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Monthly Archives: November 2014

Why do I write? revisited.

A short story deals with a tiny slice of life on a local scale but can, like a hologram, contain the big picture or illustrate universal themes. A novel does the same, but tries to give the hologram greater depth and detail. In choosing new fiction, a prospective reader looking at an unknown author can decide based on the genre: crime, thriller, romance, sci-fi, and so on. For an author who explores the world and writes stories that do not fall into any of these genres and therefore classes his work as “literary fiction”, the task of finding a readership is close to hopeless, given the number of fine writers and superb new books that appear online and in bookstores every day. It takes a certain stubborn foolishness to attempt to do this. On this count alone, I consider myself eminently qualified to be a writer of literary fiction. The rest is up to unknown readers out there to take a risk and invest some of their precious time reading a new author’s work.

I am keenly aware of this formidable entry barrier and therefore grateful to several unknown reviewers and three friends who have taken the time and trouble to write a total of (currently) fourteen four and five-star reviews of my three books on Amazon’s various sites and on Goodreads.

Napoleon Hill, in concluding his famous self-help classic “Think and Grow Rich” quotes Emerson as he states: if we are related, we have through these pages met. So to those many unknown reviewers I say, we have, through these pages met, and I am honoured to make your acquaintance. This is why I write. It is you who make the work worthwhile.

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Terrorism and Climate Change: A Single Solution

Much of the electricity that lights the world is generated by burning oil.

Two thirds of the world’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels.

Much of the world’s wars and terrorism occur in the Middle East where, not so coincidentally, much of the world’s oil also originates. A lot of the world’s climate change problem (the majority of the world by now admits that there is a problem) is due to burning fossil fuels. In 2013, oil provided around 33% of global primary energy consumption* (i.e. energy contained in fuels used to generate electricity, heating, industry, transportation or other end users). This amounts to nearly 87 million barrels of oil per day. One third of this oil came from the Middle East.

The World Coal Association states that (in 2013): Coal provides around 30.1% of global primary energy needs, generates over 40% of the world’s electricity and is used in the production of 70% of the world’s steel. Coal is more democratically distributed around the world than oil, and there is not much likelihood of wars being fought over coal reserves. Coal is also a relatively “dirty” fuel and produces more CO2 (ca. 200) per unit of energy delivered than oil (ca. 150) or natural gas (117).

A listing of principal terror groups in the world includes ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Ansar al-Sharia, Hezbollah and Hamas. Al-Jazeera news notes that the United Arab Emirates published this week a list of 80 organisations worldwide, including the foregoing, that it formally identified as terrorists. Some of the organisations on that list perhaps do not belong there, but the larger point to be made in this article still holds. When great wealth flows from all parts of the world into the hands of a few, great disparities ensue; injustice and violence occur. The world needs to get off its greed for oil and move to renewable sources of energy. Of course the transition will be painful; but less disruptive than continued terror. Reduced global oil consumption can lessen the flow of disproportionate wealth that the world directs into the coffers of a few by 20 to 30% in the next ten years.

Is the transformation do-able within this time frame? The world’s experts are divided fairly equally between yes and no. Why? Because it hasn’t been done before. But here is an indirect answer. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) has revised its estimates for deployment of renewables worldwide upwards several times in the past decade. The forecasts made in 2002 for the year 2020 were exceeded by the year 2010. So perhaps the correct answer is not to be found among energy experts but in a quote from Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939) who said:

Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.

Paraphrased less poetically into modern business-speak: walk the walk, don’t simply talk! We have to make choices as individuals before nations and governments follow in our footsteps.

*For more background, see Energy Trends Insider, with links to BP’s widely used Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. Oil accounted for 33 percent of all the energy consumed in the world in 2013. This amounts to 86.8 million barrels per day. Of this, roughly 32% came from the Middle East.


The Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan

The town of Phalodi lies halfway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer on the Rajasthan tourist circuit. Phalodi is an unremarkable town that one drives through in a couple of minutes on the good highway that links the two larger cities. Phalodi is known as the salt city of India and was an important trading post in the days of camel caravans travelling along the overland silk route. Six kilometers away from here, driving along a narrow dirt road, is an even more unremarkable and dusty village called Khichan. The village has been a traditional stop for decades on the annual migratory route of Demoiselle Cranes between September and March each year. Sometime during the 1970s, after a series of droughts, a local Jain merchant decided to help the few dozen migrant visitors and began to feed them grain. The following year, the number of visiting birds doubled and more volunteers stepped in to contribute grain or funds for the feeding of the birds. By 1996, Otto Pfister writes in a despatch of the Oriental Bird Club, that 6000 cranes were visiting and being fed half a ton of grain per day (mainly sorghum) for six months every year. By 2012, there were an estimated 20,000 of these elegant birds in Khichan every year, on their way back from breeding sites in Mongolia and Eurasia. After crossing the steppes of Central Asia, where they are hunted by predators like the golden eagle, these delicate-looking birds fly at heights of 5000 to 10,000 meters to cross the Himalayas. This is an incredible feat at oxygen-starved altitudes and along the way are other dangers; the wars in Afghanistan, or human disruption of their habitats.

