JOQ with Sir Partha

JOQ with Sir Partha

Sir Partha Dasgupta was born in Dhaka in 1942 and graduated with a BSc in physics from the University of Delhi in 1962 before obtaining both a BA in mathematics and a PhD in economics from the University of Cambridge in 1965 and 1968 respectively.

He taught at the London School of Economics between 1971 and 1984 and then moved to the University of Cambridge in 1985 as Professor of Economics.  Between 1989 and 1992, he was on leave from the University of Cambridge and served as Professor of Economics, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Program in Ethics in Society at Stanford University.  He is currently Frank Ramsey Emeritus Professor of Economics at Cambridge, Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Professorial Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

Professor Dasgupta’s research interests include welfare and development economics, the economics of technological change, population, environmental and resource economics, the theory of games, and the economics of undernutrition.  His most-cited articles include, ‘Notes on the Measurement of Inequality’, Journal of Economic Theory (1973), co-authored with Amartya Sen and David Starrett, ‘The Optimal Depletion of Exhaustible Resources’, Review of Economic Studies (1974), co-authored with Geoffrey Heal, ‘Industrial Structure and The Nature of Innovative Activity’, Economic Journal (1980), co-authored with Joseph Stiglitz, ‘The Existence of Equilibrium in Discontinuous Economic Games, I: Theory’, Review of Economic Studies (1986), co-authored with Eric Maskin, and ‘Inequality as a Determinant of Malnutrition and Unemployment: Theory’, Economic Journal (1986), co-authored with Debraj Ray.

His books include, The Control of Resources (Harvard University Press, 1982), An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution (Clarendon Press, 1993), Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment (Oxford University Press, 2001; revised version, 2004), and Economics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Professor Dasgupta was elected a Fellow of the Econometric Society in 1975, Fellow of the British Academy in 1989, Member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in 1997, Member of the Third World Academy of Sciences in 2001, and Fellow of the Royal Society in 2004.  He is a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences (2001), Foreign Member of the American Philosophical Society (2005), and Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1991).

He was named Knight Bachelor by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in her Birthday Honours List in 2002 for “services to economics”.

Sir Partha is a pioneer in the field of ecological economics, which is a field that directly applies to the work and activity of the Mezimbite Forest Centre.

Here is an excerpt from my recent conversation with Sir Partha:

The word sustainability these days has become widely used and very broadly defined. In your paper Poverty, Population and Natural Resources (University of Cambridge and University of Manchester, Nov. 2009) you address “sustainable development” through these concepts:

“World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) – commonly known as the Brundtland Commission Report – defined sustainable development as “… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So, sustainable development requires that, relative to their populations, each generation should bequeath to its successor at least as large a productive base as it had itself inherited.”

Mezimbite Forest Centre meets this criteria in this way:

The trees planted, the income from trees harvested, the artisan apprenticeship knowledge capital accumulated; all transfer over to future generations in a manner that adds value rather than compromises value. Moreover, the type of sustainability model systematically cultivated at Mezimbite, is one that synergizes both economic productivity and ecological stewardship.

There is an aspect of your research that gives depth and dimension to sustainability:

That aspect is the inter-disciplinary value of economics and ecology. This has been an important component of your career. You have been involved with and have been an advocate for, innovations through the productive collaborations between ecologists and economists for many years now.

Just One Question

Could you give us an insight into your own work into bringing together both ecologists and economists; why you have felt this is a necessary union, and what value-added emerges through the ecologist-economist collaboration?

Response from Sir Partha

SirPartha.jpgIt’s hard to overestimate the influence the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had on the way environmental and resource economics developed in the US from the mid 1970s. And because US economists shape fashion elsewhere, the EPA has exercised world-wide influence. If you read the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, you will find that most frequently the natural environment is taken to be an amenity, which are often public goods (e.g., lakes and coastal zones for fishing, sailing, and snorkeling). How such goods should be valued is a question that intrigued economists in the US. That led to the development of ingenious methods for estimating the worth of environmental amenities, such as contingent valuation methods, or CVMs. There are now literally hundreds and hundreds of highly sophisticated articles on the valuation of amenities.

By the late 1970s I had begun trying to unravel the pathways that result in the persistence of rural poverty in poor countries (Africa, South Asia). The writings of anthropologists convinced me that in those places the natural environment (or what should be called natural capital) is a direct input in household production; they are not amenities. Drinking water and fuel-wood are ready examples, as are local forest products (gum, leaves, fibres, herbs). Sadly though, an enormous literature on development economics paid not the slightest attention to natural capital. Development economists, or so I discovered, also took the natural environment to be composed of amenities. It seemed to me that’s how political leaders in developing countries were getting away with the thought that the environment should be of concern to societies only when they become rich. Ignoring natural capital meant subsidizing their use in industrial production and services. That meant production and consumption activities in most poor countries were in one essential sense “anti-poor”. As late as 1988 I took the opportunity to lobby those of my friends in charge of the Journal of Development Economics to solicit articles on environment and development; but to no effect.

Your Mezimbite Forest Center is doing precisely the kind of work that’s reflected in the ideas I was promoting in my book. Taken together, planting, husbanding, and using hardwoods in the way you are doing at your Center is very much among the practices that are needed to make economic development sustainable.

In The Control of Resources, published in 1982, I suggested that the natural environment can be seen as comprising forms of capital that are self-regenerative but which are in danger of exhaustion from excessive use. (Previously, Geoffrey Heal and I had developed the economics of exhaustible resources in our 1979 book, Economic Theory and Exhaustible Resources.) While writing The Control of Resources (that was the late 1970s) I realized that that meant nature should be viewed as a gigantic, interconnected factory, producing goods and services all the while, at different speeds and at different spatial scales. That meant, at least to me, that environmental and resource economists should study that factory and unravel the pathways by which Nature responds to disturbances and reshapes Herself. Your Mezimbite Forest Center is doing precisely the kind of work that’s reflected in the ideas I was promoting in my book. Taken together, planting, husbanding, and using hardwoods in the way you are doing at your Center is very much among the practices that are needed to make economic development sustainable.

However, at the time I am talking of (the late 1970s), I knew no ecology, nor had I ever heard the name. The London School of Economics (LSE), which is where I taught then, is a social science university. There were no biologists on the Faculty. Neither the library nor the LSE’s bookshop had any item in the natural sciences. The models I constructed in my book were based on a few works on pollution and fisheries that I had obtained from colleagues.

Sometime in 1979 I came across, quite by chance, a treatise with the title, Ecoscience by Paul and Anne Ehrlich and John Holdren). That book was what I had been waiting for without knowing. Because the work was non-mathematical, I tried to formulate mathematically the ecological processes its authors had described, so as to produce quantitative estimates of the effects of policy or technological change on Human-Nature interactions. My book contains those first attempts. That experience convinced me that ecologists and economists need to collaborate if Humanity is ever going to understand our relationship with Nature. But I didn’t get to know any ecologist at a personal level until 1989.

Despite progress, environmental and resource economics, or, to be more accurate, ecological economics, remains isolated from the main body of contemporary economic thinking.

I first met Paul Ehrlich at a dinner at Stanford University’s Faculty Club in Autumn 1989. The occasion was a lecture by Malin Falkenmark on the water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. By then I had come to recognize Ehrlich’s stature among ecologists, but had only just realized that over the years he had gathered round him an enormously powerful group of applied ecologists. Unwittingly, I disarmed him by telling the dinner guests that Ecoscience had greatly influenced my 1982 book on the control of resources. I don’t believe Ehrlich had ever had a compliment paid to him by a mainstream economist. As he had a robust disdain for contemporary economists, I don’t believe he had ever made an overture to Stanford economists to help make ecological economics into a discipline that would be respected by both ecologists and economists. It may even be that he was under the impression modern economics is incapable of absorbing ecology. It wouldn’t have been his fault for thinking that, for no one had explained to him otherwise.

