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Monthly Archives: January 2018

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Life After IIASA 1975-2013: Five Years On

February 2018 will mark five years after my retirement from IIASA. These five years have been full of new experiences, travel and writing. My wife and I have also attempted during this time to modify our lifestyle to be as carbon neutral as possible. Measures include living without a car, using a bicycle for shopping and public transport for travel where possible. Trips by air are unavoidable in the lifestyle we’ve chosen, and we’ve attempted to offset this carbon by buying solar panels for a farm school in India and a solar farm in Austria, 8 KW in all. These panels will apparently offset around 8 tons annually, but there’s still more to be done.

I first heard about sea level rise in a talk by paleo-climatologist Herbert Flohn at IIASA sometime in the late 1970s. At that time, many of the information requests that the IIASA library received were about global effects of a nuclear winter in the aftermath of nuclear war. Research themes changed quickly; interest moving to carbon dioxide emissions from fossils fuels, global warming, acid rain and stratospheric ozone.

In the intervening years, the reality of human-induced global warming has been accepted by all but the most ideologically blinkered societies worldwide. Travelling through parts of rural India soon after retirement in 2013, I saw repeated instances of people taking actions to adapt to climate change; water harvesting to compensate for unprecedented droughts, reforestation efforts; introduction of organic farming methods and drought resistant crops. I’d like to think that much of the credit for these adaptation and mitigation actions goes to studies by IIASA and other research institutions worldwide; scientific studies whose results filtered down over decades through the media and drew attention to these problems early on. There’s no way to prove this, and some of the water harvesting systems I saw were really ancient structures brought back into use. See more about that here

Efforts in 2015 and 2016 to help establish a rural education and vocation center failed for a very positive reason. The five acres of land (2 hectares) that had been donated to us for school use by a well-wisher is worth approximately € 300,000 (€65,000 per acre at today’s prices). The donated property was fertile agricultural land and classified as such. The local administrative authorities refused permission to reclassify the plot for use as a school and insisted that the land remain in use for agriculture. This was a positive outcome, because one of our reasons for this choice of location of a school was to prevent displacement of the rural population by expensive housing projects that would only benefit urbanites.

However the effort was not wasted. Since then our local partners have decided to build an organic farm on the land and use the experience gained to encourage the farming practices of communities in neighbouring villages. One function of this farm would be to develop markets for organic produce. We discovered several small companies in the area that offer free midday meals to their workers. They were happy to find a local supply of good vegetables. One enterprising factory owner offered his workers three free meals a day, sourcing all the vegetables from his own backyard. The vegetables he showed us were grown in plastic tubs lined with mats made of nutrient-rich hemp fibers. In fact, the method is so successful that he gives away growing kits free to any of his workers who want one for their own families’ use.

An encounter in early 2017 with a conservationist who runs a hatchery for Olive Ridley turtles on the sea coast near Chennai city led me to Tiruvannamalai, a town 200 km to the south-west. Here is an organic farm school where text-book sustainable living is practiced in the most lively and joyous manner possible. There are around 100 children in the school, ranging in age from 8 to 18. The links below will give an idea of activities at the school.

http://www.marudamfarmschool.org/

https://yourstory.com/2017/12/2-lakh-trees-ngo-regenerating-forest-tamil-nadu/

http://www.theforestway.org/greening/planting.html

In addition to organic farming, environmental conservation and education, the school also works with villagers in the surrounding countryside, reforesting the hill that dominates the temple town, planting around 15,000 trees a year. The school’s efforts inspired us (myself and a few friends in India) to help them become energy self-sufficient, adding 5 KW of solar panels to the three they already had. Together with battery backup, the school is now completely independent of the grid. (photo attached).

This activity led me to a thought. If IIASA’s work ultimately inspired these kinds of sustainability acts, what about IIASA’s own carbon footprint? IIASA’s alumni are scattered all over the world. What if we joined together, wherever we are, and worked to offset IIASA’s carbon emissions? Such actions would benefit our own communities, wherever we may happen to live. To kick-start this effort, I’ve decided to fund the planting of 1000 trees in 2018 through the farm school mentioned above. If each tree sequesters 25 kilos of carbon (as a rule of thumb, regardless of species), this would offset 25 tons of the Institute’s annual carbon emissions.

Should this be a formal organized effort? Readers’ suggestion welcomed here. All we would need is a virtual platform where one can document one’s own efforts and have a running tally. Ultimately the goal is to achieve carbon neutrality, not only for the Institute, but also for the communities in which each one of us lives. But, as for so many initiatives, IIASA could be a starting point.

On a personal note, the years since retirement have been very fulfilling. Thanks to my wife’s job, we were able to spend 2 idyllic years on an island paradise near Hong Kong. This provided background material for a work of fiction, Grace in the South China Sea. There are two sequels in the pipeline (The Trees of Ta Prohm, and Heartwood), to appear in 2018. Look for the earlier books and announcements on the Amazon author page here.

 

See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work.

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The Woodpecker’s Tongue

I read an interview with Walter Isaacson (author of Steve Jobs’ biography, among other books) the other day. In it, he says: “I’ll just tell you something small. The tongue of a woodpecker is three times longer than the beak. And when the woodpecker hits the bark at ten times the force that would kill a human, the tongue wraps around the brain and cushions it.”

This information was so startling that I had to go and look it up. Sure enough, the description is accurate. Here are two illustrations, courtesy of Pinterest and Twitter, of the woodpecker’s incredibly long tongue and the way it cushions the brain.

Science has revealed so much of Nature’s secrets. Yet we can be sure that there as many hidden away, waiting to be discovered. Finding this bit of information about the woodpecker’s tongue so close to the beginning of the new year made me wonder what kind of lesson I could learn from it for 2018. Here is an analogy that seems to fit the bill.

We spend increasing amounts of time on social media. Information leaps at us with the rapid fire of a woodpecker’s beak rat-a-tat-ing into a tree. This selective information explosion damages our judgement and impairs our ability to separate fiction from fact. We humans need something to cushion ourselves from the damaging impact of a continuous stream of media inputs. In our case, the woodpecker’s tongue equivalent might be enhanced interactions with the real world; talking to people around us, to family, friends, acquaintances, and people in the society we live in.

I’ve spent a great deal of time on Facebook & Co. in recent years, assuming that these interactions were somehow deepening my ties to the real world. I have undoubtedly benefitted, by being able to keep in touch with friends and relatives living in far-flung corners of the world. Despite these real benefits, the truth has gradually dawned on me that I was becoming more of a consumer and less connected to the world. The perfidious effect of social media was perfectly illustrated a few years ago when a friend came to stay for a while with his wife and new-born baby. The friend was a keen amateur photographer, as eager to record every minute of his son’s life as any first-time parent. The Eureka moment came to me when I saw he was so busy taking and uploading photographs to Facebook that he was totally oblivious to the infant screaming for a long overdue nappy change. The screaming stopped only when the harried mother emerged from the kitchen to soothe and change the baby. This is the point when we need self-awareness to wrap around the endorphin-craving pre-frontal cortexes of our brain as tightly as the woodpecker’s tongue to guide us out of harm’s way.