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A quotation from the Psalms recently came to mind. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away. (Psalm 90, v. 10).
Having reached that Biblical milestone earlier this year, I recall a favourite uncle of mine quoting the above lines at me some decades ago when he reached the age of 70. At that time, his attitude was: I’ve done my bit for the world, and given you a good start. Now it’s up to your generation to carry on the good work. Study hard, find jobs, work hard, and you’ll end up like me, looking back on a life well-lived and enjoying the fruits of prosperity.
Based on the foundations laid by an earlier generation, many in this generation (myself included) worked hard and enjoyed a prosperous life, largely managing to evade the conflicts and other terrible things that happened around the world at different places and different times. We lived in a time of a rising tide lifts all boats otherwise known as trickle-down economics, but somehow gravity didn’t do what it was supposed to do, for the simple reason that human greed defies gravity. So instead of trickling down, money trickled up, slowly at first, until the present day when it’s become a roaring flood. Economic pundits (and most famously the pop group Abba) call it “The Winner Takes it All” syndrome. Economist Brian Arthur who has published a body of work on technology and society calls it “the network effect locking markets in to the domination of a single player.”
So here I am, at three score years and ten years thinking, the work’s not done yet; we’ve not laid the foundations of prosperity for coming generations, we’re not leaving behind a healthy planet for them. There’s still time, but there’s a lot of work to do, easily doable despite the shortening window of opportunity remaining, if enough people join in. Here are some links to steps for a healthier planet.
These are only small actions, but following the suggested prescriptions on only one of these links can greatly improve your own health as well as that of the planet. As a side benefit you might find, like Moses, that your eyes are not dimmed, nor your natural force abated. So here’s wishing you all the best for the future of the planet.
Coming across some unsweetened chocolate containing dried figs and ham (prsut), the combination seemed so unusual that we picked a packet up to try at home later. This was in a little shop near the open air market of Ljubljana, the eminently walkable capital of Slovenia. The combination, when we tried it, was delicious and to be highly recommended. Tasting this reminded me of a bitterly cold winter evening some years earlier, wandering through a Christmas market in Vienna, when I was stopped by a bearded man who looked like a Peruvian pan flute player.
“You look cold,” he said.
“Yes, I am cold.”
“Try a mug of Aztec chili chocolate with rum,” he said. “It’ll warm you up in no time.”
So we bought two steaming mugs of his brew and soon felt a pleasantly mild fiery glow spread through our innards. It helped us forget frozen hands and the biting cold for a good half hour. Figs originally came from Asia Minor, modern day eastern Turkey, but they spread early all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Chocolate probably originated in Olmec lands around 1000 BC where they called it kakawa. The origin of the word chocolate is presumably from an Aztec word ‘xocoatl,’ a bitter drink they brewed from cocoa beans. Here’s a link to a brief history of chocolate.
A gourmet friend told me several years ago about a trip to Sicily where he ate the most delicious lasagna he’d ever tasted, in a nondescript restaurant in a small village. Curious, he asked the owner, who was also the cook, the secret to his lasagna. “Unsweetened chocolate,” the man explained, pointing to a thin brown layer in the middle.
The Olmecs gave us chocolate and avocados. Kiwi fruit were brought out of China and found a new home in New Zealand where its name changed from Chinese gooseberry to kiwi. Okra originated in Ethiopia and now is used by households from India to Florida. Sugarcane spread from India and New Guinea to the rest of the world. Potatoes and tomatoes also originated from South America, while chick peas came from Turkey and the Middle East as long as 8000 years ago. Ethiopia also gave the world coffee, probably via Mocha in modern day Yemen. Tea, as is well known, came from China.
Where is all this leading to? To people, of course. To the people who consume these foods and beverages all over the world. Thank goodness for the free movement of food and food habits. A world without hummus, okra, tomatoes, potatoes or, God forbid, coffee and tea would be a world of culinary despair. So the way the world is going right now, most nations are saying, ok, we’ll take your food but not your people. Imagine the long-term global poverty and despair that then ensues, not only immediately, but in the long run. Imagine a world of monocultures with no biodiversity! So next time you go to vote, remember to vote for culinary diversity, and the people that come with it. This idea is underlined in the following illustration and article from UK think tank Global Future about future diversity in business leadership.
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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A recent article in a Salzburg newspaper talked about the bleak future for winter sports in Austria. As snow becomes ever scarcer on the lower slopes of alpine regions, those communities that rely on income from winter tourism are looking around for alternatives to keep their economies going. Ski trails are increasingly carpeted with artificial snow that serves the purpose but cannot compete with the magic delight of snowflakes from heaven. A custom that has gained traction in recent years is snow farming. In effect, the practice is very simple. Snow is piled up during winter months in convenient natural depressions called snow depots and covered with a mix of wood chips and sawdust. The depot is then blanketed with a white covering that further insulates the reserve and preserves up to 80% of the snow through the summer months. The heat of evaporation from the moistened wood chips actually helps cool the bulk of the snow reserve. Austrian snow harvesting programs are for the benefit of the tourism business, but in the high altitudes of Himalayan Ladakh, engineers and environmentalists are creating artificial ice stupas and glaciers as a survival mechanism to provide water for village communities in the spring and summer months.