My knowledge of ecology at that time was based solely on a reading of Ecoscience. Because no one had taught me the subject face to face, my understanding wasn’t firm. I knew particular models well, but had little appreciation of over-arching ecosystems. Ehrlich in turn was innocent of economics, but in time realized that I wouldn’t mislead him by making false claims about what my discipline can or cannot deliver. So we became each other’s students.

Our tutorials began at small meetings and subsequently during walks on the Stanford Hills. Progress was slow, because although our concerns were the same, our professional languages were different. So as to enlarge those occasions into a regular seminar, we approached Walter Falcon, who was then Director of the newly created Centre for International Studies. In addition to Ehrlich and myself, regular members at the seminar included the ecologists Gretchen Daily, Anne Ehrlich, Hal Mooney, and Peter Vitousek, and the economists Kenneth Arrow, Walter Falcon, Lawrence Goulder, and David Starrett. There may have been seminars like ours elsewhere, but it was ours that spread to Europe in the following year to create a self re-enforcing movement that in due course spread further, to South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Grants from the World Institute of Development Economics Research and the MacArthur Foundation enabled us to establish a teaching programme in environmental and resource economics for young university teachers of economics in poor countries.

In 1991 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences re-named a dormant institute in its books the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics.

The Academy appointed my friend Karl-Goran Maler to its Directorship. He had a good deal to say on the matter of who should be invited to Chair the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board; which is why for the next six years I came to Chair a Board that included a mix of environmental and social scientists, including Bert Bolin, Paul Ehrlich, C. S. (“Buzz”) Holling, Bengt-Owe Jansson, Assar Lindbeck, Simon Levin, Helga Nowotny, and Robert Solow. I mention them here because without the backing of such a commanding group, Maler and I couldn’t have been in a position to use the enormous prestige of the Royal Swedish Academy to develop a project we had had in mind for over a decade, which was to help build capacity in environmental and resource economics in the South. Grants from the World Institute of Development Economics Research (WIDER) and the MacArthur Foundation enabled us to establish a teaching programme in environmental and resource economics for young university teachers of economics in poor countries. The South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE) is a direct descendent of that programme, as is the Cambridge University Press journal, Environment and Development Economics.

The Beijer Board inherited two research programmes. One, on ecosystem complexity, was a failure. But the other, directed by the economist Charles Perrings, on the economics of biodiversity, was remarkably successful in bringing together ecologists and economists from different parts of the world to define a style of work that led to subsequent research on the economics of resilience and other related properties of ecosystems.

Today collaboration among ecologists and economists is becoming, if not a commonplace, certainly not infrequent.

With Jansson’s help, one of the first moves Maler made was to establish a two-day meeting at the marine field station on the island of Asko in the Trosa archipelago following each year’s Board Meeting. Board Members and invited scholars socialized and discussed research problems (Ehrlich and I moved our Stanford walks to Asko), but at set times we gathered for the official purpose in hand. In a sense, however, there was no official purpose; it wasn’t the practice to be issued even a background paper. All we were given was a theme for discussion. The meetings had, and I believe continue to have, the flavour of what I have experienced at Quaker Meetings. People spoke only when they were moved to speak. The difference was that as the congregations were a mix of ecologists and economists, pretty much everyone was moved to speak all the time. The statements we prepared, most of which were subsequently published, weren’t research articles. They were outlines of research problems, a bit like reconnaissance exercises. Today collaboration among ecologists and economists is becoming, if not a commonplace, certainly not infrequent.

Despite that progress, environmental and resource economics, or, to be more accurate, ecological economics, remains isolated from the main body of contemporary economic thinking. Evidence of that isolation has been provided strikingly, even if unintentionally, by a 2006 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, where the authors identified what has mattered to the economics profession since 1970, by surveying 41 of the most prominent refereed economics journals. In his Plenary Lecture in 2007 at the Annual Conference of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, Ehrlich observed that the following words appeared neither in that article, nor in the titles of the top 146 articles (500 cites or more) in those 41 journals: “abatement, aquifer, …, biotic, …, carrying capacity, climate, …, ecosystem, …, fertility, forest, …, pollution, population, poverty, …, soil, …, toxic, …, warming, and water.”

As you can see, we have a long way to go.


  1. Kim Gardi Abelman03-01-2012

    Sir Partha, WOW! As a South African living in America, your description of the natural environment as an “amenity” epitomizes how Western civilizations, and especially America, turn most “good” things into “goods”. In contrast, your highlighting of “natural capital”, and the work of Ecoscience to protect it, is so noble and encouraging.

    Thank goodness Ecology and Economy have married!

    However it is sad to see that this marriage remains potentially still isolated. But with brilliant minds like yours, and Ehrlich, and the Grants you garnered, give us all hope for endeavors like Mezembite.

    How can one “lobby” further for this “natural capital” so dear to Southern Africa?

  2. Allan Schwarz03-01-2012

    I know the feeling of having no precedent when you are sitting in the woods, one’s library is severely restricted, common sense becomes ones only resource guide.

    Right now I am imagining just how far Mezimbite would be on its road to sustainability if I had access to the books written or read by Sir Partha instead of paying some rather expensive school fees.

    The guiding principle use here has been, “pay all your bills”. Which means that there are no externalities, if you need a bridge build it, if you are using a biological resource, make sure you put back what you take out, it is used at or below the rate that it grows back, and lasts longer, if you need skilled people, train them, and don’t pass the buck, don’t delegate responsibility upwards to governments, it just won’t happen. Pay the bill, and cost it into your normal accounts. And believe it or not if you are reasonably efficient it is possible to deliver quality goods at the same price as the guys who don’t.

    In the end good resource management, good neighborliness, good business, good ecology and sound economics are all the same thing just written in different languages.

    Allan Schwarz

  3. Karim03-02-2012

    Well then, taking Ghana as a case study in Sir Partha’s theory of bridging the divide between and synergizing the potential of Economics and Ecology – how does this kind of theory play out on the ground in Ghana?

    What factors need to come together?

  4. Karim03-02-2012

    What about the ecological value of food?

  5. Allan03-02-2012

    There is a severe danger in developing policy that we make the mistake that almost all politicians make and that is thinking we solve problems by making policy and in some cases then legislating it. They think and behave as if the job is then done.

    That is only the beginning, and in fact in many cases we are able and do act on our own long before their policies are thought out. We need to pay attention to the full picture (ecology/economics) and behave ethically.

    The policy makers will slowly be dragged along behind us.

  6. Allan03-02-2012

    Don’t forget food ecology/economy also means family planning.

  7. Allan03-02-2012

    The basic rule in practical Economics/Ecology is to put back what you take out, so please include reforestation in part of your plans.

  8. Karim03-02-2012

    So we lead by good example and the policy-makers get dragged along since they need to align themselves with good examples… I like that! You’re on to something there…

  9. Allan03-02-2012

    I fear Lorena that we are embarrassing ourselves in the developing world to by continuing to use neocolonial economic models. Whatever happened to the reality of the Independence that we all fought so hard for?

  10. Karim03-02-2012

    So what I recall is that fireside chats in Ghana often refer to the Asase Ya of the Ashanti people …

  11. Jonathan Pierce03-03-2012

    What Martin Palmer says about us being “fragile” in the above comment dovetails with the previous article in which Professor Jeremy Geidt says the following:

    “… mass consumer products and the very commercialism of our modern culture are, like gunpowder in Hotspur’s day, now available abundantly. Consumerism has run away with itself. It has become an unrestrained and demoralizing force. And the endangered species in this new equation, is our very soul.”

