested in the Tibetan teachings.

In the West the concept of "deserving" poor is very deep (not just in capitalist societies); I think it's also deep in the East, but in many parts of South and SE Asia renunciates are seen as deserving; but not here;.unless the monk/nun does social work, teaches, or officiates at ceremonies etc. The Catholic church is old and rich enough to feed and house a few monks/nuns who engage solely in prayer/meditation (and probably would not be seen as deserving by most Aussies).

From late 1974 to early 1977 I lived on a "spiritual" community to which I gave my labour and all my scarce capital in exchange for rent and food, but I had no legal security (and no social security either, that was refused to us). Looking back, I feel exploited because I was falsely promised legal security by the owner of the spiritual community. I did learn a lot, but basically I'm glad I left when I did.

Consequently I studied medicine, not just because medicine provided a skill by which I could help people (though not spiritually - a topic I might return to) but also because I sought financial independence. That experience, where I felt exploited, gives me sympathy for people exploited in Asia (as do Tong Len meditations, mentally exchanging one's position for that of others), and also for people who feel exploited by giving their labour to dharma centres, though I expect most people in that situation know the conditions they will experience, i.e. they knowingly enter into an unwritten contract, which in fact is generally kept (many in Asia, e.g. indentured labourers, also know the conditions, but they are very often very obviously exploitative).

BODHI's funds only go for development in Asia (and a bit for administration). We are not a religious charity, so we are restricted from supporting religious projects, even if we wanted to.

In my mind, the poor in Asia are more "deserving" than the poor here, and also more "deserving" than renunciates, whether in the West or Asia, though I do accept an argument you make in your video that the monastic community, collectively, has helped to preserve the dharma. But many of the monastic community have either damaged the dharma (or mis-transmitted it, including by being terribly sexist). Some are good, but how is the ordinary person to know who is genuinely deserving?

In 1992 Ngari Rinpoche (a younger brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama) told Susan (my late wife) and I that he felt many Tibetan monastics were "parasites" - his word. Of course, Ngari would have his critics, but his words resonated with us. Earlier, in 1990,
His Holiness the Dalai Lama had clapped his hands when Susan and I talked to him about raising money to support the training of Tibetan monks and nuns as health workers. We then went to Namgyal monastery to see if any monk was willing - no one was. (Later BODHI did pay for 3 monks (sic) from a monastery in Mundgod to do a 6 month course at a hospital in Bangalore; however in 1997 I was denied a permit to visit Mundgod and I never met them; then our representative in Mundgod died. I have lost touch with them).

I have no objection to others supporting Western (or Asian) monks and nuns, but I do think at least some are undeserving; taking from the universe more than they give. Nonetheless I am sympathetic with your own aspiration to raise funds, in the West (or perhaps globally) to support Western monks and nuns. There is a vast amount of wasted money in the world, and I hope some of it will be directed towards your project, but I actually think it is more skilful to try to reduce poverty overall. 

Best wishes

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Sloppy science: the global burden of deaths from pesticides

My interest was piqued when I saw the heading: "UN experts denounce myth pesticides are necessary to feed the world", published in March in The Guardian. The report says pesticides have “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole”, "including an estimated 200,000 deaths a year from acute poisoning."

This number puzzled me, so I decided to try to trace this to the root reference. The initial source was a UN document, published by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food (2017), which stated: "pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year (ref 2).

Reference 2 was published - though not in a peer reviewed journal - in 2013 by workers based at Lund University, Sweden. It was called "Migrant agricultural workers and their socio-economic, occupational and health conditions — a literature review." This report includes the sentence: "In general, studies indicate that at least three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur each year and result in over 200,000 deaths throughout the world (59)."

Reference 59 was by Lee, B.W. et al., published in 2003, called: Association between human paraoxonase gene polymorphism and chronic symptoms in pesticide‐exposed workers (J Occupat Envtl Med, 45, 118-122).

It states "At least three million pesticide poisonings occur each year and result in over 200,000 deaths throughout the world (1)."

Reference 1 is by the World Health Organization, published in 1990, called "Public Health Impact of Pesticides Used in Agriculture" (Geneva, Switzerland). This states: “of the more than 220,000 intentional and unintentional deaths from acute poisoning, suicides account for 91%, occupational 6% and other causes, including food contamination for 3% (Jeyaratnam, 1985). The title of Jeyaratnam’s article is mis-spelled, but was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health (Vol 11, 229-34). I haven’t tracked this down yet, but the following points can be made.


