Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday Special: Holi, Hull Hydro, Plastic, Trees, Toilets, and More!

First, I have to say my favorite part of this post is the colour-spattered sign over there on the right. What would I do without my resident 9 year old artist-extraordinaire?  I think he was so eager to take on this project this morning, because the alternative was to study how to write applications for leave and letters to the editor.  (I'll suggest he try to imagine he's a low ranking journalist; then maybe he could use the same form for both purposes--Dear Editor, I regret to inform you that due to a severe case of stomach pain....)

Holi is close at hand, so let me just say this: beware of toxic colours, and please no eggs on my head, people! Navdanya has more on how you can celebrate Holi without the poison.  And before you curse too loudly at the cheap plastic pichkaari that breaks in your child's (or your own) hands after one or two uses, remember it was probably inexpensive because India recycles 60-80% of it's post-consumer plastic. And recycled plastic is cheap, more environmentally friendly than new plastic--and more likely to break!  See, life requires sacrifice.  I say, just throw a bucket of water on them when they least expect it!

On a more serious note, if you didn't  get a chance to read our update last week on recent attacks on Himachal environmentalists, then please do now! And then go sign this petition against that violence and the Hull Hydroelectric Project.  There are not nearly enough signatures on that petition yet, so I'm going to keep hammering away for awhile.  We have to support rural environmentalists, especially when they are literally being attacked!

Sorry but the contest deadline is past for those wanting to get a used copy of Kaveri Gill's Of Poverty and Plastic.  We'll be announcing the winner of our first ever used-book give-away contest soon.  Now for our usual Saturday links:

pRiYA is back with The Plum Tree II.  Here's a great post on how we love trees!

Three via Space Bar:
The Asian Age's NYT supplement has a full page of articles designed to make us feel like green issues are being taken seriously in the world.  I'm not convinced, but here are three of the more interesting articles they ran today:
Many relationships are feeling a green strain. (Need green advice about your relationship?  Write to the Green Light Dhaba's Agony Uncle!)
Slower ships are more efficient ships.  But shouldn't we just ship less stuff?
Back from the Brink: Frontline story on biotech.

Have a happy and safe Holi.  The weather is warming--good time to think about a water cooler if you don't already have one! Read more in the second half of this post.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reviewed: The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming

The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming 
by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon (Scholastic India, 2007)
Rs. 350
Two and a half Green Stars
(worth reading, but not uncritically)

Let's face it, books about global warming are going to have a tough time competing with The Famous FiveHarry Potter, and Percy JacksonThe Down to Earth Guide about Global Warming book makes a sincere effort to do so.  Its colourful layout and straightforward prose are appropriate for the book's target audience--children eight and up.   Although it was originally published in the US -- and was clearly written for American children -- it's been brought out by Scholastic India and is readily available here.

As a green father, I was excited to share this book with my kids.  After months of nagging my 9 year old to try it, my wife and I read it out loud to him, which is what we should have done in the first place. After reading it, my own son had this to say about the book:
"It's OK, I guess.  It has good examples and pictures that sort of explain it. It has interesting facts like this one: 'One tree can absorb the amount of CO2 released by an average car that's been driven for 4,000 miles.' The bad side? It's about global warming, and that's kind of boring.  I'd rather read fiction."
There is a lot to like about The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming.  One of the authors, Laurie David, produced Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and she clearly knows her stuff. The explanations of subjects like the greenhouse effect, mass animal extinctions and extreme weather do a nice job of putting real science into language kids (and adults) can understand.

But two things troubled me about this book: it's annoyingly cheerful tone and it's unwillingness to be honest with children about some important issues. First, in order to make global warming exciting for young readers, the authors have put a chipper, cheerful...cutesy spin on just about everything, including things that are not cute.  In the chapter Extinction Stinks, there are sections like, "Kiss this Toad Good-bye" and "Don't Put Bleach in the Colors, Um, Corals."  

Call me an old fashioned, but the largest mass extinction event since the dinosaurs just isn't something I want to joke about over and over again.

Similarly, the section on extreme weather is called "Heat Waves: The X-Games of Summer" and opens with a picture of an extreme cyclist; the chapter on rising sea levels is called, "Beach Bummer" and includes this "fun fact", which you can also read on the Scholastic Website, "If the Greenland ice sheet melts completely, it will add enough water to raise sea levels all across the world by 21 feet (6.4 m)"  

Let's imagine for a moment what this might mean: much of Bangladesh, Mumbai, New York City and maybe even Los Angeles underwater, millions of desperate climate refugees heading for Delhi and Chicago...Wow.  What a bummer! 

I'm not saying that David and Gordon should have taken the opposite approach and spelled out the worst case scenario explicitly.  (If  they had, their "fun facts" might have sounded something like this: Crazy Cannibals!  Did you know that Jared Diamond writes that many societies that didn't avert environmental crises ended up in total collapse, which included widespread famine, violence and even cannibalism!  Now that's extreme hunger!)

My second concern is that this book includes a lot of what I call "light bulb environmentalism." In other words, children are told that we can go on doing things pretty much the way we are doing them as long as we car pool, recycle, and change a few light bulbs.   As for the problems with a global economy based on over-consumption, well the authors of this book really don't have a problem with that.  As they say:
"We've spent a lot of time talking about why burning fossil fuels is so bad.  Now it's time to hear about why the future of fuel is good. There are other ways we can drive our cars, and manufacture our products."
David and Gordon then go on to exclaim that nearly all "alternative" fuels "rock", even  industrially produced bio-fuel which results in more hunger AND more greenhouse gases than petroleum because we are cutting down rain forests (which absorb CO2) in order to make room for bio fuel crops.

And the book says nothing about the failure of the United States government to take any meaningful action on climate change, but it makes much of the fact that mayors all over the US have signed symbolic commitments to reduce their cities' emissions.  Sorry, but putting a positive spin on the United State's efforts to reduce emissions requires too much...spin to qualify as honest.   Copenhagen certainly didn't do anything to change that fact.  Even children should be told when governments are failing them.

