Sunday, June 01, 2008

Resilience, in disaster relief as in environmental innovation

Two recent news items, appearing together in the May 31, 2008, issue of The New York Times, highlight that jurisdynamic qualities, resilient decisionmaking and pragmatic judgment.

First, cyclone relief in Myanmar:

Monks in MyanmarThey paddle for hours on the stormy river, or carry their sick parents on their backs through the mud and rain, traveling for miles to reach the one source of help they can rely on: Buddhist monks.

At a makeshift clinic in this village near Bogale, an Irrawaddy Delta town 75 miles southwest of Yangon, hundreds of villagers left destitute by Cyclone Nargis arrive each day seeking the assistance they have not received from the government or international aid workers.

Since the cyclone, the Burmese have been growing even closer to the monks while their alienation from the junta grows. This development bodes ill for the government, which brutally cracked down on thousands of monks who took to the streets last September appealing to the ruling generals to improve conditions for the people.

The May 3 cyclone left more than 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million survivors grappling with hunger and homelessness. This week, some of them who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages “for reconstruction.” On Friday, United Nations officials said that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.

The survivors have little left of their homes and find themselves almost as exposed to the elements as their mud-coated water buffaloes. Meanwhile, outside aid is slow to arrive, with foreign aid agencies gaining only incremental access to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta and the government impounding cars of some private Burmese donors.

In a scene the ruling generals are unlikely to see played out for themselves, a convoy of trucks carrying relief supplies, led by Buddhist monks, passed through storm-devastated villages in the delta this week. Hungry children and homeless mothers bowed in supplication and respect.

“When I see those people, I want to cry,” said Sitagu Sayadaw, 71, one of Myanmar’s most respected senior monks.

Village after storm-hit village, it is clear who has won people’s hearts. Monks were among those who died in the storm. Now, others console the survivors while sharing their muddy squalor. . . .

While the government has been criticized for obstructing the relief effort, the Buddhist monastery, the traditional center of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution people could rely on for help.

Monasteries as refugee campsThe monasteries in the delta that are still standing have been clogged with refugees. People who could help went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly have also become shelters for the homeless.

The interdependence between monks and laypeople is age-old. Monks receive alms from the laity and offer spiritual comfort in return. In villages without government schools, a monastic education is often the only option.

“The monks’ role is more important than ever,” said Ar Sein Na, 46, a monk in the delta village of That Kyar. “In a time of immense suffering like this, people have nowhere to go except to monks.” . . .

Second, insight into Detroit's inability to sell hybrid SUVs:

Detroit is hoping to cast its biggest sport utility vehicles in a new light: green.

General Motors and Chrysler are betting that their 5,500-pound, eight-seat S.U.V.’s — long the scourge of environmentalists — can be reformed as hybrid models, albeit ones getting 20 miles to the gallon.

Consumers have been slow to embrace the first two models from G.M., which are relatively new to the market.

Cindy Pittmon loves her hybrid Yukon
Cindy Pittmon of Longview, Tex., appreciates her hybrid Yukon: “It costs $75 to fill it up, and that’s lasting me two weeks instead of one.”
G.M. has sold about 1,100 of its Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon hybrids since their introduction in January, according to company sales briefings. That pace is well behind its goal of 12,000 sales a year, and a fraction of the more than 100,000 hybrids sold so far in the United States this year.

“To this point, the G.M. hybrids aren’t getting any traction at all,” said Mike Omotoso, a senior manager with the research firm J.D. Power & Associates.

Giving a four-wheel drive Tahoe a gas-electric hybrid engine raises fuel economy for city driving to 20 miles a gallon from 14.

But to get the better mileage, consumers pay a high price: $53,000, at least $4,000 more than a conventional Tahoe. . . .

Hybrid or not, large S.U.V.’s are fading fast in a market that is shifting quickly to smaller cars and crossovers, S.U.V.-like vehicles built on a car chassis.

Last year, traditional, truck-based S.U.V.’s — once the king of Detroit’s fleets and a huge source of profits — accounted for 8 percent of the nation’s market. But recently sales have dropped to 4 percent . . . .

With gas prices surging to $4 a gallon, Americans are downsizing their cars drastically. One in five vehicles sold now is a compact car, and the move to smaller vehicles is accelerating.

G.M. plans to follow the Tahoe and Yukon with hybrid versions of the Cadillac Escalade and Chevrolet Silverado pickup. Chrysler is planning hybrids of its Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen sport utilities and the Dodge Ram pickup.

But the behemoth hybrids seem out of step in a marketplace dominated by smaller hybrid models that can get more than 40 miles to the gallon.

Toyota sold 64,000 Priuses through April, a 23 percent increase over 2007. It now ranks as the ninth-best-selling car in the United States.

And while G.M. and Chrysler are converting their biggest vehicles into hybrids, other automakers are going in the other direction. Honda, for example, recently said it would build a hybrid version of its Fit subcompact. . . .

At Chrysler, sales of big S.U.V.’s have plunged 22 percent this year. But a spokesman for the automaker, Nick Cappa, said adding hybrids, which will be available this fall, reflected the company’s commitment to the full-size sport utility market.

“Why shouldn’t people with large S.U.V.’s, who need that kind of utility, be able to get a hybrid?” said Mr. Cappa. . . .

The high cost of the hybrid S.U.V.’s could limit their sales more than any other factor.

Glenn Galvan of Reno, Nev., was hoping to replace his Honda pickup with one of the G.M. hybrids until he saw the prices. “I don’t mind paying the extra cost for environmental reasons, but it doesn’t have near enough fuel savings to justify it,” he said.

The upshot: Myanmar's junta, lacking political legitimacy and moral authority, finds itself outflanked by monks who have backed their religious devotion with raw muscle and unfiltered love. General Motors and Chrysler are still trying to milk profits out of an automotive design exposed for its impracticality, even as its competitors are pushing the industry's innovative frontier past SUVs.


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