12 Of Dogs, Demons, and Climate Change

Posted on May 17, 2010 by


The Emperor of China once asked his court painter, which was the easiest, which the most difficult animal to paint. The answer was: “Dogs are the most difficult animals to paint; dragons on the other hand, are easy.” We can all observe dogs, so we are able to verify how poorly or well we are fixing its features on a canvas. No one has ever seen a dragon, so anything goes. And in fact, we see few ‘good’ paintings of dogs – even less, I may, add, of the ineffable cats – but there is no dearth of satisfying dragons.

I have argued in the past that a global treaty on Climate Change is counterproductive, if the goal is to tackle the problem quickly. We’d waste endless time bickering over rights and obligations that have to be enshrined in such a global treaty – UNFCCC has been twenty years in the making, and no end is in sight. Alex Kerr has used the metaphor of dogs and dragons to draw a devastating picture of Japan[1]. His reflections have much bearing on the Climate Change subject.

Let’s assume – for the sake of argument – that the Climate Change Treaty, with all its entitlements and obligations, is agreed to. What comes next? Implementation. Given our knowledge of climate change process, the plan we agree to implement is more likely to look like a dragon than a dog. Never mind – whatever the beast’s shape, bureaucracies will spring up to administer the plan, and fight against any attempt to change the dragon’s features to make it more resemble a dog.

This has been Japan’s experience. After WWII the order of the day was: modernize. And modernisation was then – public construction. So the Japanese bureaucracy went about it with its well-known thoroughness. Fifty years later, 40% of the nation’s budget is devoted to public works. For the 1995-2005 period, says Kerr, Japan will spend four times as much on public works than the US. It is estimated that one job in five depends, directly or indirectly, on construction, both public and private. 60% of the country’s coastlines have been armoured against erosion, and all rivers have been dammed, all estuary ecologies destroyed. The hills have been covered with unsightly diamond-patterned walls to prevent landslides. In retrospect many of these actions were plain wrong, most were carried out to excess.

The reason for both error and excess is administrative ‘inertia’. Once the central budget is allocated, ministries will fight for expansion, and certainly against any reduction[2]. To do so they’ll collude with politicians, present and past and at all levels. Because this is all illegal, mafia-type structures will get into the act. When most of Japan’s rural population no longer farms full time its small holdings, but does so on the side while making a living off construction work, a most powerful force has been created that will go on constructing. Japanese firms are already testing how to pour concrete on the moon.

This could not happen, were it not for deep cultural roots that prevent the electorate (at least the one that has not been bought off) to rebel. Kerr argues that in Japan the roots are to be found in a mentality that is insecure about being rich, and needs to be reassured through public works that the country “has developed”. I could argue this thesis at length, but the core assertion is certainly not wrong, just incomplete. Far from being ‘rational’ beings for which (as an economist would argue) the past has zero value, we are prisoners of behavioural rules – cultural traits – that go way back into the middens of history. These traits are hardly conscious, certainly contradictory or inconsistent, and in all events most difficult to detect, because they are so widely shared as the be unquestioned.

Wakon josai – Japanese spirit, Western technology – was the rallying cry f Japan, as it introduced the Meiji Restoration. More than a program, it was a curse. Grafting modern technologies on a country that is still locked in essentially a feudal attitude[3], or has developed over millennia a “compact view” of reality[4], is bound to create disconnects. In the case of Japan, this has not only created a landscape of unrelieved banality through state-sponsored vandalism of the landscape, where the only thrill is that ghastliness (to paraphrase Kerr), but more dangerously, it has achieved wa – Japanese for peace or stasis – where change of direction or curtailment is impossible.

Facing the Climate Change issue may lead to revitalisation of our societies, many progressive thinkers opine. Faced with the threat of ultimate destruction, people will act in their best long-term interests and thoroughly mend their ways. We would be able to design a benevolent dragon, that is. May be.

For one: going at it with a dragon as the blueprint, we would create massive vested interests that favour headlong inertia and reluctance to change or restraint even in the face of contrary evidence. Add to this the fact that in an international environment, democratic checks and balances (aka “throw out the rascals”) would not apply. Once in place, the dragon would be our master.

Secondly: as children of phantasy, dragons are unliky to take into account the cultural roots of public action – this is the experience of Japan. Imagine a dragon that would fit the diversity of world societies.The results will most likely be perverse – in any case pervasive and hence unpredictable.

Finally, one more point: “the more directly and deliberately a specific strategic goal is single-mindedly sought, the more likely it is that such calculated actions eventually work to undermine and erode their initial successes, often with devastating consequences.[5]” Or as LUTTWAK would argue: “the entire realm of strategy is pervaded by a paradoxical logic[6]” – Chalmers JOHNSON[7] would call it: blowback. But that’s another story.

[1] Alex Kerr (2001): Dogs and demons. The fall of Japan. Penguin Books, London, xi + 432 pp.

[2] This is particularlythe case when budgets are cut. While change may take place in the framework of an expanding budget, change and cutbacks seldom go together. We know this from our driving: try to change a car’s direction as it brakes!

[3] Sir George SANSOM (1961): A history of Japan. Stanford University Press, Stanford. Cal. 3 vv.

[4] Young O. LEE (1984): The compact culture. The Japanese tradition of «smaller is better». Kodansha International, Tokyo,  192 pp.

[5] Robert C. H. CHIA and Robin HOLT (2009): Strategy without design. The silent efficacy of indirect action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. ;  xii + 248 pp.

[6] Edward N. LUTTWAK (2001): Strategy: the logic of war and peace. Belknap Press, Cambridge Mass.

[7] Chalmers JOHNSON (2000): Blowback. The costs and consequences of American Empire. Little Brown Group, London, U.K.; 268 pp.

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