Category Archives: ecology

When the billboards fall

It was for a billboard advertising “anti-bacterial underwear” that they cut the trees. The ten trees, along the highway through the city, were hacked down in April this year.

They were not the first to be cut, nor the last.

A month later, down the same road, they axed over two dozen trees for a billboard advertising a realty project, “Sobha Dream Acres”, which on its website presents make-believe images of residents in their advertised property moving about in tree-lined avenues. Who cut the trees for that billboard? Miscreants did it, said one newspaper. Unknown people.

Last year, it was for a billboard carrying an iPhone advertisement. Seventeen trees poisoned, thirteen more with branches chopped off, “so that a billboard of an iPhone advertisement is clearly visible”.

One can now see clearly all that the billboards stand for. As for the trees, the words of William Blake come to mind:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.

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Rain tree, Sanjay Nagar

Before they were felled, the trees stood along the streets of Bangalore, a city that goes by the name of Bengaluru these days. Bengaluru, capital of the state of Karnataka, a city of over twelve million people and the third most populous city in India, where nearly one percent of the nation’s 1.3-billion-large population is packed into 2,196 square kilometres at a density of 5,700 people to a square kilometre. Bangalore, the garden city, now become Bengaluru, city of traffic snarls, burning lakes, glitzy billboards.

The loss of trees is not new. Between 1973 and 2016, according to one study, the area under paved and concreted surfaces in the city increased over tenfold while vegetation or green spaces declined by nearly nine-tenths. With just around 1.5 million trees remaining, Bengaluru has only one tree for every seven people, although there are even fewer—one tree for every thousand people—in densely populated wards such as Shivaji Nagar and Kempapura Agrahara in the heart of the city. The trees are not enough even to sequester the carbon dioxide breathed out by the city’s citizens. In the run up to the 2018 state elections, in April alone, around forty trees were chopped in various parts of the city. Many more may have gone unnoticed, unreported.

The forces that swept away the trees are many: urbanization, suburban sprawl, road widening, paved parking lots, cement-smothered compounds, built infrastructure, and a warped aesthetic that prefers lawns to trees. And billboard advertising, which thrives on spectacle and grabbing attention, which tolerates nothing that curtails the human gaze.

Cutting trees to make billboards visible is not a new trend either. In 2014, in the heart of the city along the road named for Mahatma Gandhi, apostle of non-violence, 15 trees were axed for a better view of a hoarding, a billboard within a walled compound. It was a “ridiculous and mindless” act, driven by “unbridled greed”, reported one newspaper. It left behind “mutilated stumps, standing lifeless sentinels”.

When will it stop? When will it be the turn for the billboards to fall?

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MG Road, June 2018

* * *

When the trees fell, citizens took to the streets in protest. In April, residents of the RR Nagar locality voiced their protest with placards:

Hug Me, 30 years I have been. Help me re-grow. Here silently cleaning your environment… Speak up for me… be my voice.

In May, at Bellandur and Iblur, other residents lamented that the trees that had been cut had been planted four years ago and were twelve feet tall. They protested on the street with placards declaring the values of trees. One held by a child said simply:

You cut a tree, you kill a life
You save a tree, you save a life
You plant a tree, you plant a life.

It was not just that growing trees had been cut. Lives had been planted: deliberate acts of nurture, looking to a future with promise, for a flourishing that was now no more. The anguish came not just from looking back at the loss of what had been, but from a sense of longing for what they could have become, for the lives never lived. It stemmed from a vision in which street trees are integral to life in the city of the future.

Gardeners are good at the business of waiting, they are in tune with the rhythms of the earth, which are slow. There is no anxiety in this kind of waiting, only anticipation.
~ Anuradha Roy, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’

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Trees planted on sidewalk, Judicial Layout, September 2018

In response to the tree cutting, small groups of concerned citizens do what they can. They attempt to revive the hacked trees with the help of conservationists, tree doctors. They coat the stumps with a traditional concoction of coconut oil, Indian wormwood extract, and bees wax to prevent wood rot. They make collars around the roots to add a reviving panchagavya mixture to the soil. They wait and watch for the tree to sprout again.

And they fight. This year, when trees were cut for billboards, citizens lodged complaints with the authorities to pull the billboards down and take action against the advertising agencies. For the trees should not have been cut at all. The anti-corruption ombudsman of the state, the Karnataka Lokayukta, had declared in 2017:

No one will cause any damage to trees or any branches of trees. It is the duty of the forest wing of BBMP [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike or the Greater Bengaluru City Corporation] as well as BMTF [Bengaluru Metropolitan Task Force] to take legal action with the assistance of jurisdictional police. If any ad agency or representative of such agencies cause any damage to the trees, BBMP is required to remove the hoardings [billboards] and cancel the permission/licence granted to such agencies.

The Lokayukta’s order clearly placing tree protection within the mandate of the BBMP and BMTF was welcomed by the city’s tree conservationists. Yet, there’s a long way to go. The BBMP presents on its website, under citizen services, only how to apply for and carry out tree cutting, not how to source seedlings of appropriate species from local nurseries, how to nurture and protect planted trees, or how to raise and pursue complaints when they are illegally felled. The BMTF’s online complaints portal, meant to register complaints for any destruction of government property, lists only “Property/Building/Site”—there is no mention of “Tree(s)”.

Even when citizens do complain and the billboards are brought down, a few days later they mysteriously rise up again.