When religious leaders step outside their core business of spiritual leadership and meddle in secular affairs, then perhaps they should take their cue from the Tibetan monk in the video above. True religion should promote harmony, protect nature and improve livelihoods instead of preaching. As can be seen from the video above, reverence naturally follows.
You’ve got to love this. Jamie Olivers cook-mobile, a new category KUV (kitchen utility vehicle), courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover. Now if they only had an electric version…
Studies about global warming talk about the need for developing countries to adapt to climate change. The good news is that in India a wide range of mitigation and adaptation measures are taking place. To use the phrase of Augustin, Vienna’s well-loved figure of historical myth, “the situation is serious but not hopeless.” At the end of this article are links to some examples that illustrate various initiatives that are already working. However, with 68% of the country’s population in villages, India needs many more such miracles. My wife and I recently joined a project, started by some local partners, to develop a sustainable school in a village in Tamil Nadu.
The village lies in a green, agricultural area about forty kilometers from the city of Chennai (pop. 8.23 million) in the Chingleput district of Tamil Nadu. Although surrounded by productive farmland, approach roads to this village are so poor as to be almost non-existent. The roads were badly damaged in the extensive flooding that followed the unusually heavy monsoon rains of September-October 2015. Parts of the city of Chennai and the surrounding countryside were inundated to depths of one to two meters.
The village itself, when one arrives, is relatively prosperous. There are many large wells that supply water for irrigation. The land seems fertile and a variety of crops is grown. Despite this, young people are moving in droves to the cities, lured by scenes of urban wealth and glamor on television. These people are merely following a trend happening in many countries around the world as small farm holdings sell out to larger entities and corporations that can practice industrial-scale farming with all its recognized negative consequences.
The idea of a rural sustainable school is really very simple. In addition to conventional education, the childrens’ learning will be focused on practical skills that are relevant in a rural environment; from organic farming, forestry, carpentry, medicinal uses of plants, setting up and servicing small-scale photovoltaics, forestry, wildlife management (the area is very rich in bird-life) etc. In addition, there are plans to use a locally patented system that incorporates waste plastic into long-lasting road surfaces. In all of these efforts, voluntary labor (shramdhan) will play the most important role. For without local participation, there will be no long-term program. With local participation, the community takes ownership of all the above areas, become experts in selected areas and run it themselves. This is the main reason that the partners are starting this school project on a self-financed basis. As soon as outside money enters the equation, a certain precious balance is lost and people will tend to sit back and wait for capital to provide answers that they would otherwise look for themselves.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LHe9I6QPu8 jal khet (Water Fields)
The school building itself will be constructed on-site with compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) that do not need firing or baking like conventional bricks. They just need compression following which the bricks are kept wet for a month and then sun-dried for three months. Electricity will initially be provided by 5 Kw of solar panels that are expected to cost around €4000 at current prices. More capacity and storage will be added as the price falls. For more information about the philosophy behind the project, see this article on my blog. “Development as an Attitude: learning to unlearn.”
There are so many different kinds of palm trees that it’s difficult to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys in the palm tree story. By bad guys, I mean only one, the oil palm. Oil palm plantations have been blamed for extensive tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as for habitat loss of critically endangered species like the Orang Utan and the Sumatran Tiger. Blame the producers by all means, but don’t forget to blame the consumers as well. And that means us, the consumers of so many products that have palm oil as an ingredient. These include soaps, washing powder, cooking oil, butter substitutes, pastry dough, many baked goods, and most recently, biodiesel. Anyway, this posting is in praise of the lesser known palmyra palm, one of more than three hundred varieties of palm tree. Here’s a useful website with illustrations of 30 varieties.
The palmyra palm tree and its delicious fruit remain relatively unknown worldwide despite its wide use in southeast Asia, especially in India and Cambodia. In India, it is the state tree of Tamil Nad. Palmyra jaggery is a recommended sweetener in Ayurvedic medicine. Modern tests show it has a low glycemic index of 40 (as opposed to 100 for refined white sugar) in addition to containing a range of B-complex vitamins. There are over 800 listed uses for the palmyra tree. Every part of the tree can be used for a range of foods, timber and household products. Palm tree kernels, pictured above, are like large, sweet water chestnuts and very refreshing summer snacks, rich in minerals. In addition, its leaves can be used as thatch, to weave baskets or mats. Centuries ago, palm leaves were used to write on. The wood provides excellent construction material.
