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Gross National Happiness or Gross National Product? Essays

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Visual artist Mirjam Bürer collects on her travels impressions, sights and seeds of local crops, especially in what are considered to be their centres of origin. She is especially interested in central Asia where many local crop varieties, developed over centuries by farmers, are in danger of becoming extinct due to replacement by a limited number of genetically uniform modern varieties. These modern varieties are developed through plant breeding, often using local farmer varieties as an important source of genetic diversity. It is a cynical reality that while farmers supplied such genetic diversity in the age-old agricultural tradition of free exchange, considering genetic diversity as a common good, farmers have to pay for the products of such plant breeding. Farmers adopt these varieties, because they are more productive. However, the down-side is that modern varieties are genetically uniform and by replacing the original more diverse farmer varieties, it result in loss of genetic variation and associated local knowledge. This is a serious problem. 
The original genetically variable farmer varieties provided yield security through local adaptation and natural balances to cope with the vagaries of the environment. Uniformity of modern varieties increases their vulnerability for pests and diseases in time, especially under conditions of low-input subsistence agriculture. Hence by adopting modern varieties a price is paid. Mirjam Bürer looks for diversity, tries to understand it and considers the impact of a consumption ‘Macdonald’ society.

In her work – paintings, photography, prints and publications – Bürer emphasises reciprocity, multiformity, colours and contrasts. Her hand guides visually to research and the creation of ideas. She has an urge to actively confront nature and harness it by cutting and pasting. The Korean art initiative Yatoo invited Bürer to participate in the summer of 2004 in the ‘Geumgang Nature Art Biennale’. It is for this occasion that this publication 
is produced. It covers her art works, essays on the way she works and its background.

Texts by Joost Smiers deal in a general sense with the importance of ‘ownership’ versus ‘copyright’. Attention to biodiversity in a ‘no-mans-land’, resulting from human failing is represented by statements of Ke Chung Kim on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. 
The essay by Jaap Hardon – plant breeder and former director of the Netherland’s genebank – discusses how attention for continued evolution of biodiversity is a condition to safeguard human dignity. 

“Gross National Happiness or Gross National Product” is the common denominator in all these writings

The way Mirjam Bürer, as an engaged artist creates her works is central in the text of Alex de Vries – writer and art critic.

Reciprocal Meaning

The creation of Mirjam Bürer

Alex de Vries, essayist and art critic, 
Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 13 April 2004

A gleaning hand is a recurrent element in Mirjam Bürer’s recent work, a hand that makes a purposive gesture, ordering, choosing and testing. This hand differentiates something amongst a larger choice collection. It is that precise, careful and inviting gesture that gives her work a personal character that at the same time can be understood everywhere. The groping hand also suggests how you should view her work, not with a detached gaze, but with a sensual sensitivity that is guided by the eye, it’s true, but which is experienced as a realisation, as the forming of an idea and an opinion.

For Mirjam Bürer, making art is a form of visual travelling or travelling visually. She treks through unfamiliar, remote areas and meets in the people she encounters that which they see in her. In this way she learns to know herself. It is a matter of mutual displacement. The question is always who they see in her, not what they see in her. And who does she see in them? It’s a matter of reciprocal meaning. Her work also comes over to the viewer in this way. You come across someone who could be yourself, but this still means you have to intensely consult yourself. In order to understand the work of an artist, you don’t have to put yourself into the artist’s position so much as you have to reposition yourself.

From the moment that she began her career in the early Eighties, Mirjam Bürer’s work displays a rich cohesion. Following on from her studies in pattern and textile design at the art academy in Utrecht, the Netherlands, she has concentrated on a vocabulary derived from nature. With a great sense of rhythm based on an effective pattern of repetitions with small shifts and changes – comparable perhaps with certain principles of minimal music – she applied this on paper using the free rhythm of her own natural bodily language of movement. This gave rise to monumental paper curtains. not as a reflection of a landscape perception, but as a landscape sensation in itself. Since these first and, on the face of it, superficial choices of form and a lyrical style of her own, her work has developed into a form of creative art that deals specifically with the theme of man’s relationship to the ecological environment, well thought-out in terms of the rational considerations concerned, and  as overwhelming as nature itself in the way it is manifested aesthetically and often monumentally. The forms she chooses are in one respect transitory by nature, flower and plant motifs that quickly decay, but also the ultimately opposite form of decomposed vegetation that, after centuries of piling up, increasing pressure and hardening makes a lasting impression as a rough diamond which we can polish to the form that looks most precious to us. Her attention is extended to all facets of nature. She assigns just as much value to the end as to the beginning of life, since they are infinitely linked to each other.

