Saturday, January 30, 2010

Saturday Special: Bt Brinjal Fast and GM Food Links

Association for Indian Development is asking us to fast today to show our opposition to BT Brinjal. By fasting privately, we can clarify our  own thinking; by fasting publicly, we encourage others to clarify their thinking. You can join the list of us fasting and find out more at AID-Fast to stop BT Brinjal.  If you are unable to fast, you can light  candle.  Either way, sign the petition.  
Here are some more links:
Indian Youth Climate Network's tells Jairam Ramesh what they think about Bt Brinjal.
Sujatha Byraven explains why being against genetically modified (GM) plants does not mean one is against science.  
Devinder Sharma on the Bt Brinjal fast
Need a novel to read while you fast? The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, which we reviewed earlier this week, raises a lot of interesting questions about genetic science.
While you are here, do grab a free feed.  After all, subscriptions are free!  And why not follow or blogroll the dhaba if you do that kind of thing?  If a prize would motivate you, it's not too late to get in our our Winter Subscription Drive.  Find out more, and see our "Best of the Dhaba, 2009" list here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reviewed: The Beast with Nine Billion Feet

The Beast with Nine Billion Feet
by Anil Menon
Young Zubaan (2009)
Four Green Stars (very good indeed!)

In Anil Menon's The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, Pune of 2040 is a city that is at once familiar and strange: strict Sanskrit teachers; climate change; roadside dhabas; talking auto rickshaws; and persistent poverty--the Pune of the future has it all, and then some.  Thirteen year old Tara and her seventeen year old brother, Aditya live with their aunt and face many of the same problems young people have always faced: confusing friendships, unreasonable adults, difficult exams.  But when they meet two strange new friends and their "terrorist" father comes out of exile to a hero's welcome, things begin to get exciting.

This is not a "guide to green living", nor is it a political tract. It is a well-written adventure.  But we are reviewing it here at the dhaba because good literature has always been one way in which people confront and consider the important questions of their time.   And The Beast with Nine Billion Feet will get young readers thinking about many important questions.  Is it OK to genetically modify life to meet human whims or needs? Can science serve super-rich citizens of super-developed northern countries and poor Indian farmers at the same time?  Is Indian democracy capable of responding to a genuine (and messy) people's movement for ecological and social justice?

This book is successful in part because it does not provide tidy answers to the questions it raises.  Like most good literature, The Beast with Nine Billion Feet is challenging. If you read only Enid Blyton or Chetan Bhagat, this might not be your cup of tea.  But those who are willing to willing to work a little bit will not be disappointed.  And if you have a 13+ year old child who likes science fiction, this is a must buy.  In fact, if you are a science fiction fan of any age, you should consider buying this book for yourself.

Buy The Beast with Nine Billion Feet at Friends of Books.
Author Anil Menon's website

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Kids Brainstorm GreenTech!

Happy Republic Day!  The kids and I were taking a walk a couple of weeks ago, talking about electricity and how to measure it.  My 12 year old was struggling in school with watts, volts, kilowatt hours and all that.  After a while, we got bored, and our discussion shifted to outlandish invention-ideas.  The kids came up with a list of cool ways we could generate electricity without using fossil fuels.  I took notes. If there is anyone out there who wants to develop some of these, I'm sure you could make some money.  Or not.  Here they are:
  1.  Hybrid bicycles"Just like hybrid cars, you know. Take the energy you use when you brake and save it somehow."  (Note: when I showed my sons this articicle from the New York Times  which ran in the Asian Age a week after our conversation, my nine year old said this to his older brother: "Hey!  It's your idea!  Did you send it in?")
  2. Pedal powered generators for home use.  "You just sit back and pedal while you are watching the TV or playing the computer.  You could even take turns!"
  3. Ox-powered generators.  "Only problem is, you'd have a big ox to take care of!"
  4. Mini-generators inside of playground equipment.  "The swings and stuff wouldn't go as fast, but after a few generations, nobody would notice...still, a lot of kids are gonna hate us if somebody makes this stuff!"
  5. Health clubs could put generators in their treadmills and weight machines.  "Obvious!"
  6. Mini-floating dams in the oceans. "Do you think that would work?"
  7. Pogo stick, trampoline or other spring-powered generators.  "Now THAT would be fun!"
We had to conclude that we'd probably use less electricity in the future if we had to generate it ourselves (or care for that pet ox)!  We didn't solve the world's problems, but we did have a pretty good time talking about them.   
It's not too late to sign this on-line petition against new nukes in India. It will be turned in on 30 January.
 Associationfor Indian Development is asking us to fast or light a candle on January 30 to show our opposition to BT Brinjal.  Find out more at AID-Fast to stop BT Brinjal.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Smoke in the Air: Farmer Suicides Continue

The other day I read a comment on another blog complaining that too many bloggers seem to focus only on "bad news."  Well, I, for one, like good news every-bit-as-much as the next fellow.  And my mother taught me early on about the dangers of yelling fire in a crowded theatre.  However (and I've always agreed with her on this point), she also made it clear that in the event that one observes that the theatre is actually on fire, then the correct course of action is to inform someone who has access to a large supply of water! 

Now there are plenty of people who argue that one should first be sure to say something nice about the theatre's decor and the film currently being screened before politely suggesting that some experts somewhere set up a committee to study the problem of fire as it relates to public buildings (no need to single out the theatres, after all).  I suspect these are the people who tend to sit in the PVR Gold Class seats, but what do I know?

Still, like I said, I am not someone who will shy away from good news.  In fact, I had planned to write a breezy Saturday Special today, full of good news like this story that shows Dilli wallas can treat homeless dogs humanely.  And this one, that shows we can even treat homeless human beings humanely, though it may take an order from the Supreme Court to make us do it!