* * *

In June, I travel from the mountains of the Western Ghats to Bengaluru, with Divya Mudappa, my partner, arriving at Bengaluru’s international airport one afternoon. Among other things, we have come to work with Nirupa Rao, an artist and botanical illustrator based in Bengaluru, on a book about some remarkable trees of the Western Ghats—a book that we had dreamed up years ago but which had taken shape only over the last two years. Trees on our minds, we pass through the automated glass doors at the arrival exit that leaves me wondering how one can arrive and exit at once. Shouldn’t the door be labeled ‘EXIT’ on the outside for those going into the airport and ‘ENTRANCE’ on the inside for those arriving? The swanky airport holds many charms, no doubt, but it is just a building, an air-portal, ultimately it is this city, this place, we come to or leave.

Kempegowda Airport curbside, July 2016

Bengaluru International Airport, July 2016 (Photo: Sunnya343, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 4.0)

At the airport curbside, a few trees give us pause. They are fig trees, a few metres tall, planted and growing in small, constrained spaces in the sweeping expanse of tiled floor under the airport’s high, curving, metallic roof. There’s a pair of Ficus benjamina or weeping fig with small shining leaves modestly hidden under a patina of dust. Three other trees, identified later by Sartaj Ghuman, another artist friend working on the book with us, are Ficus lyrata or fiddle-leaf fig whose leaves are shaped like lyres or the bouts of violins.

We leave the fig trees to their weeping and silent music and take a taxi from the airport, watch the airport’s gardens rush past. Lush lawns, colourful ornamentals, the airport’s retinue of tamed trees and palms transplanted by mechanical crane. Plants from as many countries, perhaps—befitting such an airport—as the airplanes arrive from. And yet, the native plants and trees of this destination, this landscape, this place, are scarce. The gardeners must have grubbed out any wild vegetation with their mechanical arms.

Kempegowda International Airport, ATC tower

Airport road, October 2013 (Photo: Bishnu Sarangi, via Wikimedia Commons, CC0)

Along the highway leading out of the airport, exotic palm trees and bougainvillea bushes with pink and white flowers are packed tightly into the median. Further south, into the city, the median peters out into strips of straggly, dust-encrusted ornamental plants along and under mile upon mile of overhead roads, above which the airplanes fly into and out of the international airport or nearby airfields. Roads above roads, flyovers above flyovers. Against the highway’s flanks, billboards blaze by day and night, angled to catch every arriving, passing, or departing eye—some flaunt Government schemes with portraits of the Great Leader, others advertise homes and phones and the chattels of city life, wants and dreams and personal status. One billboard even advertises a block of apartments as a rainforest. And no trees block the view.

A clutch of monsoon clouds hangs in the rain-washed sky blue as a bird’s eye. The taxi driver is playing a Hindi film song on an FM channel on the car stereo. Soon, the song ends, a string of ads begins. The driver pushes the buttons, changing channels. Ads. More ads. He leaves it playing on a channel where the endless banality of chatter and ads is punctuated by music in constrained chunks. For some reason to do with traffic, the driver takes a short detour off the highway through Doddajala, ‘big lake’, a village being devoured by the city’s conurbation speeding north along the airport highway. It is pleasing to travel by a smaller road, with views—and time for views—of the landscape, even as we move faster than the vehicles creeping through highway traffic. Amid tessellated fields, houses, and shops crowding the road, stand neem, Eucalyptus, tamarind, jamun, and Ficus trees—over a wayside temple looms a great banyan, rooted in its place. Passing Doddajala, and back on the highway, Chikkajala, I see no lake big or small—I must have missed them or they have withered like the lakes around the airport or been built over like other lakes in the city.

It strikes me that this landscape would have looked very different in the past, a past that would have had no billboards, certainly, but also fewer buildings and even fewer trees.

* * *

When Bengaluru was founded in 1537 CE by Kempe Gowda of the Yelehanka Nada Prabhu dynasty, it was already in a landscape peopled for millennia. The city lay at the interface of the hilly malnad landscape to the south and west and the gentler, meadowed maidan terrain to the north and east. As Harini Nagendra notes in her book on the ecological history of Bengaluru, Nature in the City,

The landscape was shaped by its topography, with agricultural settlements irrigated by wells and lakes in the undulating terrain to the north and east, and pastoral communities in the dense scrub and jungle of the south and west.

South View of Bangalore

South view of Bangalore in 1792 with the fortress in the distance, by Robert Home (via Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 3.0)

Kempe Gowda expanded the city, creating the Kempambudhi and Dharmambudhi lakes, reinforcing the city’s fort and surrounding pete or markets with a mud wall and moat, bolstered by a ring of thorny shikakai climbers. Over the next two centuries the city continued to be transformed through the reigns of the Bijapur Sultanate, Hyder Ali, and his son Tipu Sultan, and the establishment of the British colonial administration at the end of the 18th century. As the city grew in population and expanded, slowly swallowing the surrounding villages, the string of rulers and administrators developed new lakes and markets and gardens and roads. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s ‘Cypress Gardens’ established in the eighteenth century, remains as the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in the city today.

East view of Bangalore, with the cypress garden, from a pagoda.

East view of Bangalore in 1792, with the cypress garden, from a pagoda, by James Hunter (via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Yet, in the eighteenth century, Bengaluru city was mostly treeless, embedded in a countryside that was open.

Bengaluru’s reputation as a garden city was not passively gained, it was actively cultivated: all sorts of people—from citizens to satraps—planted trees, nurtured gardens, and protected them to form the city’s tree cover and greenery. As Harini Nagendra notes in her book, multiple influences and aesthetics dictated the transition from open countryside to a city with tree-lined streets, parks, bungalow gardens, and lakes. The English colonial influence, certainly, but also those of earlier rulers, all built upon the abiding, deep, and old relationships that India’s peoples have always had with trees, viewing nature as a source of livelihood, as alive and sacred, at once.