    Our soul is indeed “endangered” from the sheer force of ecologically unaware consumerism. To restore our souls, we can take a simple walk in the park (as Martin Palmer suggests above), or a hike, or somehow commune with Nature.

    To restore our planet takes a lot more awareness, focus, discipline. A very good plan.

    Planting 1,000,000 trees as Mezimbite is hoping to by 2015 is a damn good plan !

    To have more good plans – more “rich models” – like Mezimbite, we need to encourage a growing “love affair” between theoretical and practical intentions. We need to bring the Sir Partha’s and the Allan’s in the same room and the same world.

    At present, they practically live on different planets!

    Jonathan Pierce
    Senior Ecological Research Scientist
    Cambridge University, UK

  12. Jeremy03-03-2012

    Jonathan — I very much appreciate your quoting me on commercialization and consumer culture. I would like to say I’d never read a book on Economics in my life.

    Not until recently – when an economist friend of mine at Harvard gave me a nice, slim volume entitled:

    Economics: a very short introduction
    … by Sir Partha Dasgupta, published by Oxford University Press.

    There is a charming story (and a profound lesson in developmental economics) in the introduction about what Sir Partha calls his “literary grandchildren” – Becky and Desta.

    I shall request the editors of this magazine to look into publishing a story excerpt.

  13. Jeremy03-03-2012

    Now you see – this is precisely why I advocated the occasional harmless banter about The British Toast Rack.

    To bring a little levity to all this intense discussion.

  14. Karim03-03-2012

    Oh no you don’t Jeremy…

    Now look here – I had to literally shut down the comment section after the previous post because the banter on The British Toast Rack was getting out of control.

    I shut it down at 100 comments.

    We can’t start bantering about The British Toast Rack when we have an article by an eminent Cambridge University economist who has been knighted by The Queen.

    I won’t have it!

  15. Jeremy03-03-2012

    Very Churchillian Mr. Cox!

    I salute you.

  16. Karim03-03-2012

    Alright now look you two: pack it in!

    This is a serious discussion about Ecology and Economics and we will have none of that toast rack business aired here – is that clear?

    If it continues any further I shall have to ban you both to The Curmudgeon’s Corner where you can banter about The British Toast Rack to your heart’s content.

    But not here in this article by Sir Partha Dasgupta – I will not have it. Sir Partha is a guest and we are not being hospitable to him by bringing up The British Toast Rack.

  17. Jeremy03-03-2012

    What can be more “hospitable” than The British Toast Rack?

    I think Russell Platt, the breakfast manager at The Savoy put it best:

    A polished silver toast rack of fresh, warm toast helps elevate a humble breakfast to more of an occasion.

    It is after all the most important meal of the day.

    A man after my own heart!

    And Sir Partha is a Knight of the Realm after all. He is surely a man who has the savoire faire to appreciate something as elegant as The British Toast Rack.

    Afternoon Tea at The Savoy Hotel, London

  18. Karim03-03-2012

    Pack it in Jeremy – or else I am banning you from this comment section…

  19. David Park Curry03-03-2012

    David Park Curry
    Senior Curator of Decorative Arts
    American Painting and Sculpture
    Baltimore Museum of Art

    Isn’t it wonderful that “ordinary” household objects are so very fraught with layered meanings that they can stimulate a long chain of commentary like this?

    Thanks to Karim for adding the Baltimore Museum of Art’s silver toast rack to the discussion.


  20. The Editor03-03-2012

    … Jeremy, you are straying off course.

    What is your solution to move forward and get us back on track with addressing the pressing issues on Ecology and Economics in Sir Partha’s article?

  21. Jeremy03-03-2012

    I say now look here Editor – you do need to start by giving me some credit for cracking open Sir’s book..

    Economics: a very short introduction
    … by Sir Partha Dasgupta, published by Oxford University Press.

    I am a Shakespearean actor after all – I always failed miserably at understanding books with numbers in them. And that book has a lot of numbers and calculations in it – I suspected that it even uses some… calculus.

    Arithmetic and I always maintained a healthy distance apart.

    Calculus! Now that is frightening – just fills me with dread I can tell you…

  22. Karim03-03-2012

    You are trying my patience Jeremy – now for the final time:

    What is your solution to move forward and get us back on track with addressing the pressing issues on Ecology and Economics in Sir Partha’s article?

    Answer the question.

  23. Jeremy03-03-2012

    Well, as they say in The House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Question Time:

    “I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago..”

    The House of Commons, London, UK

    Which is to say that in Comment # 21, I stated the following:

    There is a charming story (and a profound lesson in developmental economics) in the introduction about what Sir Partha calls his “literary grandchildren” – Becky and Desta.

    I shall request the editors of this magazine to look into publishing a story excerpt.

  24. The Editor03-03-2012

    That’s true – you did say that back in Comment # 21 didn’t you?

    I may have been eh.. a bit remiss in following up on your request.

  25. Jeremy03-03-2012

    A “bit remiss” ? A “bit remiss”…

    That was in Comment # 21 and we are now in Comment # 47 – that is not “a bit remiss” that is downright negligent !

    “A bit remiss” …

  26. Allan03-04-2012

    I was never a student of Nicholas Negroponte. Karim and I were students together in Ricky Leackock’s film class, while I was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the crazy and challenging environmental artists who opened the minds of Nicholas and others to what positive things technology could really be applied to.

  27. Allan03-04-2012

    I would like to change the direction of the discussion to a “case study” of the economics/ecology marriage. And why it is a habit of the children of this union to always go back to first principles.

    When you want a new desk, it would be lovely to buy one from Mezimbite, made of Panga Panga (Milletia stuhlmanii).

    To achieve that we will cut down some trees, within the sustainable yield of course. If the logs are transported to a mill in China, the current way most people are doing it, 5 cubic meters of logs are transported to produce one cubic meter of high quality timber. Making the desk, another 50% is wasted, that is a rate of 10% product to raw material. It costs about $50,00 per cubic meter to truck the logs to port or a local mill, a further $200.00 per cubic meter to transport the logs, which incidentally is illegal, to China.

    Setting up a mobile mill in the forest (the environmental impact is much lower than skidding the logs) and making your desk in the same place costs us a lot less in transport alone. $50.00 vs $2,500.00 before we reach the level playing field.

    We have a whole lot of additional expenses such as local training artisans to do the job and re-planting trees in order to do a responsible job.

    What that means to the consumer:

    We made a desk for the administrator of Gorongosa National Park. It is not cost effective to make one as the set up costs are then more than the labor cost of that desk, so we made a small series of six desks (a dozen would have been even better, but you learn). As the park is our neighbor we delivered it at the ex-works price, he was very happy and got a few more orders.

    One of the desks was sent to our shop in Johannesburg, with our own chain of value, and a generous markup it was sold after 7 weeks on the floor (we had only been open for 7 weeks). The person who bought it was a junior academic at Wits University which is close buy. His pocket does not allow an expensive piece of furniture, he had been looking and had found an Ikea type made in China desk, but was not happy (slave labor in China and deforestation in Indonesia etc) about the quality as it plainly would last only a few years before having to be sent to the dump.

    Our desk on the other hand will last him his lifetime, his grandchildren will fight over who inherits it. It looks and feels like a real desk.

    He paid the same, for an object of quality and provenance (if we had made a dozen in the series it would have been even cheaper).

    Plainly when you pay a little attention to the ecology and the economics together there are some serious benefits to all of us..