Again, we don't want to overwhelm young people with bad news, but it is fair to them to be a little more realistic. The Story of Stuff, also for children, manages to do a much better job of this, I think.  Our children deserve more honesty because they are the ones that will have to live with the mess we're creating. This book does a lot of good, but it is fundamentally misleading in parts; both children and adults should read it, but they should read it critically!   

Note:  I wrote Scholastic to ask them for permission to use a thumbnail image of the book, and do you know what?  A nice woman named Samantha wrote me back a letter explaining how to properly ask for permission to do that.  It involved downloading forms and sending them back via fax machines, so I said, no thanks. That's why my son is holding his copy of the book in the picture that goes with this post. Hope THAT'S not going to get us in trouble!   In fact, Scholastic explained that I needed permission to actually link to their site! I docked them a half a green star for being so unhelpful!

Buy the Down-to-Earth-Guide to Global Warming in India through Friends of Books
Buy the Down-to-Earth-Guide to Global Warming in the US through Amazon

Monday, February 22, 2010

Action Alert: Himachal Environmentalists Under Attack in Chamba

On February 14, five environmental activists, including a  Zila Parishad member, were brutally attacked in Himachal, allegedly by contractors of the Hul Hydroelectric project.  The villagers were attacked at the village Chungah, where residents were holding a meeting to oppose construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Hul Nala, a tributary of the Ravi River.  Though the attacks are getting little if any coverage in most national news outlets,  you can read more and see photos in My Himachal.

Villagers have opposed this project since 2005, due to it's affects on local forests and water resources. Local residents were outraged by the attacks, as these photos of the large protest and bandh they staged last week clearly demonstrate--the streets were full, the shops were shuttered.

Local people typically have a clear understanding of what is at stake in struggles like this--farmers know how much water they need and what will happen if water needed for irrigation is diverted for power generation. And that's to say nothing of flooded forests and homes that often result from projects like this. It's no surprise Chamba residents oppose this project.  

But sometimes, in their rush to cut carbon emissions and consumption of fossil fuels, well-intentioned urban environmentalists jump too quickly onto the hydroelectric bandwagon.  Hydroelectric power is often billed as clean and renewable.  The problem is that more and more research suggests that in many cases, hydro plants actually emit more greenhouse gases than burning oil!  This is because when trees and plants go underwater, they decompose and release methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon.  Even small dams can drown a lot of trees.  More work on this is needed, but recent research into methane production at the Three Gorge Dam in China suggests dams may be even worse than many previously believed.

The fact that dams may contribute much more than we once thought to climate change suggests that while hydroelectric power may be renewable, it's not necessarily sustainable!  We cannot allow these projects to be pushed through by force over local opposition.  

Wherever your live in India or the wider world, you can help by signing this on-line petition calling on the Chief Minister of Himachal to scrap the Hul Hydroelectric project and to take action against those who perpetrated the recent violence against local environmentalists.  Let him know the whole world is watching!  Then you can post the link to Facebook and mail a few good friends.

Thanks to the Indian Youth Climate Action Network for the tip on this story.
Thanks also to the IYCN for passing on word about this event, which takes place later this week in Delhi:

PERSPECTIVES invites you to a convention COMMUNITIES, COMMONS AND CORPORATIONS the struggle for rights and resources
24TH February, Wednesday: 1:30 pm to 5:30 pm
Ms. Arundhati Roy (Activist and Writer), Mr. Prashant Bhushan (Advocate, Supreme Court), Mr. Felix Padel (Anthropologist working in Niyamgiri, Orissa), Ms. Joya Mitra (Activist and Writer, West Bengal)

25TH February, Thursday: 1:30 pm to 5:30 pm
Ms. Shamim Modi (Activist, Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, Madhya Pradesh), Film and Talk by Mr.Amar Kanwar
(Independent Documentary Film-maker), Ms. Dayamani Barla (Journalist and Activist, Jharkhand), Prof. Nirmal Chandra (Formerly Professor of Economics, IIM-Kolkata)

Venue: Room no. 22, Faculty of Arts, North Campus, University of Delhi.

For more information, go here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saturday Special: Lost Cities, Sarai, The Onion and more

Sarai celebrated it's tenth year in Delhi last week with a wide range of activities and performances.  I've got it from reliable sources that Ashis Nandy made some interesting remarks about the many kinds of cities out there in the world: cities that define themselves in relationship to the village; cities that define themselves in relationship to other cities; ancient cities, lost cities, etc.  Delhi, of course, is many cities at once.  Regardless of what the organizers of the Commonwealth Games want us to think, the village remains important in the way this city understands itself, because most of the lakhs of people who come to Delhi do not come from Paris or London. 

Today, I'm taking the metro to Old Delhi and that's got to say something about what kind of city we live in. But it's Saturday, and I don't have the energy to write a serious essay about how we imagine the cities we live in.  Instead, I'm going to make an entirely different kind of contribution to this discussion. Here are the people at The Onion discussing another kind of lost civilization.

Will Facebook, Blogger, Twitter be next?
P. Sainath on the ABC's of Indian Media: Advertising, Bollywood, Corporate power
A story worth watching: Shyam Saran resigns his post.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

India Shining, the Sequel: can a new slogan save us?

Nandan M. Nilekani, noted Indian IT business man and Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, has determined that we need new new slogans for the new century. The old ones like bijli, sadak, pani (power, roads and water)  and roti, kapada, makaan (food, clothing, shelter) are out of date, he says.

"We have gone from … physical things to abstract things (UID number, bank account, mobile phone)," says Nilekani in remarks that have been widely published this week.  "If we can get everyone to have UID number, if we can get everyone to have bank account and if we can get everyone to have mobile phone, then we are giving them tools of opportunity. With that, they can access services, benefits and their rights."