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Nallur tamarind grove, June 2018 (Photo: Shyamal, via WIkimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 4.0)

Across Bengaluru, in groves and gardens tended with care to vacant lots running wild, from slums to sacred spaces thronging with people, trees stand testimony to those relationships. To the city’s northeast, in the Nallur grove, great, gnarled, aged tamarinds, two to over four centuries old, sprawl their branches amidst the ruins of an old fort. Near temples, alongside railway tracks and stations, and along congested and otherwise treeless city roads, there still stand massive banyan and peepal trees rising from raised platforms or kattes—platforms that serve as places for meetings, markets, shrines, or simply for resting in the shade, present in almost every town and village in the Karnataka countryside.

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Banyan in Mysore, August 2017

The neem and champak and jack will continue to reside in the city in the names of places—Margosa Road, Sampige Road, and Halasur (Ulsoor)—whether the trees remain in these places or disappear with more buildings, widened roads, or billboards. In their sample survey across 328 home gardens in the city, Harini Nagendra’s research team found people nurturing 91 tree species, from petite henna and spindly coconut to sprawling mango and jack that gave of their shade and sweetness through the summer. In the city’s crowded slums, where each family has just a few square metres of floor space to itself, people still made space for trees around their homes and in common areas where children played, people washed clothes and dishes or socialized with each other, and vendors set up stalls to sell tea and snacks, or flowers.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, as the city mushroomed, trees were planted by government authorities, too, chiefly the Forest Department or the Forest Cell of the BBMP. One forest officer, S. G. Neginhal, is credited with spearheading the planting of 1.5 million trees in Bengaluru in the 1980s, in areas like Indiranagar and Koramangala that are now expensive residential and commercial spaces embedded in the city. The Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, enacted in 1976 and amended in subsequent years, created a framework for regulating the planting and felling of trees overseen by the appointed ‘Tree Officers’. Along sidewalks and parks, around government buildings and lakes, sprung up numerous trees that grace the city even today, both native species such as mango and neem and jamun, and exotic ones such as the Madagascan gulmohur, African tulip, Australian silver oak and Acacia wattles, and the Tabebuia, jacaranda, and mahogany of tropical America.

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Trees and traffic, September 2018

The trees waft coolness over surroundings baking in urban heat. In the afternoon, the ambient temperatures in tree shade are a good five degrees Centigrade cooler than over shadeless road, and 20 degrees cooler than the blistering tarmac. The value of shade itself is inestimable for people on foot or on two wheelers, street vendors and residents. The trees trap dust and freshen the air. They shelter birds and squirrels and monkeys and butterflies and bats, and provide fruits and flowers and firewood and fodder. They bring an uplifting aesthetic amidst glass and metal and tar and concrete. Rooted in place, they share their goodness as the world passes by.

Bengaluru once occupied a landscape with few trees. But without its trees, the city would be unimaginable today, and unlivable in the years ahead. The trees that remain stand, yet, as contingent markers of place, aesthetics, utility, and history.

* * *

Our book is nearly done. We had settled on the title, Pillars of Life, taken from an essay Divya had written years ago, when the book was still a seed of an idea in her mind. We tack on a subtitle, Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. The rest of the text is ready, the beautiful artwork—painstaking botanical illustrations by Nirupa and evocative sketches by Sartaj—has been digitally scanned and corrected for colours. An attractive layout has been chosen. Only the page for the dedication is blank, but Divya comes up with one that we instantly know is apt:

To the trees ~ the original landscape historians

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Judicial Layout, June 2018

In Bengaluru, street trees tell their own history of the city. Between our friend’s home in Judicial Layout where we are staying and Canara Bank Layout near Sahakara Nagar where our organisation, the Nature Conservation Foundation has its small office, the landscape around the University of Agricultural Sciences is a transformed one. From open and thinly populated a few decades ago, it is now a crowded suburb burgeoning with homes and apartments and shops, new ones cropping up every month. Along the roads, the trees that grow—pongam and mahogany, beach almond and kadam—are thick as a thigh to stout as a waist with canopies reaching only a few metres, dwarfed by the apartment buildings.

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Sanjay Nagar, June 2018

In older parts of Bengaluru, as in Malleswaram, Indira Nagar, Sanjay Nagar, and Halasur, and along wider roads, stand commensurately older trees: especially, rain trees of giant girth splaying their stout limbs over the roads, filtering out sunlight by day, letting in what starlight and moonlight they can through their folded leaves by night, obscuring even the multi-storey buildings that huddle along the roads.

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Rain trees, Sanjay Nagar, June 2018

One afternoon, I head downtown to M. G. Road and Church Street, in search of books, coffee, and trees. Named after Mahatma Gandhi, M. G. Road had few trees even in the past and is now a throbbing highway of concrete, tarmac, and traffic with overhead metro to boot. The few trees one can see are hidden on the northern side behind the metro, constrained within the bounds of the Cariappa Memorial Park.

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Hidden trees, MG Road, June 2018

At Church Street, I pause to consider my urban priorities: books first, coffee, or trees? Coffee, of course, at the Indian Coffee House, then trees, then books, then coffee again with books-in-hand. Easy.

