Harry Potter’s school life and mine

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called ‘day-scholars’ which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate ‘commuters.’
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Harry Potter’s school life

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from writing new posts. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, starting with those about the Harry Potter books. It was announced recently that the title of the final book in the series is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Original posts will begin again on Wednesday, January 3, 2007. Until then, season’s greetings and best wishes for 2007 to everyone.)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that ‘Frank Richards’ was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children’s books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.
The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys’ schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls’ boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don’t, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT: Holiday laughs

Comedian Eddie Izzard gives some background on the Christmas and Easter holidays.

A new way, same as the old way?

There might still be options that are good for the Iraqi people but to achieve them we would have to forego the idea that the US can continue to occupy and control that country. One such option is to begin withdrawing all US forces immediately in as orderly a manner as possible while spending a huge amount of money to help rebuild the destroyed infrastructure of that country.

The reasoning behind this argument is that although there are no guarantees that it will succeed, people who have something of their own that they would regret losing are more likely to want to preserve it. Nothing more surely drives people to destruction and violence than the feeling that there is no hope for the future and that things are just going to get worse. This is what results in people being apathetic and fearful about, or giving tacit support to, the armed groups roaming the country wreaking havoc.
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What went wrong in Iraq?

So what went wrong with the US plans for establishing a client state in Iraq? When historians look back on Iraq, they may well point to two key decisions: the first was to not go through the tried and true method of instigating a coup by military officers friendly to the US, and then after making the decision to mount an invasion, making the fateful decision in the immediate aftermath to disband the Iraqi army and the Baathist administrative structure that was running the country.

With the army and the Baathist structures still in place, it might have been possible to maintain order and stability in those crucial first few weeks after the invasion, to provide the Iraqi people with the day-to-day security they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein but without the political repression. Then once an orderly transition was achieved, it may have been possible to hand over power to a client Iraqi government that would allow the US considerable influence, but without the Iraqi people feeling that they were being directly dominated by a foreign power.

But once the Iraqi military and administrative structure was summarily dismantled, like Humpty Dumpty it could not be put together again. With the levels of anarchy and civil war rising as a result of this power vacuum, this leaves the US in the current mess where it can neither stay nor leave without appearing to lose.

So who was responsible for that disastrous decision to disband the army and the Baathist structure? The actual order was given by Coalition Provisional Authority leader L. Paul Bremer but it seems like this was too big a decision to have been made on the fly by someone at his level. One has to suspect that it was signed off at the highest levels of government, at least by Rumsfeld and Bush, and going all the way up to Cheney.

But it has long been established that no one in this administration admits to any mistakes. We have never been told what they might have done differently knowing what they know now. With an almost religious certainty they insist that they made the right calls all the way down the line.

But this is belied by the fact that the rosy predictions of success in Iraq have proven to be tragically wrong. Consider these predictions, all made in 2003 prior to the war’s commencement:

* Feb. 7, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to U.S. troops in Aviano, Italy: “It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”

* March 4, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a breakfast with reporters: “What you’d like to do is have it be a short, short conflict. . . . Iraq is much weaker than they were back in the ’90s,” when its forces were routed from Kuwait.

* March 11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars: “The Iraqi people understand what this crisis is about. Like the people of France in the 1940s, they view us as their hoped-for liberator.”

* March 16, Vice President Cheney, on NBC’s Meet the Press: “I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . (in) weeks rather than months.”

Now that things have started to go terribly wrong, those who enthusiastically supported the war and still think it was a great idea initially placed the blame on the media or the feckless allies of ‘Old Europe” like France and Germany for not bailing the US out its mess (the latter being a curious charge since those countries predicted that invading Iraq would be a mess) but those attempts did not gain any traction.

Now they have split into two camps as far as assigning blame goes. There are those who say that the administration has bungled the conduct of the post-invasion occupation and now blame Rumsfeld and even Bush. (See here and here.) But others cannot bring themselves to turn on their idols, so their fingers are being pointed at either the Iraqi or American people.

