Monday, May 05, 2008

Bringing It All Back Home

Despite, or perhaps because of this currently being my 'development studies diary', I should lay off the theoretical discussion and stats for a bit and bring it back to a bit more of a personal level.

This occurred to me in the light of an entertaining and provoking visiting lecture from Jeph Matthias, himself a former Development Studies student at Victoria. I came in a bit late, so didn't catch whether he was a biologist-turned doctor-turned development worker, or had made some other combination of those career movements. In any case, his current role is working in a remote town on the Nepal-Tibet frontier.

Jeph had some philosophical thoughts on development and a couple of nice metaphors about what it means and where we're going. He felt that human development has reached a stage where we are going to see qualitative change: "as boiling water changes state into steam, so we have to decide whether were going to be part of the remaining water bubbling away in the pot, or part of the new state" (ok, so it didn't sound nearly as zealous the way he said it -- Jeph followed all his comments with "maybe").

His another analogy was with a hive of bees -- there have always been insects that fly around by themselves, but at some stage bees decided to dedicate themselves to restricted roles within the greater whole of the hive (again, less totalitarian-sounding the way he described it). It wasn't clear if the bee metaphor best described the way global society would have to reorganize itself as the reality of resource shortages hit, or how highly interdependent late capitalism is organised now.

However, what most caught my attention was a little excerpt he gave us from his 'development studies diary', which he'd written about climbing in the Kaikouras and shooting goats -- making the point about the feral urges continuing to be what drives us, even as we move to supposedly more civilized states. Maybe my diary ought to be a little bit less dry and boring, I wondered.

Jeph showed a photo of his brother-in-law in a yak herder's tent high in the Himalayas and asked us how the two people were different. Discussion concluded that the yak herder had a great array of skills which equipped him to survive in that environment. Jeph's brother-in-law didn't have those abilities, but had use of lots of things (his MacPac gear; a GPS system) that he couldn't possibly have made himself, taking advantage of the massive interdependence of western civilisation (the hive?).

It reminded me of what I said in my first 'why do I care' post. As I said there, even in the not especially remote rural areas of Latin America, people were far more capable of handling the environment with the few tools they had available than I or most other backpackers. Yet we had privileged lives, with more freedom than they could dream of.

There's something disturbing about that -- about the helplessness of the westerner, as well as his privilege. Ever since labour specialisation really got going during the industrial revolution, people have drifted away from the state of being practical and self-sufficient enough to take care of ourselves. Although we live long and comfortable lives, there's an undercurrent of discomfort and angst about having lost -- or never acquired -- the capacity to exercise those practical skills

Reflecting on Jeph shooting his goat, a student in the class mentioned some studies of comparative happiness which found that across a wide range of cultures, the access to the sex, food, water, and shelter. Is development, indeed all human endeavour, just an extension of our biological drives?

I don't mean to really answer that, although I will mention in passing my scepticism towards the pat explanations offered by evolutionary psychology.

Better to talk about my own experiences. There might be children reading this blog, so I won't discuss the first of those biological drives. But it's true that it's hard to find an experience close to as profound as the quenching an intense thirst. Among my vivid memories is working all day in 36-degree heat on a carnival lot in New York and finally getting a chance to slot my $1 into the Coke machine (or was it Pepsi?) and feel the simultaneous explosions of cold, bubbles and sugar in my parched throat.

That same carnival tour (maybe the hardest I've ever worked) holds memories of other intense experiences related to fulfilling basic needs. A mammoth cheesburger of Alberta beef after setting up all day on the carnival lot in Edmonton. A precious few hours drifting into sleep, on a Greyhound bus following a long straight road through the Canadian night. Sleep in particular takes on the character of a sexual or religious experience when you're very short of it.

Yet there are different things that I remember most keenly; that have made life something to be thankful for. Natural landscapes: the first time crossing Burke's Pass into the tussocky vastness of the McKenzie country; the first awe-inspiring view of the Andes coming into land in Santiago; soft summer evening light over the lush islands of the Whangarei heads; the view from El Morro in Arica towards the distant snowy peaks of Coropuna and Solimana rising out of the blue haze

Cities as well: the first impressions of Paris, with the huge gold domes of Hotel des Invalides rising over the Seine. London's irresistible melancholy, the air heavy with two thousand years of history.

Or some combination of the two: can anyone have dreamed a more beautiful setting than La Antigua, Guatemala, with its ruined baroque churches overflowing with bougainvillea, its green volcanoes turning transluscent in the sunset, and its late wet-season night time flashes of lightning in the hills? A more timeless feeling than looking out from the orange-tree and fish-pond courtyards of La Alhambra in Grenada, Spain, to the Sierra Nevada and the Andalusian plain?

Those make nice pictures, but there are still other things that matter more. Achievements: for me, not the routine expected things like getting a degree or a job as a policy analyst, but occasional successes that somehow belong more in the real world -- a blog post or article appreciated by strangers; a tour to the Colca Canyon sold to a group of sceptical tourists; even something as insignificant as a goal that helps the team win the division 3 lunchtime indoor football match.

And of course, time spent with family and friends, shared experiences, especially if they're combined with some of the other life-enhancing things (food, wine, scenery, success, sport).

Finally, reminding myself of all these things, I hit upon the most and uniquely human experience of all: nostalgia.

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