The Indian Coffee House and Gangaram’s bookstore were old haunts of mine when they stood on M. G. Road, until both were forced to shut shop and move. Fortunately, the transplanted café and bookstore still survive in Church Street. The café retains its modest streetside ambiance, white-caparisoned waiters, and eclectic snacks. In price and flavour, its distinctive coffee, made from a strong decoction and served in plain white cups and saucers, beats the brews concocted in the swank café-turned-lounges with plush seats down the road. The Indian Coffee House’s existence remains tenuous, though, as its takeover by other café chains seems imminent. The Gangaram’s bookstore, too, survives with others down the same street: Bookworm, Blossom, and Goobe’s. I say survives, because two other famous Bengaluru bookstores that used to be nearby, the venerable Premier Book Shop and the Strand Book Stall, have already shut shop—their spaces swallowed by other commercial imperatives. Not transplanted. Axed, like the trees on M. G. Road in 2014 that stood in the view line of a billboard.

With crisp new books—Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived and Richard Mabey’s The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination—purchased from the bookstores in my backpack, I step out back onto Church Street. I didn’t expect to find many trees as the road stretches within what is perhaps the most expensive and built-up area in Bengaluru’s central business district. Pleasantly enough, a few trees still grace the street.

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Cluster fig, Church Street, June 2018

Opposite Blossom Book House in the compound of Falnir House—an old building standing like a marker of vanished time—stood large mango and jack trees. Along the street, a few trees spilled out of compounds and small spaces by the sidewalk: Araucaria, tamarind, peepal, and monkeypod. I stand under their branches in a light breeze for a while. The soft susurrus of tamarind leaves and the gentle patter of quaking peepal leaves against each other are barely audible in the noise of passing vehicles and the chugging of an electric generator at a construction site nearby. Further down, a cluster fig slants from the sidewalk near Coco Grove hotel and someone has parked a bicycle beside it. Opposite the Highgates Hotel stand peepal, false ashoka, camel’s foot, and rain tree, in which a pair of common mynas chuckles and a lone rose-ringed parakeet screeches. A bit further down, besides Koshy’s looms a large mahogany, holding brown pods like arboreal eggs packed with seeds waiting with wings.

“You don’t have to stare at every single tree, you know?” Divya chides me as we drive back to Judicial Layout after she and a friend picked me up from Church Street as evening fell over the city.

I smile. I was obsessing over every tree. Teak trees covered in a creamy fuzz of inflorescences; Indian cork trees putting out bunches of white pendant blooms; the African tulip holding aloft clusters of large, crimson flowers. Trees with brush-strokes of colour in their leaves: the yellowing leaves of pongam and jack, the moon flash below silver oak leaves in the wind, the senescent leaves of beach almond in scarlet and burnt umber falling, returning to the earth. And the roadside Markhamia whose branches held long, twisted hanging pods and sprigs of yellow flowers like little trumpets playing a music now drowned by traffic noise; the Tabebuia flowers bunched in soft pink against dark green leaves forming a contrasting backdrop to the metallic colours of the vehicles strung along the highway; the wayward fig trees stretching their trunks and limbs out over the road through gaps left considerately in compound walls; the fruit-laden Jamaican cherry trees that flicker with flowerpeckers by day, bustle with bats by night. And every standing, swaying, sighing neem and mango and whatnot. I really didn’t need to stare at every tree.

Yet, what if the next time I came to the city that tree wasn’t there?

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Pale-billed Flowerpecker eating Jamaican berry

* * *

The city is changing. Fast. Harini Nagendra writes:

In the twenty-first century, the city has entered a technologically driven era where topography is subservient to real estate. Across the city, marshy wetlands are filled and granite hillocks are razed to the ground for construction. …The clearing of trees and desiccation of lakes has impacted the microclimate of the city, leading to urban heat islands that trap heat and exacerbate pollution. Bengaluru’s survival and resilience in the decades to come will depend on the future of nature in diverse spaces of the city.

In a 2010 research paper, with tree cutting rampant and the multitude of benefits that trees bring to the city being whittled away, Nagendra and her co-worker Divya Gopal sounded a warning:

Narrow roads, usually in congested residential neighborhoods, have fewer trees, smaller sized tree species, and a lower species diversity compared to wide roads. Since wide roads are being felled of trees across the city for road widening, this implies that Bangalore’s street tree population is being selectively denuded of its largest trees. Older trees have a more diverse distribution with several large sized species, while young trees come from a less diverse species set, largely dominated by small statured species with narrow canopies, which have a lower capacity to absorb atmospheric pollutants, mitigate urban heat island effects, stabilize soil, prevent ground water runoff, and sequester carbon. This has serious implications for the city’s environmental and ecological health.

Although the city boasts of 1,200 neighbourhood parks today, they occupy less than 0.1% of the city’s area, and many are gated with restricted access, depriving sections of the community that need them most. Of the wooded groves and urban commons, the gunda thopes, that were once scattered about the city, most have disappeared, too. It is only along roads that many people have daily, public access to trees, but tree cutting isn’t sparing them either.

Peepal tree at junction of 27th Cross and Kanakapura Road - panoramio

Peepal tree at junction of 27th Cross and Kanakapura Road (Photo: rednivaram, via WIkimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 3.0)

Bengaluru’s citizens are not taking all this sitting down. Groups organise and lead campaigns to protect trees. They hold festivals to celebrate trees. They try to map trees in the city. And they protest. In 2016, over 10,000 citizens took to the streets to oppose a state government project to build a six-lane, 6.72 km long, steel flyover in the city at a cost of around Rs 1,800 crores or 18 million rupees. The project, touted as one that would improve connectivity to the airport, would have entailed the cutting of 812 trees according to the proposal, although field survey by citizens showed 2,244 trees would face the chainsaw. Facing sustained protests by thousands of citizens on the streets, an online petition signed by 35,000 people, over 100,000 missed calls made to a designated number, written petitions to bureaucrats and administrators, and a string of critical media reports, the government scrapped the project in 2017.