But I canceled that post when I opened Friday's edition of The Hindu to find this story on farmer suicides by the legendary P. Sainath.  Old news,  you say, but the problem is, it only seems to be getting worse. So here it is in a nutshell: according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 199,132 Indian farmers killed themselves in the 12 years from 1997 to 2008. When one considers how often "crimes" like this go unreported, one has to assume the numbers could be much higher. 

An autowalla with whom I frequently ride is fond of saying, "behind every man, there are so many others who depend on him." When you think about what 2,00,000 farmer suicides means in terms of the family members affected, the numbers become very large indeed.

The lion's share of the deaths continue to take place in the five states that comprise the "suicide belt":  Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.   In Maharashtra alone from 2003-2008, an average of 11 farmers killed themselves every day. In 2008, the last year for which figures are available, more than 16,000 farmers committed suicide, in spite of loan waivers and other government aid programs.  One can only imagine what the 2009 numbers will look like, given the extreme weather we've suffered this year. 

There are many reasons why this news is deeply disturbing.  The first, most obvious, and most important is that the people who are growing the food we eat and the cotton we wear, are, quite literally, dying of desperation.  That should be enough to convince anyone with any sense of human solidarity or  compassion that something serious should have been done a long time ago.

But for those people who need reasons that have something more directly to do with their narrow self interests, here are two additional things to consider.  First, when farmers kill themselves in these numbers, it should be obvious that there are deep problems in our country's system of food production.  In a recent guest post at Youth ki Awaaz, I argued that the food inflation we are suffering is a symptom of an agricultural crisis in this country that is likely to get much worse in coming years.  Farmer suicides are another symptom of that crisis.  And since we all depend on food, we should all be concerned: food security must come first in any country's list of priorities.

Second, it should be clear that suicide in such large numbers is not just an act of desperation; it is also a desperate act of protest. Of course there are many other ways that desperate men and women might choose to protest instead.   The sons of farmers who drink poison may grow up angry enough to pick up a gun when they get a little older.

In Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country Sudeep Chakravarti argues that most of urban India is ignorant--in many cases willfully so--of the extent to which people are already taking up arms against the Indian state. Urban India may be content to let farmers kill themselves--or even to let them kill police in rural areas.  But violence, like any disease, has a way of spreading, doesn't it?

In an essay like this, it is customary to close with a simple solution.  I don't have one; it's a big, complex problem.  But let me say this: India is capable of achieving great things. We could solve this problem if we chose to.  P. Sainath argues we should expand the NREGS  and cut "the dessert from the menu of the unending corporate free lunch in this country." He points out that the "huge" loan waivers given to farmers in 2008 were dwarfed by tax breaks given to large corporations.  We could also scale back some of our big-budget, high-tech bomber, bomb and space programs. If you want more specific ideas about what to do on the farms, there is no shortage of them either. For a start,  Devinder Sharma and Vandana Shiva both have interesting things to say about how we can improve our agricultural system.

But for me, today, I think it's enough to say this: the theatre is crowded. And I smell smoke.

On another front, it's not too late to sign this on-line petition against new nukes in India. It will be turned in on 30 January.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Interview: Environmentalist Photographer Ravi Agarwal

Ravi Agarwal  is an environmentalist, photographer, and writer who lives and works in New Delhi.  Agarwal's photos and writing have appeared widely, both here and abroad, but like many in Delhi, I first saw his work in First City, where his  photo column is a regular feature. That column, "< ALT > View",   typically consists of one photo and minimal  text;  more like a photo-poem than photo-essay.  Agarwal raises all kinds of interesting questions about the city we live in.  Today, we are lucky enough to get his perspective on some of those questions.

Before you became a photographer, you were an engineer.  How were those kinds of work alike?  How were they different?
Actually I was a photographer before everything, since I was 13 years old. Engineering was analysis, fourier transforms, physics, mathematics - all about understanding and designing to make things work and happen. Photography was walking on the streets, smelling the monsoon, talking to rickhshawallas, exploring bylanes and being free. They were both different. One I had to work hard for, the other came naturally!
You describe yourself as an environmentalist photographer.  What does that term mean to you?
This is just a description of my two current engagements in life. At another level, I define my relationship with the world as a 'personal ecology' and my photographic work as well as now video and installation work resonates with that idea - so in a sense they come together as well.

Why photography? What subjects, what ideas, interest you most in your work?
Photography follows my life and engagements. My subjects have ranged from the street, to labor, 'work,' river, urban scapes and also self performance. It is a companion to me.

Talk about the tension you see in Delhi between nature and what is usually called development or growth.
Delhi has been losing its relationship with the natural world for over a 100 years. This is most accelerated now. The idea of a city itself is a industrial age idea, where water is transported in, waste is transported out, energy is streamed in and land is divided for habitation. It is itself an idea which confronts technology and nature as a separation. In cities as well as in Delhi,nature becomes a 'necessity' an 'aesthetic,' a place of leisure and recreation. Hence nature is only defined in relationship to the city. This is very much our own existence as well.

Physically, we have lost over 150,000 trees for the new Commonwealth Games, a 10 day phenomenon. We have sacrificed the river flood plain to temples and housing. We have built metros and roads and malls on the Ridge. Most of all we have isolated nature, since Delhi is now surrounded by urbanisation all around. So nature is something we have to fight to keep, on its own it is shrinking and will disappear one day. If this is development, then we need to question it in a basic way. Does 'development' take us away from our 'roots?'