The Iraqis are being blamed for being ungrateful wretches who are actually going to the extent of attacking the very troops who overthrew Saddam Hussein. Some of the people who blame the Iraqis are even calling on the US to teach especially the ungrateful Sunnis a lesson by throwing all its support to those Shia forces that are engaged in killing Sunnis. Of course, this kind of shallow thinking overlooks the fact that many of the Shia (such as the followers of Muqtada al Sadr) are also hostile to the US presence and have carried out attacks on the US. Also the Shia tend to be friendly towards Iran so backing the Shia forces actually strengthens Iran in the region, which is hardly consistent with the grand goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein as the first step in a sweep through the Middle East that had Iran as the next target.

Those advocates who suggest that since the Iraqis are so ungrateful the US should simply encourage them to kill each other also ignore the enormous debt that the US owes the Iraqi people. The US helped Saddam Hussein come to power and actively supported him during the time of his internal repressions and in his tragic war against Iran. The US instigated and controlled the sanctions against Iraq from 1991 that reduced Iraq from a prosperous and advanced society to an impoverished one by the time of the invasion in 2003, resulting in the deaths of an enormous number of Iraqis due to the lack of food and medicine and other basic services. And the US has now, by its invasion in 2003, created conditions of anarchy and lawlessness and an additional huge number of deaths, as was seen by the Lancet study.

Those who are snarling at the Iraqis and calling for them to be punished for their ingratitude remind me of the psychology of people who take out their rage on their helpless pets or on infants who don’t stop crying. There is something about seeing oneself as being very powerful and yet not being able to get others to do what you want them to do that drive some people into an impotent rage and lash out destructively.

The other tack that is being taken is to blame the American people. This has happened before, during Vietnam. When wars don’t go well, it is tempting for those in power to say that it is because the people did not support it enough. The war was a great idea, the political and military leadership was perfect, but the people somehow let them down.

Stephen Colbert quotes and then hilariously satirizes those who takes this route, saying: “American people, you are losing this war. . .American people, you should be ashamed! The President went off and bit off a big piece of the Middle East, and like an eagle, brought it back to the nest, and he’s regurgitating it into your mouths. Why won’t you swallow? When history looks back at the actions of this president and the decisions he made regarding this war, you will go down as the most incompetent American public of all time.”

Blaming the American public for defeat in Iraq by citing their lack of support does not really make sense since the loss in public support for wars (In Iraq as in Vietnam) usually occurs after the military campaign has gone sour. But what this argument seems to be hinting at is that even though the war is currently going really badly, so badly that the American public is fed up with it, there is something new that could be done that would dramatically change the tide of events, but cannot be put into practice because the public will not support this new push. The problem is that this brilliant new idea, often dramatically described as “one last shot” or “turning point” is never quite specified or is so outlandish (“Triple the number of troops in Iraq” or “Drop a nuclear bomb on Iraq/Iran so they know we mean business” or “Round up all the militants and throw them in prison or kill them”) that it falls outside the realm of reality. Pushing for ideas that are not likely to be accepted enables its advocates to position themselves to avoid blame since they can then say that if only their idea had been followed, the war could have been won. Keeping alive the vague idea that other options exist enable the warmongers to delude themselves that theirs were the right decisions, but were foiled by poor execution or lack of will.

The brutal reality is that there are no good options left in Iraq that would constitute a ‘victory’ in the sense that the Bush administration envisions. And this brings us to the current options that are being floated to ‘turn things around’ in Iraq.

Next: The battle for rhetorical supremacy

POST SCRIPT: Iraq petition

Here is an online petition that you can sign that calls for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

The grand US plan for the Middle East

One of the things that always puzzled me about the Iraq war was the decision that was taken immediately after the fall of Baghdad to disband the Iraqi army and send them all home. This was a radical break with past US policies because the standing armies of other countries have always been the key element of past US attempts at changing the governments of other countries.

It is no secret that the US military industry provides a vast amount of the hardware for foreign armies. A large fraction of the warplanes, tanks, ships, armaments, and the other paraphernalia that foreign armies love to accumulate are sold to them by the US. On one level, this can be seen as a huge taxpayer subsidy to the defense industry. Much of the US taxpayer provided ‘aid’ to other countries (and this also applies, on a smaller scale, to other major weapons suppliers such as Britain and France) comes in the form of funds that are designated for weapons purchases that have to be bought from the aid ‘donor’ countries. So essentially much of US taxpayer ‘aid’ money ends up with US defense contractors, by being used by the foreign military to purchase US-made weapons.