Bengaluru was not alone. In June 2018, more than 1,500 people in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, poured into the streets to protest a planned cutting of over 14,000 trees for a housing redevelopment project. Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi, who was to write the foreword to our book, was caught up in the protests that erupted and wrote to us saying he could only send the foreword later. After citizens approached the Delhi High Court and the National Green Tribunal, both courts stayed the felling of trees, although the former has since modified its order to restrict tree felling in only seven redevelopment projects. Citizen petitions to the Central Information Commission, under India’s Right to Information Act, wrested disclosures by the State Government on its website, placing on record the number of trees already cut or slated to be cut by builders, contractors, and state agencies. For a city suffering the worst air quality of any major city in the world, the figures are sobering. Between 2005 and 2017, over 112,000 trees had been cut in Delhi, mostly for the Metro, roads, and other construction projects. One tree cut, for every hour of day or night, for thirteen years. And that’s just the official record.

A lone street in Autumn, New Delhi

Delhi street with Indian laburnum in bloom, 2014 (Photo: Ashutosh Dalal, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 4.0)

These urban victories secured from the courts signify a surging public awareness on the values of trees in cities. They also serve as a synecdoche for a new environmentalism: one that melds the personal actions of individuals, the community efforts of groups, and the political activism of an empowered citizenry. The gardener planting a tree by slum-home or apartment-block or watering sidewalk trees demonstrates individual commitment. The communities, from apartment residents associations to civil society organisations, which lead street protests, petitions, and activist campaigns, signal the strength of the collective. And the coming together of individuals and groups to trigger political action—upholding the tenets of law, seeking justice from the courts, and demanding accountability and transparency from the government—heralds what an informed and empowered citizenry can achieve. The motivational roots of individual and community efforts toward nature conservation extend back into India’s old traditions and examples abound from India’s forests and rural areas. It is in their manner of joining forces and their form of political engagement that one sees a glimpse of something new. A contemporary and effective environmentalism that can be inclusive and diverse, aspirational and inspiring, that builds and deepens connections from person to person, people to place, and humans to the rest of nature even in the midst of our most crowded cities.

For as long as they are alive, trees remain where they are. This is one of life’s few certainties. The roots of trees go deep and take many directions, we cannot foresee their subterranean spread any more than we can predict how a child will grow. Beneath the earth, trees live their secret lives, at times going deeper into the ground than up into the sky, entwined below with other trees which appear in no way connected above the ground.
~ Anuradha Roy, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’

Bengaluru’s billboards case is, however, still in court.

* * *

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.

~ Ogden Nash, Song of the Open Road, 1933 (in ‘The Face is Familiar’, 1941)

The billboards are falling. It is early September and Bengaluru is transformed. Back again for a conference, I can hardly believe my eyes. I am astonished at the hundreds of empty metal frames and structures along roads and highways, each of which earlier had garish vinyl flex advertisements stretched across them. Once again, the courts had stepped in.

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Billboards with flex removed, September 2018

On August 1, the Karnataka High Court had ordered the city’s municipal corporation, the BBMP to remove all the hoardings (billboards), banners, and buntings across the city by the same afternoon and, further, make the city completely free of advertisement flex hoardings by August 14. The court chastised the BBMP,

What policy you make is your prerogative but Bengaluru must be free of flexes and you must see to it.… You should close [BBMP] down if you cannot work properly.

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In the clouds, September 2018

Forced into overdrive, the BBMP removed over 5,000 billboards in three hours. Within a week over 21,140 billboards were removed and the BBMP announced a ban on all advertisements and billboards in public spaces for one year. By the end of the month, the BBMP drafted a new policy and bylaws on ‘Outdoor Signage and Public Messaging‘ that limited advertising to notified locations, government schemes, and sponsor’s ads on public utilities like bike-share and car-share facilities. In September, the BBMP also began to remove the empty frames and structures along roads, atop buildings, within compounds, and elsewhere.

Cover, Pillars of Life, by Divya Mudappa, T. R. Shankar Raman, Nirupa Rao, and Sartaj Ghuman

At the ‘Nature in Focus’ conference, a gathering of nature photographers, filmmakers, and conservationists, Divya and Nirupa have a session on our book Pillars of Life that was published in July. Nirupa speaks about what it took for her to depict the beautiful rainforest trees—botanical illustrations made with accuracy, blending science and art, detailing bark and branch and every leaf. Later, participants compliment us on the artistic work, on the evocative yet brief text. Their kind words are gratifying, yet we hope the book will evoke greater appreciation and wonder towards grand trees, whether they stand by roadsides or in rainforest fragments, along city streets or winding hill roads. The conference photo exhibition showcases dozens of spectacular images, yet trees, if they appear at all, are only backdrops to animal portraits or lost in landscapes. Nirupa took up to a week to paint a single tree, but the trees themselves took a century or more to draw themselves from earth to sky: isn’t every tree a piece of art, too?

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Flex in shreds, Sep 2018

Bengaluru, sans billboards, seems poised at a cusp of a civic renewal. In late June, the Forest Department announced an initiative to connect citizens to local plant nurseries to enable citizen-powered urban greening. Project Hasiru (Green Project), now online, enables citizens to reserve tree saplings, purchase at a subsidy up to 500 saplings of native, naturalised, and non-native species, and pick them up from any of seven city nurseries to plant in their gardens and neighbourhoods.  A mobile phone app for tech-savvy Bengaluru citizens is also under development.