Most people, myself included, think of coconuts or dates when palm trees are mentioned. The palmyra palm is a neglected cousin that is just as useful and deserves to be more widely known.
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If we look at development work as the business of changing attitudes, then attitudes to learning must change a great deal in almost every continent in the world today (with the possible exception of Antarctica). One has only to read the newspapers of any country in the world to hear of growing xenophobia, widespread fearmongering, environmental destruction and climate catastrophes. The American psychiatrist Karl Menninger often said: Attitudes are more important than facts. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung said the same thing in different words. It depends on how we look at things and not how they are in themselves. The Indian philosopher and mystic, Sri Aurobindo said: What is of first importance is not the religious or non-religious character of the work done, but the inner attitude in which it is done.
My wife and I chose to begin our (self) development work in a tiny village near Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. We were there to learn and not to teach. My wife, who has worked as a teacher in international schools around the world all her professional life, began her interaction by learning a few Tamil words and phrases from village children who had expected her to spout knowledge and teach them English or mathematics. To their delight, they became teachers themselves from the very first day. They planted saplings, choosing the trees they wanted to have growing in the compound. They planted the ubiquitous banyan tree, in whose shade a few decades hence, generations of school children might seek shelter. They planted the arasu maram, the tree of kings it’s called in Tamil, under whose pointed leaves a latter-day Gautama Buddha might find enlightenment. At the end of the day’s lessons, instead of guiding us to the bus-stop, they showed us around their village and introduced us to their parents. We learned a lot throughout our five-week involvement here, and came to know a number of interesting local people. A politician, who I might have once dismissed as a party hack; this one might be key to helping the seven thousand people who live in his rural community preserve the intact ecosystem that exists in the area. A real estate developer, a truly modest man, who is interested in promoting rural youth education. He puts his money where his mouth is, by sharing a couple of acres of land to the project and getting sponsors for some of the forthcoming school building constructions. The entire venture is the brainchild of a retired college professor, an eminent Tamil scholar, who has already helped hundreds of, and several generations of, disadvantaged urban school kids in Chennai (Madras) by setting up five after-school learning centers at various points in the city. This venture with four acres of land around a container, is his first rural learning center. We are honored to be a part of this enterprise and look forward to spending several months a year here. On this initial visit, we commute every day from the city to the village by motor-bike. On our next visit, we hope to stay in a small thatch-roofed hut right next to the school.
On day one of the school, activities were inaugurated by planting trees. We learned so much from the villagers. We started by weeding the grounds. A creeper growing wild at the foot of the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer: more on that in a subsequent post) is about to be ripped out of the earth as a weed. Renuka stops me. This is a medicinal plant, she says, and tells me the name in Tamil. It’s leaves can be ground into a paste and used for arthritis or bodily aches and pains.
A number of saplings were taken to the empty site that had been marked out with a wire fence and stone posts. A container stood there, the first class-room. Fees should be modest and affordable, but the school should not be free. The people in the village tend to be cynical, and rightly so, about free gifts. They’ve been receiving freebies from politicians for a couple of generations; politicians who tend to look at them as vote banks. So it was decided to charge the students a fee of 50 rupees per month for the privilege of attending (around 75 Eurocents, yes cents, per month at today’s exchange rates). That’s all it costs to educate a child. That, and an enormous amount of goodwill. And goodwill there is aplenty. We have more than a dozen willing volunteer helpers. There’s Chakkaravarthy, who’s given up his job as an engineer at a multinational to become a technical help to the school and several other ventures started by his uncle. There’s Sukumar, who has been working with disadvantaged children for over a decade. He comes alive when he is with the kids, and never gets tired of interacting with them. Looking at him, one sees a picture of the right man in the right place doing what he loves. And what of us? We are on a steep learning curve, and the children have much to teach us. And the more they teach, the more they will learn.
The school is just a container, but learning is happening all the same. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that it costs on average US$ 1.18 per day to educate a child in low and middle income developing countries. This is a small sum, but multiplied by millions of children, several billions are needed annually. Unfortunately, influential people lobby their governments for fighter planes so they can bomb the hell out of their enemies from a safe altitude. Each of these warplanes costs more than the entire school education of several million children. Fortunately now, this village model shows that learning can take place even without a schoolroom and with far less than surmised by the Global Partnership for Education.