  28. Allan03-04-2012

    Fastidious busybody editors are the price of facilitating good discussion. I fear that when you have your own and if I submit my toast made of whole German rye your editor may send me to the rack.

    • Karim03-04-2012

      Good one gpc – aka the future Editor of the forthcoming wesbite The British Toast Rack dot com..

  29. Karim03-04-2012

    Allan, your comment is extremely rich in content with a number of interconnected subjects all of which are potent and essential.

    Thanks for taking the time to compose this comment.

    I am confident we can take components of it and build a discussion on the components. You open by addressing the economics/ecology marriage so let me address this component of “marriage” within this comment:


    To clarify: the core of what you and I mean by “marriage” is this:

    We are referring to the “marriage of disciplines and the synergies of actions“:

    Marrying Ecology with Economics – something Sir Partha Dasgupta has spent much of his life facilitating.

    Marrying the non-digital technology of Mezimbite; where technology as you have often said to me, is “chisels, hammers, lathes..” with digital technology such as this website.

    It is a marriage of disciplines, and that marriage, that eclectic inter-disciplinary mindset, cultivates an enlightened worldview.


    One of the attributes I found to be positive about Negroponte when we took classes at the Media Lab at MIT with Ricky Leacock, is that “Nick had a knack” for creating an eclectic synergy. And one of the reasons we all became fiercely loyal Apple users way back when you and I were MIT students, is because of Steve Jobs – who symbiotically shared Nick Negroponte’s view of cultivating an eclectic, inter-disciplinary atmosphere.


    While the effete Ivy League toffs watched soppy romantic comedies, and read Jane Austen novels by the Charles River as the rowers glided blithely past; we at MIT had our own exclusive list of films and TV programs. And at the very top of our list was “Truimph of the Nerds“.

    Let Ivy Leaguers marinate in soppy Merchant/Ivory productions of Room with a View, The Bostonians, The Europeans, Jane Austen in Manhattan or Howard’s End.

    We at MIT had our very own movie and the star of that movie was the late Steve Jobs who demonstrated the value of eclectic atmospheres with his idea of bringing together “poets and artists and zoologists and historians“:

    Ultimately, it comes down to taste.

    It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. Picasso had a saying: good artists copy, great artists steal.

    And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas, and I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.

    —Steve Jobs
    Triumph of the Nerds, PBS, June 1996

    • Allan03-04-2012

      Besides the idea that MIT is a nerd U is nonsense, in my day in our rugby club we made toast of Harvard.

      • Karim03-04-2012

        Nerds with braun then :) You South Africans and your rugby

        • Jeremy03-04-2012

          Allan what did you think of Invictus? Good movie, no?

          François Pienaar’s role is played by Matt Damon who is a local boy you know – he went to school literally five minutes from where I live at CPSCambridge Rindge and Latin.

          • Allan03-04-2012

            As a movie, yes pretty good, but I lived the inside track of its politics so it is an unfair question.

        • Allan03-04-2012

          Beat them at Cricket too! and I forget, Chess and Go!

  30. Jeremy03-04-2012

    Well pardon me Editor! I make my living teaching the novels by Jane Austen and Henry James – the basis for many of those most marvelous Merchant Ivory films.

    Allan we too have our own respect for “chisels” at Harvard – chiseled features of our Romanesque young male undergraduates who woo pretty girls sitting with them by the Charles River, Shakespeare’s sonnets cradled in one hand, bottle of wine in the other.

    And the reason I know all this ?..

    Because they come to me for advice on selecting the right sonnet. I often suggest Sonnet 18:

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
    Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
    And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
    And every fair from fair sometime declines,
    By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
    But thy eternal summer shall not fade

    • Allan03-04-2012

      When I train any of my artisans we begin by playing “Kim’s game” which is all about learning to see and observe.

      It is the careful and polite crafting of observed societal prejudice and injustice in Jane Austen (I must admit to not having any Henry James in my library/kitchen at Mezimbite so send me a few books) which directed quite a few of us to look again at our lives on the banks of the Charles and do something about it.

  31. Karim03-04-2012


    • Jeremy03-04-2012


  32. Karen Fink Perlmutter03-04-2012

    Okay, Okay… I got it guys, here it is…

    Okay so first of all, do you guys know what “schmutz” is?

    Okay so schmutz is Yiddish for like all the extra like “gunk” or messy overflow of food – I think it’s originally German as well for like “messy stuff” – you know, like jam, or mustard and stuff.

    Okay so I needed that for the set-up. Now here goes:

    A Ghanian guy, a British guy and a Jewish guy .. are having breakfast.

    The Ghanian guy brings his puff-puff bofrot (Ghanian donut). The British guy brings his toast and… of course.. The British Toast Rack.. and the Jewish guy – hey!

    Can’t we make it a Jewish gal – like me… So – I bring along my bagel to the breakfast meet and it’s got all this, like, you know – schmutz… onion, mustard, pickle – you gotta have pickles – right? – you get the idea – lots of schmutz

    So now the British guy says to the Jewish gal

    “My dear, would you care to squeeze your bagel into my toast rack?”

    And the Jewish gal says –

    “Honey, look – you have a classy rack I’ll admit – what is that… silver-plated?.. but look – if I do squeeze into your rack whose gonna clean up all the – you know – schmutz?..”

    And the British guy say –

    “My dear, I shall gladly clean up the schmutz – may I say – you also have a nice rack!”

    And the Jewish gal says –

    “Why thank you good sir!”

    Whadya think guys ?..

  33. The Editor03-04-2012

    I think you are henceforth banned from this comment section.

  34. Allan03-04-2012

    and the Jewish African guy with a British daughter founded Mezimbite

    • Jeremy03-04-2012

      Why British daughter?

      • Allan03-04-2012

        her mother is English, just trying to make the point that the characters like Ms. Austen’s can be a little more complex.

        • Jeremy03-04-2012


  35. Kim Gardi Abelman03-04-2012

    Schmutz! Ah – now I know I feel right at home – I am a “Jewish gal” too!

  36. Editor03-04-2012

    … Do not hesitate. Go with the flow..

    If Jeremy can connect Shakespeare‘s Hotspur to Modern Consumerism [previous post] then you can most certainly connect Pirandello to African Development.

    Tell us more Kim…

  37. Kim Gardi Abelman03-04-2012

    Well, I think that first of all Africa is “counter-intuitive”.

    And by that I refer to the kinds of “intuition” we have developed through Western education which is stodgy and formulaic. We need – we – not Africa – but we need plans, program, policies.

    We need to feel secure that we have a plan of action. We can’t go with the flow…

    Go with the Choas and Creativity. What Allan’s done at Mezimbite is go with the flow

    We Westerners need to presuppose and presume and pre-plan. That is part of our nature – that is why we built Empires.

    Now we are in a habit flow, and so when we create policy for African Development we create formulas, templates, plug-ins. We incubate these formulas in our great universities, then hatch and release to the NGO’s out in the field who implement them.

    We do not listen.

  38. Karim03-04-2012

    We do not listen.”

    That is what conservationist Richard Leakey used to say when I worked for him years ago on ecological conservation methods in Kenya.

    He told me once about policy makers from a major university and think tank in America who had come to Kenya to impose a development formula:

    The Maasai Herdsmen

    The Western Policy Makers observed that the Masaai tribespeople – who are nomadic – did not utilize a certain area in the arid north of Kenya that was lush and green, for the grazing of their cattle.

    Instead, during the rainy season, when this area was lush and green the Maasai instead grazed their cattle in the savannah regions, foraging for scattered clumps of grass.