Don’t get me wrong; new technology and new ways of doing things, can have a real impact in the real world.  Increased access to bank accounts and micro-credit programs is making a difference in many areas.  Some markets, especially those dealing with perishable goods, are operating more efficiently in recent years thanks to mobile phones--there's nothing "abstract" about a reduction in rotting fish, or the increase in income generated when the fellow selling the fish finds his way straight to a village that wants to buy it.  And in a country with so much migrant labour, who can deny the importance of being able to speak with far-away loved ones?  (As for the many advantages of the UID number, someone else will have to explain those to you--I surely can't.)

But when you get right down to it, we can’t change reality by introducing new slogans--even really catchy ones like "UID number, bank account, mobile phone!" And does it really make sense to say our old slogans are out of date? Talk to a Bihari taxi driver about this: sure, he may show off his mobile phone; but more likely than not he’ll also tell you his family in the village gets power for only a few hours a day.  And water? Can we really say it is “passé” to demand clean water in a country where 1250 people die every day from diarrhea?

Nilekani’s remarks reminded me of a piece that ran  this Sunday in The Hindu.  In it, Sevanti Ninan praised a recent cover story in India Today
In the same week that Binayak Sen talked on television about famine and genocide, India Today came out with a cover story whose cover photo was designed to cock a snook at nay-sayers. Composed like an ad for a mobile phone company, it had turbaned rural gentry with mobiles to their ears, riding in a roofless red limousine against a backdrop of lush green fields. The story's opening sentences proclaimed that “islands of poverty still exist but most of rural India is transformed beyond imagination thanks to a host of factors.” I can almost hear all those human rights activists who regularly post grim stories on Internet mailing lists gag. Whatever happened to the earlier stock stories of farmers' suicides, and the current ones about why Maoists are spreading their tentacles everywhere?
Ninan goes on to address the fact that seventy seven per cent of Indians live on under Rs. 20 a day:
This 77 per cent figure has become a favourite statistic (a variation of it says 77 per cent of India lives below the poverty line) but surely it caricatures even inequity when the discussion does not go beyond that?
Of course it is true that the discussion of this statistic needs to go deeper than it typically does.  And I think it is terribly important to discuss things that are working as well as things that are not; we can learn from our successes as well as from our mistakes.   To be fair, there are places where the India Today piece does a nice job of this.  For instance, they highlight some of the areas where micro-finance programs and the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme are working wonders.

But in being so selective in the kinds of trees it looks at, India Today misses some important things about the forest.  For example, although it concedes that, “The single biggest reason for the kind of money visible in rural India is the skyrocketing price of land,” it does not ask the next obvious question: what does this means for those who have no land?  That’s just one example, but it’s indicative of a larger pattern.

The real problem in this piece is not the positive examples it offers; it is the fact that it urges us, right from its very first sentence, to do something unconscionable: “Forget those images of ravaged villagers, kids with distended bellies and ragged clothes and a future as grim as the cracked, sun-baked earth.”

It would be one thing if those images were just... images.  The problem is, those images are part of the reality lived by millions of rural Indians every day--how can we forget them?  Yes, statistics like 77% of the population living on less than Rs 20 a day and 2,00,000 farmer suicides in 12 years are blunt and depressing.  Far nicer to see photos of farmers in front of Land Rovers and computers.

I’m all for thinking positive.  But as we discussed last week, the ways in which we frame the stories we tell matters. I agree that a variety of perspectives, a variety of frames, is the only way we can hope to understand the complex world we live in…but when someone tries to sell me a frame that hides 77% of the picture, I think it’s time to visit another frame shop.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Green Poetry by Nitoo Das (AKA River Slant)

Framing a Lohit Evening

It is time for the casual, one-legged
grace of the crane. Fish in beak it poses,
waits for my summary. It is time
for the queries of crows, disguised
by vapours rising from Abdul Ali’s boat.
Time now for Arif to shoo away witches
who come wearing amma-smiles.

It is certainly time for chatty scarecrows
that focus on a long-distance paradox.
It is time for Abdul Ali’s smoke. Time
for him to test the nets. Time
too to prepare for prayers, the cage
of night, sneaky currents and fish that fly.
It is time to talk with his friend.

Hori, when will the floods come this year?
Hori, do you think the fish will follow me tonight?
Hori, I have to buy new clothes for Arif.
Hori, there is a mark on my boat.
Help me fix it tomorrow.

It is also time for me to filter
the stiff frills of a flower sagging

on the sand and smear over dusk
a gesture. On an evening like this one, I saw
my father picking eucalyptus leaves. Smell them
he said. I sniffed and sniffed until the earth
sprouted wings, the sun jumped headlong
into the waves and the river waited
for Abdul Ali’s song.
Nitoo Das (AKA River Slant) teaches English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She was born in Guwahati, but came to Delhi in 1994 for her higher studies and "decided to stay on and learn various survival skills in this ancient city." Her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University dealt with constructions of the Assamese Identity under the British (1826-1920). Das runs a blog by the name of River's Blue Elephants which she began as an experiment almost five years ago while working on a research project (with Sarai, CSDS) on poetry as hypertext. Her interests include fractals, caricatures, comic books, horror films, and studies of online communities (hyperlinked examples mine).  Das is one of the featured poets on Poetry International Web’s page on India. Her poetry has been published online at sites like Pratilipi, Muse India, Eclectica, Poetry with Prakriti and also in several anthologies. 

Das' first collection, Boki, was published by Virtual Artists Collective, Chicago, in September 2008. I liked it a great deal.  This is not a collection of poetry about nature, but nature finds its way into many of these poems in interesting ways.  In fact, Das writes about a range of subjects, from many perspectives in a variety of voices, both contemporary and historic.  Boki evokes plenty of serious emotions--grief, anger, nostalgia--but Das can also be playful both in terms of the subjects she writes about ("Toes" and "Barbie Roopvati") and the surprising kinds of verbal music she employs.

