Disposable chopsticks are an environmental disaster. Known as Waribashi in Japan, where they were invented in the mid-eighteenth century; the overwhelming majority are produced in China, which is also their biggest consumer. China manufactures over 57 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year. An American company, Georgia Chopsticks, has gotten in on the business as well, producing billions more pairs each year. Others are manufacturing them as well- there is an unending demand. All of this adds up quickly. Even producing thousands of chopsticks per tree, it equals over 25 million trees felled per year. That’s over 10,800 square miles a year. An understanding of why they’re so used so heavily is essential in trying to find a solution to the problem. Somehow, a not insignificant portion of the conversation has decided that the disposable chopstick is a symptom of Western consumer culture. The truth is actually quite different: The disposable chopstick grew from chopstick-using cultures’ ideas of hygiene and etiquette. To explain why, we have to understand the history of the disposable chopstick.
“Sweeping claims which assert the primacy of one agency or set of relationships over all others will never wash with historians, who are acutely aware that the devil is always in the details.”
-The Great Transition, by Bruce M.S. Campbell (not the actor)
I think Campbell is a little optimistic here- there are definitely plenty of historians who fail this test. (Nationalist historians, most often.) Nonetheless, when dealing with not just history, but with any social science, it is important to weigh any claims against this standard. There are, simply speaking, so few times when we can trace the causes of an event or situation back to a single origin. It’s always far more complex than that.
The Great Transition is an in depth analysis of the later Medieval period centered on the 1300s- that period of massive change that included the Great Famine, the Black Death, the collapse of the Mongolian Empire and its associated land trade routes, the collapse of the European Truce of God that had been reducing warfare in Europe, the end of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (centuries of pleasant, kindly climate) and the beginning of the Wolf Solar minimum and the Little Ice Age, etc, etc. Basically, this time period was one of the most eventful, and important, in human history.
I love recommending books to people, so I figured I might start doing it here in the form of curated lists- a group of recommendations all revolving around a central theme. This week we’re going on a linguistic tangent.
Shakespeare in the Bush, by Laura Bohannon Nonfiction Essay
This short essay shouldn’t take too long to read. It’s one of the classic texts of cultural misunderstanding. The author, anthropologist Laura Bohannon, attempts to tell the story of Hamlet to an audience of Tiv tribesmen in Africa, only to have them interpret the story in an unusual way.
The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance Science Fiction
This is the classic linguistic science fiction novel. It was first published in 1957 in Satellite magazine, followed by an expanded novel version in 1958. The Languages of Pao is based in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis– the idea that the structure of a language affects the speakers’ culture, perception of the world, and even mode of thought. Jack Vance takes it one step farther, however, and postulates social engineering via language. The planet Pao is a heavily populated agrarian backwater. Its ruler, the Panarch, decides to try to reform the population by hiring outside consultants to craft new languages- a warrior language, a scientific (more…)
Last week was a bit Star Trek themed for me- caught the new Star Trek film and read a book on the economics of Star Trek. Seems like pretty good material for a double header review, so without further ado…
Trekonomics- The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia
The last few economics texts I’ve read have been fairly high level- Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and the like- so I may have gone into this one expecting something a bit more challenging than it actually was. Trekonomics read something like a crossbreed of sophmore level economics and science fiction critical theory- not a bad thing at all, just not what I was expecting. Overall, it was a quick and interesting read, but not hugely novel- except for the conclusion. Saadia’s conclusion actively encouraged the development of a Trek-like post scarcity economy, sans the space travel. In fact, he quite pointedly came out and described space travel as a distraction and a monetary sinkhole, as well as a moral surrender to the problems we face on Earth. A wee bit bizarre.
Star Trek Beyond
Holy. Freaking. Crap.
I’ve got to give it another watch to be sure, but this might be one of my absolute favorite Trek movies. I’d seriously put it at #4. (My #1 is The Undiscovered Country, followed by Wrath of Khan and First Contact.) I was in no means expecting to love it this much.
I enjoyed the J.J. Abrams Treks, but I didn’t love them- they just didn’t FEEL like Star Trek. Some indefinable ingredient was missing- plus, Abrams is pretty bleh at understanding how big space is. Star Trek Beyond captures that ingredient again- I felt that glee that little kid me once had during every episode and movie of Star Trek again, and damn did it feel good. It also brought back some of the fundamental cheesiness of the franchise- the last two movies just tried way to hard for seriousness, and that’s no fun.
Not to mention that the movie itself was absolutely gorgeous- all the new Trek films have been, but this takes it to an entirely new level. The fight scenes were astonishingly kinetic, the scenery was epic in scale, and Yorktown- don’t even get me started on Yorktown. So cool.
Historians grow worse at making generalizations the further they educate themselves. The same applies to any expert, of course. Some topics are harder to generalize than others about by their nature- often due to the fact that they’re already generalized topics.
Populist movements are one of those topics. Academic definitions tend to be muddled at best- read Wikipedia’s section on it to get an idea. Definitions of populism frequently try to associate it with particular segments on the political spectrum, which can’t help but muddling it further. For whatever reason, it’s usually: populism is only populism when it occurs on the left. I attribute that to it achieving some sort of positive buzzword status there. I’ve never seen anyone able to successfully explain why right-wing or fascist popular movements aren’t populist movements without extensive mental contortions, however. Even if we were to exclude right-wing or fascist movements from populism, we’d still be trying to fit an astonishing range of movements into one category. Arab Spring, the American Civil Rights Movement, the Boxer Rebellion, etc, etc. So let’s not exclude movements from populist status based off of their location on the political spectrum.
We could try to dismiss the term populist movement in favor of social movement to fix the definition problem, but social movement is a much, much more generalized one, which somewhat defeats the purpose of dismissing the term in the first place. Similar problems apply to most other terms. If we keep down that path, it takes us towards the realm of useless semantics.
We should stop for a second and actually talk about the definition of populism we’re going to use here.