Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
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  Curled Up With a Good Book
Buy *Redheads* onlineTo paint the consequences as they exist today, here is a verbatim quote from an email sent to me from Kuala Lumpur on 21 March 2002:
“As you look out over your garden to enjoy the view, kindly transport yourself to Malaysia to imagine what it would be like here. First, it is hot, as in real hot (even by local reckoning), so you turn on the showers to cool yourself only to find the water coming out in trickles because there is water shortage (officially we are still under a dry spell as the downpours we have had of late have poured over the downstream areas instead of the catchment areas where the dams are). Then as you turn your gaze outside to comfort yourself with the lush scenery, you find the haze is everywhere, making you feel gloomy and morose. Still, I should not complain. Other places are worse off.”
It is hard to imagine what “worse” might be, save perhaps for the Aral Sea. The “haze” that forms a dome over the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Java is smoke from burning forests. Some is set alight by slash-and-burn farmers so poor they must survive on half an acre or so of millet for at most three years before the soil depletes and they must find another half acre and burn that. Most, though, comes from timber companies burning slashings from their clear-cuts so politically connected companies can lay claim to and plant another palm-oil plantation. The foliage of the oil palm is so dense very little can grow beneath it, and its productive life is 95 years. Voila, a green desert that yields a cooking oil with one of the highest LDL cholesterol contents.

Hints of ecological disaster have been looming above Asia for years. The land around Nong Khai in Thailand is barren, mostly untilled, unbearably hot. Just across the Mekong in Laos the land is covered with fertile jungle. About ten years ago politically blessed timber companies arrived and felled the Thai forests. That done, they moved on, and are now felling what little forest Cambodia still has, leaving the farmers behind, like those of Nong Khai, to poke sticks into the dead earth and wonder what they can do with the rest of their lives. To make ends meet they sell their spare daughters into the brothel trade, which is run, invisibly, by military officers.

Seven years ago I was in Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, one of the old British hill stations, to which they repaired during the hot season. Night after night at around 3 in the morning there would rise a great roar, and down from the forests of the Losing (pron. “Loh-sing”) Highlands in nearby Kelantan province came truck after truck hauling giant logs, so large only two or three could be chained to the stakebeds. Not a few trucks, not a few dozen, but several hours of them—I would stop counting at a hundred and still they came. Why at that hour? Because they left the Losing Highlands around ten at night in order to arrive and vanish behind the corrugated sheetmetal fences of coastal plywood makers and pulp chipping mills before the morning motorists could see them. Some years later there was a brief flurry of articles in the Malaysian press that the Losing Highlands was now a wasteland and no one seemed to know where the timber went or who took it away.

To be sure, the press skirted around the subject of who made the real pile off this. The Sultan of Kelantan, like many of Malaysia’s sultans, lives off selling land-use rights to Chinese timber companies. He wanted a Boeing 737 and a new palace. For that a wasteland was made. To be sure the characters involved were not so colorful as those in Paul Sochaczewski’s novel, but the ruin his novel predicts has come true all across the broad quarter-moon from Western Sumatra through Java and up to Borneo and Sulawesi.

It is interesting to compare what the Malays and Chinese are doing to these forests with what British and Dutch did with the forests of India, Sri Lanka, and part of Malaya. They cut down vast stretches of silkwood, satinwood, ironwood, mahogany, ebony, teak—a litany of the world’s most gorgeous woods—but they planted tea and rubber plantations in their stead. Today these are major segments of their national export economies.

The Malay sultans, by compare, have done absolutely nothing to turn their lands to productive use. The Chinese towkays (very wealthy men) have planted palm-oil plantations on the less hilly bits near roads. But for the most part they choose to cut and move on, in the most short-sighted and destructive business model the world has ever known.

And for what?

It would be convenient at this point to wring one’s hands and write another check to an ad-splashing environmentalist group or go paint signs for the anti-globalization cause. Not so fast. It is rapidly becoming evident that bitching about symptoms is fixing no causes. Lamenting Borneo’s lost forests does not address the fact that sixty percent of Indonesia’s labor force is unemployed. Dithering over the influx of pre-teens into brothels does not address the fact that local moneylenders charge upward of 40 percent per month, and how else can an impoverished paddy owner scrape together enough money to buy seed grain for the next rice planting or a fisher to repair the broken outrigger on his catamaran? The tourist postcards don’t show these things.