One thing I've always liked about Das is her ability to take a poem and, in the close, bring it (and us, her readers) to a new, unexpected place.  I think her ability to make these turns is related to her ease with ambiguity. It may also have something to do with the command she has over language--or the command it has over her.

I bought a copy of Boki this summer. It was well worth the Rs 250.  Though Das feels ambivalent about selling her poetry,  I don't.   People who write advertising copy and greeting card verse get paid for their labour--why not people who make us reconsider the language and world we think and live in?   If you think like me, consider following one of these links:  

Buy Boki in the US through Amazon.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Saturday Special: Plastic, Trash, and Stuff

We've been talking trash again this week.  If you missed it, don't forget to read our interview with Kaveri Gill or our review of her important new book, Of Poverty and Plastic. (Find out how you might win a free copy of the book at the end of this post.)

Trashy links:
The Story of Stuff: The big picture, simply put.
Midway: plastic at sea. 
Plastic on your plates: is this green?

This is not green: broken ships at Alang
Pulitzer Prize winning series on ship breaking by Gary Cohn and Will Englund. 
William Langewiesche's article on ship breaking, originally published in The Atlantic.

Gas from Garbage: International Energy Agency report on getting methane from landfills in India. 
Can one American couple give up trash for a year?
Can bio gas help save Ranthambhore's tigers

What if a whole city turns out to be trash? Thanks to pRiyA at the (hibernating) Plum Tree for sending this story about the Darker Side of Dubai.
"Wonderland" of junk at The Plum Tree.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Interview: Economist and Author Kaveri Gill

On Tuesday, we reviewed Kaveri Gill's book, Of Poverty and Plastic. Gill uses an interdisciplinary approach to poverty analysis in the Indian plastic recycling industry.  In the process, she gives us important insights into the ways in which poverty, development and the environment interact in urban India. You can read our review here; we think that Of Poverty and Plastic is a rigorous, ambitious book that will be appreciated by both activists and academics alike.  Today, we are pleased to follow up our review with an interview with the author.

Tell us how you became interested in plastic recycling in the first place. 
Well, more than plastic recycling, as an economist I have always been interested in poverty and employment / labour markets. And in fact, that remains the key focus of the book, as suggested by the title, which alludes to Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men' and its themes of poverty during the Depression, migrant workers, and their dreams of a better life. Informal plastic recycling, as one of many informal sectors, provides a 'free' livelihood to lots of migrants to the city in the context of liberalisation , and I was struck by the great irony of these people - especially those at the lowest levels of the chain - not passively accepting of their poverty and expecting handouts, but instead exerting great agency through a market to better their lot in life, even as they contribute to the greening of the city. And yet they come up against an unhelpful state, and prejudiced judiciary and civil society.  

Your book is based on interviews, surveys and focus groups conducted in slums and markets where many of Delhi's plastic workers live and work . Can you tell us a little about that experience? Any moments or lessons that stand out for you in particular?
Well, I spent more than fifteen months at a stretch in the slums of Jwalapuri and the Mundka recycling market, a decade ago now.....and have returned regularly since. During this time, I have made good friends, and really seen the view from the other side. The thing that struck me most, and remains with me, is how the opposite of powerless and passive these people are in accepting the deal handed out to them by life. As development economists and specialists, we spend our lives hearing about the importance of the poor 'exerting agency and voice'. And that is exactly what these people have painfully wrested for themselves. In a context where they are given no security and certainty about the legality of their slum plots, are rarely the recipients of regular service delivery of water or electricity -- ironically, they are underserved by the municipality as regards solid waste management and are instead themselves the free providers of the same! -- have no access to the formal labour market or any social security from the state, they have managed to painfully negotiate all of the above through creating this informal sector work, and establishing hegemony over it, thus gaining some measure of economic and political power. This they use to overcome the social stigma they face on the ground of their doing 'polluting' work, in a ritual as opposed to environmental, sense!  

You argue that middle class urban environmentalists tend to privilege “green agenda” issues like climate change and biodiversity over what what you call “brown agenda” issues like safe water, sanitation and housing. Do you see these agendas as exclusive, or is their room for common ground?
Well, I don't see the 'green' and 'brown' agenda as mutually exclusive. By all means, let the middle classes be concerned with both! But in privileging the former over the latter, we are in danger of internally reflecting the developed country / developing country hierarchy and divide so clearly in evidence at Copenhagen. Our elites and expanding middle classes cannot wish away the 50% of the other half forming our largest metropolitan cities, like Mumbai and Delhi. And unless we take their basic needs -- housing, safe water, sanitation -- into account as a matter of priority, even as we increase our own conspicuous consumption, we are setting ourselves up for great inequality and trouble.  

Your portrayal of waste pickers and the small godown owners for whom they work is complex, but you seem to agree that society could do better by them. Given extremely low margins of profit in this commodity chain, is it possible to imagine an effective system of plastic recycling that provided these workers with a better standard of living?
Yes, first, the state and judiciary and civil society shouldn't hinder the work they are doing. If we can't help them, leave them alone - but don't create unnecessary obstacles and hurdles by banning the recycling (again, great irony but no surprises there, we have never considered banning the primary production and consumption, which would solve the environmental problem far more effectively!), by requiring they fulfill expensive regulatory requirements which would render this low value added industry economically unviable (like printing recycled content and polymer type on each product, which even the primary industry is not yet enforced to do, as it is in industrialised countries!)

If we want to help them improve their standard of living, then there are means -- give them technological aid; make banking and microfinance loans available to them etc.