But there is more to this transaction that just money and weapons transfers. When a foreign military purchases US weapons, it allows the US to build links between the foreign armies and the US military. Their officers need to be trained to use the weaponry and so form links with US trainers, to the extent of coming for regular visits to the US (such as to the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA) and having US military and defense contractors visit those countries. The net result of such exchanges is the building of close relationships between the US and the foreign military, and this allows the CIA to relatively easily penetrate their ranks and either recruit agents or identify people they think would be sympathetic to US interests.

Having such links is valuable when the government of that country does things that the US strongly disapproves of because then the US can use those friendly officers to engineer a coup against the government and take over the reins of power. Since the military culture is to follow the command structure, the presence of a senior military person taking over the government enables the government to marshal the armed forces in support and crush any opposition to the coup by using brute force. The backing of the armed forces enables them to immediately take over the newspapers and radio and TV stations, arrest or kill opposition figures, and impose martial law and curfews until they have consolidated power over every aspect of that society.

This is what happened in Iran in 1953 when President Mossadegh was overthrown and Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) was brought in to rule, in Vietnam in 1963 when Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown by the military, in Indonesia in 1965 when President Sukarno was overthrown by General Suharto, and in Chile in 1973 when President Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet, just to name a few of the more recent cases. Many of the military officers who supported Pinochet were graduates of the School of the Americas.

This was such a smoothly working system that it is not clear why it was not repeated in Iraq when Saddam Hussein went against US interests. After all, Hussein himself had achieved considerable power (though not the leadership) as a result of a coup in 1968, and finally took over in 1979 after forcing the 1968 coup leader (and later President) Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr to resign. There is evidence that Saddam Hussein was himself supported by the CIA from the early 1960s until the first Gulf War in 1991.

So why did the US not go back to its old playbook and find a cadre of junior and senior Iraqi officers who were friendly to the US to stage a coup against Hussein? One possibility is that they tried to do this and failed. It may be that Hussein, himself a protege of the CIA, knew only too well how it operated and was able to ferret out those officers whom he perceived as potential threats and eliminated them.

Another possibility is that the US was after bigger fish this time and that it was not really that concerned with Iraq itself except as a gateway to the grander prizes of Iran and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Installing a puppet leader in Iraq via a military coup would merely give it control over that country’s oil supplies but would still leave Iran under a government the US did not control, Saudi Arabia in the hands of a friendly but unstable oligarchy, and Egypt with a future that was uncertain once the current strong man Hosni Mubarak dies or is overthrown or leaves office.

The ultimate goal may have been to achieve control over all these countries and though them the entire Middle East. At least this was the vision presented to the Defense Policy Board, “a committee of foreign policy wonks and former government officials that advises the Pentagon on defense issues,” that was headed by leading neoconservative Richard Perle in 2002 when it was briefed on this grand world view by Laurent Murawiec, a Rand corporation analyst who used to work for Lyndon LaRouche.

So perhaps it was this vision of Middle Eastern dominos (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt) falling one by one to US power and influence, giving the US total control of the world’s major oil reserves, and at the same time neutralizing all the potential threats to Israel, that led the US to abandon its old policy of coups to change disliked regimes and go for the big invasion of Iraq as a dramatic show of US power. This would also explain why the attempts to form a broad UN military coalition for the invasion of Iraq (like that done for the first Gulf war in 1991) were so half-hearted. This long-term strategy was meant to establish exclusive US control of the Middle East in order to control the destiny of rival economic powers, and thus having other major powers come along for the invasion of Iraq would not be desirable.

It is probable that this heady vision of remaking the political map of the world led the Bush administration to indulge in wishful thinking, to actually believe that they would achieve a quick victory in Iraq and be greeted as liberators, and that a grateful Iraqi public would welcome them and quickly set up a new government friendly to the US that would allow the US to maintain a huge military presence. With the crippling sanctions dismantled, the US would then be able to use Iraqi oil revenues to create a prosperous country, and that combination of US military power and rapid improvement in the lives of the Iraq people in a stable country with relatively free political structures would be the trigger for the people in neighboring countries to realize that they could have something similar. They would then also rise up against their own governments, confident that the massive US presence in nearby Iraq, along with the other major regional power Israel, would support them and deter their governments from retaliating with a brutal crackdown.

