Gender Equality: Highest Priority!

Today there are many engines for positive change around the world, including powerful and inexpensive technologies, near-ubiquitous vaccines, and improving NGO-private sector collaboration in developing countries. But if I had to choose the one most important driver for good, it would be the empowerment of women.

While it’s dangerous to generalize about men and women, science does point to some important differences. “Research tells us that women invest more of their earnings than men do in their family’s well-being—as much as ten times more. They prioritize things like healthcare, nutritious food, and education. When a mother controls her family’s budget, her children are 20 percent more likely to survive—and much more likely to thrive.”*

Imagine if men and women were equal. Trillions of dollars would go toward health, education, food and childcare. While technology gains, civil society and anti-corruption programs are important, the change in priorities that would flow in the wake of gender equality would transform the world for good.

And many trends bode well. All over the world walls are coming down that have kept women out of male-dominated professions. Girls’ participation in education has grown a great deal in recent decades (see chart below), but atrocities against girls in Pakistan and Nigeria remind us that there are misanthropic (and misogynistic) forces that violently oppose female empowerment.

12_fig_girls_secondary_sml

Chart: Female Secondary Education Participation, 1975 and 1997**

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy reminds us that we must stand for our values, even if our opponents are gun-toting nihilists. Like free speech, gender equality must be a highest priority.

*from “Why Development Begins with Women” by Melinda Gates

**http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_c/mod12.html?panel=1#top

2014: Bad Headlines, Good News

Ebola, ISIS, school shootings. Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Hamas. It’s been a bad year for many.

Nonetheless, life slowly gets better for most of us.

I’ll just make a passing remark about the US economy. Even in times of recession Americans have a quality of life that is better than that of kings 100 years ago, so the improving US economy and record highs for the Dow are just blips in the big picture.

The Ebola outbreak was tragic. Nonetheless, there were positive glimmers, especially Nigeria’s coordinated response. And overblown fears of a pandemic proved ludicrous.

People bemoan the state of Palestine-Israel relations, but few see recent times in the larger historical context. Before Camp David there were major wars in ’48, ’56, ’67 and ’73. Since then there have been missiles and terrorists, incursions and intifadas, but no all-out wars. The conflict seems intractable, but its scope continues to shrink.

Russia, such a nuisance through much of 2014, now seems a paper bear with gas prices and the Rouble tumbling.

The opening of Cuba bodes well. Communism, like mold, thrives in closed spaces. The feeble Castros can only hold on for so long.

ISIS’s luck is running out, especial as air strikes continue to weaken its infrastructure and the Iraq government shows some modicum of competence post-Maliki.

Tragedy will continue in Syria, and Venezuela looks ripe for some kind of change.

Alas, I’m starting to predict. “Mortals predict and the gods laugh.”

Obama has been criticized (often rightly) for his leadership, but his assessment of 2014 is spot on (if a bit awkwardly phrased): “We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis. You get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that’s been seen before. We fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border. And it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed. And…as we reflect on the new year — this should generate . . . some confidence. America knows how to solve problems.” (quoted from The Washington Post)

Despite cops and black men being unjustly shot, America and the world are actually getting safer. And richer, freer, more equal, more democratic, more literate, longer lived, better educated and healthier.

Here’s to an even better 2015.

Is “Natural” Always Better?

Most people think that “natural” is better. “Natural” doesn’t have chemicals. “Artificial” has all kinds of extra poisonous stuff bad for people, undoubtedly titrated by evil Aryan corporate chemists high in the Swiss Alps.

Bunk! (At least much of the time)

The blog Pie Cubed clarifies this fallacy:

“You know what else is natural? Cancer. Bacteria. The polio virus. Tsunamis. Mass extinctions. Malaria. Poisons. Natural disasters.

“How come we give so much faith to nature, when in fact nature does not like us at all? Nature is not nice. Out there in the wilderness only the fittest survive. Are we watching the same documentaries? The ones where the weak gazelle gets eaten by the lion, the ones where animals die of thirst, illness, starvation. The ones where the scavengers are just waiting for you to die so they can eat your rotting carcass.”