You point out that lion's share of the job growth that has occurred in the past 20 years has occurred in the informal sector. You seem ambivalent about this. On the one hand, the informal sector has been the source of a lot of innovation in areas like plastic recycling; and in many cases it does the work the state seem incapable of doing. On the other hand, informal sector work offers little security, and often reinforces the "hard bar" of caste. Do you see a way out of this? 
Let me be clear about my position on the informal sector. The reality is, it accounts for 93% of the labour force in our country at present. In an ideal world, it would be far less and many more would have formal sector employment, with social security and other benefits. But we are far from that point. In the meantime, none of my informal waste worker groups fall below the official state poverty line for Delhi, not even the waste pickers working on dumps. This is perhaps the most key finding of my book, yet it has been overlooked by many. This means they are not eligible for any handouts from the state. It is against this backdrop, and in this context, that they are delivered to the doors of the informal plastic recycling 'market' to survive and make a living for themselves. To take that away from them without offering a viable alternative is to consign them to the life of even greater destitution. Of course, one hopes in the long run, as the economy grows and develops, and more numbers are able to participate and benefit from an inclusive economy, this kind of work dies a natural death, as it did in post-industrial societies of the west. In the meantime, let them survive through an independent, and in it's own way, dignified employment and market opportunity. 

To find find out more about Of Poverty and Plastic see  review from Tuesday.  There you will also find out how you can enter our contest to win a free (and well-used) copy of the book--but hurry, you've got less than two weeks!  Want a brand new copy?  Here are the links you need:
Buy Of Poverty and Plastic in the UK from Amazon

Don't forget to celebrate to India's refusal to allow Bt Brinjal into the country!  If it hadn't been for the thousands and thousands of people who marched, testified, fasted and petitioned, the outcome would have almost certainly been different.  Hats off to the people who worked so hard to make this victory possible.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reviewed: Of Poverty and Plastic

Of Poverty and Plastic
by Kaveri Gill
Four and a Half Green Stars (excellent)

A few years back, my son, who was then in Class III, was told by his teacher to write an essay on a "real-life hero.”  With no input form me, he chose to write about the kabadi walla, because “the kabadi walla helps us all recycle.”  One winter evening, we wandered through a south Delhi scrap market, interviewing itinerant buyers and the owners of small godowns who were just finishing their day’s work.  I think it was probably one of my finer moments as a father, and I've always been proud of my son for being willing to go into such unfamiliar territory.

That experience sparked my interest in Delhi’s solid waste management system, which seems to be badly broken in some ways and extremely effective in others.  So last month when I saw Kaveri Gill’s book, Of Poverty and Plastic, I couldn’t resist buying it, in spite of it’s relatively steep price tag.

I was not disappointed.  Gill’s book is ambitious, engaging and meticulously researched.  It reveals much about what is wrong –and right—not just with India’s solid waste management system, but with our post-liberalization economy as well.  This is not an easy read: it is an academic monograph, and as such it is concerned with issues of theory and methodology that the lay reader may find challenging.  But for those who work on issues related to poverty, development, waste management or recycling, this book will be worth the effort it requires.

Gill did her research in slums where plastic workers live, and in the markets where they work.  She draws her conclusions from a mix of quantitative household survey data and qualitative material gathered from focus groups and interviews.  Gill accepts the idea made popular by Amartya Sen that a real measure of poverty must look at much more than just income.  But she points out that this “capability approach” presents researchers with many problems when they set out to measure and compare poverty levels within and across countries. While Gill does not claim to answer every question she raises, she does manage to present us with a compelling picture of work and life in Delhi’s plastic industry.

This isn’t the place for an exhaustive discussion of her conclusions, but there are a few lessons that stand out.  Regarding poverty and development, it is true that the kabadi wallas, the itinerant buyers who buy and collect dry recyclable scrap, do better overall than waste pickers, who collect plastic from trash and “wet waste.”  But Gill finds that when one uses the government's poverty criteria as a measuring stick, no group of workers in the Delhi plastic industry, including waste pickers, qualifies as “poor.”  Given the work waste pickers do, and the conditions they live in, this finding suggests there may be something wrong with how the government measures poverty.

Gill finds that, overall,  workers in the informal plastic industry do somewhat better in terms of income than other informal sector workers living in the same slums.  And if anything, the plastic industry is more equal in terms of income distribution than many other informal sector industries. It is thus not possible to blame the poor conditions of waste pickers on super-exploitative middle men.  Careful analysis reveals that there is simply very little money to be made in this system, and that the owners of the plastic godowns are, like those who work for them, limited in both power and life choices.  Scavengers and godown owners alike understand that their lack of social mobility results, in large part, from the “hard bar” of caste oppression which continues to exist in urban India.

It is interesting to note that most post-liberalization job growth has occurred in the informal sector; this has reduced the access many of the most oppressed workers once had to formal jobs in the industrial and government sectors.  This dynamic—growth based on high wage jobs for a very few, well-educated members of the elite, and informal subsistence wage jobs for the rest—raises important questions about the model of development we’ve been following for nearly two decades now.

Turning to environmental issues, the book makes clear that India does an exceptional job recycling plastic: 60-80% of post consumer plastic is recycled here, as opposed to 7% in Europe and 10% in China.  This should be celebrated, Gill argues, because instead of dumping our used plastic in landfills, we now turn it into cheap buckets and new shoes.   Certainly the workers at the lowest levels of this industry deserve more respect and support from government and society at large.  But Gill also argues that by the logic of capitalism, those who are at the highest level of this industry are not the villains they are often made out to be.  Gill suggests they have played a vital social function by inventing--at considerable financial risk--new techniques and markets for environmentally friendly products.  Gill argues that they are entrepreneurs in the best sense of the word.

However, rather than celebrate this industry, too often elite groups and even middle class environmentalists endorse policies that do the opposite.  Gill looks at the mostly unsuccessful drive to ban plastic bags in Delhi in 2000 and asks why it was aimed primarily at recycled plastic. Gill argues that this was true in part because middle class environmentalists in India, as in the West, tends to privilege “green agenda” issues like climate change and biodiversity over what she calls “brown agenda” issues like safe water, sanitation and housing. But one can't just blame the environmentalists.  To some extent, Gill suggests, the ban the bag movement of a decade ago was hi-jacked by elite interests that were interested less in “green” or “brown” issues and more in making the city look “world class” by removing (or moving) unsightly plastic litter, slums and factories.