    The Maasai Deal

    So the “Smartest Guys in the Room” – you know, the MIT and Harvard type guys who think they know it all and feel entitled – decided to section off this unused grazing area for property development and then went back to Washington DC with big smiles and self-congratulatory reports of “economic development progress”. They’d done a deal.

    A hot deal!

    It is only years later they realized just how “hot” it was.. the Maasai Elders, in their ecological wisdom, had advised the young cattle herdsman to stay clear of the lush green areas until the wet rainy season was over. And forage for left-over grass clumps.

    Then, when it was unbearably hot in the dry season, they could take their cattle to the lush areas – which was their “insurance policy”. The Maasai had been living like this for centuries – since the 15th Century when these Nilo-Saharan people emigrated to northern Kenya from South Sudan.

    The Maasai Elders

    Their Elders knew intuitively how to keep an ecological balance to sustain the land.

    Like Allan and his artisans at Mezimbite, they lived according to the rhythm of the land, they went with the flow

    ..Until of course, The Smartest Guys in the Room, with their big fancy degrees and “pre-programed policy plans” destroyed the delicate ecological balance for good.

    Graduate School Advice

    The context in which I had this discussion with Richard Leakey is also revealing:

    I was a young undergraduate and asking his advice on graduate school. He said he could only speak from his own personal view which was this:

    Short version:

    “Grad school – total.. waste of time” (language a bit more colourful than I can print here)

    Longer version:

    His dad, Louis Leakey, who had a doctorate in Zoology from Cambridge University (where Sir Partha now teaches), worked with a lot of Western educated policy makers and he was not too impressed by the over-educated. And so Richard himself decided to not go to university. He saw it as a potential straight-jacket and constriction of a person’s natural intelligence – what Harvard professor Howard Gardener calls being Nature Smart.

    My mentor Richard Leakey
    with a mountain of ivory confiscated
    from poachers in Kenya

    Now Kim – tell me more about Luigi Pirandello…

  39. Kim Gardi Abelman03-04-2012

    Well, let’s set the precedent by looking at Comments #12 and Comment #13:

    Comment #12 (Allan):

    We need to pay attention to the full picture (ecology/economics) and behave ethically.

    The policy makers will slowly be dragged along behind us.

    Comment # 13 (Karim):

    So we lead by good example and the policy-makers get dragged along since they need to align themselves with good examples… I like that! You’re on to something there…

    Now what is the subtext of what you are both saying? You are saying this:

    “Let us initiate development models (as Allan has done with Mezimbite) and then, as an afterthought, let us search for authors of policy papers and white papers, and plans to replicate the model.”

    That is really what we are doing. And that is why Oxford economist Paul Collier, the author of The Plundered Planet has said of Mezimbite:

    “So, congratulations! Let’s hope this is a model that is imitated.”

    What is Paul Collier really saying?

    He is saying these guys – Allan and his artisans – they are characters – like characters in a play – they do not need to be “written in”, they need to be “listened to” and “heard”.

    And now, people who are major policy advisors, major “authors” – like Paul Collier and Sir Partha Dasgupta – are listening to and writing around Allan and his artisans.

    Not writing for them, but writing around them.

  40. KIm Gardi Abelman03-04-2012

    No, it’s not like Waiting for Godot.

    Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot and Pirandello’s Six Characters are both “absurdist plays” but the difference is in intent:

    In Waiting for Godot people are just waiting around.

    Like people in Africa waiting to have the big Western NGO’s “save” them. These NGO’s – these NGodots – they may one day come – or, they may never show up.

    But in Six Characters there is a sense of initiative and self-motivation. Let’s start something – let us risk – let us try. We may fail miserably but, as Goethe said:

    “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  41. Jeremy03-04-2012

    Well you know Kim, I played the Senior Actor in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author in various productions over the years, the most recent of which was in 1996 – here is the link:

    However, the play I would love to tell you about comes from your homeland, Kim – from South Africa.

    In the early 1980’s when your country (and Allan’s) was in the thick of Apartheid (now there’s a “thick” policy..) we were in touch with playwright Athol Fugard.

    Fugard’s dissident play “Master Harold and the Boys” was banned in his homeland and to we found him a new home at the Yale Repertory Theatre where I was teaching before I came over to Harvard.

    We launched it and then it went on to play on Broadway and at the Lyceum Theatre.

    There is a theme in Fugard’s play – the theme of Two Worlds – which plays out in Sir Partha Dasgupta’s description of Becky and Desta which is featured in his book:

    Economics: a very short introduction
    … by Sir Partha Dasgupta, published by Oxford University Press.

  42. Jeremy03-04-2012

    Yes, there is the institutionalized racism – but it is the more subtle economic apartheid in Fugard’s play that I was reminded of once again (after 30 years – we staged at Yale in 1982) when reading Sir Partha’s depiction of Becky and Desta.

    Whether we are honest with ourselves or not, there is an institutionalized economic apartheid in the world.

    We live in Two Worlds.

    And in the field of African development these Two Worlds need to dance together.

  43. Jeremy03-04-2012


    The genius of Fugard’s play is that it uses the idea of ballroom dancing as a metaphor.

    Because when you think about it – it is about dancing… Ballroom dancing.

    Mezimbite has a gift for making this dance between Africa and the West look easy – and stylish – look like it could be enjoyable and pleasant as well as hard work. I believe that is why we all wish to be part of the experience.

    It is not a misery sob story, it is not a story of poor, downtrodden African people that is a tearjerker like all those horribly manipulative celebrity videos on Africa that are continually thrust before us. And make us feel guilty and manipulate us into participating. Mezimbite is nothing like that.

    Just look at the Mezimbite website – look at the participants – most of all look at the artisans themselves – they have smile and they have style. They have an attitude. They’ve “got it going on” as the young people say today…

    Smile in Style! – The New African Development Model

    I don’t feel sorry – ever – for Africa when I see their optimistic faces and their incredibly stylish products – the home-ware, the furniture, the jewelry. Inspiring!

    Mezimbite has what we call in the business “size” – “charisma” – it has this magnetism that makes you want to be part of it precisely because it is not needy, not begging you to be part of it – on the contrary, it behaves like it can easily do without you.

    Now that is the kind of African development model I want to dance with!

    I think what Lorena was referring to earlier on in terms of the synergy between Sir Partha’s theory and Allan’s practice is a dance metaphor. There is a sense of harmony and synergy and that creates the most fluid dance movement. In terms of what Kim says about Pirandello – it is her idea of “going with the flow”. A good dancer deconstructs all preconceived notions and plans and then lets the rhythm take over. Of course you need practice and a plan. But you need flexibility and fluidity as well.

    I like the spirit of Mezimbite. It makes me feel upbeat and hopeful.

    We don’t want to give these Africans a hand-out we don’t want to shed a tear for them we want to dance with them! Athol Fugard put it best in Master Harold and the Boys:

    Danny Glover in a revival of his original role
    as Willie in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys

    SAM: Ja, make it smooth. And give it more style. It must look like you’re enjoying yourself.

    WILLIE: How can I enjoy myself? Not straight, too stiff and now it’s also glide, give it more style, make it smooth… Haai! Is hard to remember all those things, Boet Sam.

    SAM: That’s your trouble, you are trying too hard.

    WILLIE: I try hard because it is hard.

    SAM: But don’t let me see it. The secret is to make it look easy. Ballroom must look happy, Willie, not like hard work. It must.. Ja!…

  44. Jeremy03-05-2012

    Kim – I see now from your Comment # 64 and # 65 that Western formulaic thinking can really be an impediment when developing African development models.

    African development models need to be developed with the people they are being developed for – not the people who feel comfortable with formulaic templates.