Trees and clouds, September 2018 (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Will the billboards rise again like earlier, or will citizens reclaim the city and its trees for themselves? And yet, ads are still omnipresent. Spanning the cover pages of newspapers, filling radio and TV channels, crowding the pages of magazines, blipping into our phones, squirming into our email inbox, flashing on our browsers, plastered across airports and railway stations and bus stands, and occupying place after public place where they have no business to be. With the fall of the billboards, perhaps the day will come, too, when all commercial advertisements will be constrained within print and online catalogues, shopping malls and complexes, yellow pages and directories, where people who need them can find them and they don’t arrive unannounced and unsolicited to stare you in the face.

With the vinyl flex gone or hanging in shreds, Bengaluru’s billboards frame views of buildings and trees and open skies. Flyovers of pelican and cormorant flocks in formation sweep through the sky to nearby lakes. As black kites and crows perch on the billboards’ metal bars, clouds drift through the billboards, as do mynas and sparrows and parakeets flying to the trees behind. Now, rain trees and eucalypts, mango and jack, shades of lime and jade and emerald, flicker into view. A few branches even poke their way through the emptiness of the billboard.

As the billboards fall, the people and the trees rise into the world and open their arms.

This blog post is inspired by two very different books by two very different authors, one nonfiction and one fiction: Harini Nagendra‘s Nature in the City and Anuradha Roy‘s All the Lives We Never Lived. Our book Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats is available here.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/photo/9099858-the-idea-of-justice

The Idea of Justice: a review

This post just pulls in my review of Amartya Sen’s 2010 book The Idea of Justice, which I had originally posted on Goodreads in 2011 soon after I finished reading the book. It had picked up a few ‘likes’ but little discussion, so I thought I’d post it here again. I’ve added a few links for context.

The Idea of JusticeThe Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When an author as distinguished as Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in economics and acclaimed polymath and thinker, writes on the issue of justice, one expects great insight into an aspect central to human life and democracy. With more than 400 dense pages of text and footnotes, over 30 pages of notes, and a long preface, Sen’s book tries to take the reader through a labyrinth of ideas and literature from ancient times to modern days. Indeed, in proposing an approach that is philosophically and morally relevant to human freedom and capability, and that integrates well with modern views on democracy and openness, Sen makes a stalwart contribution to the literature of our times.

Sen’s essential thesis is simple. He sets up a contrast between two views of justice. The more paradigmatic traditional view, which Sen calls transcendental institutionalism, based on John Rawls‘s A Theory of Justice is set against a more realization-focused comparative approach developed by many thinkers and espoused by Sen himself. The former depends on a social contract among individuals that will ostensibly evolve in a hypothetical ‘original condition’ of impartiality where everyone is free of their vested interests due to a ‘veil of ignorance‘ that separates them from what they will be in the real world. This is then supposed to lead to two fundamental principles of justice (liberty, equality and equity) and determine the right institutions and rules governing justice, after which we are home and free on the road to perfect justice. In the latter view, Sen questions whether perfect justice is either attainable or required, and if creating institutions and rules are sufficient to see that justice is actually achieved in the real world. The answer, rather obviously, is no. We are mostly not interested in what perfect or ideal justice is in a given situation; mostly, what we have are two or more options that we need to assess to see which would be more just. Such assessment, should be based on reasoning, preferably public reasoning that is open, impartial, and democratic and leads to the best social choices and actual realization of justice among people in the real world. The contrast between the two concepts is also presented by Sen as the distinction between the concepts of niti and nyaya in Indian thought.

This overarching message of the book and the additional weight provided by someone like Sen in pushing it, is a valuable one. It suggests that in a world rife with problems and conflicts, citizens and the media have a more central role in engaging with issues, learning about them, reasoning publicly over diverse choices, and arriving at rational and better courses of action.

In the end, however, the book disappoints more than it edifies, it frustrates more than it clarifies. To be fair, this is not because Sen’s reasoning is defective or that the approach to justice he espouses in the book is vague or poorly reasoned. It fails partly because Sen is not really saying anything new in this book that he and others have not already said earlier. More important, Sen buries his simple and highly relevant thinking and his effort to pull ideas together under a cloud of pedantry and repetition. Only a diehard reader willing to suffer some poor, laboured writing in order to grasp some really rich ideas can plough through this book.

Does a man who knows so much about the economy of the world, know so little about the economy of words?

Early on, Sen describes the essential features of Rawls’s theory briefly, with the apology that

…every summary is ultimately an act of barbarism…

and his counter-view and reasoning. This, along with other related ideas on the importance of reason and impartiality, is then repeated many times (easily over a dozen times, but one loses count) throughout the book. Not only does Sen repeat the basic idea of justice (often in more or less the same words) in the text, he repeats himself in the extensive footnotes, and just in case you haven’t caught on, he obligingly marks in numerous additional footnotes that this same point was already made by him in an earlier chapter. It becomes rather more than a passing annoyance when he repeats his expression of what Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ means thrice in two paragraphs (pg. 197-8). If summaries are an act of barbarism, then how does one describe such verbiage: vandalism? To quote Sen himself (pg. 73):

Words have their significance but we must not become too imprisoned by them.

Or even better, if only Sen had heeded the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein quoted in the first sentence of the first chapter of his book:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

Reading Sen’s repetitive work, one feels for his editor, Stuart Profitt, who Sen says in the Acknowledgements made “invaluable comments and suggestions… almost on every page of every chapter”, mentioning his “relief” at the end of this book, which we come to understand well. Still, one wishes Sen could have ‘Profitted’ more from the editing. Sorely tempted, at the end of the 400+ page book to commit a barbaric act myself, I summarised his tome into a single sentence:

John Rawls’s theory that perfect justice can be derived by creating the right institutions and rules based on principled social contracts among people in a hypothetical original condition where everyone is ignorant of what they will be in the real world, is untenable; instead, the idea of justice requires open, impartial, and public reasoning to arrive at more just and democratic solutions through social choices made by comparing actual available alternatives, while being mindful of process and outcome on people in the real world.

