Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Round-Up of Recent News and Blog Posts of Interest


Deforestation has been a major concern around the world in recent decades, related as it is to degradation of species habitat (including the human habitats of many indigenous peoples), desertification in some regions, and global warming.

In at article in the Latin American Post, “Many nations’ forests regrow,” Elisabeth Rosenthal points out that there has recently been significant reforestation in many countries around the world.

This is most clearly the case in the global North, where in some places, such as Eastern North America, this trend has been ongoing for several decades now. As I discussed in “Birds and Human Culture,” changes in agricultural practices over the 20th century led to a decrease in use of land for agriculture in parts of North America (and Europe, too – though I was focusing on North America in the earlier piece), even alongside the intensification of industrial agriculture, a change that has been beneficial to some bird species, such as wild turkeys, even while many bird populations are plummeting.

Reforestation is no panacea for global ecological problems. Still, forests can act as carbon sinks, sucking up some carbon dioxide, and reforestation does help some animal and plant species, even if many don’t thrive in the sorts of small, patchy forests that are typical of this reforesting trend. Overall, this is a positive development, even if not a panacea.

Unfortunately (and a point mentioned but not well developed in the article), this reforestation trend does not include the tropical forests of Brazil and Indonesia, forests that are of particular importance in terms of biodiversity.

Health Insurance and Medical Homes

My first reaction to an article on Science Daily titled, “When Minority Patients Have Insurance And A Medical Home, Their Health Care Improves,” was a sarcastic, “Really? What a Shock!”

On actually reading the article, what became clear, though was the emphasis placed by researchers Anne Beal and others at the Commonwealth Fund on both insurance coverage and the notion of a medical home. There’s currently much debate in the U.S. about the 40+ million medically uninsured individuals. For them, dependable and ready access to quality care depends on access to insurance, but the study reported on in the article makes clear that insurance alone is a necessary, but insufficient condition for quality health care in the U.S.

The following is a quotation from the article:

"Insurance coverage helps people gain access to health care, but the next thing you have to ask is 'access to what?'" says lead co-author Anne Beal, M.D., senior program officer at the Commonwealth Fund. "We found many disparities in care; however, disparities are not immutable. This survey shows if you can provide both insurance and access to a true medical home, racial and ethnic differences in getting needed medical care are often eliminated," she adds.

“According to the report, patients have a medical home when they:
- Have a regular provider or place of care
- Report no difficulty contacting a provider by phone
- Report no difficulty getting advice or medical care when needed on weekends or evenings
- Always or often find office visits well-organized and efficiently run”

I’m one of those Americans fortunate enough to have decent medical insurance through my job, but I’d warrant I’m like a lot of insured Americans, much less uninsured Americans, who can’t honestly claim to have a medical home in the full sense proposed by these researchers.

Terry Eagleton on Bakhtin

Via Arts and Letters Daily, I encountered Terry Eagleton’s essay “I contain multitudes” about Bakhtin in The London Review of Books. I found the following paragraph particularly fascinating:

“Bakhtin’s central concept of dialogism does not mean bending a courteous ear to others, as some of his more liberal commentators seem to imagine. It means that every word or utterance is refracted through a host of other, perhaps antagonistic idioms, through which alone its meaning can be grasped. It thus bears an affinity with the post-structuralist concept of textuality. There can be no unmediated truth. We come to ourselves, as many modern thinkers have claimed, through a medium which is profoundly strange to us. Language for Bakhtin is a cockpit of warring forces, as each utterance finds itself occupied from within by alien significations. Every sign glances sideways at other signs, bears the traces of them within its body, and faces simultaneously towards speaker, object, context and addressee. Like human subjects, words are constituted by their relations to otherness, and language is always porous, hybrid and open-ended. There was never a first word, and there could never be a last one. The inherent unfinishedness and unpredictability of language – the fact that I can never deduce from any two of your words what the third one is going to be – is a token of human freedom, and thus in a broad sense political. Signs are never self-identical, and always mean more than they say (a surplus that includes what they don’t say). The enemy is what Bakhtin dubs ‘monologism’, meaning the kind of meta-language which seeks to subdue this irrepressible heterogeneity. At times in his work, it is a polite word for Stalinism. Language is torn between ‘centrifugal’ and ‘centripetal’ forces – the former decentring, the latter centralising. National languages aspire to be monological but are in fact thoroughly ‘heteroglossic’, spawning a multiplicity of dialects and speech styles.”

Ancient Agriculture in Peru

Most anthropologists and others interested in anthropological news are no doubt aware of the recent findings of squash and other crops from Peru dating back possibly as long ago as 10,000 years. I first read of this finding in this article by Randolph E. Schmid on Yahoo News – Anthropology in the News has a good set of links to others news accounts of the findings.

If these findings hold up, this is significant for pushing back by a few thousand years the earliest known dates for plant cultivation in the Americas.

On reading this account, as well as other recent news stories of early art or trade, I thought of a short, provocative book (sometimes insightful, sometimes irritating), Nomadology: The War Machine by Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari. At one point, Deleuze and Guattari make what is a ludicrous claim if we are to take it literally, that the state is primeval, having always been a part of human experience. What they meant, or at least what I think they meant (and what might be an interesting point even if it’s not what they meant – it’s one of those books) is that the impulse to order and the contrary impulse to freedom have always been with humans, discussed by Deleuze and Guattari using “the state” and “the nomad” as tropes.

While the state in any literal sense has not been around ever since humans have been, and while I’d be shocked if new evidence was found pushing back the beginnings of the state to 10,000 years ago, it is fascinating to me how many things that it had seemed clear even just a few years ago were relatively recent in human history have now been found by recent archaeological study to be far older than we thought.


In a recent post, “On Images of Savages, Part 3” at Nicolette Bethel’s Blog, Bethel continues a series of posts on racism, in particular the discourse on “savages” that developed alongside European Enlightenment thought. For the discipline of anthropology, this is a topic close to home, for the discipline grew partly out of this attempt to catalogue the cultural and biological traits of the world’s savages, barbarians, and civilized peoples. Bethel’s latest discussion is insightful in laying out and discussing some of the specific characteristics that have often been linked with “savagery” in whichever particular guise and context it has arisen.

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