We've been hearing about the Commonwealth Games for years now.  They have been used to justify all kinds of things--from the metro to new flyovers and sports venues.  What is your sense of this? Has it all been worth it?
If we have the Commonwealth Games at all! We will have something, held in patched up stadiums and with the poor people 'hidden' from view. It is all bizzare, all this frenzy in the name of the games, while actually it is about ambition, money and false pride. We treat our sports people so badly, so how can we talk of the Games as a sport? It is everything else couched as 'sport.'

What holds Delhi back its quest to become "World Class?"
A world class city can only be built through a society which is just, fair and respectful to each other. The city is not an architectural project, it is a human one. Architecture has to suit that. We have placed the idea of spectacular and scale before the human. Else why would we destroy trees, displace people, throw out beggars, take away parks etc.? Any world class city is a very livable city, where people can work, create, interract ect. Can we say that about Delhi? I do not think so. We could earlier, now we can less and less.

Can you tell us something that is working well in Delhi?  Something environmentalists (and photographers) from other cities and countries can learn from this city?
I think the city has great human potential. it has great energy on its street, and great entrepreneurship. It has thinkers, writers, artists, politicians, activists... all. This is the new capacity in the city. It has intensity.  We can learn that any place needs 'engagement' for it to grow. A city cannot become anything without such involvement. At another level, the metro is a great success, even though it cannot address the needs of all people. The metro stands out, overall.  

Anything else you'd like to add?
Only something  I feel....
Life is short, and uncertain. we should try to live it with that sense of urgency and engagement. No matter what we do, we should do it, and do it well.

To find out more about Ravi Agarwal and his work, check out his website here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Guest Post: Bhagwad Jal Park on Schools, Rote Learning and Rocket Science

Today we are happy to have a guest post from Bhagwad Jal Park of Expressions, a blog about lot of things, including the environment.  I've linked to many of his excellent posts in the past, including, "Why poor people must die first-says an Economist", "Want to Pollute? Pay for it" and "Going Vegetarian". Bhagwad has been kind enough to give us a post on the Indian education system.  As we've said before, schools matter to environmentalists, because the job of schools is to teach young people how to solve problems; and if things keep going they way they are, young people will have a lot of problems to solve!

Just the other day I read in the papers that the latest Person of Indian Origin who won the Nobel prize for Chemistry said that he failed his IIT and Medical entrance tests. It reminded me of how the Indian education system is structured in such a way as to only churn out factory pieces of mostly Engineers and Doctors with little or no variation. I haven't seen Aamir Khan's "Three Idiots" but I did see one scene in which he gets kicked out of class for answering questions in a simple and accurate manner from his own understanding instead of rote learning.

Some of the "elite" schools in India are worse than others simply because they have to maintain their elite status. They can do that only by consistently getting their students into the best engineering or medical colleges, which in turn means that they must ensure their students conform to a set standard.

Now I don't claim to be a Nobel Laureate, or a genius, but the episode reminded me of my own experiences in my school in Chennai, namely the well known Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB) which at the time was known for its ability to get students into IIT. Perhaps because of this special focus, unusual pursuits were actively discouraged - and occasionally, pertinent questions were ruthlessly put down to cover up the teacher's own lack of knowledge.

In one instance I remember the teacher was explaining Newton's third law of action and reaction and how it causes a rocket to go up. She explained (perhaps incorrectly) that the rocket pushes against the ground and therefore gets an upward thrust. So I innocently stood up and asked what kept the rocket in the air when it was miles above the ground when there was nothing to push against? Instead of answering my question, she told the class that I knew the answer and was merely trying to create a nuisance! She then told me in an offhand way that the initial thrust was enough to push the rocket up forever...

In another instance, a guest lecturer was extolling the virtues of being a vegetarian to the whole school. He made a number of points as to how a vegetarian diet was good for our health. During question time, I wanted to ask him what was wrong if someone ate vegetables along with meat - after all, no one is exclusively a non vegetarian. As soon as I asked the question, he began to dither and I was immediately hushed up by the surrounding teachers and told to sit down!

It's obvious that even famous schools like the one above emphasize rote learning above all else. The students even mug up the solutions to math problems and physics derivations. If you have a good memory, school will be a breeze for you. God forbid you actually understand what's happening and try out your own solutions in class or in the exams. I used to regularly fail in at least two subjects in each exam set. In fact, the only subject I never failed in was English.

When I went to St. Stephen's college for my B.Sc however, things changed dramatically. I began to do well academically and came into contact with good teachers who didn't care much about rote learning and exams. For the first time in my life I got a certificate of academic excellence - something that shocked my parents after my pathetic performance in school. And finally I came into my own during my MBA in ICFAI where I got a scholarship throughout the two year course.

So it's not all bad. There are still some institutions in this country where understanding and original thinking are valued. It's these institutions that give me hope. If they can do it, then so can others. I can only pray that the number of such institutions increase with time and become the rule rather than the exception.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday Masala: Narain and Adve on Copenhagen; and something about schools

A major survey by the NGO Pratham confirms there are problems with our village schools. It finds, among other things, that only half of all Class V students can read Class II books.  You can look at the bottom line results, including a couple of bright spots here.  And tomorrow, we're running a guest post from Bhagwad Jal Park that deals with our educational system from another angle.  Schools matter to all of us, because without good schools, how will our children solve the problems we leave them?

