Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The temporality of life

I attended a symposium over the last two days held here in Kyoto by the Research Institute of Humanity and Nature entitled "Asian Green Belt: Its Past, Present, and the Future". The presenters varied in their disciplines from the keynote speaker Peter Bellwood, an archaeologist, to Yasunari Tetsuzo from the Hydrospheric Atmospheric Research Center at Nagoya University.

Part of the goal of the symposium, it seemed to me, was to define "Asian Green Belt" (AGB) in some way. Definitions offered included climatic, geographical, cultural, and imagined. The symposium was dominated by ecologists and so I felt that there was a stark lack of critical analysis concerning the concept of AGB. There was a sense that AGB could be referred to as an eternal nature to which policies of renewal, conservation, and maintenance should be directed. The problem is that such an AGB concept takes no account of local diversity, both ecological and cultural.

In response to this, I was most impressed by a paper presented by Santasombat Yos, a researcher from the Social Science Institute at Chieng-Mai University in Thailand, entitled, "Transnational enclosure of Asian forest: with special reference to the Greater Mekong Subregion". Dr. Yos made an argument similar to James Scott's "state simplification", suggesting that the natural landscape is enclosed by nation-states to gain control over resources. This process, argued Dr. Yos, is detrimental to local communities. He proposed more reseach and greater support for the creation of what he labelled "transnational civil society", made up of local communities, local governments, regional NGOs, national governments, et cetera to create an open space for negotiation.

I am attracted to this type of approach, but feel that many researchers make a crucial oversight concerning the temporality of decision making processes. Many people have written about the compression of space-time as one of the hallmarks of globalization, and I see the approach discussed above as a response to this. However, this response addresses only spatial aspects of decision-making: opening physical spaces to include more voices in decision making.

In addition to expanding physical spaces to be more inclusive, there is a need to open temporal spaces for decision making. An assumption made at multiple scales within global capitalism is that there is a need to constantly advance ourselves, or, in Bush's words, "keep growin the economy". Questioning this "growin" forces us into a moral framework where we can begin thinking about the goals and responsibilities of "the economy". This is a good thing, I think, however we rarely even allow ourselves the TIME to approach these questions. Instead, we blindly march towards some ill-defined future goal-line. However, what could this goal-line be? At an individual level it's easy to define--we all end up in the ground, for better or for worse. At a global level there really is no definable goal-line. The only finite state in the future is destruction of live--so the question is only to what extent. A goal that is definable is maintenance, continuance, or sustainability. This goal is progressive and so there is no point in rushing forward. We would do better to take time to reflect on quality of life, which many would agree doesn't come through speed.

The AGB concept, I seems to me, has a dualistic nature. It could be used to help formulate policies on a transnational stage that would help to ignore local concerns and rush us all ahead towards bigger and bigger economies; or it could be employed as a community concept to help bring about the transnational civil society described by Dr. Yos, where there is room and TIME for a variety of actors to express themselves to create models oriented towards quality life.

So, key questions for me are:

What temporal scale does decision making take place at?

Does this temporal scale fit with the scale of human life?

Does this temporal scale fit with the scale of natural ecology?

What models can we generate to help slow the temporal scale of decision making?

Is this desirable?

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