Like many of us, Gill sees the problems in the system as it exists, but isn’t sure exactly what to do about them in the long run.  Modern market economies are full of problems, she seems to say, but they are a reality we have to live with.  Our post liberalization market economy, in particular, is producing unequal growth and is distorted by many things, including continuing caste oppression. Gill doesn’t tell us how to remake, or "recycle" this system.  But she does a great deal to help us understand it.  For academics and activists alike, this book and the questions it raises are well worth engaging with.

It's really difficult for me to do this, because I love to hold onto books once I've read them.  But because Of Poverty and Plastic is about recycling, among other things, I'm going to offer my used copy (full of my pencil marks) as a prize to the person who writes me the most compelling email explaining why they just have to read it.   Send it here:

I'll get a panel of eminent people together to judge the entries.  Let's make the deadline two weeks from today.

We'll be spending the rest of this week talking trash.  On Thursday, we'll follow up this review with an interview with the author, Kaveri Gill.  On Saturday, we'll have all kinds of trashy links.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Talking Points: Matthew Nisbet on the Frames We All Use to Communicate

News Flash:
Open magazine’s recent cover story on climate change was so poorly researched and written that I suspect even many climate change denialists secretly found it embarrassing.  Last week I showed how Open played fast and loose with the facts, and  how they got their information exclusively from well known climate skeptics and American think tanks with close ties to the oil industry

I don’t think Open convinced anyone who wasn't already convinced--their story was too sloppy and one-sided to be credible to people who have not already made up their mind.  But Open's hack job should remind us that we environmentalists have some work to do in this area as well.  Anu Ramdas, who blogs at Time and Us, recently sent me a link to an interesting video talk by an American scientist named Matthew C. Nisbet.

Nisbet argues that the way in which issues are framed has a profound impact on science education—in fact, when you really think about it, “framing” influences all education and all political discourse.  This is true because people everywhere tend to be “cognitive misers”: we organize our understanding of the world around relatively simple narratives which provide the context and frameworks we need to make sense of new learning.    Depending on the narratives used, the same information may be interpreted very differently by different people. When we "frame"an idea, we suggest a narrative that might help people understand the idea in a certain way.

Since “framing” is fundamentally a part of how people think, it really doesn’t make sense to ignore it.  Of course “framing” does not give us permission to mislead people.  Nisbet is concerned with how science organizations can educate the public about scientific issues--not for advocacy purposes, but in order to empower people to effectively participate in the public debate around issues that affect them.  But all of us, scientists and concerned citizens alike, need to understand  how to frame issues if we want to communicate our ideas effectively.

According to Nisbet, those who support a business-as-usual agenda in the US have figured out several "frames" they can use to stall a meaningful response to climate change.  First they sow the seeds of doubt: maybe climate change is not really happening; maybe it’s caused by sunspots, maybe it will be good for human life.  They know that people who are uncertain about global warming will be unlikely to support meaningful actions to slow it.  Second, they make much of the economic costs of converting to a low-carbon economy.  These first two frames reinforce each other: if in doubt, why do something that will slow economic growth?  Last of all, the American right-wing argues that it is unfair to allow India and China to continue to grow while forcing the US to cut back. 

It is interesting to note that the first two frames work very well in an Indian context and the third only requires a simple reversal: why should India and China do anything as long as the US refuses to act? 

Of course, all three of these arguments can—and should—be countered in fairly straightforward ways.  But environmentalists can’t just respond defensively. We need to develop our own frames if we are to successfully advocate for a sustainable future.   Nesbit suggests there are reasons for us to consider moving beyond the frame popularized by Al Gore in his movie An Inconvenient Truth, which emphasizes the disasters that will likely result from climate change (i.e., droughts, flooding, etc.)  Nesbit cites research which finds that Americans, at least, tend to respond better to concrete policy initiatives than to explanations of the environmental problems we face.  This research is interesting, but it's specific findings are not all applicable in India.  It says for example, that although Americans respond well to environmental messages related to urban public health,  the one thing they reacted most negatively to was the suggestion that reducing beef consumption would be healthy for people and the environment.  (So don't try to talk to Americans about their meat eating ways! Apparently, someone has done a very good job convincing them that a healthy diet requires beef.)

The beef industry is a problem American environmentalists will have to deal with at some point.  But Nesbit's talk got me thinking about what “frames” make the most sense in an Indian context. Off the top of my head, I can think of two: sustainable, equitable development and food security.

We must reframe what we mean by development.  Sustainable, equitable development will not involve a rush to build more and more shopping malls, flyovers, and blocks of luxury flats.  It will involve providing decent, affordable, energy-efficient housing for millions of people.  It will involve expansion and improvement of public transportation; it will involve cleaner rivers and clean drinking water for people all over the country.  These are ideas that make sense to most people, whether or not they understand the threats posed to us by global warming.

Of course in a country where hunger continues to stalk the land, and where every year farmers are driven to kill themselves by the thousands, the importance of food security is something everyone understands.  This, by the way, is related to sustainable development: shopping malls, flyovers and luxury flats will not feed our people.  With the food inflation we are seeing right now; with energy and fertilizer prices rising in the long run even as our water tables fall; with the droughts and floods we’ve seen in recent years—with all this, one hardly even has to use the words “climate change’ to argue that we need to make sustainable farming and efficient food storage and distribution a top priority.  But climate change makes it even more important for us to do these things. Like most effective frames, food security is being used by people from all parts of the political spectrum--for example, both sides in the debate over genetically modified foods are using the food security frame, whether or not they are aware of it.

I do want to make two things clear.  First, the frames I suggest are not new; people have been using these and other effective frames for a long time; I'm just suggesting that we can be more effective if we are aware of what we're doing. 