Looking back for a moment at the Copenhagen fiasco, Sunita Narain of CSE explains who was behind India's support for the "Accord":
 We need to know who is really pushing the Accord and their interests. We know that the key proponents of the Accord in India are the people who are powerful in the establishment of the country – from managers of the Planning Commission to key industrialist to top market economists. Interestingly, people, you would (and rightly) think are the last ones to push a green accord in the country. In fact, as an environmental campaigner, I can safely say that these are the same people who would stymie any real action on environmental improvement in the country. They will oppose fuel efficiency standards, tax on big cars, or tough penalties for polluters.  But they will still talk glibly about low-carbon economies. They will of course, dismiss out of hand, any discussion on the need for ‘radical’ and out of the box solutions for equity and sustainability. These, they will tell you are mere evangelical thoughts of some fringe activists.
You can read the full post here.  Meanwhile, Nagraj Adve, who's written for us before, covers some of the same ground in a piece he's written for OneWorld South Asia.  He opens with some difficult questions:

When people half a century from now reflect on this ‘Age of Stupid’, one key question they may ask is: why did political leaders not act with greater urgency at Copenhagen when the writing on the wall was so clear? However, an even more crucial question would be: why was the narrative like a chronicle of a death foretold; why did one know, even before it began, that this 15th Conference of the Parties would end in failure?
After laying out the problems we face--and they are dire, Adve says we have to look at three core, related issues: "capitalism, class and equity."  Though we spend a lot of time comparing India's consumption to the rest of the world, the real picture is more complex, he says:

[Over the past 15 years] in India ...real wages for factory workers stagnated (they actually declined as a proportion of production costs), while returns for agriculture fell for most, while 836 million people, an official report revealed, consume less than Rs 20 a day! Now, at Rs 20 or less daily, one cannot contribute much to global warming, however hard one may try!

So when the government claims that ‘India’s’ per capita emissions, at 1.3 tonnes a year, are too low, they are being too clever by half.
and this:
Class – the second core issue missing in most debates – is present in the Indian government’s stand only in the most devious way. They have refused to commit to emission cuts saying, if we cap our emissions, how would we provide energy to the poor? Which climate deal stopped them from doing so in the last 62 years?

They gloss over the fact that much of the rise in recent energy use has been directed towards the rich. One instance of this is the recent reported study in Mumbai that air conditioners consume nearly 40% of electrical power in the city, in six lakh homes, offices and malls (Times of India, 23 Dec 2009)!
This article is worth reading in full.  You can find the rest here.
We've got a great week coming up at the Dhaba: in addition to Bhagwad Jal Park's Tuesday guest post on education, we'll have a great interview with environmentalist photographer Ravi Agarwal on Thursday.  Don't miss it!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What Homeless Night Shelters and the Commonwealth Games Teach Us About Our World Class City

The courts have ruled that it is not OK to close night shelters for homeless people in the capital to make way for the Commonwealth Games. According to this article on the Commonwealth Games blog , Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw said, ‘We do not expect any modern civilised society to allow its people to die, whether it is Commonwealth Games or any other thing. This trend cannot be allowed.’

It is nice to see the courts making so much sense.  People do die from the cold in North India.  In fact, The Hindu (January 14) reports that 10 days after the MCD closed the night shelter that sparked this case, a 35 year old balloon vendor who had staying there died of extreme cold. According to this excellent piece in Frontline, during the winter of 2002, police found over 3000 corpses--400 during one cold wave alone.

Something like one percent of Delhi residents are homeless.  That adds up to about 150,000 people--not counting the four million or so people who live in slums

For these 150,000 homeless people, Delhi has 43 night shelters.  Is that what a World Class city does? Taking care of our environment cannot just be about banning unsightly plastic bags or covering nallahs.  A liveable environment is one where all people can live without freezing to death and preferably with some level of dignity.  

In their recent ruling, the court said there should be one homeless night shelter in each area with 100,000 people.  That's a start, but it's not enough.  Once we finish spending all that money on the questionable Commonwealth games, maybe we should focus on things other than fun and games. Why not launch a massive drive to regularize, expand and improve the inadequate housing we have for poor people in this city?  If we can build flyovers and metros, we can build cheap housing!

While we are at it, let's make it earthquake safe. Inexpensive earthquake safe housing is not impossible.  In fact, it is a necessity.  Need I say more?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dearest Asha: Will Horter of the Dogwood Inititative Shares a Letter to his Daughter

On Children's Day, we asked readers to write a letter to a child explaining what they are doing to stop climate change.  Today we are running Will Horter's letter to his daughter, Asha.  Will is the Executive Director of The Dogwood Initiaitive, an environmental NGO based in Canada.

It is an honour to publish this. If you have a letter you'd like to share, it's not too late to send it in!

Dearest Asha;

Today is your birthday. I decided to sit down and write to you because by the time you can read, and understand, this you will probably be demanding an explanation for why things are as they are, and what steps I took to protect your future.

There is no easy answer.

It has been two years since you joined this world—a lifetime in a blink of the eye.  Since your premature entry into my life, the universe has expanded. I thank you for the gifts you bring. Your joie de vivre has stimulated me. Joy has once again become a daily visitor, and your laughter invigorates my soul.

Your entry into my life, (your simple existence) has changed the way I think about both the present, and the future. In the present, you continue to remind me of what is important in life—those instants of connection where people come together and share of themselves. I look forward to those magical moments – which seem to occur more frequently when I am around you – when the world seems to disappear and you Claudia and I become the center of the universe surrounded by a powerful force field. I feel more human, more connected to something both primal, and divine. I feel better connected to the essence of both my and other’s humanity, which makes me a better person, a better parent and a better activist. Somehow being around you helps me ratchet down my excess intensity, which is the manifestation of most of my demons. Thank you.

My outlook on the future has also been transformed. Suddenly, global warming is no longer just an issue of concern. It seems like a matter of life and death. The choices humanity make today take on an urgency I haven’t felt before. And to be frank, I’m struggling to figure out how to best channel this urgency.