All this is admittedly speculation on my part, though not without evidence. But one can see how it could be a heady brew to a visionary with particular a type of ideology, such as the neoconservatives. Such ‘big picture’ people tend to see things in terms of the grand sweep of history. They are almost always so convinced and entranced by the magnificence of their own vision that they think that others will immediately embrace it too, and they do not want to listen to naysayers who see potential problems. They feel that they are on the crest of a wave of history that will sweep away all opposition, both domestic and foreign.

But if this surmise of mine is true, then that plan ganged seriously agley, as the poet Robert Burns might say.

Next: What went wrong with the grand plan?

The problem of Iraq

Now that the Iraq Study Group report [.pdf] has been delivered with great fanfare, there is a curious sense of anticlimax as various people ponder what is to be the next step in Iraq. As I suspected it would, the White House distanced itself from the report’s recommendations since it essentially repudiates the premises of its current policy.

It seems clear to me that what we are going to witness in the near future is not any substantive changes in policy but we will see changes in rhetoric, in the way that the war is packaged. Hence it is probably a good time to closely examine the rhetoric of the debate.

The president speaks repeatedly of not willing to listen to the defeatists and says that the US will stay until “victory” is achieved and “the job” is completed.
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Food and the politics of power

In the previous post, I suggested that as the competition for resources becomes more acute, it is likely that military force will be increasingly used in a brutally transparent manner in order to maintain the current inequalities in consumption rates. This was not simply a guess on my part. It is based on historical precedent.

In 1948, George Kennan of the US State Department wrote what has since become a famous memo outlining in frank and stark terms what he saw as the main issue facing the United States in its newfound post-world war II role as the dominant economic and military force. He was officially writing about Asia but his analysis extends beyond that.
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The impact of modern agriculture on land use

Agriculture has only been around for about 10,000 years and the reasons for its success are not clear since the archeological evidence suggests that early farmers were, nutritionally speaking, not as well off as their contemporary hunter-gatherers. It may have been that since grains can be stored over years of bounty and used in lean years, farmers were better able to withstand adverse times and thus better able to sustain themselves over longer times than their rivals in lifestyles.
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The food-energy equation

In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning lays out the basic energy equation that underlies food.

All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen. The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure.

Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet’s “primary productivity.” There have been two efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University, the other an independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth’s primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.
. . .
Part of that total—almost a third of it—is the potential plant mass lost when forests are cleared for farming or when tropical rain forests are cut for grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat of prairie roots that held the whole business together, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it’s mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can’t eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today.

Humans cannot eat most of the naturally produced biomass each year since it is in the form of grasses and trees, so we destroy that biomass by clearing those fields and planting crops that we can eat more readily or, as is more common, to use as raw materials to produce food in other forms. But each of these things carries with it energy costs. As Manning points out:

America’s biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can’t eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can’t eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don’t. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about food; it’s about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food. (emphasis in original)

It turns out that about eighty percent of the grain the United States produces goes to feed livestock and that it “takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way” and “sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork.” Livestock produced this way creates high-quality protein no doubt, but at a cost. In addition, the US produces twice as much per capita protein as the average adult needs each day. This results in over-consumption which leads to fat, resulting in an epidemic of obesity, which now is second only to tobacco in being the cause of health-related problems and fatalities.

The higher you go up the food chain, the more energy that is wasted along the way. All of us know that instinctively but I had not fully appreciated the massive scale of wastage as you ascend each rung of that chain.

Eating a carrot gives the diner all that carrot’s energy, but feeding carrots to a chicken, then eating the chicken, reduces the energy by a factor of ten. The chicken wastes some energy, stores some as feathers, bones, and other inedibles, and uses most of it just to live long enough to be eaten. As a rough rule of thumb, that factor of ten applies to each level up the food chain, which is why some fish, such as tuna, can be a horror in all of this. Tuna is a secondary predator, meaning it not only doesn’t eat plants but eats other fish that themselves eat other fish, adding a zero to the multiplier each notch up, easily a hundred times, more like a thousand times less efficient than eating a plant.