1. Scientists should be more thoughtful. I did not track down this error by chance: it immediately looked strange to me.

2. Even if the 1985 reference is based on good research, we do not know if the figure is still true today. The global population has increased by over 50% since 1985 - what about the number of deaths from pesticides?

3. The 1990 report says more than 90% of the deaths were deliberate. Blaming pesticides for suicide deaths is like blaming guns or high bridges from which some people jump.

4. The UN report is embarrassing - I am surprised this error was not detected by peer review. The error is so egregious it is likely to be used by UN opponents,as well as by pesticide promoters, to try to discredit the report.

I am currently searching for a more recent reference - so far without success, though I found one other paper (published 2011) which is also indirectly based on the 1990 WHO report. This paper claims that 100,000 deaths per annum die from pesticide poisoning in China; however no reference is provided and this article lacks a coherent discussion of suicide.

Note: I do believe pesticides are harmful, to vulnerable groups and in large doses to everyone. See, also my blog Agriculture, inequality and poverty in India - problems with the Green Revolution

Saturday, March 4, 2017

South Sudan and demographic entrapment: a catastrophe that could have been eased if not fully avoided

Australia's Radio National recently broadcast an interview between the two journalists, Geraldine Doogue and Siobhán O'Grady about the tragedy in South Sudan. This involves civil war, ethnic rivalry, famine and refugee flight to Uganda (740,000 in seven months - more than have crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe in a year).

The causes of this catastrophe are neither fully social nor fully ecological, but "eco-social". Nor is this catastrophe unpredictable. I mentioned South Sudan in my recent essay in the BMJ, along with Syria and Yemen, as an example of "regional overload". In 1994, in my first article in the Lancet, I wrote: "Those in the developed world may watch with horror  ..  if followed by closure of the demographic trap through war, epidemics, famine, or all three." 

By "demographic trap" I meant a cluster of factors, including rapid population growth, in conjunction with poverty and limited social generosity, and hence a limited capacity to absorb additional people (especially of a different identity, if noticeably poorer, or perceived to be a likely burden), due not only to intolerance, hatred and fear, but a perceived (or genuine?) apprehension of "being full". These additional people are not immigrants, but born in the same land; countries that feel "full" do not admit many migrants. This apprehension is rarely admitted, even unofficially. Note that a minority of people in some rich countries feel they are "full" (including in Australia), but they do not live in demographically entrapped societies; they are not poor enough (even though Australia is becoming noticeably more unequal, with growing "Hoovervilles"). Demographic entrapment is more complex than this, but I have limited space here to expand.

To return to South Sudan

Siobhán O'Grady's harrowing article in Foreign Policy starts by describing the trauma experienced by Michael Mathok, a 48 year old Nuer cattle herder, who, with his two young sons, aged 7 and 9, witness the murder of one of his wives, Nyagany, aged 28. This unprovoked atrocity was by government troops, loyal to the Dinka tribe. Mathok reported: "They told the old woman, ‘We are going to kill all Nuer in this community. We do not want any Nuer in South Sudan” (the Nuer are ethnic group Mathok shares with South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar).

O'Grady mentions that Mathok has 14 children. She does not state how many of these 14 were alive (i.e. before being attacked in the civil war) but the population growth rate of South Sudan is high, with a total fertility rate of about five. The total fertility rate is the number of live children each female in a country would bear, on average, in her life, if she were to live until her mid or late 40s, and if the national fertility rate of the present time were to persist unchanged until then. A total fertility rate above 2.1 implies human population growth, ignoring in or out migration.

A central aspect of demographic entrapment theory refers to the speed of the demographic transition. The demographic transition is the period between two phases of low population growth. In the early, first state, there may be a high fertility rate, but (on average) few children survive to adulthood. (There need not be a high fertility rate; some traditional populations had customs such as delayed marriage, prolonged breast feeding, taboos on marrying widows, and high rates of abstinence, all of which slowed the number of children being conceived.) 

In the final state, i.e. after the demographic transition, most children survive, but the fertility rate is low, or below replacement, such as in predominantly Catholic Ireland or Italy today. In the intervening period population can grow rapidly, as an increasing number of infants and children survive, due to improved health services, and sufficient food and other resources, perhaps with changes in reproductive behaviour, such as a reduction in child spacing, perhaps in turn motivated by the expectation of greater prosperity. If this period of demographic transition is prolonged, and if the population growth rate is very high, then development indicators per person can falter, or even go backwards, generating a lagged risk of war, famine, mass migration or collapse. This might sound theoretical or even alarmist, and good data to test this are hard to find, but there are many recent examples: Yemen, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, NE Nigeria and, now, South Sudan. Other parts of the Sahel are also at risk, as the OASIS Initiative from the University of California Berkeley shows.
O'Grady's article gives little hint of the ecological dimension of this catastrophe in South Sudan, and nor does her interview with Geraldine Doogue. The tragedy is instead presented as a struggle for political economic power, though the underlying scarcity of available resources is in the background.

