Sunday, February 24, 2008

Is China the new Latvia?

“…The closing in the summer of 1988 of most resort beaches in Jurmala [due to acute water pollution caused by runoff from a paper factory in Sloka], the incredible bureaucratic bungling of the construction of even minimal purification devices for Riga, and the general lack of progress in solving acute air and water contamination problems throughout the republic served as powerful testimonies that the Soviet system did not work.”

Juris Dreifelds, Latvia in Transition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

I came to Riga under the impression that the folklore revival movement was the first manifestation of Latvia’s “Third National Awakening” in the 1980s, but I have since learned that the first group to directly challenge the Soviet regime was in fact an environmental activism group, the VAK. As it turns out, by the 1980s the effects of fifty years of unchecked large-scale industrialization, coupled with an institutionalized apathy towards the human costs of so-called “progress,” had created a nearly catastrophic environmental situation around the Gulf of Riga.

The Soviet authorities provided their opponents with ample evidence of historical incompetence. But a proposed dam on the Daugava river, slated for construction in 1986, pushed the complacency of a repressed population to the breaking point. The dam, meant to produce electricity to be exported to other Soviet republics, would have utterly transformed Latvia’s geographical landscape and quite possibly caused the erosion and depletion of a huge amount of productive farmland. Further, by decreasing the flow of the river it would have exacerbated water pollution problems already posing grave health risks to populations along the river, including in densely populated Riga neighborhoods. It was a classic Soviet industrial project, replete with an exaggerated scale, a total disregard for rational planning, and a widespread ignorance among administrators to the problems involved.

It also struck a chord with a nascent upsurge in nationalistic sentiment. The subject of dozens of well-known folksongs (and perhaps thousands of lesser known Dainas) and one of the central icons of Latvian mythology, the “Mighty Daugava” was as powerful a symbol of Latvian history and identity as any. The proposed dam would forever transform this ancient national symbol, potentially decreasing its majestic expanse in Riga to a trickle.

The dam project became a rallying cry for the VAK, who staged one of the first public protests against the Soviet regime since the occupation began in 1940, and initiated a very public letter-writing campaign which, with the cooperation of a newly liberalized local media (thanks to Gorbachev’s Glasnost), publicized the potentially catastrophic effects of the dam, and its potential to dramatically transform the Latvian landscape. Soon, against all odds, a widespread popular opposition developed, and within a few months, after being forced to come to terms with the sheer fatuousness of their own project and the extent of the popular opposition to it, the authorities capitulated.

The Latvian environmental movement begs further analysis, and unfortunately it is way outside the bounds of what I came here to study. But it is also much more directly relevant to contemporary global issues than any musical topic, and so I can’t resist riffing on it a bit.

One analogy that comes to mind would have us consider Latvia’s environmentalist political vanguard in the context of that other pseudo-communist state. The one that is supposed to be different…

China, to its great fortune, has followed its own path to a reformed totalitarianism, abstaining from many of the most ludicrous and mediocre extremes of its former Soviet neighbor. But it undoubtedly shares the Soviets’ proactive disregard for the environmental and human effects of large-scale industrialization. Indeed, China is no stranger to grandiose dam projects, nor are the Chinese strangers to the health consequences of cheap growth.

And it’s not as though China lacks an environmental opposition. Some of the most outspoken critics of Chinese government projects in the past few years of moderate liberalization have claimed environmental and health impacts as a primary grievance. But little seems to be changing on a large scale.

Perhaps not for long, though. Sociologists and political theorists (Castells comes to mind) have demonstrated environmental concerns, if they are real and palpable enough, to be one of the most effective means of framing broader social issues and organizing large-scale political resistance. Latvia, it turns out, provides ample evidence for this. It was not the lack of civil liberties or a repressed nationalism that incited those first brave protesters to take action. It was, in a sense, not a threat to any of the abstractions that the Soviet system disallowed. Rather, it was a threat to everything physical about the nation – its land, its people. The broad and uncontrollable threat to concrete places and people made the threat to the national abstraction felt in a real enough way to incite political action, even at a grave risk.