Second, this post makes things sound simple that are actually not simple at all.  Each farm, each slum, each road has it's own unique problems; simple "frames" like "equitable, sustainable development" and "food security" will not solve these problems: in the real world, complex problems require complex solutions.   Finding the right frames is only the first step we must take—but it's important step because it is part of how we will come to understand and communicate the problems we face and the kinds of solutions that might work.

As we go forward, we'll need to think of new and better ways to understand and frame the problems we face.  We need to talk about this; we might as well start now. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Next, Nirula's?

I'm taking a couple of days off to do an internet-detox, but I've set up Blogger to bring you this extraordinarily funny post, automatically!  It's even relevant to the discussions we've been having about genetically modified food! If you don't laugh at least once, please comment below or send your complaint directly to

One has to wonder: will Nirula's be next?  

Like I said, I'm taking a well deserved net holiday, but I've got my sons to keep an eye on the place.  Have a formatting issue?  Just comment and they'll see what they can do to take care of it. Have a reaction?  Talk amongst yourselves, please!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hack Job at Open Magazine

On Saturday, I coincidentally saw two important pieces on the recent criticism being leveled at climate science. One was Open Magazine's current cover story; the other was a statement on the Himalayan glacier controversy from the citizen activists at Delhi Platform.  These seemed important to look at sooner, rather than later, so I'm running this issue of the dhaba on Monday instead of our usual Tuesday.   I'll examine each piece in turn.

This week, Open Magazine's cover story is boldly titled, "The Climate Change Fraud."  The article, which pretends to be an investigative expose of science gone wrong, claims climate change is a "hoax" and a "fraud" and that "never have so few fooled so many for so long, ever."  If you are wondering how it is that little old Open managed to beat every mainstream paper and reputable science journal in the world to this story, I'll explain it to you: Open's scoop does not actually involve journalism; it is a sloppy rehash of arguments from climate skeptics' web sites, press releases and films.  Open's reporter, Ninad Sheth, makes no effort get a variety of perspectives; the quotes he provides come exclusively from a small group of well-known climate change deniers and skeptics, most of whom give quotes for a living.

Compare Open's incompetence with Tehelka this week.  When Tehelka wanted to do a story about the fighting in Chhattisgarh, they did what good magazines are supposed to do: they sent a reporter and a photographer into the field where they spent seven days, at considerable risk to themselves, in territory where both the Maoists and the Salwa Judum are active. They interviewed a wide variety of villagers about the problems they face living in a war zone.   Also this week, in their cover story on Bihar, Tehelka managed to interview both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad.  Tehelka is not perfect; I've been critical of them before.  But unlike Open, Tehelka generally expects their journalists to practice... journalism.

I'd love to spend all day going through the Open story and picking out the ridiculous bits.  But I'm going to resist.  Instead, I'll say just a few words about Open's "expert" sources--something their reporter chose not to do.   Open slams Dr. Rajendra K Pachauri, "the leader of the climate change mafia" for "having no training whatsoever in climate science." But they won't tell you that Lord Christopher Monckton, the "climate expert" who they rely on to criticize climate graphs used by Pachauri,  doesn't have any formal training in climate science either. Lord Monckton of Brenchley boasts a degree in classics and a diploma in journalism, which may explain the difficulty he's had interpreting graphs in the past.  For the record, Lord Monckton  is employed as Chief Policy Adviser for the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI), an American climate skeptics' think tank.  SPPI does not reveal the sources of it's funding, and it is not required to do so by US law.  We do know that SPPI founder Robert Ferguson has had a long term and lucrative relationship with the oil industry.

Or take Patrick Michaels who works, according to Open, for "the Cato Institute, a noted US think-tank." Just to be clear, the Cato Institute may be "noted," for it's eclectic blend of right wing and libertarian views, but a quick internet search will tell you it is neither mainstream nor neutral, endorsing as it does legalization of drugs and the privatization of the American Social Security system.  Michaels by the way, admits to have taken large amounts of money from big oil companies, a practice that many consider a conflict of interests.  So when Open quotes Michaels as saying that Dr. Pachauri should resign, because, among other things, "he has a consistent record of mixing his political views with climate science," it sounds a bit off.  After all, mixing politics with science is what Michaels gets paid to do; his own organization boasts that he "barely has time to sleep. With more than 150 media appearances since the breaking of what has come to be called "Climategate," he has quickly become the most recognized face decrying the obstructionism of global warming alarmists." 

So let's be clear; Open didn't break this story; they just uncritically bought an old package being sold by right-wing American think tanks with close ties to the oil industry.   If the editors at Open really believed this story were true,  they would have had to fact check it and evaluate opposing views; a story of this magnitude would require as much. That they didn't suggests this was  nothing more than a cynical effort to sell magazines. Shame!
By now it is clear that serious mistakes--and in some cases even misrepresentations--have been made by climate scientists, both in India and abroad.  Some of these are reprehensible; some merely regrettable.  My sense is that the reaction of most environmentalists has been healthy.  There is no use pretending that this kind of stuff doesn't hurt.   Climate scientists need to get their house in order; we cannot tolerate sloppy or dishonest science on this issue--it's much too important for that, the stakes a too high. But so far there has been nothing revealed, in hacked emails or anywhere else, that in any way undermines the lion's share of the research that supports the idea that human made climate change is a huge and growing problem.  To prove that, you'd need to find a hacked email that reads something like this.

For a more thoughtful look at this issue as it's playing out locally, let's look at a statement from Delhi Platform, an organization is made up of citizen activists who think climate change is a problem, but don't apologize for sloppy science.  These activists are not formally trained scientists, they are not reporters, they don't get paid for the work they do or the magazines they sell.  However, the members I have met are extraordinarily dedicated, well-read, and articulate.   Here's what they have to say about the Himalayan Glacier controversy; feel free to pass this statement on others who might be interested.  I think it is thoughtful, serious, and grounded in real science. I urge you to read it carefully.  You can get in touch with Delhi Platform here.


