Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Few Things We Forget Too Often

The Story of Stuff reminds of many aspects of life we just pass by, things we are aware of, actually. These aspects are clearly there in full existence, but we tend not to think about them too much, either because we are too busy dealing with routine tasks of everyday life, or because we believe those problems are beyond repair. Going back to the wild (to the point when we did not know the taste of the forbidden fruit) is not an option, for sure. But being more aware of these problems, and thinking about them will bring more good ideas about what to do for our future, and the planet’s future. Some such thoughts:

1. Human system – most of all, the economic system – is a subsystem in the eco-system. The subsystem cannot be sustained if the larger system is broken.

2. GDP calculation misses out so many important factors. Annie suggests subtracting the social costs associated with pollution and inequality from the GDP calculation. Personally, I suggest subtracting the social costs of health problems caused by harmful materials, processes, and pollution. This will strike at people’s mind more directly, because, after all, it incurs actual out-of-pocket costs for them. (My eczema gets worse with pollution. So I can say I feel the side effect of material development physically.)

3. Developing countries rich in natural resources are problematic in environmental issues in numerous ways. It is not simply because these countries are fallible to very eco-unfriendly resource development arrangement with multinational corps. These governments are heavily dependent on the revenue coming from resource industries, while the taxes from other sectors are meager. Thus the citizens of these countries are in so-called “weak contractual relationship” with their government. The government is less responsible for the general well-being of the nation, including environmental issues. If the resources are in areas occupied by indigenous people, the problem gets worse.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

After Dark – An Unusual Murakami

After Dark is unique as a Murakami novel because it is in the third person narrative. (“We” appears here and there, but it is a general “we,” a pure camera point of view.) This is noteworthy because Murakami as an author has a very strong ego, which often translates itself into a first-person protagonist, as found in many modernist novels. It can be argued that some characters, notably Mari and perhaps Takahashi, could be reflections of the author’s ego. Yet again, even they are very different from usual Murakami ego.

After Dark is riveting. In a very coherent and orderly manner, the narrative leads us into a night in the city of Tokyo, where human relations are non-existent or superficial. The art of fantasy and mystery is also well woven into the narrative, mostly around the quasi-metaphysical being of Eri. The phone calls from the Chinese Mafia, both of which connected to wrong people, also portray the theme in a subtle but entertaining manner. And the message itself – that you may forget but people will not forget what you did – also leaves a lingering sensation in relation with the theme of the novel.

Another noteworthy device used in the novel is gradually descending into layers of stories. At first, the relationship between Mari and Eri is binary and static. But it is soon revealed that the relationship is not that simple. Beyond expectable love-hate, the relationship between the two sisters reach the peak when Mari falls asleep in Alphaville, after which Eri is found asleep safe and sound back in her room after her troubled journey in the wonderland. The elevator episode and the final scene are rather repetitive in this sense, but also deliver a clear and effective summary of the relationship.

Despite its many merits, After Dark is another failure for Japanese literature in that it shows Murakami’s chronic problem of anachronism. Alienation, for sure, is the main theme of the narrative. But you can find a whole library of masterpieces with the same theme, all written about a hundred years ago. For example, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, depicts the theme with impeccable craftsmanship. Even in Japan, the themes of modernism were incorporated into many wonderful masterpieces by authors such as Natsume Soseki, Kawabata Yasunari, and Mishima Yukio, who lived long before Murakami.

But again, evaluated on its own, After Dark is a well-written novel with grasping fun factors that make you want more and more as you read it. It is filled with interesting people and memorable scenes. And most of all, it lets you think – about life, and about the people you meet in the course of your life.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Story of Stuff: A Big Dreamer

The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change

The audacity of hope – is my summary of The Story of Stuff. One, it is audacious because the world the author is aiming at is truly a brave new world, with quite a dash of transformation to the way we live. Two, it is about hope, because the world is a better world (I am not countering Heidegger or Lao-Tse in this argument). And three, it is the audacity of hope, because of the miraculous but realistic chance of attaining the goal.

In so many cases we meet the dilemma of having come too far to go back. But the moment of change is instantaneous. It takes only a blink to make your mind. Yet again, we always have an endless cache of excuses to put forward. What about the side effects, known and unknown? Will others participate? (Think about the Kyoto Protocol.) What about all the administrative expenses? Will there be a consensus? (Most probably, not.)