Granted, I suppose none of this could or would have happened under Stalinism. But China is not Stalinist. While the internet is still firewallled and freedom of political opposition is still held tightly in check, the opening up of the economy and the ensuing social change have wrought their own kind of Glasnost. The big question, as far as I can tell from my naive vantage point, is whether political reform will continue on a painfully gradual track, whether capitalism will be built without any substantive political form, or whether somehow all this change without change will reach a breaking point.

This summer, athletes, reporters, and tourists from around the world will arrive in Beijing to glistening new multi-billion-dollar facilities, smiling faces from a well-trained, multilingual service sector, tours of spectacular development projects, and a thick brown haze permeating everything. Some athletes will struggle to breathe on international television. The Chinese government will have to own up to the equivalent of all those closed beaches in Jūrmala in the mid-80s, but on a much larger scale. They will have to answer for egregious failures to plan for the most basic well-being of cities and their populations.

Environmental disasters, whether fast and dramatic (Chernobyl) or painfully prolonged (the fifty year destruction of the Gulf of Riga), have set strong precedents for the political destabilization of repressive regimes. I cannot help but sense (despite the many obvious differences) that when heard in the context of the environmental roots of Latvia’s "third awakening," the ticking of the Chinese time bomb seems a bit louder.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

If it can be moved, it is everywhere...

One thing I have noticed again and again living and traveling abroad this year is the obsolescence of the following clichéd proto-exchange:

“Oh, you’re going to Belgium!”

“Yeah, for a few days. Mostly business but I’m hoping to do some shopping, too.”

“Well bring me back some chocolate, and make sure you eat a waffle and drink some Duvel.”

The fact is that very little exists anywhere in Europe, and almost anywhere else (at least counting the places I’ve visited recently) that can’t be gotten almost everywhere else. Want Belgian chocolate? Just go to the chocolatier at the nearest shopping mall. It turns out if you ask a Belgian what their favorite chocolate is they are likely to say “Godiva.” Want a Belgian waffle? Well, of course you don’t have to be in Brussels for that. You can get a machine at Target, find a recipe online and make your own. And as for beer, there are 99 trappist varieties on tap at one of my favorite bars in Greenwich Village, and even Riga now has its own Belgian bar (and no, I’m not talking about the ubiquitous Stella Pub).

I suppose this is not entirely new. Traditional foods and of course beers have been imported for a long time. But part of me wonders whether the idea of an ineffable particularity of place, at least in terms of the products that can be consumed (it will be hard to build a Louvre in every city, but damned if Dubai isn’t trying), has reached its breaking point. Simply put: what can you buy or eat anywhere in the world that you can’t also buy or eat somewhere in New York or London?

The easiest way to discover this is to travel somewhere and try to find good gifts to bring home. Even handmade crafts can be bought at internationally focused boutiques in the US and Europe. What’s the point of bringing back chocolate or candy when every variety can be bought at home? And no, nobody quite does cassoulet like a brasserie in Toulouse, but my favorite French place in Baltimore comes close.

If the very idea of regionality has not yet curdled, the concept of the “regional speciality” as something to be experienced only in a particular place certainly has. The spaces of consumption in Western countries are coming closer and closer to resemble the fantasyland of Epcot Center, where every commodifiable world culture is packaged into its own shopping and eating pavilion, allowing the visitor to stroll from a Tokyo fish market to a Parisian bistro in a matter of minutes. That Eiffel Tower at the chintzy Las Vegas casino-hotel might look and feel fake, but Joël Robuchon’s food most likely does not, nor does the Pouilly-Fuisse sitting in a temperature-controlled cellar beneath the Nevada desert. If it can be moved, it’s everywhere.

One wonders when the marketers will team up and create a backlash, exporting certain items but restricting others in order to extract a monopoly rent (Marxist jargon for the price premium that comes from “authenticity” and “singularity”) from their exclusive sale in the “country of origin.” At least maybe then there will be SOMETHING worth bringing home from Belgium.