“(Natural), that which is untouched by humans. Are the things that are “natural” under this definition really better?

“You might have heard of botulinum toxin, which is a substance produced by some bacteria. Botulinum toxin is, per our definition, 100% natural. Yet it is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It’s ridiculously poisonous. Nanograms of the stuff are deadly.

“There are plenty of things found in nature that are good for you. There are plenty of synthetic substances that are good for you. There are also plenty of natural things that are terrible for you and plenty of artificial stuff which is also pretty bad.

“This means that whether something is natural or not is completely useless information for evaluating its harms or benefits. We should judge all things on a case by case basis, independently of where they come from.”

The author goes on to point out that salicylic acid, the stuff that aspirin comes from, is natural, but human fiddling makes salicylic acid useful (and less harmful) to humans.

The author talks about “Chemophobia,” the fear that if it’s a chemical it’s bad for you: “Everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical. The air that we breathe is a mix of Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon and other gases which are all chemicals. Every single substance in the whole universe is a chemical, by definition.”

And just about everything we eat is unnatural. If you looked at corn, tasted flour or picked veggies from a 17th century garden they would seem very different. Through traditional genetic modification–breeding of plants and development of cultivars–plants have been fussed with as long as humanity has hoed the earth.

So we should follow Pie Cubed’s advice: “We should judge all things on a case by case basis, independently of where they come from.” And don’t assume natural good, artificial bad.

http://piecubed.co.uk/appeal-to-nature-natural/

Urban Slums: Places of Hope and Opportunity?

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, billions of people have moved from bucolic country to teeming metropolis? Why would someone uproot his family from a natural farm setting to a cardboard shack in the squalor of a Rio favela or Calcutta slum?

The numbers reveal much about the compelling lure of the city. Refugee crises involve millions, but this greatest of demographic trends involves billions. Many are driven to cities for refuge. A Rwandan friend fled his country for the South B slum in Nairobi. From there he eventually made his way to the U.S., where he now lives a life of wealth and opportunity unimaginable to the people he grew up with.

But most of these billions move to the slums by choice. When I visited the South B slum in Nairobi last year I was surprised how orderly things were. I expected the smell of raw sewage, but I only encountered strong whiffs of it when I walked along the slick mud slopes of the Nairobi “River” (something we’d deem a stream). In South B you could get pretty much anything you need, including cell phones, the latest electronics, TVs, Internet connections, business services, fresh produce, clothing both traditional and hip, music, hair stylings and beauty treatments.

As I walked the narrow pedestrian alleys that penetrate every corner of South B I heard children singing and reciting lessons in their classrooms. Though super-densely peopled, South B is quite domesticated. Many the dwellings had concrete foundations and sturdy walls and roofs made of corrugated steel. Heavily laden clotheslines snaked through the alleys and, just above that, power lines. No need for phone lines in this age of ubiquitous cell service.

So if you live in a developing country and want access to water, education, health services, and other mod-cons, the city’s the place to be, even if it means living in a slum. To our rich sensibilities, the slums seem squalid and claustrophobic, but to new arrivals, the slums–and the nearby modern city centers–teem with possibility and opportunity: work, education, health care, goods, entertainment, and participation in the wide world.

The Burning Cuyahoga and the Environmental Kuznets Curve

Ah, the aroma of burning river, a whiff of our idyllic past.

Between 1868 and 1969, the Cuyahoga River burned at least 13 times (Wikipedia), the worst of which occurred in 1952, although the 1969 fire (much smaller than 1952) inspired a Time article that catalyzed the environmental movement. The cause of these fires were heavy oil slicks and other flammable materials, including trash, floating on the river’s surface. For those who think that terrible pollution is a 20th and 21st Century problem, it is interesting to note that the first recorded fire on the river was witnessed three years after the end of the American Civil War.