Statement on the Himalayan Glaciers controversy

29 January 2010
A huge controversy has been generated in recent days over the much quoted lines in the IPCC’s 2007 report: “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate” (Working Group 2, page 493). We do need to question how a statement of such magnitude, without peer review, made its way into the IPCC report. That it was discovered, externally, more than two years later raises concerns about both the mindset and the weakness of the processes of the IPCC in checking and correcting information they collate, information that is so vital in the global debate. However, to question the credibility of the science of the global warming, supported as it is by a wealth of empirical evidence, or to question IPCC’s work, as is happening in some quarters, is gross exaggeration and sometimes driven by dubious and malafide intentions.

More importantly, the ongoing debate ignores four key issues:
one, that glacial melting, happening extensively in many regions and altitudes of the Himalayas, is already impacting people’s lives in the Indian Himalayan states;
two, science ignores people’s own perceptions of their reality and their context;
three, the critics have not properly placed the issue in the overall context and fragility of glaciers globally; and
four, that the situation is going to unavoidably worsen, hence deepening an unfolding crisis of access to water.

Since the Earth’s average warming gets amplified into much higher levels of warming in the mid-level Himalayas and at higher altitudes, the impacts there are already huge and varied. At a public hearing on ‘Impacts of Climate Change on the Himalayan Region’, organized by Oxfam India in late 2009, people from different Himalayan communities presented testimonies of extensive melting, receding and disappearance of small glaciers in parts of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand based on their lived experience over the years. One professional guide who has traversed high altitudes for many years talked of the disappearance of numerous small glaciers over the last 20 years in J&K. Small glaciers, said another speaker, have disappeared from the Sarva Valley. Sigri and Chhotadhara glacier, both in Himachal, are receding rapidly. The Dhani Nara glacier, also in Himachal Pradesh, does not exist any more. Numerous presenters talked of lessening and irregular snowfall in recent years. This has obvious impacts on glacial mass and melting in the medium term. Women spoke of how water sources have dried up, already causing distress in their daily lives, impacting drinking water access and water supply for agriculture.

People’s observations of their lived reality over time and of the impacts of global warming on their lives need to be given greater space and credence than is being done at the moment by formal science. This is particularly relevant in the area of glacial melting in the Himalayas given that many authorities, including the minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh, have acknowledged that Himalayan glaciers have been little studied. Why has the Himalayan glaciers issue received such inadequate attention until now? Of the thousands of glaciers in the Indian Himalayas, reliable baseline data exists for relatively few. In the absence of baseline data, it would be crucial to tap the lived experience of people who have lived in the vicinity of glaciers for decades.

Focusing on the erroneous date 2035 alone glosses over the already precarious state of glaciers worldwide, including in many parts of the Himalayas. A study by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in 2005 of 442 glaciers stated that 90% of them were receding. The much respected glaciologist Lonnie Thompson has said recently that of the 800 Himalayan glaciers being monitored, 95% are receding (Guardian, 20 January 2010). That tropical glaciers are receding worldwide are indicative of the fate of subtropical Himalayan glaciers. Ren, Jiawen, et al state: “Many glaciers on the South slope of the central Himalaya have been in retreat, and recently their retreat rate has accelerated … due to reduced precipitation and warmer temperatures” (Annals of Glaciology, vol. 43, no. 1, Sept 2006). Anil Kulkarni, et al’s oft-quoted study of 466 glaciers in the Baspa, Parbati and Chenab basins indicates greater fragmentation of glaciers, and reduction in glacial area by 21% since the mid-20th century (Current Science, vol. 92, no. 1, 10 Jan 2007). A study of mass balance of glaciers, of “all published Himalayan-Karakoram measurements” shows that overall “they are more negative after 1995”. Though increase in mass loss rate “need not be true of every part of the region … the mass loss rate is consistent with the global average (Jeffrey Kargel, et al, ‘Satellite-era Glacier Changes in High Asia’, AGU conference, December 2009). Dobhal and Mehta’s study of the Dokriani glacier in the Bhagirathi basin says that “The present snout … is continuously retreating, like other glaciers of the Himalaya” (Himalayan Geology, n.d.).

Glaciers have also been thinning at high altitudes. Lonnie Thompson, in an interview to Nature said: “Back in 2006, we drilled three cores in the southwestern Himalayas. At 6,050 metres, where these glaciers reach their highest elevation, we found that … the glaciers are being decapitated. Not only are they retreating up the mountain slopes, but they are thinning from the top down” (Nature Reports Climate Change, 9 July 2009).

This precarious state of glaciers is going to unavoidably worsen because of further global warming in the pipeline, since there is a 25-30 year lag between emissions and warming. As it is, the drying of water sources is being exacerbated by indiscriminate damming of rivers and creation of run-of-the-river projects in the Himalayan states, in the face of considerable resistance from people across these states. All of this is going to worsen the water crisis unfolding for the poor, particularly poor women, in the Himalayas. Any debate on the Himalayan glaciers needs to keep them at its centre.

Rather than view glaciers collectively, it would be more appropriate to view them in a disaggregated way, since impacts on specific glaciers affect specific communities and people dependent on them. Not only is there a compelling need to carry out a comprehensive study of Himalayan glaciers in cooperation with other nations who are part of this rich ecosystem, the process also needs to have the people as a vital and engaged constituent. And the resultant information needs to be in the public domain.

Melting glaciers and the more irregular rainfall patterns in recent years makes the creation of appropriate small and large water harvesting structures absolutely urgent. In which both the government and local organizations have a crucial role to play. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) can be usefully deployed towards this end, but this requires greater political will by local elites and the administration at different levels than they have displayed thus far. There is clearly an urgent need to anticipate and prepare for acute water stress in the Himalayan region and beyond.