Favorite Guest Lectures
I was particularly moved by Peter Motavalli’s lecture on globalization and agriculture. Farming doesn’t get much media attention in urban America, so it was enlightening to hear about the trends in the increasingly corporate world of food. Some of the statistics Dr. Motavalli presented were shocking. One that stuck with me is that inequality and inefficiencies in food distribution keep around 1/9 of all people in a state of under-nourishment. Meanwhile, Americans waste hundreds to thousands of dollars worth of food each year. Furthermore, American food crops are being diverted to non-food uses, such as in biofuels, to such an extent that in 2013 only 15% of corn grown in the US was used for food and beverages. The sharp rise in the production of corn ethanol as a biofuel was a direct result of government subsidies. A fraction of the cost of such subsidies could have been spent on addressing global hunger concerns. Unfortunately, global food justice is not a priority of the US government.
Just as upsetting as the injustice in food access is the rapid consolidation of “Big Agriculture”. The dangers of monopoly over the human need to eat have been exacerbated by the development of GMOs, which have enabled the invention of the perverse notion of “proprietary seeds”. As my group will discuss on Tuesday, this idea has disturbing legal implications. The age-old tradition of farmers “saving seeds” to plant the following year is being criminalized, and farmers who are found with GMO plants without the agricultural company’s permission can be brought to court and driven to financial ruin. The power of enormous agricultural conglomerates makes their relationship to small farmers inherently exploitative, and it has already brought many a “small, family farm” to its knees. Now, family farms are being replaced by enormous corporate farms practicing mono-culture, using questionably safe agrochemicals, and wreaking environmental havoc. The loss of heirloom species is a threat to the stability of the food supply. Fertilizers lead to deadly algal blooms. Agriculture produces 13% of global CO2 emissions, 60% of global N2O emissions, and 50% of global methane emissions. Unfortunately, our current levels of production depend on the technologies contribute to these environmental damages. Somehow, we must increase access to food while ending this indisputable assault on the health of the planet. Dr. Motavalli’s talk motivated me to explore ways I can be involved in finding solutions.
Larry Dill’s discussion of technology in emerging markets was equally enlightening. I was not at all familiar with the technological trends in Chinese society, and to hear about the widespread use of cell phones and digital payment was surprising. The sudden development of Vietnam was also not on my radar until Professor Dill’s talk. Changes in both of these nations seem to be occurring much faster than in America. Hearing an American businessperson’s perspective on the “Rise of the Rest” was truly humbling and forced me to contemplate the future I want for America and for my career. I don’t think America will maintain its privilege as the sole superpower for the entirety of my lifetime, and this will drastically change the job market I have to navigate over the next few decades. I will keep the in mind as I make decisions about where I live and what skills I will work on developing.
Dill’s focus on the Internet of Things and Smart Cities also intrigued me greatly. In the context of Big Data related scandals such as that surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the idea that entire cities will exist in increasingly integrated networks of sensors and communication is a little bit scary. However, I don’t see any alternative to increasing integration as cities grow in population and resource shortages force us to squeeze as much efficiency as possible out of every aspect of city design. Given the increasing disparities in job opportunities between big cities and the rest of the world, I will probably wind up working in a Smart City. Understanding how they work will be critical to my financial well-being. Professor Dill’s talk has encouraged me to think more about opportunities abroad and ways that sensors and algorithms can improve everyday life.
Insights Gained by Blogging
Researching Nigeria exposed me to a world of inequality that I had never examined before. In it’s brief history as an independent nation, Nigeria has gone through numerous transitions of power between various corrupt military leaders. Democracy is new to the nation, and faith in government institutions remains (understandably) low. The country’s tradition of political corruption and unwillingness to invest in basic program has routinely shifted economic burden onto those Nigerians least able to bear it. With a booming population and growing international relevance, it will be fascinating to watch Nigeria evolve from an African powerhouse to a player on the global stage. Hopefully, such a transition is accompanied by increased accountability in the public sphere and an adoption of the values of Western Democracy.
I spent a large part of the semester focusing on Nigeria’s oil industry. When I chose Nigeria as the nation I’d study, I had no idea the power oil holds over the Nigerian economy. Early in my studies, I found that crashing oil prices had set Nigeria into recession just a few years ago. As I read more and more about the role of the industry, it became clear that it had influence in every aspect of Nigerian life. Tensions between the Muslim north of Nigeria and the Christian south have been fueled by geographic discrepancies in oil reserves. Oil wealth has also produced extreme inequality in Nigerian society, with a few extractives magnates getting rich at the expense of the poor. Transnational corporations like Shell have laid ruin to the Niger River delta through pollution and have paid hardly any price for their crimes. Meanwhile, the Nigerian state continues to cooperate with Big Oil and encourage international investment through regressive tax schemes. These trends need to end if Nigeria is to modernize into a stable, green economy.
Blogging about Nigeria has opened my eyes to the happenings of a nation I had never studied seriously before, giving me a new, global perspective on economic, environmental, and social issues.