Peace Corps ditty
Thought you might enjoy this, maybe blog it. Received it from someone whose friend is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and just accepted an assignment in Moldavia, at the age of 70:
Limerick of the Week:
It was an innocent sharing, a little humor, not to bore,It's a fitting ballad for all who have spent time in the Third World, who weren't sent there by the military or didn't book a luxury resort trip. Having lived in tents and huts in various parts of Central America and Africa, I think it more documentary than humor.
An entertaining song and dance from members of the Peace Corps.
But fertile minds got stoked,
Some far-flung thoughts provoked:
Couldn't all the advance of civilization have ended up at more?
It reflects the experience of most Peace Corps volunteers I’ve known. Best to laugh....
A poignant line was “...please let me help you." The toughest part of the Peace Corps experience may be the realization that the people we go to help don’t always want our help or advice. I’m told volunteers are generally appreciated and protected anyway.
The Chinese certainly didn’t want our advice about their river [the Nu Jiang]. Of course, that’s the Chinese. They are fully aware they were civilized while Europeans were still living in caves.
All cultures apparently cling to their most recent greatest moments: the United States and its last great military victory in WWII; England when it managed to not be totally destroyed by the Germans until others saved it, or when it burned down the U.S. White House in the War of 1812; France in the time of Napoleon, or when the Normans successfully invaded the British Isles in1066 and brought some order to the local riffraff; Italy...uhmmm... uhmmm...in the time of the Romans; and China during the Song Dynasty in the 11th century, or maybe when it invented gunpowder in the 9th century (if Arabs or Europeans didn't actually invent it first but lacked the promotional network to properly claim it). Either way, it has been at least 1,000 years so the Chinese are certainly due to put another of their tiny blips on the chart of the advance of civilization.
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about the board game
So much of the "advance of civilization" over the eons has been prompted by a lust for conquering new territory or plundering the riches of others (the Vikings in Europe, and the Spanish, English, French, etc. explorations into the Western Hemisphere, traders bringing slaves from Africa, and on and on) rather than motivated by the instinct for expanding fair trade. In the modern era (19th and 20th centuries), we had the same thing from European colonialism in Africa. In the 21st century, we have Chinese colonialism in Africa, and even though they aren't doing it with blatant military might, they are basically accomplishing it by currying favor with the most militarily powerful government and groups already in place.
One of my points was it would seem ultimately less expensive to all (especially in terms of lives lost) if governments of power would just deal fairly with those without power from the beginning, rather than spending so much on overwhelming military force that it basically destroys the profit margin from the commerce that eventually evolves.
My other point was that when the military is in charge of expanding technology (bigger airplanes that can fly greater distances carrying larger quantities of bombs and missiles, for example) they don't have to worry about factors like fuel mileage, so most of the research and development isn't practical for affordable civilian use. So the people, through their governments, figuratively pay the military to invent the wheel, and then pay private enterprise to re-invent it. Which means it would be much cheaper in blood and treasure to just do things more practically and fairly to all in the beginning.
I was hoping to finesse the question, “What do you mean, civilization?”
That question aside, many poor people around the world see attempts to help them as condescending or worse. Not without historical justification. A recent reading of Walter A. McDougall’s Let the Sea Make a Noise was quite an eye-opener about America’s record in the Pacific Basin. It made claims of American Exceptionalism almost comical. Still, I have to honor the hopes and intentions of the Peace Corps people, and even of some of the politicians responsible. They did, and still do, put it all on the line in hope of a better world.
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I came to realize that, despite their poverty, they are in a very different place than, say, Nepal or Peru (two other Third World countries I’ve experienced first hand.) Their public health sustains an average life span of about 70, not terrible for the First World. And once they had Mao off their backs, they certainly didn’t need to have capitalism explained to them!
Still, I wish we’d been more successful in convincing them that the Nu Jiang has better uses than power dams. It’s one of the greatest undammed rivers left, though far from pristine. Hardly a fish left in it. Not because of pollution or dams; I think they’ve simply all been eaten, together with most of the wildlife.
It may be an idealistic viewpoint, but I've always thought a fair barometer of any "civilization" of any era might be what it did to make the world a better place. There is always a trade-off between the pros and cons of any culture while it is in power, but does anyone have any opinion on what civilization has contributed the most long-term positive vs negative not only during its moment in the sun, but long-term as well? The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans come to mind as contenders, as does Europe during the Renaissance, and maybe even America due to its championing of democracy and the development of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after WWII. Any votes on the topic?
As to your point about the Chinese and pollution: When I look at what Americans did to the environment during their westward push and post WWII industrial and commercial growth spurt, and then I multiply that by the number of Chinese there are today versus Americans back then, I fear the outcome. Of course, the Chinese have, I think, made some progress at least getting rid of plastic bags, while the Americans and Canadians are perpetrating the Tar-Sands disaster, so we apparently still need to ponder our glass house before lobbing too many rocks.
This is getting a long way from the Peace Corps! But a fun question, how to measure a civilization. I keep getting diverted by definitions: what is “a better place”? How do we draw the boundaries around a “civilization” and a “culture”? E.g., do we consider 21st century America and 17th century Europe parts of same civilization? Do contributions having little to do with the welfare of citizens count? (Think manned space flight, which might be our culture’s defining contribution.) Demanding clear answers, though, might derail an interesting discussion.
The first question might be the toughest. It has been seriously argued that the invention of civilization, itself, has made the world a worse place. Certainly any wild animal would think so. Letting this pass by, we might ask: in what ways are most residents of a civilization better off than hunter/gatherers? Are there ways that they are worse off? Consider the evidence that the largest human group that can really all know each other and work together is about 100. Does living among millions degrade one’s quality of life in itself? At least farmers eat more reliably than hunters. Surely a Good Thing.
Most major contributions have unintended consequences. My personal vote for the most consequential contribution of the U.S. so far has been the invention of antibiotics. This has increased the average lifespan by at least half. It has meant that for the first time in history, parents can reasonably hope that all their children will outlive them—a profound change. It has also been the principle cause of a population explosion that is trashing the planet and may well bring down civilization. Have antibiotics made the world a better place?
Here’s a quick attempt at contributions with long-term consequences, possibly beneficial:
- Agriculture. Re-invented several times; the area around Turkey and Iran was apparently most important.
- Irrigation. Also multiple origins; indeed, most civilizations apparently grew up around irrigation systems.
- Writing. Multiple origins, but it expanded beyond a priesthood and became important only in Greece, China, and a few other places.
- Scientific methods. Mostly Western Europe, 16-18th centuries. Enabled systematic learning about the non-cultural world, and caused a technology explosion.
- Metals. Multiple origins. A great improvement in tool-making.
- Boats. Sailing, navigation.
- Steam power.
- Railroads. Cars and trucks?
- Antibiotics. See above.
- The Internet.
- Just to raise hell: Guns. Sam Harris has actually argued that they have advanced civilization by allowing the weak to defend themselves against the strong. Not sure I agree, but...
|Sumerian Cuneiform |
(26th Century B.C.)