In the era of the discovery of new worlds, there was an epidemic of dreaming of perfect world. Some romantic poets – notably Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge – planned to build a perfect society of their own in the new world of America. The world was to be a perfect one, full of peace and love. But people in the world had to share values. So they formed the group with friends. But alas, we know the well-known furious dispute between Wordsworth and Coleridge. Even friends differ in opinions here and there. (You want to hear about the outcome? Of course they did not make it.)

However, gradual changes are always possible, and very doable. For example, going veggie overnight looks almost impossible for most of us. But most of us can, very easily, decide to go meatless one day per week. ( Most probably you will not be able to reduce your water use to the level of the people in India. But you can put a 2-liter bottle filled with water in your toilet tank to save tons of water per month right away. In this book, you can find hundreds of little things you can do to reduce waste.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Kafka on the Shore – a Fantasy Bildungsroman

First off, I would like to thank my friend Steve on recommending this book. Without his recommendation, I would have never tried Murakami Haruki again. In fact, I was disappointed big time (really big time) when I first read Murakami some 15 years ago: Norwegian Wood. Simply put, it was a phony piece of novel-ling outdated by about 100 years. Read, for example, Natsume Soseki’s I Am Cat, and you instantly understand what I mean. I Am Cat was actually written about 80 years before Norwegian Wood, and is much more modern and mature.
To get back to Kafka on the Shore, yes, this is a good book. I recommend this book to whoever likes inner narratives and does not mind some dash of (actually a lot of) fantasy. I like this book so much that I consider reading more from Murakami. Thanks, Steve.

One thing I like about this novel is the freedom of the narrative. It is not bound by reason in its traditional sense. Nakata begins travelling before knowing where to go. The “entrance stone” is located by Colonel Sanders, a concept. Kafka takes the soldiers in the wood as granted, and follows them into the land unknown. Hoshino knows what to do next, instinctively.
The freedom actually belongs to the narrative itself, and goes beyond the author. Many questions are never answered. But readers are not left unsatisfied, because they share the freedom of those people in the narrative, and of the author. Was the blood on Kafka’s shirt from his father? Did Johnnie Walker actually kill the cats? Is Miss Saeki Kafka’s mother? How can the living soul that visited Kafka in the night explained? What about the girl in the village in the wood? What was the thing that Hoshino killed?
Many authors, on just grounds, try to design their world without flaws – with no question unanswered. They try their best to make no loopholes, and are confounded when readers find one and send them an e-mail. Is this really necessary? Yes, of course, most of the time. (Why do you think Stephen King is so good?)
However, a discourse is not a monopolistic property of the author. Jacque Derrida defines “textuality” as an interaction between the creator and the interpreter (reader). Leaving questions unanswered, or more pro-actively put, embracing the freedom of fantasy enriches this textuality in many senses. Why are Shakespeare’s masterpieces so rich? Because there are so much to be ruminated over, again and again.

But Kafka on the Shore can be simply branded as a bildungsroman, as it really is. The plot itself is a very typical one of many bildungsromans – a return journey. Kafka comes back to Tokyo, to the empty huge house of his father’s. This overlaps with the journey of Nakata’s, where he returns to his hometown in Kyushu after such a long time. (Even Hoshino returns to his old life, after all.)
The protagonist in a bildungsroman returns home, with a harvest. For the protagonist, Kafka, it is his acceptance of what he is and what his life is about. He returns to where he came from, just like Goldmund (in Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund), but with a transformation. His attempt to escape from reality (or fate) ends in a return journey, with a mature mind that can embrace rather than estrange.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Meat Diet Is Worse than Cars for Global Warming

Do you know eating meat is more harmful in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission than driving cars? According to Meat Eater’s Guide published today by Environmental Working Group (EWG), if a 4-people household abstains from eating meats one day every week, the resulting reduction of GHG is equivalent to abstaining car use for five weeks. Take a look at the following chart showing the impact of meat diet, shown in equivalent car mileage for GHG emission. (You can check out the guide at, where this chart is from.)

Lamb is the worst, followed by beef, cheese, then pork. Be mindful of post-production GHG as well. Not only production, but disposal of meats also generate large amount of GHGs. Meats from ruminant animals (such as cows and lambs) generate methane gas, a GHG 25 times stronger in greenhouse gas effect than CO2.

What you can do is very simple, and easy. Do not eat meat one day per week. Meatless Monday is a campaign promoting reduced consumption of meat, by pledging to go meatless one day every week on Monday. Besides the benefits for our green planet, you can also expect health benefits, since meat diet is directly related to many serious health problems such as heart diseases and cancers.

You can join the movement by signing your pledge at the following link: