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Chasing Digital Dreams; Neglecting Nature’s Notebooks

I recently heard from a friend whose teenage son seems to be an atypical teenager. He’s home-schooled for one. And he doesn’t have a smart phone. He grew up running around barefoot in nature and learned naturally to avoid carelessly standing on ants nests. Once you’ve been bitten by a swarm of angry ants, you’re not likely to repeat the mistake. There are snakes and centipedes in the woods that surround his home. He is not afraid of them, but has learned to respect them.

He recently went to a local international school to write his board exams. The school is an approved center for these exams and he was registered to appear there as a private candidate. He was thoroughly perplexed by the behaviour of his peers during the exams, as they frantically  peered (no pun intended) at their smart phone screens until the last possible minute, and then convulsively reached for the same as soon as they had handed in their papers. This obsessive relationship with their smart devices was alien to him, making him think that smart devices seem to make their owners look less smart. For me, as an adult who has managed to leave this compulsive obsession with social media behind, it’s refreshing to see a teenager who’s in tune with his surroundings, has a sense of fun, loves the outdoors, and reads without compulsion.

Yes, smartphones; but do they make the owners smarter?
Image courtesy: stories.flipkart.com

Some years ago I followed the blog of another teenager who was brought up on a sailboat and had lived most of his life at sea, with periodic long spells on land, wherever his multi-talented parents happened to find a job. Home schooled again, he was no stranger to electronic devices, mainly those used in navigation systems. Judging by the blog, this young man was whip smart and culturally savvy. His descriptions of short stays in several countries (Mexico, Malaysia etc) revealed astounding sensitivity and depths of insight into the social mores of the countries he visited. Unfortunately his blog has disappeared from the web, otherwise I’d have posted a link.

A recent trip to a rain forest with a group of young people reaffirms my belief that the best education for young people is to open their eyes to the world around them, encouraging them to read from Nature’s notebooks, in addition to absorbing the accumulated wisdom contained in printed books. Some lines from a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya seem most relevant here.

In days gone by I used to be
A potter who would feel
His fingers mould the yielding clay
To patterns on his wheel;
But now, through wisdom, lately won,
That pride has died away,
I have ceased to be the potter
And have learned to be the clay.

In other days I used to be
A poet through whose pen
Innumerable songs would come
To win the hearts of men;
But now, through new-got knowledge
Which I hadn’t had so long,
I have ceased to be the poet
And have learned to be the song.

 

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Transportation: The Weight of Fear

Consider me. Or consider yourself. Presumably an average human being of average weight. These averages vary considerably in different parts of the world, from 60 kilos or less, to 90 kilos or more. Looking back at the various means of transport that I have commonly used in the past five decades, I made a list of their approximate weights for comparison. My own weight has changed (increased!) by 5 kilos during this period, from 75 to 80 kg.

Bicycle: Throughout my schooldays, I used a single speed bicycle to take myself (40 to 65 kg.) to school and back. I assume bicycles weighed around 25 kg. in those days. In any case, the means of transportation was around a third of my own body weight. I loved the song of the open road. Most days I arrived at school in a lather of sweat, but no one really bothered about that.

My first job was as a travelling salesman and the most efficient way to do this at the time was with a motorbike or scooter. Traffic congestion was not yet a problem in the 1970s to 90s. I loved the song of the open road. Most days I arrived at work or at a customer feeling dapper and cool, even though a bit windblown. The weight of the motor-scooter or motorbike I owned or rode at various times in this period varied from 130 to 150 kg. My own weight at this time was a svelte 75 kg.

250 cc Jawa 2-stroke motorcycle ca. 1972. Image, coutresy jawa.eu

From the late 70s to the 1990s my preferred mode of transport was a private car. I loved the song of the open road, although traffic was constantly increasing. Loved to drive long distances on holiday. Car weights varied from 840 kg (1976 first generation VW Golf) to 1400 kg (same model 25 years later) to 1700 kg (minivan). In spite of long distance holiday travel with family, 90% of the annual miles were clocked commuting to work and back. i.e. 1000s of kilometers with just one occupant. i.e. using 1400-1700 kg to transport 80 kg of human being. Forget the song of the open road! Most daily commutes were exercises in creeping through congested streets and highways, impatiently waiting to get to work or home.

From the early 2000s onwards, my thinking about the daily commute evolved (?) as follows. Car (1700 kg, 40 minutes), bus (kg irrelevant, 80 minutes), bicycle (16 kg., 70 minutes). The bicycle was definitely a step forward in efficiency and economy. It cost practically nothing, and also gave added health benefits, although I arrived in a lather at work, as I did in my school days, and had to repair to a toilet for a cat-wash and a change of clothes.

Around 2005, I began to yearn for pedal assist on my bicycle and began to look around for electric models. There were none available as far as I could see. Sometime in 2006, I found a German website on the internet that advertised an electric bicycle with a 1 year guarantee, a 7 kilo NiCad battery pack, and no range specifications. I was tired of a steep hill on my daily commute (36 km per day), so I ordered the bike sight unseen and two weeks later, took delivery of a giant cardboard carton with MADE IN CHINA printed on the sides. It weighed 32 kg with battery, had seven gears and was a real pain to carry up and down to the cellar where I stored it overnight.

Image courtesy Pedalandpower.com

But it did the job nicely. The hill was a problem no more. And the range was around 30 km. Unfortunately, NiCad batteries suffer from a memory effect, and I could not charge it in the office for the ride home, so I got minimal assistance on the dreaded hill with a fading battery.

Ah, the perfect solution! Sometime around 2008, I saw a beautiful 24-speed KTM with the cutest little Li-ion battery that was good for 60 kms of pedal-assist riding. By this time, I had moved homes and my daily commute had increased to 50 km. Here was the answer to my commuting problems. The KTM bicycle weighed 22 kg, I weighed 80 kg., and the electricity cost me around €0.30 for 100 km (30 cents). My friends considered the electric bike expensive. It was expensive, in bike terms, but in reality cost about as much as the annual service of the average 1700 kg. monster. Maybe that’s comparing apples and oranges, you say. But such comparisons are ok when you’re riding an apple, and have gotten rid of the orange. Needless to say, I sold the 1700 kg. monster and have lived happily ever after.

Nowadays people tell me, you can’t ride around on a bicycle at your age! It’s too dangerous to ride a bicycle in this murderous city traffic. True. But I wear a helmet and try to ride cautiously. I’m happy carrying my current 79 kg. on two wheels weighing 22 kg., and wouldn’t dream of carrying it in 1700 kg. as I used to do. The difference in weight (ca.1,678 kg) I like to think of as the weight of fear. That’s quite a lot of fear to carry around in one’s life. Best to get rid of it!

 

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On Leeches, Jungle, Bliss and Beauty: things we have lost

I had the privilege of spending a week in a pristine rain forest in the northern Western Ghats with a handful of people best described as practitioners of deep ecology. Which means we moved about in the jungle in the least invasive manner humanly possible, on foot, leaving no footprints behind. On the contrary, it was the forest that left deep footprints in our memories. Here was a small segment of the planet that has been allowed to retain its wildness and its purity. It is still possible to drink water from these streams; pure, unfiltered, sweet; and we did, the whole week. Yes, there are leeches in paradise and my companions taught me to scrape them off with a fingernail from their tail end to dislodge them. “They have a right to live too, and we are the invaders in their habitat.” So-called primitive societies knew how to live in symbiosis with Nature, without the need to ‘conquer‘ it. Our modern civilization, with all its immense achievements, has ‘conquered‘ Nature and with climate change, we are currently witnessing the Pyrrhic depths of our victory.

In the forest, we bathed in rock pools and under waterfalls, luxuriating in Nature’s bounty. Birds, butterflies, trees, and insects were identified and added to lists in notebooks. Latin names of species and botanical names were bandied about freely among the group. “We use the Latin names as definitive identifiers, since local names vary widely, sometimes from one village to the next.” We tasted button-sized jamun fruit (Syzygium Jambulanum, a.k.a.Java Plum, Jambul, black plum, faux pistachier, jambolāo… see what I mean about variations in local and regional names?), mini jackfruits, a variety of Kokum (Garcinia Indica), a cousin of the cashew fruit from a young tree with cashew-like leaves, and the leaves of a tree that left a mildly sweet taste on our tongues when chewed (apparently used as an ingredient for weight loss by the health food industry). I was told about, but did not see, a tree, the underside of its leaves as rough as sandpaper, and used as such by forest tribes to smooth wooden implements and furniture.

We stood at dawn under the eaves of a hut and listened to the Malabar Whistling Thrush sing its daily morning ode to joy. As it sang, I was told that they love the rain and welcome the monsoon with redoubled full-throated vigor.

Malabar Whistling Thrush (also known as the naughty schoolboy)

I learned that, of the many species of colorful butterflies that flitted through the forests, the ones that flew fast and rarely sat still were usually a favored food of birds and insects that preyed on lepidoptera. Some beautiful specimens, on the other hand, hardly bothered to conceal themselves and were often seen lazily gliding down from the treetops to eye level, knowing they were toxic to most predators. Most spectacular among them was the Malabar Tree Nymph, Idea Malabarica. I had never before seen a butterfly glide so far with hardly a flutter of its wings.

Malabar Tree Nymph – Idea Malabarica

The herpetologist in the group, a snake lover from childhood, thrust a hand into the undergrowth and brought it out to reveal a foot-long, slender green snake curled around his arm; a non-venomous vine snake. “Touch only its underbelly,” he cautioned. “Only predators touch a snake on its back and this causes them stress.” he gave us time to admire it for a few moments before allowing it to slide back into the undergrowth where it immediately became invisible again. A few moments later a metallic blue-black centipede wriggled across our path, looking for all the world like a shiny finished industrial product from Apple rather than a denizen of the wild. We respectfully watched it cross our path before continuing our walk.

While shy langurs leapt about among the topmost branches of the forest canopy, our guide showed us pale gray chalk-like lumps on the ground among the bushes. “Leopard scat,” he said. “There are several in this area, but they’re noctural and shy away from humans. I’ve not seen one in my two years here. There are sloth bears as well, but they too are very reclusive and we never see them” Just as well, since sloth bears, despite their name are very fast and can easily outrun humans.

In the evenings, there were more walks to look at the endless varieties of birds and trees, and we invariably ended up at woodland streams to bathe under a waterfall or soak in rocky pools, taking care not to pollute the water with soaps, creams or lotions. For cosmetic use, the woods provided us with wild aloe vera and a plethora of other medicinal plants I knew nothing about. On the way back to the hut that was our sleeping quarters, a few bits of sambrani were carefully scraped off the bark of a tree. Also known as benzoin resin, gum benzoin or gum Benjamin, it is used in perfumes, incense and medicines. Sambrani usage has a long tradition in India, and its sweet smelling smoke is used during pujas (religious ceremonies) and also in Christian churches to sanctify the communion service.

Nature’s bathtubs and showers: rocky pools and waterfalls

Standing 1 meter tall, this flower exudes a smell of rotting flesh when mature, thereby attracting insects that help pollinate it.

The week spent here was mind-expanding and humbling at the same time. How much knowledge have we lost in the race to industrial progress? How much intrinsic knowledge and wisdom of “uneducated peasants” have we ignored, simply because they had no diplomas on paper, no degrees from institutions of higher learning. After this week, I can’t help thinking, it is we urbanites who have lost out.

 

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Finding the Right Words

I read a review of a new book called “Translating Happiness” that describes the emotional privileges enjoyed by people who speak more than one language. The idea of multi-lingual people leading richer lives has been expressed in many different ways by thinkers through the ages. A Chinese proverb (there’s a good Chinese proverb for every occasion!) says that Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere. A Spanish proverb puts it more strongly and says One who knows two languages is worth two. Roger Bacon calls knowing more than one language the gateway to wisdom.

Greenland Image: courtesy npr.org

In Smilla’s Sense of Snow, author Peter Hoeg has the main character explain in the book that the Inuit and most other Greenlanders have a much more nuanced and deeply intuitive feeling for the varied facets of snow and ice than the rest of the world. To prove this, Smilla says there are 28 different words in Greenlandic languages to describe snow in all its moods and varieties. Although the book is a very readable thriller, a scholarly article I found actually lists 128 words for snow in Greenlandic languages. This is surpassed by a BBC news report of a University of Glasgow study that claims the Scots have 421 different words for snow. Picturesque examples include feefle, “to swirl” and snaw-pouther, “fine, driving snow.” Here I see rich pickings for an academic study of differences between Greenlandic and Scottish use of wintry language.

People who live in island nations and speak only one language are often the quickest to admit how culturally impoverished they are. By that measure, the United States is a linguistic island, with the vast majority of its populace militantly indignant when they encounter people who don’t speak English. An otherwise intelligent and sensitive American acquaintance of mine who travelled abroad for the first time recently made so many derogatory remarks about European customs she encountered. What made her so indignant was that certain customs were different from what she was used to at home. Such people, however decent and well-meaning, are like snails carrying their houses on their backs. They need to ditch their shells and learn to travel light.

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Climate Action Tracker

The Climate Action Tracker posts regular progress reports on how well various countries are doing to adhere to the Paris Agreements. It tracks emissions from 32 selected countries and the list of the good, the bad, and the ugly is quite surprising even to this seasoned watcher.

Only two countries are on track to fulfil the Paris goal, of limiting emissions to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees C; Gambia and Morocco.
The second best choice made in Paris was, if not 1.5 degrees, then at the least 2 degrees C. Just 5 of 32 countries meet this target. Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India and Philippines. All of the remaining 25 countries fall into the category of emitters that will lead to a world of 3 degrees warming or more. See the original list here.

Of course this predicator of doom and gloom relies only on official government policies. The reality on the ground may be a bit different in many of the countries on the list. For example, despite their governments, a few cities, power companies and private individuals already find it cheaper to produce unsubsidised renewable energy, a trend that will speed up, just a cell phone sales did in developing country markets worldwide.

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Unbroken News

Continuing the series on breaking news that deserves a bigger audience, here’s Bill Gates with a few facts about the world of today.

Today, more people are living healthy, productive lives than ever before. This good news may come as a surprise, but there is plenty of evidence for it. Since the early 1990s, global child mortality has been cut in half. There have been massive reductions in cases of tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. The incidence of polio has decreased by 99 percent, bringing the world to the verge of eradicating a major infectious disease, a feat humanity has accomplished only once before, with smallpox. The proportion of the world’s population in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 per day, has fallen from 35 percent to about 11 percent.

See the full article from Foreign Affairs here.

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Breaking News – the news is broken

Most media outlets seem to operate under the principle that bad news is good news or alternatively, good news is not news. They may be right, in terms of profitability. But they are definitely wrong, in terms of the collective well-being of humanity. This blog is not dependent on readership or advertising revenues, so it can afford to print good news without fear of losing its readership. So here for a start is good news from the energy front.

Floating solar photovoltaic facility outside Nagoya producing power for Apple supplier. Image: courtesy Clean Technica

All of the electricity used by two of the world’s largest corporations, Apple and Google, were from renewable sources by the end of 2017. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that each of these companies uses more electricity than many small nations, not least to power immense data centers scattered around the world. So now, if you have worries about the amount of personal data Facebook & Co. are collecting about you because of their opaque terms of usage, rest assured that they’re not polluting the planet in the bargain.

But seriously, there’s lots of impressive news in the energy area alone. Here’s a chart, courtesy of National Resources Development Center, showing how prices have come down for major clean energy technologies.

Chart from NRDC: click to enlarge

Since clean energy is one of the basic requirements for human development, there’s not much stopping world-wide implementation, is there? Capital for investment? It’s increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few–rich corporations and rich individuals. So are we ordinary mortals totally helpless? No, not at all. But we have to make smart choices as customers. We can enrich our lives, and the planet in the process, by getting off the mindless consumption lifestyle that the glossies would have us aspire to.

In one hour, the earth receives more solar energy than the world uses in one year. Now that’s good news and worth repeating, even if its not new. So why are companies producing more dirty diesel cars and building more fossil fuel power plants? Because switching technologies means moving out of comfortable niches of expertise that would otherwise become useless; it would mean new investments, experimenting with new technologies, and why should they take all these risks when customers are flocking to buy new models anyway? As engine size and horse power of new automotive offerings increase, so do their profits, and they see even less reason to invest in new technologies. It’s only we, the customers, who can break this vicious cycle.

English speaking news readers tend to digest information from an overwhelmingly anglocentric or eurocentric point of view. Hence I was not surprised recently to hear a friend accuse the Chinese of polluting the planet when actually, despite (or perhaps because of) a totalitarian regime, they are doing more to clean up the earth than any other nation. For example, the southern Chinese city of Shenzen alone runs a fleet of 16,000 (yes, thousand) electric buses; more than the rest of world combined. So while air quality in Beijing might be abysmal, this past winter, particulate pollution was 50% less than in the previous year. This from no less a source than the US Embassy in Beijing! One reason for the lower levels of pollution might be that China installed more than 53 GW of solar power in 2017.

The above facts don’t make me an apologist for an autocratic government where power is increasingly concentrated at the top. This is undoubtedly a very worrying tendency, one that is being seen in several other large countries like India, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States. In the US case, its robustly democratic political system has been hijacked by corporate lobbies. Nevertheless there is good news coming from each of these countries, and I will try to highlight these bright spots in future posts.

 

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