If a modern urbanite, Indian or foreign, were to visit the village today, they might see an ‘underdeveloped’ community. Access roads are poor, electricity is intermittent, and the children learn by rote in public schools staffed by teachers who insist on mindless discipline to the detriment of knowledge acquisition. What we see here is something quite different. We see children hungry to learn, living in a vibrant ecosystem that is intact and flourishing. This is rich farmland. Judging by the abundant birdlife (black drongos, Alexandrine parakeets, green parrots, greater coucal, hoopoes, bulbuls, swifts, spoonbills, several varieties of water birds, mynahs, weaver birds, francolin and several others), nature and man coexist comfortably here. Presumably there are poisonous snakes, scorpions, centipedes and rats in this paradise although we did not see any on our visit. We look forward to spending a lot more time in this village ‘undeveloping ourselves’ before we begin to teach. Or perhaps we have nothing to teach and everything to learn; about how not to confuse development with economic advancement. I fear the world has suffered enough from the latter.
The wedding was in Kerala, a state in India whose advertising blurb labels it “God’s Own Country.” Argentinians and Brazilians also make rival claims to have been similarly favoured by the Creator, while each runs the others’ country down “Yeah, God gave your country everything, but then he created you people to compensate!” In the case of Kerala, the affable people of neighbouring Tamil Nadu harbor no such pretensions, laughingly noting that several million people from Kerala prefer to live with them rather than in their own home state. The wedding eve reception and reception were at holiday resorts at Kumarakom.
Kumarakom is situated on the banks of Vembanad lake, apparently the longest lake in India, whose wetland system covers an area of two thousand square kilometers. Much of Kerala’s claim to God’s bounty comes from the backwaters, large estuarine stretches of brackish water that gives rise to a very rich ecosystem. Part of the lake holds the fresh water that drains into it from several rivers, and this fresh water section is separated from the brackish portion by mudflats. The lake is at the heart of ‘backwater tourism’ in the state, with hundreds of “kettuvallams,” floating homes on motorized traditional boats. The riverboat network spans 200 km from north to south and the lake teems with giant prawns and several other types of freshwater fish.
Meanwhile, the bride and groom were happily united at a church in neighboring Kottayam town. It was a glorious wedding with guests travelling from around the world to attend. The groom wore a kilt, befitting his antecedents, and the bride wore a matching tartan sari, designed by the groom’s mother. All in all, a fitting Kerala wedding for the 21st century. The wedding photos belong in a family album rather than this blog, so none appear here. But if you ever are invited to a wedding in Kerala, my advice to you is, go!
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What could be more principled than companies that work to genetically modify seeds, breeding out negative traits and selecting a mix of desirable qualities that make them resistant to pests, hardy enough to withstand droughts or floods as desired? After all, farmers have been doing this for hundreds of years, patiently crossing varieties and developing superior strains of the world’s crops. Enter the profit motive. Still no harm done, we thought! Selfish interest is the lever used by civilizations to lift their peoples to prosperity, with the profit motive as the fulcrum on which this lever rests.
The world has generally accepted the truth of this principle ever since Adam Smith pointed it out in his seminal work, first published in 1776. Except for a relatively brief interlude when some nations experimented with communism and socialism in a failed search for social justice and equity, the world has broadly accepted Smith’s premise that wealth creation is a good thing and ought to be encouraged by enlightened governments that simply move out of the way and allow entrepreneurs to do their stuff. By and large, this is what seems to have happened in the case of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Basically, some large corporations have copyrighted and distributed their seeds (sounds fair enough; respect for intellectual property rights sets the basis for innovation and prosperity). The problem is, these corporations have also made the rules about what happens to the seed generations that follow. They have decreed, and governments have accepted, that farmers may not retain a proportion of seeds from their crop for planting the subsequent season, but have to buy the seeds from the corporations again.
As Lizzie Wade points out in her Science article “How Syrians saved an Ancient Seedbank from Civil War”
…Maize, for example, was created by ancient Mesoamericans by painstakingly breeding more and more appetizing teosinte, a stubby grass with tiny, tough kernels that has so little in common with modern maize that archaeologists dismissed it as a possible wild ancestor until genetic tests revealed the surprising truth. The problem in the short run is that conventional breeding can be s…l…o…w. Teosinte was domesticated in central Mexico between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, but farmers only managed to create a variety that tasted good a mere millennium ago
As S. Grant points out in his article “10 Problems Genetically Modified Foods are Already Causing,” once they plant GM crops, farmers can no longer legally harvest their own seeds and are in danger of entering an era of perpetual bondage. Thus serfdom re-enters the world in the 21st century, this time clothed in the language of high-tech and carrying the false promise of freedom from hunger. Lawmakers are all too often ignorant and dazzled by technology, so they fail to realise the problems with GM crops are more to do with social and juridical issues rather than with the technology itself.
“In India, seeds are taken as a symbol of God’s blessing. They keep it, they store it, they know what is good seed and bad seed.” “Control oil and you control nations. Control food, and you control people.”
The above two memorable quotes are from a must-see 9-minute video about Natabar Sarangi, a village farmer who distributes free seeds to poor farmers out of the deep conviction that the thousands of varieties of seeds bred and developed over centuries should not be lost. In the process, he helps many of them to modest prosperity.