    There is an irony that those in the West that are in face willing to deconstruct their constrained and formulaic thinking are often considered outliers in society.

    Luigi Pirandello was actually considered a member of the Théâtre de l’Absurde (Theatre of the Absurd) along with Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Fernando Arrabal and Edward Albee.

    The only reason I mention this is that I imagine that the unconventional and de-constructivist approach that Allan has taken would make him a natural member of the African Development de l’Absurde.

  45. Malima03-05-2012

    Having read some of Sir Partha’s work for a course I TA’ed on energy and environmental considerations for engineering, I greatly admire his approach to collaboration to bring about a more complete integration of economics in ecology.

    I cannot stress enough how important this integration is to me as an environmentally-conscious engineer. In fact, my discipline couldn’t exist without this work!

    Everyone should strive to be “green”, but we can’t evaluate our choices without the economic approach.

    What a great article for Mezimbite!

    Politecnico di Milano

    Editor’s Note:

    Malima I. Wolf is a member of our Editorial Advisory Panel on Mezimbite Magazine.

    Malima completed her PhD in Mechanical Engineering from MIT in 2011, and is currently a Rocca Fellow at the Politecnico di Milano (pictured here above) in Italy.

    She recently wrote an article for MezMag on recycling systems. Malima continues to research recycling systems extensively and she has presented her work at ISSST:

    The International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technologies in 2010.

    (Also, I did speak with Sir Partha’s office a short while ago and enquired about the story of Becky and Desta featured in his book Economics: a very short introduction. Several of you have requested to read this excerpt and I shall update you when I can)

  46. Jess Rimington03-05-2012

    Sir Partha,

    Thank you for an “inside look” at the evolving sector of economics and its relationship to ecology.

    What sticks out for me is the organization that took place to further your and your colleagues’ goals. It is a rare talent to move diverse thought leaders toward a large goal over time, particularly a goal without initially defined action items. Here are some questions that I commonly ponder, which I think speak to a process you and Paul Ehrlich were able to successfully implement:

    (1) How do you create spaces for intellectual debate and discussion while also respecting people’s day to day commitments?

    (2) How do you move these discussions toward the invention of new perspectives and ideas while also transforming these budding concepts into action steps?

    (3) How do you implement these action steps in ways that remain inclusive to everyone involved in the original dialogue?

    (4) Once a new framework is moving forward (after being birthed from the space of intellectual debate & discussion) how do you continually account for the need of revision to stay relevant and effective?

    I find the evolution of ways of thinking within particular discipline’s fascinating. While reading about the initial discussions that happened at Stanford among some major players in the field, I was curious about logistics. How were the seminars structured? Was there a facilitator? How often did you and Ehrlich speak or present findings at the seminars based off of your original discussions?

    I’m also interested in the agenda for the two-day meeting(s) at the marine field station. This quote speaks to me:

    “In a sense, however, there was no official purpose; it wasn’t the practice to be issued even a background paper. All we were given was a theme for discussion. The meetings had, and I believe continue to have, the flavour of what I have experienced at Quaker Meetings. People spoke only when they were moved to speak… The statements we prepared, most of which were subsequently published, weren’t research articles. They were outlines of research problems, a bit like reconnaissance exercises.”


    As we look toward Rio + 20 I wonder if some of the constituency groups might find the best practices you and Ehrlich utilized to push this issue forward helpful in their meetings and agenda structures.

    I know I would be curious to learn more myself.

    Three frameworks that speak to similar themes and which I find intriguing:

    Citizen Circles and the potential for Peer to Peer University as a platform for group organization for learning & the spreading of ideas ( –though what’s on their website currently does not speak to their brewing potential for late 2012 & 2013

    The Management Center‘s best practices articulated in their Managing to Change the World book …they have some great guidelines for getting people to do what they committed to post-meetings/discussions.

    World Cafe (

    Kind regards,

    Jess Rimington
    Editorial Advisory Panel
    Mezimbite Magazine


    Editor’s Note

    Allan and a few other friends who have contributed to this magazine recently asked me how I knew Jess Rimington. Here is what I wrote them:

    I first met Jess Rimington when she was about 17 years old, a high school kid that had a strong vision for making an impact upon the world:

    We met at the Cape Cod middle school she once attended (where I was teaching), with a couple of Jess’ former middle school teachers, Joanne Amaru and Joan Bartlett.

    These teachers spoke to me glowingly about Jess’ legacy at this middle school:

    Jess was only 12, at the middle school, when she worked on Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program; by the time I met her at 17, Jess was a founding member of Goodall’s Youth Leadership Council, and founder of Cape Cod’s Youth Council on Sustainability.

    She subsequently decided to take a gap year before attending the Georgetown School of Foreign Services, to found a non-profit – OWYP. She ran the project throughout her time in college, and after graduation, she made OWYP her full time mission.

    And then, she really took off…

    By the time I was executive director of her old school, the kids were piling onto a bus to drive to New York City to hear Jess speak at the United Nations on Environmental Day. I remember packing them into the bus, and how exited they all were: Jess was the role model for the entire school of some 200 kids. She arranged for many of these students to have their first cultural contact with schools in Africa and Asia, through OWYP.

    She was UN keynote speaker alongside President Bill Clinton and Dr Jane Goodall.

    OWYP continues to grow from strength to strength with Jess firmly at the helm.

    Jane Goodall with students from Jess Remington’s old middle school CCLCS

  47. Allan03-05-2012

    So who will write the play “African Development de l’Absurde”?

    Any volunteers for director, and cast, make up lighting…..? I will volunteer the stage design and construction…..

  48. Kim Gardi Abelman03-05-2012

    When the characters are really alive before their author, the latter does nothing but follow them in their action, in their words, in the situations which they suggest to him.

    Luigi Pirandello

    When the artisans (read: “characters”) at Mezimbite express creativity, skill, productivity with forest products from skin care to furniture then Ford Foundation, Segal Foundation, economists Sir Partha Dasgupta and Paul Collier.. do nothing but..

    ..follow them in their action, in their words, in the situations which they suggest..”

    Pirandelloesque Policy-making. Yes, Lorena – that gives me hope too..

    Kim Gardi Abelman
    Editorial Advisory Panel
    Mezimbite Magazine

  49. Karim03-05-2012

    Jess there are three dancers on our Editorial Advisory Panel:

    There is Madhu, who is an Indian classical dancer. Then there is Lorena, who is a Latin salsa dancer. And then there is you Jess, who has very eclectic dance rituals which range from Afro Jazz to modern dance to.. “Bollywood”.

    Now that is not a coincidence. It is deliberate.

    As you know, this panel is very much about harmony between left and right brain.

    Dancers understand rhythm. They understand give and take. They know that the very first rule of dancing with a partner is that you do not step upon their toes.

    Why do you love to dance, Jess?

  50. Jess Rimington03-05-2012

    Hi Karim,

    So the reason that I just love to dance is because dancing is about individual expression and also because.. to me at least.. it is a form of storytelling

    And the art of storytelling is something we seem to be losing over time.

    Also, dance has this kind of kinetic energy .. it is a form of music and – for someone like me who does not really know how to play a musical instrument, dance is my way of experiencing and expressing music and telling stories with rhythm and musicality..


    Jess (center) and her friends doing some rather nifty Indian Bollywood moves.

  51. Karim03-05-2012

    Thanks Jess!

    Madhu teaches urban planning at MIT. She is a member of our Editorial Advisory Panel.