To be honest with you; I never thought I would be a father. It’s not that I don’t like children. I like kids (albeit until you came along I was nervous around infants). Rather, I think I was being cowardly.  I was afraid I didn’t have the patience, the wisdom, perhaps the love in me, to help shepard a child towards the life I aspire for you (and all the other children of the world). I’m still not convinced I have what it takes - only time will tell - but I’m working hard at it.  When you look back at our relationship some day after I am gone, I hope you evaluate me on my success as well as the consistency of my effort.

The second reason I thought I wouldn’t become a father was political. I wasn’t sure that bringing a baby into our increasingly unjust, inequitable and unsustainable world was the responsible thing to do.

My ambivalence about parenthood was related to what I saw as my role in the world. I am an activist. It is more than my profession. It has been my raison d'etre since I woke up 25 years ago in a hospital in Amsterdam with the doctors telling me I had a brain tumor and might not live. When I awoke I had amnesia, was disoriented, and in pain, but I remember clearly seeing a headline in the International Herald Tribune that said hundreds of thousands of black people were going to be forcibly “relocated” in South Africa. I remember pledging to myself that if I ever got out of that hospital bed I would do my best to ensure things like this didn’t happen. If I survived, I would become formidable.

Since then I have tried to live up to this pledge. I have worked on a number of “issues” over the years (anti-Apartheid, human-rights, equality, justice, aboriginal and environmental issues).  Yet as I look back I realize that since awaking in Amsterdam these seemingly unrelated strands of my life have had a common goal; I have been trying to summon up my life force to help people understand, and collectively act on, their own inherent power; To help people believe in their being that a better world is possible, and that they have what it takes to fight for it.

But is it enough? Is this my own quixotic windmill?  Now that global warming has made the choices we make today more urgent, do I have the courage to take the kinds of action I believe necessary?

I don’t know.

Until I was a father I thought that all one could do was try one’s best. But now when I see your face, when I watch you laugh, when I glimpse you exploring your expanding world with a curiosity and a joy that both inspires and terrifies me, I wonder if merely trying is sufficient.

Merely trying hard, doesn’t force me to confront my demons, my fears, my personality quirks that so often prevent my success both as activist and a parent. For me, merely trying harder too frequently means ratcheting up my intensity, spinning faster on the hamster wheel. I realize now this seldom works.

A friend of mine once told me that effective activists instinctually know when to ratchet up the energy, and when to withdraw or calm the energy in situations. Until you came along I frequently was not as good at the latter. I’m still not great, but I’m getting better at recognizing when excess intensity is counterproductive.

This challenge of moving past “trying harder” (ratcheting up the energy) suddenly seems like an imperative. The more I read about what the leading scientists predict about global warming—the more I contemplate my responsibilities as a parent—working harder, trying harder, doesn’t seem adequate.

I feel like we are entering one of those eras when epochal shifts are needed or calamity is likely. My friend Matt Price recently compared the situation to one of those movies where scientists predict Earth will be hit with a large meteorite. In the movies, governments’ mobilize immediately and recruit someone like Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood for an urgent mission into space to blow up the meteorite. In the real world, despite equally dire scientific warnings about the future of life on earth, our politicians are doing virtually nothing. They talk a lot, but don’t walk the walk.

I fear the world you will inherit if we don’t stop polluting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases. It is not the environmental consequences—the loss of polar bears and tropical forests, the drought and rising seawater—that terrify me; it is the economic and social dislocation that will result that fuel my nightmares.  The “haves” already impose their will on the “have nots” and I see the brutality, injustice and persecution increasing as global warming forces us to wake up from the delusion of abundance and accept forced scarcity.

It will not be a fair fight. And it is the human toll of this disparity that terrifies me. Surprisingly, the North American elites haven’t figured out that there is no way to isolate and protect their loved ones if the worst of climate forecast become a reality. If the carrying capacity of the world is shrunk to 1 billion – which the scientists predict will happen if we keep on our current fossil fuel dependant path – what can I do to guarantee that you are one of the advantaged amongst the 1 billion?  I see no such guaranteed paths forward in that dystopian nightmare. The only viable option I see is to avoid it.

I can’t help but remember what Winston Churchill—one of your grandfather Ivor’s heroes—said during World War II: “It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required.”

Do I have the courage to accept Sir Winston’s challenge?

Visions of your potential dystopian future haunt me. As your dad, and as an activist, I feel I need to step out of my comfort zone, to do something drastic. But what?

The answer isn’t obvious.

Besides dramatically cutting our family’s emissions by avoiding jet planes, walking or biking, eating local and maximizing the energy efficiency of our house, the only route to a safe de-carbonized future is MASSIVE state intervention—similar to efforts in North America during World War II. But instead of focusing the power of our governments, North American leaders keep arguing about the expense of the climate equivalent of sending Bruce or Clint on a life saving mission. They say they are worried about jobs, but our current politicians really are mostly concerned about the elites that control the wealth generated by status quo. If this doesn’t change quickly, everyone, including the elites, will suffer, but it is the poor and disadvantage, especially in places like India, Bangladesh and Africa, that will suffer most and first. The forces of business-as-usual are formidable, inertia is powerful, but as they say, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Given the failure of current leadership, the only path forward that makes sense to me is a people’s movement unlike anything the world has ever seen.

But how do we make this happen?

As an activist I have been working these last few years to stop my governments from allowing massive new fossil fuel infrastructure to be built: coal, pipelines, coalbed methane. Working with local people, and aboriginal groups, we have won most battles, but the business-as-usual machine funded by big oil and coal continue to win the war. Their tactics: impede, distort, delay and manipulate aggressive discussions about emissions reductions in the name of the almighty dollar (this, of course, can only happen with the help of their sycophant supporters in the various governments of the world).