OxFam and high population growth

O'Grady's visit to South Sudan was sponsored by OxFam, and an OxFam moderator contends, in a blog published in 2014, concerning the (then) looming famine in South Sudan, that "high population growth is caused by poverty, not the other way around. The true cause of poverty is inequality — economic, political, social, as well as in terms of and civil rights, access to education and health care."

The problem with this explanation, which is common in both NGOs and Leftist commentators such as George Monbiot is its pursuit for a single root cause, in this case, grasping at the straw, just as Pope Francis and his predecessors have, that high population growth is not a component of a cause that is not that simple. Talking about high population growth as a contributing causal factor for poverty, war and famine has been suppressed for over 30 years (e.g. it did not feature at either the 1994 Cairo or 1984 Mexico City conferences on population). The problem is better understood as part of system, rather than a single linear chain of attribution. Yes, poverty contributes to high population growth, but at the same time high population growth contributes to poverty.

The OxFam moderator continues: "A factor in high fertility rates is the subservient role of women in a society. Women are often denied education and options and are forced into marriages and child birth from an early age. ... in regions where literacy in women has increased, fertility rates have dropped. High fertility rates are a reflection on the powerlessness of women, high infant/child mortality rates and lack of welfare."

I agree with this, and I think it suggests that the moderator understands that slower population growth would be beneficial. Otherwise, why make the observations in the final sentence? (That is, the moderator seems to support, as I do, later and voluntary marriage; equal rights for women - which will slow population growth .. but why link this with slower fertility unless you also think that is beneficial?)

The moderator also states: "Addressing this fundamental issue (of female subservience) is therefore more effective than simply introducing family planning and contraception."

Here I wonder: could not OxFam promote both? How easily can women escape subservience if they are almost continually pregnant? And, are there not traditional practices and customs which favour child spacing?

Improving social cohesiveness and tolerance

Slowing population growth, using human-rights based means such as greater equality for women, better education and increased discussion of family planning will enhance economic growth. But in some places, such as many Pacific islands, or China, discussion of "human rights" is seen as a variant of Western colonialism, an attempt to impose foreign values that stress the individual over the collective. Might this also be true in South Sudan? Might not attempts to promote greater rights for women in a patriarchal society be fiercely resisted?

It is not just the reduced fertility rate and a more favourable dependency ratio (ie a small percentage of  the population being children or elderly) which contributes to this potential for economic takeoff, but greater education too. Improved tolerance of others is much more difficult to foster, but easier (at least in culturally homogenous populations) if population growth is slow or negative - though not always; for example Japan and Russia remain intolerant of outsiders, despite having negative population growth.

The complicity of Western academics and NGOs 

Let me be as frank and clear as I can be. In 1989 I co-founded two NGOs, which have worked, in Asia, attempting to change human behaviour in ways that will enhance human well-being. We have had some success, but it is very difficult. We have not worked to deliberately reduce patriarchy, nor to promote family planning; though we have worked with partners who value female education and we have deliberately avoided working with partners who are patriarchal.

I can well imagine that criticising patriarchy in South Sudan, promoting family planning, or even promoting education for girls would be difficult, and possibly dangerous. My criticism is not aimed at people living in South Sudan, at NGOs working in South Sudan (including OxFam) or even policy makers in South Sudan (or other developing countries).

My criticism is instead aimed at the disciplines of demography and economics, whose practitioners sit safely in developed countries, and who, in the main, have downplayed or ignored the concept of "human carrying capacity" and "limits to growth". (I, with Club of Rome Fellow, Dr Kerryn Higgs, author of Collision Course, Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, have an 8,000 word chapter under review called "Health, population, limits and the decline of nature" which discusses this in much more detail. I may post an extract.) 


South Sudan, like Yemen, Syria, NE Nigeria and many other places, illustrates the exceedance of human carrying capacity. High population growth is not the only factor, and it is hard to fix, but the head in the sand attitude towards these issues by most academics, most religious leaders, most politicians and most of the world's media does not help. 

It is good for the media to describe these tragedies, to provide some disquiet and awareness to our comfortable, possibly complacent, lives, but it would be even better if the media and academics could explore the deeper causes of these tragedies. That might reduce the chance of additional or even worse catastrophes in future.