Time-honed social mechanisms are breaking down not because of land grabbing or the market mechanism or globalization, but because a mix of population and prosperity has given exploiters a powerful tool with which to divide and conquer to their advantage. There are glimpses of hope at the local level with ideas like the mini-loans of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a group in India teaching mothers how to buy their daughters out of debt bondage, and a trend in India of rural Indian women having fewer babies. But these are glimmers in a glooming sky of intellectual property rights falling increasingly to the advantage of remote corporate entities responsible only to even more remote moneyed interests. Non-governmental organizations preoccupied with grabbing and holding turf end up focusing on the means to the neglect of the ends. Most of all, those who complain loudest also tend to innovate the least.

For some time the 800-lb gorilla in the global closet has been that the Western Intellectual Tradition has slipped over the line dividing purpose and narcissism. Howsoever the American politicians phrase their ideals, their realities are grabbing, carving, weaponry, coercion, and hypocrisy. Once a wellspring of original thinking, the Western academic community increasingly flounders in incestuousness—a recent book by a famous university press whose subtitle was grandly stated as “Global Ethics in a New Century” contained fourteen essays by professors from obscure campuses in England, Wales, the USA, and Canada, but not a single contribution from the Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, business, investment, environmental, or scientific communities. Americans are unaware that the most significant threat to their hegemony over the next twenty-five years is not brewing in the Middle East or the Southern Tier countries, but in the heads of young Asians.

Except for the last sentence above, we all know all this. Why paste it on the end of a review of a book whose purpose was not intended to address these things?

Because writers like Paul Sochaczewski are who we need most right now. Not academics. Not literary-circle darlings. Not trendgrabbing scribblers. Not opportunists who will write anything so long as a film option is likely to come out of it. Mr. Sochaczewski has the talent to create a plausible story based on realities only locals know, characters who move the plot along, and a point of view forged from the pain of innocents. One prays that publishers like Sid Harta in Australia continue to support him and writers like him, because the bar-code blinkers of the American publishing and bookselling establishments will not.

Can we ask them, though, to raise the bar higher than storytelling? For two centuries novels about ideas set the standards for fiction we all hearken to today. Authors were promulgated because publishers felt they and writers had a duty to society. Now most publishers feel their duty is to shareholders, and a good deal of the fiction they support is TV printed on paper. It so happens that most of today’s truly original thinking is outside the media mainstream. If ever there existed a time to think in 50- to 100-year spans instead of till the next quarterly financial report, this is the time; and if ever there was an occasion to address the future we face using fiction to shape it, September 11 was the day it started.

Fiction has so many fruits yet unplucked. From New Age thinking come the ideas of the unity of history and that oversouls inhabit ideas. The former holds that history is neither linear nor cyclic but a group of behaviors that flux in and out of social need irrespective of time. Oversouls are behavior forms that envelope idea forms; for example, they are why fundamentalism and saintliness behave the same way in no matter in which ethos they occur. The message of these is to not look backward as we move forward. What does that mean for the most backward-looking institution of humankind, namely religion?

From Islam comes ideas such as: the state’s primary duty is to raise the poor from their poverty while encouraging the wealthy to create more of it; economics and ethics are optimal when at one with each other; the best-yielding business contract links self-interest with social advance; a market economy is a lowest-common-denominator economy but a market society is a courtyard which embraces the four main constituencies of culture: the social, the civil, the devotional, and the economic.

These are but two things I know well. There are myriads I know not, though others do. Mr. Sochaczewski is an entertaining and incisive writer with a point to make. Redheads make it well. I hope he goes on to explore the byways of mind thus far untrod, and of those inform us as well as this.

A Word About the Publisher

Sid Harta Publishers is an Australian house that specializes in books by Australian authors, or books set in or near Australia. Their representative Andrew Karam describes their interest in Redheads thus:

“Sid Harta became interested in Paul’s book because it tells a story that needs to be told—some of the realities behind the international environmental movement as understood by a member of this group. Paul does an excellent job of pointing out the necessity of this movement, the importance of the research performed, while also tipping from the pedestal the many environmental activists who tend to place themselves there. By describing how scientists, activists, natives, governments, and funding organizations interact with one another, Redheads helps the reader to understand that everyone engaged in environmental activism, whether "pro" or "anti", is a person with some sort of expectations and agenda.

“On the one hand, this does show that all sides abuse the system to some extent. On the other, showing the participants to be human makes it a lot easier for the reader to empathize with them and to see the environmental movement as a human endeavor that we can all aspire to join and make a contribution. It is much more refreshing to read about real people than idealized people, they are much more interesting and immediate.”

© 2002 by Dana DeZoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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