The tar sands here in Canada are the poster child of this perversion. Imagine, the world’s largest industrial project focused on transforming a massive deposit of an asphalt-like substance into oil so the United States and China can maintain their addiction to oil. By burning almost as much energy as is produces, not to mention destroying hundreds of thousands of kilometres of boreal forests, and producing the world’s largest dams of toxic tailings, it is insanity personified.

Although my goal of keeping tar sands-related oil tankers off the British Columbian coast, and shutting down the expansion of unconventional oil and gas, are worthwhile, they somehow seem insufficient.  Given the fossil fuel addiction of Canadian and provincial governments, massive state intervention seems unlikely.

So how does one jump start a people’s movement unlike anything the world has ever seen? How do we quickly ignite Gandhi’s salt march, King’s sit-ins, the South Africa’s general strikes, Poland’s Solidarity movement, and the uprising that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, all at once, on a global scale?

I don’t know. And I often lay awake at night pondering how.

But I have figured out a few things. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and I doubt any one person (even a real life Clint or Bruce hero) will save us. Instead, I believe it is going to take literally millions of courageous individual actions to forestall the impending disaster.

Personally, my gut tells me there will be no way to get to the Promised Land without stepping far out of my comfort zone. That is scary… especially because there is no road map.

And pushing the envelopes that need shoving, will inevitably produce pushback.

How do I balance my role as a parent now with the risks of pushback?

I can’t be a very good father to you if I’m in jail. Is it time to step beyond the tactics I am comfortable with? I don’t know. But when you ask the inevitable question, I want you to know I thought about it.

When I get scared, frustrated, or tired by the enormity of the challenge we face I return for inspiration to a few words of wisdom author and thinker Paul Hawken shared in his commencement address at the University of Portland last spring. The challenge he offered those young people venturing into the world struck a chord with me:

You are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation…Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint.

And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

As a father, and an activist, I’m trying to figure out my personal instructions for deciphering the invisible ink—what is my role in the coming action thriller?

I don’t’ feel brilliant, but I try to keep focused on what needs to be done, even if it seems impossible. You are proof that impossible things happen. How a baby born 14 weeks prematurely at just over 1 lb, overcame brain hemorrhages, heart murmurs, 4 months in intensive care tethered to more tubes then seems possible can blossom into the beautiful, inquisitive girl you have become confirms that the odds don’t matter and the impossible can happen.

My generation’s conspicuous consumption, our attention deficit-like death wish, and our failure to meaningful take action to avert climate change may be incomprehensible to you when you grow up.  They are to me as well.

I wrote this to try to explain to you why I made the choices I did. Some will be good, some bad. Let’s hope there are more of the former. When you evaluate my performance do not forgive me for merely trying hard, determine if I acted with courage, whether I did all I could do to step out of my comfort zone to strive for success.

As a father, as an activist, as a human being, anything less would be cowardly.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Interview: Environmental Activist and Student Kabir Arora

Most people who have closely followed environmental politics in Delhi recently have heard of Kabir Arora.  Kabir is a student leader and an active member of several groups, including the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN) and the National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movement (NAAM).  Today he gives his opinion of Copenhagen ("The most expensive and highly polluting tea party in the earth's history"), and explains why environmentalism "isn't just about plants and animals." He's also got a few words for the PM.

Tell us a little about yourself--the kind of work you do and what brought you to the movement. 
I'm doing my Graduation in Geography from Jamia Millia Islamia.  I'm in my final year now. I was associated with Pahal (for past five years); the search took me to Rural Litigation Entitlement Kendra (in Dehradoon-for a month) and Sadhana Forest (Auroville, Tamil Nadu-for a month). 

The Center for Science and Environment is a milestone in my life.  I have done two months summer certificate course (Agenda for Survival-08) from there. The course actually opened my eyes. The literature penned down by Late Mr. Anil Aggarwal mentored me and prepared my ideology for the way forward. At present, I'm volunteering with Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN). I recently got a Gandhi Fellowship-which is about working in the field of education, understanding the system by becoming a part of it. It is even more about transforming oneself to be a part of Indian tradition of humility.

It's clear from your activism and writing that you aren't a single-issue environmentalist. Can you say a little about the connections you see between the work you do as an environmentalist and your pro- justice, anti-nuclear stands?

I'm not sure whether I'm working as environmentalist/activist or not. But yes I'm a student and will try to answer it with the same spirit. Environmentalism especially in India doesn't mean to limit oneself to just conserving plants and animals. It is about understanding the relationship of man with nature, man with the society and a new addition--technology. So human rights which also includes gender issues, caste-class-communal violence, wars etc. opposition to them and justifiable use of technology becomes an essential part of environmentally sound society. That's where the pro-justice and anti-nuclear stands come from (even I'm a part of group of people who are opposing Genetically Modified Crops, doing whatever I can do on my part to oppose it).  We need a peaceful, environmentally sound, sustainable nation and world. For that, in the words of Arundhati Roy, "A sex workers and Anti Nuclear Activists have to walk together". The need of the hour is to fight with the consumerist model of development which is behind all the blunders in the present day world.

IYCN and other environmentalists put a lot of energy into the lead up to Copenhagen. How did you feel about the outcome of those negotiations? Anything you found particularly disappointing? Any surprising bright spots?

Civil Society organizations across the globe came together for a fair deal in Copenhagen (whether many of them have their own vested interest) which is a big thing, a surprising bright spot. This momentum built at that time can take us forward to a participatory and decentralized model of democracy which is missing in the present undemocratic western notion of democracy--a ray of hope! Many of the prominent environmentalists already had made it clear (Before COP 15) that nothing will happen in Copenhagen, so I didn't have any expectations from it on my part. (In IYCN we still awaited for a miracle to happen in COP which didn't). About the outcome of negotiations, we all are unhappy in the network. We haven't worked out our official stand on it, but my personal opinion about it will be that it was the most expensive and highly polluting tea party in the earth's history in the name of saving Climate.
The debate is not about saving earth or climate, it is for saving human species which we need to consider. It is an emergency like situation where all of us need to work out for structural change instead of doing publicity oriented campaigns (it is also a lesson for us in IYCN too). Most importantly this change will not come from Copenhagen, Kyoto or Mexico further. The citizens of the world have to work out something to get it done.

What issues do you see as the priorities for environmentalists in India in the coming year?
We need to make our hands strong to fight the consumerist (capitalist/imperialist whatever you name it) model of development. The lesson which both Mahatama Gandhi and Bhagat Singh taught us need to be brought in action. It is a high time for us to listen to the founders of the spirit of India. Environmentalists have to mingle in the masses. Right time to come out of Air Conditioned offices and smell the soil of the country.

Climate Emergency which is an umbrella issue can be an opportunity for us to get the change and get out of this design crisis. To mitigate and adapt the climate change we need to have participation of common people. This our leaders and corporations have to understand. For that more Satyagrahas are waiting ahead. (If we have to do Satyagraha in free India that means it is not at all free).

If you had a private meeting with Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh, what would you say to them?
Dr. Manmohan Singh Ji and company (including other political personalities) you have done enough service of nation. It will be good if you get some rest and do the devolution of power, open the way for bottom to top approach. Otherwise... 
"Kikra Ve Kandiyalia Ve Hun ei Chadeya Pooh
Haqq Jinna de Aapne Oh Aape Lenge Khoh"
--Amrita Pritam. 
(Whatever common masses deserve they will snatch it).

What is one thing environmentalists in the rest of the world can learn from India?
In the beginning I've mentioned that environmentalism for us is more than conserving species. For us it is a livelihood issue to secure our present. In order to get it, different societies in this country adopted different measures. From saving water in Rajasthan to Chipko in Uttarakhand. In plains, people practiced sustainable agriculture which in my home state is named as Nanak Kheti (Baba Nanak was a farmer) by Kheti Virassat Mission, even hunting or fishing never exceeded a limit in the tribal areas. They have their own norms to maintain the balance. All of us even in India (especially for the people like me who just talk :P) need to learn-- rest of the world will follow us if we start acknowledging, appreciating and practicing the wisdom we have around us.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Going Foward, Looking Back

At the Green Light Dhaba, we still believe in old fashioned ideas like Truth, Justice, and a Sustainable World! We're here in Delhi, open Tuesday's Thursday's and most Saturday's; we hope you'll join us: talk is cheap, and we're a dhaba, so there is plenty to go around.

One of our New Year's resolutions at the Green Light Dhaba is to do more interviews, guest posts, etc.  If you'd like to contribute something, drop us an email at 

If you haven't seen it already, check out our Best of 2009 list below.  Or check out our in-depth coverage on Copenhagen and Bhopal. While you are here, do grab a free feed.  Also, why not follow or blogroll the dhaba if you do that kind of thing?  If a prize would motivate you, it's not too  late to get in our our Winter Subscription Drive.  Find out more here.

Green Light Dhaba's Best of 2009

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Delhi's Water Woes: Is this the best way?

We’d just attended a book launch at Delhi’s Foreign Correspondents' Club, and I’d had my share of rum, cake and paneer tikka.  I was feeling good, but as we searched for an auto, I wished I’d worn a sweater under my light coat; during the summer months, we long for the winter, but in December when weather blows in from the north, Delhi nights can be hard.

Like a lot of Delhi streets, the service lane on Mathura Road is being dug up to make way for
new water pipes.  As an environmentalist, I know this is an inconvenient but necessary fact of life.  Today's Hindu reminds us of how much water we are loosing due to our lack of good water infrastructure.  As things stand, far too people have access to piped water at all, and as Delhi expands, this problem will only increase.   Good infrastructure improves our city's quality of life and minimizes waste.  It is money well spent.

As we approached the long ditch, we saw two workers, bathing at the side of the road. Yes, we see working men bathe outside every day in Delhi.  But to see it at 9:30 PM on a cold night like that made me angry.  When US officials talk tough with India and China about our climate change commitments, do they understand how it is that our our per capita carbon emissions are so terribly low already?  It’s not because of efficient power plants--we have few of those.  It's certainly not because our rich and powerful believe in austerity, either.   It’s because millions of working men and women bathe in the cold, live outside throughout the winter. 
We walked by silently.  After a time, my friend said, “Well, it’s probably not as cold as the water we get from our tank at home.”  What could I say?  We both knew it was just a polite way to avoid more uncomfortable questions.

Is this the best way we can build our tall buildings?

Is this the best way we can lay our good pipes?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Cost of Corruption: how the case against SPS Rathore affects us all

My wife has been getting tired of hearing me talk to people about the same old things: peak oil, climate change, the Commonwealth Games.  So last month I started working on new topics of conversation, like corruption. I've spoken to a lot of people: university students and autowallas; a poet or two; a crime reporter, a business reporter; a gun dealer, a low-level police bureaucrat, a book dealer, and many more.  So far, everyone agrees corruption is a problem. (Most say it's a "very big problem"; the police bureaucrat says it's "a problem, but not as bad as you think."  He stuck to this position, by the way, even after a few strong drinks, and I had to respect him for that.) 