Three other aspects I found wanting in this book are (a) the lack of discussion of real cases and choices on burning issues of justice, (b) the paucity of discussion on how his idea of justice naturally translates into important consequences for debates on global environment (e.g., climate change, wildlife conservation issues), and (c) his rather limited use of Asian philosophy, literature, and ideas. A few lines about each of these below.

Sen makes passing mention of some real cases: a line about the Iraq war and the role of the US (which he calls “this country”, on pg. 71, giving away the readership he seems to be writing for), mentions of famines, the French Revolution, and rights of women and slavery. There is some empirical data and discussion on famine in Chapter 16, but again based on old material he has covered in his 1981 book Poverty and famines. When Sen does discuss a case in greater depth, it is rather frivolous invented examples, about personal freedom and choices when sitting on seats in airplanes, or three children and a flute. These are alright to introduce the nuances of choice in justice, but in all this mad, chaotic world could Sen really find no real cases where the same dilemma for justice is present? He talks so much about realization and consequence in the real world, but the real world of cases is strangely absent in his own book. Real injustice and the failure of institutions could be well illustrated and discussed in many cases: for example, the Bhopal tragedy, the Holocaust, or the case of global climate change.

My greatest disappointment with the book was, however, more personal. As someone interested in the environment conservation movement—including issues of global justice, social choices and sustainability, and the expansion of human ethical horizons to include nature and the interests of animals—I expected more from this book than I perhaps should have, given that it is, ultimately, written by a Harvard economist. Sen deals with sustainable development and the environment in a little over 4 pages (pg. 248-252), bringing mainly two points to the fore. One, that development should not be seen as antagonistic to environment as it could lead to benefits, for instance through empowerment, female education and reduction in fertility rates. Second, that conservation can be based on our sense of values and our freedom and capability to hold and pursue those values is sufficient substantive reason to pursue conservation goals: a sort of freedom to conserve, indeed.

When Sen speaks of social choices, rationality, and other aspects of people such as sympathy and sharing, he seems oblivious, at least in this book, about the rich literature in anthropology and biology (including evolution and animal behaviour and psychology), and ethics (including environmental ethics and animal rights). Arguably, these have more contemporary relevance to the issue than Adam Smith‘s early and other economists’s recent speculations, uninformed by biology and anthropology, on these matters. The ideas of various thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Nagel, Adam Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft, have been discussed extensively in the light of recent scientific research on human and primate behaviour, and moral philosophers have extended the ethical principles underlying human rights to issues of animal welfare and rights and environmental conservation. These are relevant, but missing, in the otherwise valuable chapters ‘Rationality and Other People’, ‘Human Rights and Global Imperatives’, and ‘Justice and the World’. This may seem harsh, but until Sen can integrate these views of economics and justice with the stellar advances in fields of biology, anthropology, animal behaviour, and moral philosophy, he remains, not a polymath as some have called him, but like most other economists, mostly a ‘math’.

Finally, Sen brings Asian philosophy to bear rather sparingly in the book. This includes, besides the niti-nyaya gradient, description of some essential ideas from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the famous debate between Krishna and Arjuna on duty and consequence in the Bhagavad Gita episode of the Mahabharata, about Akbar and Ashoka, and sound bytes from the Buddhist sutta nipata. That’s it? That’s all that thousands of years and billions of people have to contribute to the idea of justice? Or is this a deliberate choice by the author to keep the focus on the John Rawls and Kenneth Arrows of this world? I can’t really tell.

In sum, this is an important book for the core idea it contains. For those who don’t wish to wade through the whole book, four chapters are still worth reading that present the essentials: the Introduction, Chapter 4 on ‘Voice and Social Choice’, Chapter 11 on ‘Lives, Freedoms, and Capabilities’, and Chapter 15 on ‘Democracy as Public Reason’. There are some interesting books and literature cited in the bibliography that can lead one to a wider reading (e.g., Jonathan Glover, Barry Holden, Jon Elster). One wishes, however, that Sen will enlarge his view and shrink his text in his next offering.

So it goes.

View all my reviews

The mistletoe bird

It is one of those little plants that you hardly notice in the rainforest. It perches on tree branches, like a sea fan on a coral boulder, like a Christmas decoration. At a glance, it seems like another tassel of twigs and leaves emerging from the tree. But look closer and you see that its leaves are smaller and a paler green, tinged with coppery yellow, unlike the tree’s longer, parrot-green leaves. On the tree’s brown branch powdered with white lichen, the little plant arises out of a swollen bulb-like base, holding out dark brown twigs dusted with white spots, like chocolate sprinkled with sugar. Clusters of pinkish-red berries and buds line the smaller plant’s twigs, on the tree bereft of fruit or bud.

The clutch of leaves, berries, and flowers are on the tree, but are not of the tree itself. The little plant is an epiphyte: a plant that grows on other plants. It is a mistletoe.

In the company of mistletoes lives an unassuming little bird that you hardly notice in the rainforest. A tiny bird, small enough to hide behind a leaf or to hold in a closed fist, and drab enough to escape the attention of anyone but an ardent birdwatcher. An undistinguished little bird, dull olive brown above, rather dingy white below, with sharp eyes, glinting dark and attentive, and a sharp beak, gently curved to a point to poke among the flowers. A metallic, fidgety tick-tick-tick call announces her presence as she darts through the boughs. You have to be quick to spot her before she disappears. In keeping with her modest appearance, birdwatchers call this species the plain flowerpecker.