Image: courtesy birdingblogs.com

Image: courtesy birdingblogs.com

The crane is known as  Koonj in Hindi, and there are many stories told about why the village community decided to feed the birds. One villager, when asked, speaks of the birds as auspicious symbols. “As long as the birds come, the future of our village is assured.” In the epic Mahabharata, the disciplined flight formation of the family groups of these birds is imitated when forming battle lines (Krauncha Vyuha) in the Kurukshetra war. In the crane-shaped formation of infantry units, forces are distributed to imitate the cranes’s wingspan, with a formidable, penetrating centre depicting the crane’s head and beak.

Through the power of the media, what was once a small local custom has attracted a large international following. The village of Khichan is now on the tourist map of Rajasthan and bird lovers from all over the world visit the place. What started forty years ago as a gesture to help a small flock of 150 migrant birds now attracts over 20,000 cranes annually. There are several amateur videos of the remarkable spectacle on You Tube. Here is one example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSWEWdp-X_k

One observer writes: The most amazing thing during the morning feeding sessions perhaps is how disciplined the cranes are. They fly into specially created enclosures, walled fields of around an acre each. When one batch has fed, the next batch flies in for their turn. If the field is full, they land outside the field and patiently wait their turn.

Beginning in the 1970s, several remarkable people have transformed the face of Rajasthan. One of these, Rajendra Singh, mentioned in an earlier blog (Stepwells and Johads:digging into the past) as the man who restored the flow of seven dried up rivers in Rajasthan, now finds his expertise in demand at international meetings like the Economist Water Forum in early November where he advised property owners in the UK about methods to prevent flooding in Northumberland and elsewhere. For more, see The driest part of India offers a solution to Britain’s floods, from the Telegraph of 7 November 2014.

A lot has been written in recent years about mitigation and adaptation measures to counter AGW (anthropogenic global warming) and climate change. It is to mankind’s own long-term benefit to protect biodiversity. Ecological studies show that biologically diverse communities are more productive and stable. Traditional communities have long followed this wisdom, hard-won through years of observation and patience. Modern science confirms their wisdom. Positive actions usually come full circle, but when the circles are on a global scale they so large that we often do not see it.


A FRIWAFTT* essay about Hong Kong

This posting is a bit of a FRIWAFTT (as in fools rushing in…) about the ongoing standoff between the Occupy Central/Umbrella Revolution protests (dominated by young people) and the Hong Kong government (as a proxy for the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China).

Economic newspapers over the past several years have pointed to the rising Gini coefficient of income distribution in China. Jonathan Kaiman, writing for the Guardian newspaper in July 2014 says that China’s “Gini coefficient, a widely used indicator of economic inequality, has grown sharply over the past two decades. A Gini coefficient of zero represents absolute equality, while one represents absolute inequality. About 20 years ago, China’s Gini coefficient for family net wealth was 0.45, according to the People’s Daily website, a Communist party mouthpiece, but by 2012 it had risen to 0.73.
According to some analysts, societies that have a Gini coefficient of more than 0.40 are at increased risk of widespread social unrest. Data from the OECD gives the US the highest Gini coefficient in the G7, after taxes and transfers, at 0.39, followed by the UK at 0.34 and Italy at 0.32.”

The website socialindicators.org.hk lists the Gini coefficients for Hong Kong in 1981 and in 2011 at 0.45 and 0.54 respectively. In 2012, the Chinese government refused to release the country’s Gini coefficient to the World Bank and the UN. Using data from six surveys conducted by five universities in China, University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie estimates China’s Gini at around 0.55 in 2012, perhaps a more accurate figure than the 0.73 of the Guardian article cited above.

China’s leadership has proved to be extraordinarily astute and capable in walking the tightrope between managing its exploding economy and keeping a firm hold on political power in the years since Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.” From the point of view of the Chinese leadership, the Hong Kong protests could prove to be a heaven sent opportunity to experiment with ways to nudge the Gini downward on the island before attempting to repeat the exercise on the mainland. If this long-term positive scenario plays out, then one should expect more turbulence in Hong Kong over the short to medium term while the necessary political nudging and jostling takes place.

*The author applies the FRIWAFTT label (fool rushing in where angels fear to tread) to himself since he is neither an economist nor an expert on Hong Kong affairs, but merely an observer with strong opinions that one is thankfully free to express in Hong Kong.