As March spills into April, the "dead animals in Chinese rivers" toll seems to have stabilized: recent reports indicate that the over 16,000 dead pigs have been joined by 1,000 dead ducks and, rather ominously, 13 dead black swans. The discovery of so many carcasses has elicited no small amount of public concern in China, as well as mockery elsewhere -- even Jay Leno got into the act.
So, how the hell did this happen? Here are a few ideas:
1. There are a lot of pigs in China. A lot of people, too. But, seriously, a lot of pigs.
China has more people than any other country in the world, and even those with only a passing knowledge of Chinese cuisine are aware of the central role that pork plays. Unsurprisingly, as a result, there are a lot of pigs in China -- around 700 million, according to a MarketWatch estimate. By contrast, the United States, a country with around a quarter of China's population, has a mere 70 million porkers; and we Americans love our bacon. So it perhaps isn't too surprising that the country with a dead pig crisis is also the same one that consumes half of the world's pork. However, in China you also have....
2. ...a highly fragmented agricultural sector.
As in other developing countries, a lot of Chinese people work in agriculture -- roughly 37 percent of the population, in fact, in comparison to 0.7 percent in the United States and 1.4 percent in the United Kingdom. Many of these farmers work on tiny parcels of land rather than on large commercial farms and correspondingly raise a small number of livestock.
This fragmentation has a number of consequences. For one, the sheer number of farms makes government regulation extremely difficult owing to enormous differences in seed quality, pesticide use, and water sources. This, according to economic analyst Rich Brubaker, "creates pressure on distributors and consolidators to separate the different quality levels," giving the unscrupulous and desperate a prime opportunity to shirk on quality control.
Secondly, the small size of the farms means that there just isn't a lot of room to bury dead pigs -- especially if a lot of pigs all die at the same time from an illness. The Chinese government actually compensates large-scale farmers for their dead pigs, but this only applies to those farmers who have more than 50 on their farm, leaving out the many millions of small-scale players in the market. Therefore, a farmer with fewer than 50 pigs faces a choice when confronted with a carcass: either give the pig up to the government for processing (and get nothing for their trouble) or sell the carcass to a "dealer" who would "fix" the meat and slip it into the food supply. Understandably, many farmers chose the latter option, and that worked fine until ...
3. ... China cracked down on illegal pig meat.
Responding to political pressure to avoid food supply scandals, local authorities in Jiaxing recently cracked down on these "dead pig merchants", tossing three of them in jail for life for selling dead and/or diseased pigs to market. As a result, small-scale farmers in the area lost their one outlet for financial compensation, turning a once-lucrative dead pig into a deadweight loss. At this point, then, the fast-flowing river nearby looked like a pretty attractive solution to an annoying (and smelly) dead pig problem.
Can the government make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again? The agriculture sector is consolidating, as millions of Chinese leave the countryside for the cities each year. Bigger farms will create economies of scale and standardization -- leading to cheaper, more reliable pork for Chinese consumers -- and will perverse incentives to dump dead livestock in the river. The dead pig problem is then, like teenage acne, just another awkward byproduct of China's rapid growth spurt.
Then again, there are legitimate concerns that China's political system makes it more susceptible to these types of incidents than other countries. When news of the dead pig fiasco broke, the Communist Party immediately declared that Shanghai's water supply was safe and later, in a characteristically paranoid attempt at information control, quashed a planned protest. This behavior follows a clear pattern in China in the case of environmental catastrophe, and is one of the single leading causes of anti-government sentiment in the country.
A second problem is inefficiency. China's government has a reputation in the West for being streamlined and effective, able to implement complex policies without any of the gridlock that characterizes American and European politics. However, this competence masks the fact that, like any enormous bureaucracy, the Communist Party is riddled with inefficiencies. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, "the Ministry of Agriculture oversees the raising of hogs, while butchering is the province of the Ministry of Commerce. And at least four different departments are responsible for the quality of pork." While attempts at consolidating relevant government organizations are apparently underway, these overlapping jurisdictions are extremely common in China, making it easy for officials to pass the blame in the event of a mess-up.
No country is immune to environmental catastrophes, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to draw conclusions to them. Hurricane Katrina in the United States resulted from a terrible storm -- but also from a chronic government underinvestment in infrastructure as well as an incompetent federal emergency-management organization. China's dead pigs can be dismissed as simply an unintended consequence of a government crackdown, but this misses the larger point: China's government seems unable to prevent the environmental catastrophes that most threaten their hold on power.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
Grasses—green, neatly trimmed, symbols of civic virtue—shaped the national landscape. They have now outlived their purpose.
The hashtag #droughtshaming—which primarily exists, as its name suggests, to publicly decry people who have failed to do their part to conserve water during California’s latest drought—has claimed many victims. Anonymous lawn-waterers. Anonymous sidewalk-washers. The city of Beverly Hills. The tag’s most high-profile shamee thus far, however, has been the actor Tom Selleck. Who was sued earlier this summer by Ventura County’s Calleguas Municipal Water District for the alleged theft of hydrant water, supposedly used to nourish his 60-acre ranch. Which includes, this being California, an avocado farm, and also an expansive lawn.
The case was settled out of court on terms that remain undisclosed, and everyone has since moved on with their lives. What’s remarkable about the whole thing, though—well, besides the fact that Magnum P.I. has apparently become, in his semi-retirement, a gentleman farmer—is how much of a shift all the Selleck-shaming represents, as a civic impulse. For much of American history, the healthy lawn—green, lush, neatly shorn—has been a symbol not just of prosperity, individual and communal, but of something deeper: shared ideals, collective responsibility, the assorted conveniences of conformity. Lawns, originally designed to connect homes even as they enforced the distance between them, are shared domestic spaces. They are also socially regulated spaces. “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country,” Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the nation’s first landscaper-philosophers, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Today’s college students can’t seem to take a joke.
Three comics sat around a café table in the chilly atrium of the Minneapolis Convention Center, talking about how to create the cleanest possible set. “Don’t do what’s in your gut,” Zoltan Kaszas said. “Better safe than sorry,” Chinedu Unaka offered. Feraz Ozel mused about the first time he’d ever done stand-up: three minutes on giving his girlfriend herpes and banging his grandma. That was out.
This was not a case of professionals approaching a technical problem as an intellectual exercise. Money was riding on the answer. They had come to Minneapolis in the middle of a brutal winter for the annual convention of the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), to sell themselves and their comedy on the college circuit. Representatives of more than 350 colleges had come as well, to book comics, musicians, sword swallowers, unicyclists, magicians, hypnotists, slam poets, and every kind of boat act, inspirational speaker, and one-trick pony you could imagine for the next academic year.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.