She has laid her training in the applied arts as a permanent foundation under her work. With that as basis she has started to make more and more free and autonomous work. In their outward appearance, her artworks – combining painting with photography, silkscreen and collage techniques – are directly derived from observations in nature. Maybe these should not be called observations, but perceptions. As far as their meaning goes they form a layered process of thought, a growing realisation about the way we deal with the ecological source material available to the earth, which we sacrifice, without hardly thinking about it, to the economic market principle of reducing supply and demand to the products that the earth can produce in the quickest and simplest way possible and that yield the greatest profit. In the huge variety of the most diverse products the least profitable are cancelled out in order to realise as high a gross national product as possible. Mirjam Bürer points out that we are sacrificing out gross national happiness to this: namely that in our general prosperity even the smallest possible moment of happiness should never be missed.

Mirjam Bürer’s work is neither a warning nor a moral reprimand. What people are doing to the earth is something that she is naturally concerned about, but she does not take part in combating the disaster, for the ecological disaster has long since taken place. The need for fostering biodiversity, promoting natural variety, organising the natural gene bank as broadly as possible, has long been clear to experts in the area, who are already being hired by the multinationals that control the technical production of the world’s food supplies, in order to allow for quality and sustainability as well as diversity in the processes of spreading capital risks. With all the associated excrescences like irresponsible genetic manipulation leading to unhealthy mutations, and ethical deficiencies like cloning techniques and aesthetic misappropriation.

Mirjam Bürer’s art has to do with creation. She creates alternatives to waste and destruction. She assumes a personal responsibility, again not to set an example but from the instinct for survival. She is trying to strike roots in the barren rock-bed that is left over after all the fertile soil has been swept away after the deforestation that we ourselves have caused. She grows plants and attaches them to stone, collects seeds that do not decay on bare rocks, but germinate and wriggle between the hard rock so as to make a fertile subsoil where we couldn’t imagine that anything could grow.

Mirjam Bürer creates what is dear to her and what her most precious possession is in the natural environment and the place she assigns to herself in it: self-awareness. That’s the point of her work. It is no longer just the movement of her hand over the paper or the canvas that reflects the radius of action of her thinking by acting. Her paintings are now literally prints of her own feelings, a combination of inner knowledge – feelings and thoughts – and her view of this which she represents in her work as an artist. Her drawings, photographs, paintings and graphic works are not depictions or illustrations of what she perceives, but exquisite experiences that she has gained during the travels that she makes each year through inhospitable regions, and which – dealt with artistically – make a statement about the task she gives to herself as a person. With that she also makes an appeal to the beholder who looks on too and of course can see something different from what she perceives. Moreover, the beholder is free to accept as true what Mirjam Bürer perceives. Despite the continual repetition of motifs, images, prints, gestures and themes, Mirjam Bürer’s work breaks through any regimentation. This seems a big step for an artist who 
started as a pattern and textile designer and for whom developing patterns and stencils is second nature, but always in that procedure she was already seeking deviation. The question in her work is how the same aspects relate to each other in changing circumstances. In addition, new elements are constantly created that, in the complexity of growing inter-relationships, have to find a place in the total cohesion.

Mirjam Bürer has become a phantom in art, able to constantly take on a different form. Her work is her presence: recognisable in the elementary visual vocabulary she has achieved for herself and appealing in such varied forms that it can take on meaning for each of us individually. A painting only becomes true in the experience of the viewer, in the conclusion that the viewer draws. In the case of Mirjam Bürer’s work, there can be no other conclusion than that we are in a state of uncertainty. That she gives form to this, provides insight into the hopelessness in which we have ended up. Mirjam Bürer holds together a world view in her work by giving form to doubt, trust and belief, both visibly (as the physical contour of her own body that appears in many of her paintings) and invisibly (in the shape of the maker standing outside the canvas). Doubt about herself, trust in nature and belief in the future. Her body language – the way she moves through life – has become the vocabulary of her art. She is engrossed in everything, without losing herself in it. She works with living material and the animistic quality of her paintings is expressive and intimate. What in herself is private is thus made public and exchanged with what greets her. In this she represents personal experiences, based on meetings and discussions with people whom she saw for the first and often last time in remote corners of the world, which she interprets as the centre of existence.

Wherever Mirjam Bürer comes she collects a modest amount of seeds which she takes home with her. In her home city of Utrecht the seeds are sowed by the Garden of Eden Foundation to make them germinate, after which, in a normal process of natural refinement and improvement, they contribute to the realisation of the bio-diversity that has been so neglected by us, sacrificed to the uniform taste that we are gradually getting so fed up with.

Mirjam Bürer not only collects seeds, but also images. On her travels she takes with her the impressions stored in her head and an endless quantity of photographs, for sketches cannot keep pace with her impressions. These photographs are not a documentary account of a holiday, for she never goes on holiday; she encounters her origins and the photographs represent her understanding of, and amazement about this.

If paradise has been lost, then the only thing we can do is create our own paradise. Mirjam Bürer is totally involved in this as an artist with the capacity to make an apparent mystery in the immediate world of her experience clear and explicable. It’s very simple: what you put into the ground as a seed comes out completely differently. As an artist you have to sow images in order to harvest meaning. You plant ideas and reap sense. You plant the thought and dig up awareness.

Fragments from:

Preserving Biodiversity in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone

‘Science’, vol. 278
by Ke Chung Kim Center for BioDiversity Research, Environmental Resources Research Institute, Pennsylvania State University

Amidst international tensions and military posturing, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea has, for 45 years, provided sanctuary to endangered and threatened animals and plants. The DMZ has been rigidly enforced: it is uninhabited by humans, and its inaccessibility had allowed damaged forests to rehabilitate and farmlands that are thousands of years old to return to a natural state. The DMZ has, in fact, become a unique nature reserve containing the last vestiges of Korea’s natural heritage. The Korean Peace Bioreserves System (KPBRS) provides a strategy to preserve the rich biodiversity of the DMZ. Joint development of the KPBRS will foster trust, understanding, and respect between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south.

The Korean peninsula is no longer the “Keum-Su-Kang-San” (land of embroidered rivers and mountains), a historical icon and source of pride for Koreans that reflects the beauty in Korea’s landscapes. For the past three decades, the integrity of Korea’s ecosystems and landscapes has been systematically compromised. In South Korea, most natural ecosystems, including large sections of the coastline and salt marshes, have been converted into industrial estates and urban centers. 

The DMZ, is a 4-km-wide, 250-km-long corridor extending across the peninsula. It traverses a major river delta and old farmlands in the west and rugged mountains in the East. The DMZ ecosystems and landscapes represent a cross section of the Korean peninsula, with central and western lowlands divided from the eastern highlands by the Taebaek-san Mountains and adjacent north-south mountain ranges. Preservation of the biota of the DMZ and adjacent natural areas in buffer zones is fundamental to the development of a successful strategy for nature conservation. The establishment of a system of biodiversity reserves with legal means of limiting human use. I have proposed the KPBRS as a means to preserve the DMZ’s biodiversity and ecosystems.

Since the inception of the KPBRS project in 1994, effort has focused on gaining public understanding and broad-bases support for the concept within South Korea. Building on the work of artists from North Korea, a group of South Korean artists have promoted the project through a series of major art events and scholarly forums, the FRONT DMZ, and the scientific community and the media have promoted the preservation of the DMZ ecosystems. The development process will be enhances by the international designation of special categories for the KPBRS, such as an IUCN Biosphere Reserve and a UN World Natural Heritage Site.

The Biological Diversity that Feeds Us

Dr. Jaap Hardon, plant breeder and former director of the Gene Bank, 
Wageningen University, The Netherlands. April 14, 2004

Biological diversity is an inheritance from the past that safeguards the ecological future of our planet. Maintaining natural ecosystems and an agriculture embedded in associated cultures that that take care of the environment in balance with the need to feed an exploding world population is the major challenge for humanity in this century. The past century saw large scale squandering of this inheritance for short-term economic gains. To continue on this path of destruction not only threatens nature, but all natural resources on which sustainable wellbeing and livelihood of people depend. How can we deal with economic 
developments in a way that future generations can still benefit from the enormous diversity of species nature provided us with?

Gross National Happiness or Gross National Product?

The primacy of a world economy, promoted by the World Trade Organization largely ignores this question. Happiness of modern man is more and more equalised with just money and short-term development totally ignoring the finiteness of natural resources and the cultural value of natural beauty. Man has appropriated nature to serve its economic wellbeing

This process started some 6000 to 10 000 years ago when man changed, independently in different places from hunting and gathering to growing plants for food. The reasons for this change are yet unclear, but may have been in response to changes in the climate as the last ice age ended and a period of global warming set in. It certainly was not caused by an increasing understanding of nature. Tribes still depending on hunting and gathering in the Brazilian rainforest and in parts of Africa have a detailed understanding of nature, know agriculture as an alternative, but maintain their way of life out of preference. Growing food is far more arduous than 
collecting it from the wild. It has been estimated that in the Middle East, families could collect a years supply of wild grains in three weeks of collecting in natural stands. Whatever the reasons, growing food had a dramatic change on the role of man. From being a part of nature, man started to need to control nature to meet its food requirement by clearing lands and grow the plants till than collected in their natural environment. However, farming communities still realized the importance of the natural environment, providing wood and forest products, clean water and sustainable natural balances. Through natural selection and selection by farmers, often the women, plant species were domesticated and improved to better satisfy their needs. This started an evolutionary process that resulted in our present day crops. When we compare these crops, developed by generations of farmers, with their original wild ancestors the results are astonishing. As agriculture communities expanded and went in search of new lands, crops were adapted to new environments exploiting genetic diversity and harnessed in adapted varieties. Wheat, originating in the warm and dry environment of the Middle East, was adapted to the humid and cold regions of North Western Europe and became a crop world-wide. Rice originating in the warm and humid low-lands of South Asia, now is cultivated in a wide diversity of environments up to 2000 m. altitude in the mountains. For maize and many vegetables, including notably cabages and letuces it is hard to recognize their origin from still existing wild ancestors. 

Farmers are the original……breeders and in comparison the contributions of modern plant breeding are rather modest. Farmers’ selection took place in an agriculture, where crops and cropping systems were adapted to a diversity of environments, dependant on and maintaining natural balances and stressing yield security and sustanability of the environment rather than maximizing production. The result was an enormous diversity of farmer varieties, differing in specific adaptation, taste, cooking requirements and a multitude of household uses. The value of genetic diversity in such systems is well understood by farmers. 
Genetic diversity within varieties is maintained to allow continuous adaptation and spreading risks. Mutual dependence on genetic diversity between communities and farmers led world-wide to viewing their varieties as a common good, a “gift of the gods”, for which they do not claim individual ownership. Hence free exchange of genetic diversity remains the norm, even till today, between farmers in traditional agriculture. Agricultural practices were closely integrated in the culture of agriculture communities with women generally responsible for maintaining seeds. This system maintained genetic resources through use in a sustainable manner, and provided modern plant breeding with a rich supply of raw materials.

Modern agriculture brought about by the industrial revolution dramatically changed this process of some 10 000 years. The development of chemical fertilizers starting in the late nineteenth century, the inventions leading to chemical control of pests and diseases in the nineteen thirties, mechanization and irrigation allowed increasing control of the vagaries of the environment. Instead of adapting crops and cropping systems to specific environments, it allowed adapting environments to the requirements of specific crops and even varieties. This represented a total reversal in agriculture. Increased understanding of genetics led to plant breeding in specialized institutions, both private and public, breeding for maximum productivity under controlled conditions. Security of harvest is obtained, not as previously through natural balances but by chemical control of soil fertility, pests and diseases and irrigation. Private investment in plant breeding for profit raised the need for legal ownership of its products, modern varieties. Legal ownership requires exclusive identification enforcing a high degree of genetic uniformity of protected varieties.

Areas, previously covered by a multitude of local farmer varieties, in balance with the surrounding environment, gradually became covered by small numbers of genetically uniform varieties, leading to enormous loss of genetic diversity, often referred to as genetic erosion.

Farmers, for thousands of years guardians of their environment and masters of their own production, became incorporated in economic systems, dependent on input supply industries for seeds and other inputs and forced to exploit their natural resources for income rather than for their own food. Economics replaced self-sufficiency of livelihood systems, reducing farmers to a small link in an agricultural industrial process, chained by increasing dependence on supply and marketing operations. Biotechnology adds to this dependence by strict contractual arrangements, totally losing control over their planting material and even the harvested product.

What we now see is a growing gap between traditional agriculture and modern agriculture. On the one hand areas where modern inputs are not an economically viable option to control more extreme production constraints and agricultural production and remains largely dependent on traditional agricultural practices. On the other hand the more favourable environments where modern inputs can be translated in increased productivity and higher income. Modern agriculture transformed rural areas and the culture and livelyhood systems of rural communities.

Economists ruling the world are not seriously concerned. They argue that in spite of Malthusian doom scenarios, standards of living have increased in the twentieth century world-wide. The bruto national product of many countries is continually rising. While the world population increased with an explosive 1.8% per year, grain production not only held pace but increased between the nineteen fifties and eighties from 275 kg. per person to 370 kg. Global food scarcity is not anymore seen as a problem of production. The cause of hunger and mal-nutrition is poverty and access to food to be solved by economic development. Levels of education are improving, as are democracy and communication technologies facilitate global trade seen as an engine for new opportunities and a global culture aimed at material wellbeing. There is no alternative to the dominance of man as a species exploiting and harnessing the environment for human life. Where than is the problem? Well, there are many problems not reflected in the short-term perspectives of economic growth. Economic models fail to take account of the fact that natural resources are not infinite. They fail to identify and cost the long-term effects of cutting forests, over-exploitation of water resources, land degradation and loss of biological diversity. They emphasize immediate corporate profits and economic progress. The signs that all is not well are however evident. The environment is breaking down in many parts of the world, available water and land suitable for agriculture per head is gradually going down. Through human interventions even the climate is changing, all in aid of raising Bruto National Product. In this process local cultures are overrun by a consumption economy with little care for the genius of local craftsman and their artistic achievements. Art as an expression of diverse cultures in their natural and cultural diverse environments is replaced by a global industrial culture dependent on plastic throw-away products. 

Ecological sensitive economists have started to argue that the concept of Bruto National Product for economic development should be replaced by the concept of Genuine Progress Indicators including ecological costs in their equations. Ecological considerations are gaining in importance. Most economists now realize that natural resources, including biological diversity, are finite, but prefer not to think too much about it. Short-term economic development is still the major objective and putting a brake on it is not an attractive option for politicians. Humankind is in the final stages of its fight for total control of the environment for immediate material wellbeing and is winning. However, this will prove to be a Pyrrus victory in which first the biosphere will go under followed by human life as we know it, unless we come to our senses. It is late, but perhaps not too late to reverse that process. Keys are limiting population growth, better appreciation of the economic value of the environment and its natural resources. Human happiness is not just material wellbeing but depends on a way of life in balance with the beauty of the natural environment. There is no long-term alternative.

Fragments from

The Unavoidable Meltdown Of Copyrights

Joost Smiers Professor of political science of the arts in the Research Group Arts & Economics at the Utrecht School of the Arts, the Netherlands


The majority of artistic creations are increasingly being controlled by a limited number of huge cultural conglomerates. Owning COPYRIGHTS on millions of works of art, design and entertainment, these cultural industries decide which works of art and which artists will be promoted. They determine the nature and the contours of our cultural landscape while eating away at our common public domain of knowledge and creativity. This is undemocratic and against all basic principles of human rights. The reality is that if their virtually monopolistic control is not stopped, the consequence will be an end to freedom of speech and freedom of artistic communication.

Moreover, the system of COPYRIGHT gives artists and the COPYRIGHT industries the right to forbid others to adapt ‘their’ works creatively, even though such creative adaptation has been a feature of all 
cultures throughout history. It is a western aberration that creative works – and the broad surrounding field of creative adaptations – can be owned by individuals or even industries; owned for decades and decades, monopolistically, like an octopus taking all within reach. This freezes our cultures.

Clearly, the concept of COPYRIGHT seems odd to most cultures in Third World countries. However, pressure from the World Trade Organisation obliges them to introduce regimes of intellectual property. This means that they pay intellectual property rights to western companies for knowledge and creative products which are themselves partly derived from their own knowledge and creativity! Such enormous sums of money being transferred from poor countries to rich countries account for a substantial part of Third World debt. This is unfair, especially when you consider that, in the 19th century, the West was able to exploit knowledge and creativity from all over the world in its development, before a system of intellectual property rights existed! They took whatever they considered to be of use and then used it. 
Artists and performers are wrong to be in coalition with the cultural industries in defending COPYRIGHT. And anyway, the existence of the COPYRIGHT system is hardly the reason that artists create and perform.

The COPYRIGHT system cannot be reformed. It is too polluted by the monopolistic industrial interests of cultural conglomerates. Let’s abolish it. It is, anyway, fair to say that a spontaneous meltdown of COPYRIGHT is already taking place. A person who composes a song is the owner of that song. This is ownership like all forms of ownership that are regulated by law. The system of COPYRIGHT is therefore superfluous. Where ownership in the cultural field is too dominant and oppressive, freedom of communication and freedom of expression demand their rights and their legitimate place.

It has been the custom in all cultures to allow some freedom to adapt a work, to change it, to use it creatively. In our present western COPYRIGHT system, this is forbidden: the ‘owner’ may go to court to ensure that the ‘infringer’ is punished. The opposite should happen: creative adaptations should be encouraged. This would result in a completely new creative dynamics.