    Some facts about Madhu:

    Madhu Dutta-Koehler
    Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Current Research Area
    Developing planning strategies for climate change adaptation for rapidly growing cities of the global south

    Sustainability Research Area
    Sustainable urban planning and development practices; green building technology and infrastructure, environmentally sensitive urban design

    Here is an excerpt of an upcoming interview I conducted with Madhu:

    Madhu, You are a technically skilled urban planner and architect, and yet you have also studied Indian classical dance for 18 years.

    Could you tell us more about how you have managed to navigate between the technical and the aesthetic?

  52. Madhu Dutta-Koehler03-05-2012

    When aesthetics is understood as a branch of philosophy (derived from the Greek “aisthetikos“, meaning “sense of perception”), rather than merely an appreciation of beauty or appearance, the concept immediately embraces a broader notion of beauty.

    For example, when a “technical solution” is fitting, elegant, and simple yet powerful, it can also satisfy our aesthetic desires.

    Conversely, for something to be truly “aesthetic”, one cannot ignore the “technical”.

    A dance performance, for example, involves the mechanics of the body, the ability of the dancer to navigate spatially, and the power to communicate emotion silently, and while doing all these things to be able to do so beautifully!!!

    Madhu Dutta-Koehler, PhD
    Editorial Advisory Panel
    Mezimbite Magazine

  53. Karim03-05-2012

    What about you Lorena – why do you love to dance?

  54. Lorena Salem Ribeiro03-05-2012

    Why do I love to dance?

    There are many reasons that I could list over here:

    It doesn’t matter who you are, your skin color, your height, if you are fat or skinny, because the only thing that matters is ” the connection ” you have with your partner.

    Both of the dancers are there for the same goal, working together as partners, their identities melding, morphing together yet retaining their strong individual spirit – enriching each other, challenging each other, supporting each other.

    “..enriching each other, challenging each other, supporting each other..”

    Dancing and feeling the energy of the music seams to takes you out of your reality, away form your problems and routine. Like when you are watching a movie or reading a book, it seems that you transport yourself to that space so it is with dancing – you are part of a play at that moment, where the act and result of an action depends on you..

    “ this artistic expression goes over the national barriers of African with Brazilian, or Japanese with American .. it just doesn’t matter..”

    “..they will become related.. cooperate toward the same purpose !!”

    It’s a wonderful form to communicate the same language without even needing to say one word, so this artistic expression goes over the national barriers of African with Brazilian, or Japanese with American .. it just doesn’t matter.. they will become related and they will cooperate toward the same purpose !!

    A community feeling is created inside of the ballroom where even though its filled with people and dancers you’ve never seen before you will feel like home because they will speak the same language as you…

    .. And I’m not talking about the nice words you can say, but the language of your body and what he can show within the moves.. two dancers, one body.

    Beside all these rich advantages, it is also great exercise!!

    Lorena dancing the Latin Salsa

  55. Jean-Baptiste Michel03-06-2012

    The historical record is being digitized.

    The books we’ve written throughout history are being stored in silico: about 20 million of the world’s 130 million books have been preserved in this way.

    The art we have produced, the maps we have drawn, the music we sang: an enormous effort is under way to save them on hard drives. This effort, led by companies like Google and by governments, provides scientists with an incredibly detailed way to make measurements about history and society.

    These data are a fossil record of our human culture.

    Just as archeologists do, we can measure the way our culture has changed. We can measure historical trends. And with these measurement, we can discover phenomena we didn’t know existed. We can make science.

    Culturomics is the first scientific attempt to leverage these data for scientific understanding.

    We’ve used 5 million digitized books to capture the yearly changes in cultural trends over 200 years. If words in these books were lined up in 12pt font, the result would stretch to the moon and back ten times over. To make sense of such big data, we deployed simple yet powerful mathematical tools derived, in particular, from genomics (the large-scale study of genomes).

    So, we called this method culturomics: the large-scale study of cultures.

    Jean-Baptiste Michel
    Post-Doctoral Fellow
    Harvard University

  56. Editor's Note03-06-2012


    Several readers have been requesting throughout this comment thread the story of Becky and Desta which is featured in the Prologue pages of Sir Partha Dasgupta‘s book Economics: a very short introduction (Oxford U Press).

    There is an excerpt of it reprinted in the Financial Times and I have just received this most gracious message from Sir Partha permitting me to print part of the excerpt:

    Dear Mr. Ajania,

    Yes, of course, do use the material from the FT should you wish to.

    Meanwhile, I have asked Sharon to mail you a copy of the book (VSI: Economics) itself. I hope you and your colleagues find the analysis in it useful.

    Best wishes.

    Partha Dasgupta

    [Excerpt below is reprinted from the Financial Times of London]:

    It is an old question: why are some countries rich and others poor?

    Sir Partha Dasgupta, a hugely accomplished economist, born in Dhaka and educated in Delhi and Cambridge, is as well qualified as anyone to come up with an answer – which he did, delivering this year’s Royal Economic Society public lecture.

    Dasgupta began by inviting his audience, many of whom were A-level students, to consider the lives of two girls – Becky, an American, and Desta, an Ethiopian.

    Becky lives in a country with a gross domestic product per head of $46,000, life expectancy of 78 years and near-universal adult literacy.

    GDP per head in Desta’s country is $780; life expectancy is 53 years, adult literacy 36 per cent, and most women spend about 15 years bearing or taking care of children, with average fertility of more than five live births per woman.

    Familiar as this sort of data is, the numbers never fail to shock.

    As Dasgupta pointed out, Ethiopia is not notably richer than it was 5,000 years ago.


    Sir Partha’s story of Becky (a child in the West) and Desta (a child in Africa) plays out in real ways in real lives.

    A good example is Suzanne Joyal, Executive Director of JumpstartZambia.

    Suzanne has two boys which she raises in America. She also works with numerous other children around the same age as her sons in rural Zambia – which she has been visiting since 2007.

    Dancers often say that the source of rhythm and intuition and creativity is in the celiac plexus (aka the solar plexus).

    You can’t find your dance rhythm in the head – you need to find it from a deeper place.

    Most Ivory Tower African Development Policy Papers/Proposals are conceived in the head – albeit brilliantly – and not within the heart or in the solar plexus or chakras. And these models naturally reflect the cerebral and sanitized coldness, the formulaic franchise formality that results from being disconnected to the celiac plexus.

    Sometimes concerned global citizens show up in places like Mozambique and Zambia – world citizens like Allan Schwarz – a carpenter, or Suzanne Joyal – an art teacher.

    Their very professions demand that they are in touch with a deeper intuition and rhythm.

    People like Allan and Suzanne are there to embrace the chaos of Africa – they don’t try to fight it, order it, control it. And working through that chaos they then discover their creativity and rhythm. Because they are “open” to discovering it.

    As Kim Abelman said earlier – they learn to “go with the flow..”

    As Lorena described it earlier this is.. “open-ended Pirandelloesque Policy-making..”

    And as Jess clearly articulated earlier in her letter to Sir Partha (see Comment # 79):

    “It is a rare talent to move diverse thought leaders toward a large goal over time, particularly a goal without initially defined action items.”

    To Allan and Suzanne it’s about listening/discovering before formulating/formatting.

    And once they discover their rhythm they plough a practical path forward that is economically and ecologically sustainable. As suggested in an earlier comment here – this is not about “developing” (fixing) Africa – it is more about dancing with Africa.

    “Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for—for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.”

    George Balanchine

  57. Suzanne Joyal03-06-2012

    Dear Sir Partha Dasgupta,

    Your article was interesting and informative, as were the many responses of people with perspectives so different from my own. I am an artist and an educator, and find myself working on a women’s micro finance program in a remote corner of Zambia almost by accident. I believe the path I have taken to Kashikishi offers me and my team a unique perspective on the issue of economic development.