Today the Cuyahoga River is doing much, much better. “River reaches that were once devoid of fish now support 44 species. The…survey in 2008 revealed the two most common species in the river were hogsuckers and spotfin shiners, both moderately sensitive to water quality. Habitat issues within the 5.6 miles (9.0 km) navigation channel still preclude a robust fishery in that reach. Recreation water quality standards (using bacteria as indicators) are generally met during dry weather conditions, but are often exceeded during significant rains due to nonpoint sources and combined sewer overflows.” (Wikipedia)

While not perfect, this improvement reflects general improvements in most environmental indicators of pollution in developed countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and Western Europe. In the early days of industrialization, these countries poured the excrement of their factories in the most convenient river, lake or ocean. But as citizens got richer and wealth spread–basic needs met by a growing economy–rampant pollution became unacceptable. Citizens wouldn’t stand for it.

So rivers burn and people become outraged…and a Republican president creates the Environmental Protection Agency. Today there is much less pollution in the developed world then there was 50 years ago (C02 and other greenhouse gasses being important exceptions). Today pollution problems are much worse in rising countries like China and India. And it should be no surprise that China, especially, is making environmental cleanup a major priority. Forty years ago China was still gripped in its self-destructive Cultural Revolution. Who cares about air pollution when hundreds of thousands of people are dying? Now the notorious Beijing air is a top priority as most Chinese no longer just eke out a living.

This pattern–develop, pollute, enrich, reform–is described by the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). While controversial, it has been studied quite a bit and makes intuitive sense. At the start of development, countries focus on production at any costs. Tire factory in a poor country? Just blast the noxious smoke into the air to float away. But as the tire workers became richer and their children went to school, survival was not longer the number-one priority. The persistent hacking of family members led to complaints to a local bureaucrat, and thus, usually in fits and failures and eventual successes, an environmental movement emerges.

Yes, this is too neat, and Bhopals and Chernobyls loom large in the story of pollution in developing countries. Nonetheless, the clean-up of the Cuyahoga and thousands of rivers like it in developed countries speak to some important truths. People complaining to officials works. And one source of the complaints is relative affluence.

How the EKC works–When per capita Gross Domestic Product reaches somewhere in the neighborhood of $4000, pollution decreases as the pressures from the “rising” locals force better environmental protections, especially for improved air quality (dioxides and particulate matter). However, the EKC is a moderately crude model. Rising wages is not the only, or even primary, driver of environmental change; access to property rights, rule of law, fair elections–civil society–are crucial. Chernobyl happened in a totalitarian state. Nuclear energy has caused very few deaths in rich countries yet strong environmental groups and constituencies keep nuclear energy relatively small. That’s power.

As Yandle et al. point out in an paper about the EKC: When ordinary people have political power, civil rights as well as economic rights, air and water quality improves in richer and poorer countries.

So the affluence brought by development is a powerful driver of eventual environmental improvement, but political power and civil rights are virtually necessary for these improvements, too.

How Not to Be Ignorant

Hans Rosling is probably my favorite optimist, both because he bases his views on huge data sets AND he’s a hoot. Here’s his latest TED Talk. Take his quiz. I bet you’re dumber than a chimp.

http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world

Chicago: A Smarter Head on its Big Shoulders

Big Data is a revolution that businesses and some governments are embracing because of its problem-solving potential. One of Big Data’s most common uses is data collection. The low price of installing remote sensors across a wide area allows an institution to get much more fine-grained information about real conditions.

Chicago is starting a new program where it will install “hundreds of environmental sensors that will measure temperature, humidity, light, sound and cellphone signals”  around the city. If the program works as designed, major economic, safety and environmental advantages should be realized. Take snow removal. Temperature and precipitation information provided by sensors will help snow removal teams to clear only the areas that need treatment. Prioritizing roads that need treatment first will save lives. Money and resources are saved as areas that don’t need treatment won’t get it. And if less chemicals are spread on roads, there’ll be less to run off into critical waterways, like Lake Michigan.

Other smart city programs–crime prevention and traffic management to name two–have been adopted by cities around the world. If Chicago’s experiments are successful, their methods will undoubtedly be adopted by other municipalities.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that “states may…serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Cities–as Bloomberg’s New York did and now Emanuel’s Chicago does demonstrate–are also laboratories for Big Data solutions.

From: http://smartdatacollective.com/bigdatastartups/229281/sensors-big-data-chicago-becoming-smartcity?utm_source=hootsuite&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=hootsuite_tweets