As Manning sums up: “Prairie’s productivity is lost for grain, grain’s productivity is lost in livestock, livestock’s protein is lost to human fat—all federally subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly to only two crops, corn and wheat.”

Even avoiding meat does not quite solve the problem since there are hidden energy costs in non-meat foods as well.

The grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.

It seems to me that if we are going to learn how to become better custodians of the earth’s resources, we need to have a deeper understanding of how those resources are used. It seems like it would be advisable to emphasize the energy aspects of food in our educational system to create a greater awareness of where all the energy goes to and comes from. Right now, I think that students learn about photosynthesis as a purely biological process. Including the energy cycle along with it seems like a good idea, both educationally and in terms of creating increasing awareness of our relationship to nature and the Earth’s resources.

POST SCRIPT: Letting Go of God

Julia Sweeney has a CD of her monologue about her drift away from Catholicism to atheism. She was interviewed by late night talk show host Craig Ferguson.

Saving resources

One of the things that appall me is the waste of food. Whenever I have to throw away food that has been uneaten, I take that as a personal defeat. As a result, the refrigerator in our home is relatively bare since it tends to have things that are likely to be used soon. Even then, I periodically go through the refrigerator and use up everything that is there and only throw stuff away if it is beyond salvaging.

I have the impression that in our highly litigious society, manufacturers have become highly conservative in labeling packages, fearful that they will be sued if someone gets ill. And as a result, the “sell by” dates are likely quite early and a lot of perfectly good food is thrown away unnecessarily because of people adhering strictly to them. It would be interesting to see what kinds of statistics are used to arrive at the “sell by” dates.

The greater waste occurs in supermarkets. Consumers are now so picky and demand such perfection that even slightly bruised fruit or other produce is thrown away by stores, even though it might be perfectly good to eat, because they think that consumers will not buy them. At home, on the other hand, if an apple or banana is bruised I, like many others, simply cut out that part and eat the rest. This is not because we cannot afford to buy more fruit, it is simply that I cannot bear to waste food. It seems criminal to me.

In Sri Lanka when I was growing up, even in the cities vendors of food would sell their wares in small open stalls (like the ones you see in the US along country roads in the summer and fall) and you would haggle with the vendor about the price. If the produce was pristine is quality, you would pay a higher price. The more damaged or older it looked, the less you paid. Anything that was not sold that day or likely to be sold in the future was consumed by the vendor’s family and neighbors. As a result of this system, there was very little waste.

(The haggling over price was a kind of game that was played between vendor and customer and the scene over the purchase of a false beard in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian accurately captures the spirit of the game. I personally never had the heart to haggle since the vendors were obviously so much poorer than I and I felt that the small amount of money involved meant a lot less to me than to them. Hence I would simply go through the motions of haggling and would end up paying more or less the asking price. While it was more profitable for the vendors to deal with me, I also had the feeling that they thought I was not much fun.)

Food costs a lot in terms of the resources that go into producing it. In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning analyzes the true cost of agriculture. Clearing out vast areas of land to increase agriculture has a cost, all the fertilizer we use to achieve high yields has a cost, and the mechanized planting, harvesting, transport and distribution systems that are used have a cost. The food we get at our stores has used up a lot of resources and it is a scandal how much of it we waste.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

This is a question that is looming larger and larger as countries with large populations that were once considered third world, such as China and India, are rapidly becoming industrialized and their populations rate of consumption are rising to first world levels. While we simply cannot go on consuming at the current first world rates, how we resolve this question to achieve a lasting, sustainable, and fair solution is not at all clear.

POST SCRIPT: Picking and choosing from the Bible

Stephen Colbert interviews Francis Collins and the discussion raises the key problem facing those Christians who are not Biblical literalists. (Collins is the head of the human genome project and a practicing Christian and the author of the book The Language of God.)

When Colbert asks him on which of the six days of creation god created DNA, Collins argues that some parts of the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. To which Colbert responds “If you throw out any part of the Bible, you throw out all of it.”

This is why Christian fundamentalists reject the position of those who argue that the Bible should not be taken literally.