    The mission of Give a Jumpstart is to improve the lives of the children of Kashikishi by empowering the women who care for them.

    We work with vulnerable women in a community devastated by HIV and poverty, but the women of Kashikishi are also strong and joyful.

    How do these powerful women keep hope and happiness alive when faced every day with the struggles of poverty, hunger, AIDS, and death?

    What can they teach us?

    I think that many Westerners working in Africa also feel this same sense of well-being when they are there, and I believe that it is crucial that we remember that there is so much we can learn from those with less of everything but hope and happiness.

    “..there is so much we can learn from those with less of everything but hope and happiness.”

    Even at our grassroots level, we have found that:

    1. Throwing money at a problem never helps
    2. Locals have a lot to teach us from the developed world
    3. Education, nourishment, and healthcare are key
    4. When you invest in a woman, you help an entire community.

    I believe that Mezembite succeeds and thrives because they have also found this to be true.

    That being said, my questions to you would be:

    “How do you create policy that will lead to a paradigm shift where we learn from the mistakes of colonialism and empower people to make their own change?

    “How do we preserve the art and culture and history of a place, nourish and educate the people, and simultaneously avoid the institutional and corporate corruption (for lack of a better word) which currently often runs amok when large amounts of money are thrown at a situation?”

    Executive Director Suzanne Joyal is an arts educator and social entrepreneur. A graduate of Wellesley College, Suzanne has spent most of her adult life working to improve the creative opportunities of children, regardless of economic background.

    Jumpstart Goals:

    • Improve the status of women by empowering them to achieve a sustainable source of income and to become self-sufficient
    • Enable children – especially girls, orphans and vulnerable children – to complete an education
    • Provide adolescents – especially girls – with the life skills necessary to stay alive and healthy so they may reach adulthood and provide for their families.


    I began visiting Zambia in 2007, and was overwhelmed from the start by the warmth of the people I met. Working in this remote region has become a lifelong passion for me. Every time I am there, I ask myself "How can I help these amazing people keep their art and culture alive when they are faced with such adversity daily?"

    In 2008, I wrote "Kashikishi Lubuto” (

    It tells the early story of our visits in Kashikishi.

    Back then, I was able to bring art to many of the children of the village, but not their mothers. I believe that art has the power to teach us all so much.

    I want to give this opportunity of sharing their stories through art to the many hard-working women I know in Kashikishi.

    Through the organization Give a Jumpstart, we recently launched WEEL (Women’s Economic Empowerment Loan) micro lending program to help the most vulnerable women build sustainable business ventures to raise themselves out of poverty.


  58. Karim03-07-2012

    Suzanne – an attribute that you have in common with Allan and his artisans in Mozambique is that you see creativity as a resource.

    I know that as an artist you appreciated the TED Talk by Janet Echelman. As you know, Janet and I have been in touch and she will is writing a piece for Mezimbite Magazine on this very concept of the Power of the Imagination.

    Janet’s TED talk title itself is compelling:

    Taking Imagination Seriously

    Suzanne, what is it about Janet’s example that was inspiring to you and why do you also “take imagination seriously“?

  59. Suzanne Joyal03-07-2012

    On Education

    As an educator, I see that as Picasso says:

    “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

    Artists problem-solve, as do scientists, and economists, and bankers, and everyone else who is successful.

    Maybe we are all artists in our own right? When we dance (especially with a partner), or sing, or paint or sculpt, we are visualizing or listening to a problem in our heads, and working out solutions as we do. A good artist explores the “problem” in countless ways, and experiments with many different ideas before settling on a final solution.

    On Ballet Dancing

    I also danced for many years, and when I danced in the corps de ballet, I would need to visualize the dance in my own head, and also visualize how my role fit into the role of the dancers who were with me. I learned to collaborate.

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

    Thomas Alva Edison

    On Thomas Thwaites’ Toaster Project

    I was showing my boys more about The Toaster Project (from an earlier article), when I came across this quote from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

    I think that in retrospect, Janet would agree: the fact that her art supplies did not show up, is probably no longer considered a failure, because without that failure, I wonder if she would have every gotten to her enormous lacey rope sculptures.

    On Janet Echelman

    I admire and understand Janet’s decision to go for a walk on the beach when faced with such a huge crisis. It is what artists do. Because they are not constrained by existing solutions (as they usually don’t exist), they look for their solutions “outside the box”.

    On the beach, in the forest, in a pile of rags.

    My monumental netted sculptural environments move through time, animated by an ever-changing ‘wind choreography,’ making invisible air currents suddenly visible to the human eye. I make living, breathing pieces that respond to the forces of nature – wind, light, water.

    Janet Echelman

    On walks on the beach..

    Maybe we should all take a walk along the beach to find our solutions: they might be right in front of our eyes, we just haven’t seen them yet.

    Mahabalipuram Beach where Janet Echelman found her inspiration
  60. The Editor03-07-2012

    The 100TH Comment Rule

    The one rule I maintain with comments on the Mezimbite Magazine is that the Comment Section must shut down after 100 comments. This a good time to pause, and to review and digest all the rich material that has already been published above.

    Looking Back

    This website is barely a couple of months old although it simply refuses to act its age… I was looking back at some of the emails between Allan and myself over the past couple of months. Here is a correspondence that might be interesting:

    Karim to Allan

    Allan – I am a bit too old school for this – I still use a fountain pen and ink bottles (Blue Bottle if you can find it) and tub pencil sharpeners, traditional Staedtler pencils (HB of course!). Writing on a computer has never felt natural to me and I have never really enjoyed it. And reading on one is even worse. Give me a battered and scuffed up old book with creasy crumply old pages any day. This digital environment is far too sanitized.

    The whole social media thing frightens me as well. I don’t understand it very much – nor am I interested to.

    And as far as “editors” are concerned my opinion about most of them (myself included) is that we are all hacks.

    Now – the conversation we had the other day about Donald Woods at the South African Daily Dispatch – risking to break the story on Steve Biko … now that is an Editor. The man had a spine. You don’t see that much these days do you? Everyone’s sold out to, or owned by, someone. Anyway, how do you think it’s going with this “blog” endeavor ?..

    Allan to Karim

    “Karim – What is really interesting to me is how quickly the blog has been converted into Mezimbite Magazine, an idea that I was not able to express at the start of the website development, but have dreamed about for a very long time:

    The gathering place for reasonably like minded people to express our views and hopefully grow into a community of common action.

    It is kind of like my kitchen at Mezimbite, where, like the Jewish dining table at which I grew up, people arrive, often some of whom I will have never met, most are a little like me, others just starving Peace Corp volunteers; and we endlessly discuss issues solving the problems of the world over lunch or coffee….. interesting.”

    Looking Forward

    There are quite a few articles to look forward to including ones from persons mentioned in this comment section such as:

    Janet Echelman, Sir Ken, Jean-Baptiste Michel and Paul Collier. Paul’s latest book, The Plundered Planet resonates with Sir Partha’s work. They are both “eco-economists” and, as can be seen from their quotes on our Home Page, they both have strongly endorsed the work of Mezimbite Forest Centre. In addition there are potential “pairings” as unconventionally juxtaposed as that of Jeremy and Thomas in the previous article.

    There are several possible combinations of disciplines and interests:

    We have an insectologist from the Miombe, a member of the Herpetologist’s League, a paleoclimatologist, a linguistic anthropologist and a free particle quantum physicist.

    Thank you Sir Partha Dasgupta

    It remains for me to thank you Professor Dasgupta, for providing us all with a most stimulating and thought-provoking article. We are grateful that you wrote for us.

    The Editor