But I've not found anyone who can offer a really good solution for the problem.  Most just shrug their shoulders, throw up their hands.

I agree corruption is a problem.  I think it is part of the reason people tend to feel hopeless about the prospects for real change in India.  And I think that hopelessness holds back our movements for justice and sustainable development.

Here's another conclusion I've reached: not all corruption is equal. Obviously, the politician who accepts huge bribes when awarding contracts for unsafe or unneeded work is worse than the fellow at the power company who demand a little extra to get the name on your bill changed. Influence selling by politicians is not just annoying; it undermines our faith in our democratic institutions-- it is a particularly poisonous sort of theft. We need fast track courts when these kind of allegations come up, and politicians who are found guilty of this kind of behavior belong in prison for a very long time.  That's called a deterrent: it's to send a message fair play and honesty aren't just right, they are smart!

There is another category of particularly poisonous corruption: abuse of power by those we depend on to care for us and protect us.  When teachers or police use the trust we put in them to abuse or harm the most vulnerable among us, this undermines our faith in the system every bit as much as the politicians who get rich off of public money.  These crimes also call for swift and strict justice.  Swift, because justice delayed is too often justice denied.  Strict, because a slap on the wrist will not deter others.

When the  Inspector General of Police of an Indian state molests a girl and then harasses her and her family in order to escape justice, I don't think 6 months in jail, loss of his police medals and a 1000 rupee fine qualifies as strict. And a nineteen year wait is far, far too long to qualify as swift, especially when the victim commits suicide after three years.  If you live in India and read the papers, you have heard of SPS Rathore and Ruchika Girhotra.  If you don't, you can learn more at the Indian Homemaker.  Or Goolge.

If Mr. Rathore is convicted of the charges currently filed against him, the term of his sentence should probably be measured in decades, not months.  Since "following orders" should never be an excuse for criminal activity (didn't we learn this in the war crime trials after WWII?), Rathore's subordinates should also be investigated since it appears some of them also participated in the harassment campaign against this family.  If convicted, they should, at minimum, lose their pensions and be relieved of duty. If school officials are found to have participated in harassing Ruchika, her brother, or their family, those officials and the school should be severely punished.  

Corruption is widespread.  High profile cases alone will never stop it, of course.  But high profile cases can make a difference if they result in real justice being done: many high-level corrupt officials are cowards; an example that includes a long prison term may make them think twice! And if low-level officials realize they can be punished for following illegal orders, some of them may decide to stand up next time and say no. 

Want to do something?  Blog about it. Sign this petition. Share it on Facebook.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Green Light Dhaba on the Road with an EXPLANATION for all that INFLATION

I've been thinking a lot about inflation these days--haven't we all! I'm convinced that current jump in food prices is the result of forces and trends that will become more and more dangerous over time.  

Serious discussions of inflation tend to be boring and confusing.  Which explains why most politicians and public opinion makers are boiling things down to easily digestible sound bytes, strong on volume and blame, weak on analysis. In all the noise, we are missing something important.  You see, unlike the inflation we had in 2008 up until the time the world economy crashed and oil prices plunged,  the inflation we are seeing in India is not the result of high fuel prices. (That kind of inflation will come back soon enough, and then we'll really be in trouble.)  No the inflation we have today has been made possible by a human-made (and terribly mismanaged) environmental crisis--and it's likely to get worse if we don't take serious action soon.

I gave the good people over at Youth Ki Awaaz a guest post on this subject.  It's longer than a sound-byte, and it's not good for many laughs--making inflation funny, was beyond me!  But I've tried to tell the truth, without being boring and confusing.  Extreme weather, extreme acronyms  (CPI (M) BJP, CPI, WPI...)  and the Commonwealth Games are all in there! You can read it here.  And while you are at it, check out the rest of the Youth Ki Awaaz site. They have a lot of interesting stuff going on there.

Hey, if you're new here, do grab a free feed.  And why not follow or blogroll the dhaba if you do that kind of thing?  If a prize would motivate you, it's not too late to get in our our Winter Subscription Drive.  Find out more, and see our "Best of the Dhaba, 2009" list here.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Saturday Special: Unconventional Green Resolution Advice

It's been a while since we ran a Saturday Special around here.  Before you check out our Green New Year's Resolution Advice (TM), do grab a free feed.  And why not follow or blogroll the dhaba if you do that kind of thing?  If a prize would motivate you, it's not too late to get in our our Winter Subscription Drive.  Find out more, and see our "Best of the Dhaba, 2009" list here.

If you are looking to make a New Year's Resolution, here are a few random ideas:

1) Don't stand for sexual harassment on public transportation.  Most guys don't grab body parts on our metros and buses, but a few bad eggs really spoil the ride for women and girls everywhere. And they get away for it because we all let them.  This year, give someone a piece of your mind at least once.  Find out more from people who are doing something about this at Blank Noise.

2) Wash your jeans less! Good for the environment, and according to JACK, the fashion guy over at , it is also fashionably correct.(Go here to read more; Jack will also tell you when to wear a linen suit and how long your pants should be!)

 3) Become a vegetarian--or at least stop eating so much meat?
If you need some inspiration, try reading Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent essay, "Against Meat" or see why Bhagwad gave up meat here.

From the No-Easy-Answers Department comes this resolution reminder: Green Tech isn't all green!  Many, many green products depend on stuff called "rare earth elements," which are not green at all.  Learn more here and resolve to use less stuff and energy.

Surprisingly, some people are still putting a bright face on the Copenhagen fiasco. Not Sunita Narain of CSE. Read about what she saw here.  And resolve to look our world's problems in the eye.

That's it for now.  If you've got other ideas for Green New Year's Resolutions, why not put them in the comments section below?