Sunday, September 20, 2015

Pakistan's Endangered Leopards: Time to Change Spots?

Another deadly attack in Pakistan, it's hardly news. What is there to say about this ongoing tragedy - is there a change in rhythm of operations by the Pakistani Taliban? Will Pakistan's government recognize that this violence is not peripheral, but instead central to the future existence and coherence of the state?

Instead, a story in Tuesday's Washington Post discussed the new terror of Abbotabad - not the next Osama bin Laden - but rather leopards, who are increasingly attacking people.

Now, your faithful blogger loves a big cat story. They are good copy. But of course the victims are impoverished Pakistanis. I've been very critical of the Pakistani government but I only wish the best for the long-suffering people of Pakistan. Whenever a news report discusses the radicalization of the Pakistani people (which is, sadly, happening) bear in mind that they've been ruled by venal elites (uniformed and civilian) for so long who have systematically filled their heads with propaganda while denying them basic services that it is a testament to their moderation that they did not radicalize long ago.

So the story of increased leopard attacks reflects several aspects of Pakistan. First is the exaggeration. Leopard attacks have increased but still are very rare. In Pakistan, like many places, stories quickly became exaggerated. A handful of leopard attacks over a decade quickly becomes a massive plague and mobs hunt down the leopards. (Leopards are however attacking livestock, and it was Machiavelli who noted that people never forget who robbed them of their property.)

In fairness, it also reflects a basic human tendency to exaggerate certain types of dangers (our current election campaign shows plenty of evidence of this phenomemon.) By any objective measure, the probability of being killed by a leopard in Pakistan is very low (even lower than being killed by a tiger in India or a lion in Africa.) It is also lower than the probability of being killed in a traffic accident or by the diseases that are resurfacing in Pakistan as the public health infrastructure declines. For that matter it is symbolic of Pakistan's obsession with India, while ignoring the vast domestic threats.

Pakistan's foresters and game wardens of course recognize the importance of the leopard as an apex predator. But, unsurprisingly, they lack the resources to do much about it. One can understand an impoverished country prioritizing things besides nature conservation. But what social good is Pakistan prioritizing - besides its insane rivalry with India? All too often, the state seems unable to address the real problems it faces.

But there is more than that. Pakistan's populated areas are expanding fast while their forests have shrunk to a tiny fraction. Forests play an essential role in ecological health and their rapid decline bodes ill for Pakistan's environment. Of course the forests are being devoured by rapid population growth. While birth rates worldwide have, overall fallen, Pakistan is an outlier. Pakistan's population is about 180 million, by 2050 it will be over 300 million.

At the same time economic growth and infrastructure construction have been inadequate to meet the growing needs of the population. Water and power systems are over-taxed. Agriculture remains land and labor intensive. Little wonder that Pakistan's forests have been devoured both for land and for fuel. Of course given an already fragile ecology, destroying the forests only makes things worse.

Finally, and this may be at the crux of things, are Pakistan's women.

Many of the leopard attack victims have been women because women go into the forests before dawn for water, food, and fuel. Pakistan has long underinvested in education and women in particular have suffered. The overall literacy rate in Pakistan is about 60% and for women it is about 40%.

Women's literacy is linked to better family situations overall - better health, nutrition and education - and most significantly lower birth rates. This, even more than terrorism, is Pakistan's greatest challenge and need. A better educated population overall and better educated women in particular could begin to reverse the frightening trends engulfing Pakistan. As an international affairs analyst, these trends - in which Pakistan begins to fall apart - is the true nightmare.

Of course building a decent education system and educating women in a society that has traditionally restricted the woman's role is an enormous challenge. It's easier to talk about the leopards.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Wizards

I wrote about magic recently, then I saw this question on Quora: Who is the greatest wizard: Gandalf, Merlin or Dumbledore?

It intrigued me. I don't know the Arthurian legends well, so let's leave Merlin aside. Dumbledore vs Gandalf.

I recently read a book by Robert Sawyer (a terrific science fiction writer) which clarified - at least for me - how scientists are like wizards. In trying to understand a phenomenon they immediately come up with a concept to test it and a method, based on their deep familiarity with mathematical structures.

This Doonesbury cartoon kind of gets it as well. Working with computer scientists, I've occasionally seen them dissect a seemingly difficult problem. I'd like to think they occasionally see me do sort of the same thing in my space. That being said, they are accomplished because they see and comprehend an underlying structure. Because they know it they can manipulate it in ways the rest of us cannot.

So Dumbledore is sort of a Dungeons & Dragons style wizard, just tossing thunderbolts and miracles around. In terms of sheer firepower he is pretty impressive. But it's a world of magic, so everyone can do that, Dumbledore is just better at it than everyone else. So it's like a book about baseball in which one character is just a better hitter. Fair enough.

What Gandalf does is more mysterious. We see him intervene personally on occasion. He fights a balrog, tussles with Saruman, rallies the troops at Gondor. clearly he can make things happen. But he isn't just running around tossing fireballs. He is choosing carefully where to intervene, he is following deep patterns and trends and identifying critical points - and that's where he shows up. It isn't clear who he is working for and the exact nature of his power (where it's from and what he can do) is vague.

But I think that is closer to the definition of wizard, in which the root word is wise - that is the ability to see more deeply and clearly than others, to make connections that others can't.

It would be cool to be Dumbledore, who can fly and repair buildings and all this other cool stuff with the swipe of his wand. But we live in an age of miracles. We can in fact fly (not as easily as Dumbledore) and communicate instantaneously and a zillion other things.

But I kind of like Gandalf. He certainly has powers, but he sees deeply - the profound underlying patterns and where and how they can be re-shaped. Gandalf is both more mysterious and wise, which is what a wizard should be. Dumbledore is pure fantasy, but I can almost imagine a real-life Gandalf - a brilliant strategist one move ahead of everyone who seems to make things go his way - like (since I'm all about Presidents) Lincoln or Eisenhower or even Reagan. (The closest president to Dumbledore would probably be TR.)