Plain flowerpecker Dampa DSCN3938

Small enough to hide behind a leaf, a Plain Flowerpecker, in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram

I’ve traveled far from my home in the mountains of the Western Ghats in southern India to see this flowerpecker. And not just any plain flowerpecker, but a particular one: a bird flitting among the mistletoes on the same trees where I had seen the species two decades earlier. I am seated on the steps of the Dampatlang watchtower in Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram, northeast India. Twenty years ago, I had spent many quiet, contented hours watching birds around me from the same steps while camping here for fieldwork. To the south, steep cliffs plunge to Tuichar valley. An evergreen forest with many trees adorned with mistletoes surrounds me on three sides.

Alongside the watchtower grow two small orange trees and a straggling Holmskioldia holding bunches of scarlet cup-and-saucer blooms. Against the wild forest backdrop, the planted orange and cup-and-saucer plant marked what seemed a very human temperament to cultivate and ornament the lands we live in.

PbFlowerpecker DSC 3272 crop

Pale-billed Flowerpecker with a fruit of the Singapore cherry Muntingia calabura in southern India.

Seated two stories high, I am almost eye-to-eye with the flowerpecker. The bird flits from branch to branch, dives into each mistletoe cluster, peeking, probing, seeking with eye and beak. Flowerpeckers remain closely tied to the mistletoes on the trees within their territories spanning a few hectares at most. The birds consume mistletoe flower nectar and fruits, but this is a two-way relationship. The plant, too, gains when the birds pollinate its flowers and disperse its seeds.

Many mistletoes have tube-like flowers that, when probed by a flowerpecker beak, part like a curtain or pop open furling the petals down and thrusting the stamens out to dust the bird’s head and face with pollen. After the bird sips the sugary nectar with a special tube-like tongue (who needs a straw when your tongue itself is rolled into one?) and flies over to probe other flowers of the same mistletoe species, some of the carried pollen may rub off on receptive female parts, triggering the latter plant’s reproduction.

Despite this penchant for flowers and the bird’s name itself, the flowerpecker remains, at heart, a fruit-lover. Mistletoes often have long and overlapping flowering and fruiting seasons so there is always food for a hungry flowerpecker to find. Ripe mistletoe fruit never fails to attract flowerpeckers.

Mistletoes represent a group of over 1300 plant species worldwide belonging to five families, chiefly the Families Loranthaceae and Viscaceae. As the latter name suggests, the fruits are viscid, the usually single seed surrounded by a sticky pulp, often enclosed in a rind-like peel.

The plain flowerpecker and its close cousin in southern India, the Nilgiri flowerpecker, manipulate mistletoe fruits in their beaks to gently squeeze the seed from the pulp. They swallow the sugary, nutritious pulp and wipe their bills on twigs to remove the sticky seed. If the flowerpecker swallows the fruit, the seed passes rapidly through the bird’s gut to be excreted out. To remove the still sticky seed, the birds wipe their rears on twigs or tree branches. In either case, these actions have the same result, which biologists call ‘directed dispersal’: the mistletoe seed gets planted where it is likely to germinate.

Nilgiri flowerpecker planting a mistletoe seed. Photos by Kalyan Varma (http://kalyanvarma.net).

Mistletoes are also partial parasites. They synthesize their own food through photosynthesis, but their special roots draw water and nutrients from the host tree on which they are perched. Extreme infestation of trees by mistletoes is rare in natural forests, occurring more often in degraded or managed forests and monoculture plantations. Still, foresters and others concerned with production of timber or fruits from trees sometimes call for mistletoes to be removed or eradicated.

Recent research suggests that this may be unwarranted. In forests, falling mistletoe leaves add vital nutrients to soil under the trees where they grow. Experimental removal of mistletoes causes a cascade of harmful impacts including declines in soil nutrients and populations of other species. Besides flowerpeckers, mistletoes sustain a large number of other species worldwide. The barbet-like tinkerbirds of Africa, the mistletoebird and honeyeaters of Australia, the sunbirds and white-eyes of Asia, mouse lemurs and sifakas of Madagascar, tyrant and silky flycatchers and colocolo opossums of the Americas, the eponymous mistle thrush of Europe, myriad insects and other creatures—all find food and spaces for hunting or nesting in mistletoes.

Plain flowerpecker with a mistletoe fruit in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram.

Back at the watchtower, I watch the feisty flowerpeckers defend their mistletoes, darting at intruders who entered their territories, chasing after them zipping between branches with rapid ticking calls. Fighting flowerpeckers have been known to fall to the ground while grappling fiercely with each other. One imagines their raging little hearts beating furiously, as they flay and peck at each other to defend what they perceive as their own.

Together, the flowerpecker and mistletoe epitomise an irreplaceable vitality of the forest.

An hour later, as I leave the watchtower, I sense that there is more to it than just a symbiotic evolutionary link between bird and mistletoe in a forest webbed with ecological connections. Perhaps, behind the gleam of that flowerpecker’s eye, there resides, too, a temperament to cultivate and protect what she consumes and an aesthetic to adorn the trees in her forest with the prettiest little plants she can find.

An edited version of this article appeared on 19 August 2017 on Scroll.in.

6 impossible things a coffee lover can do before breakfast

1. Wake up and smell the coffee. No, not the coffee brewing in your percolator or stove-top at home, this coffee has not been a bean yet. Far sweeter, heady, finer than jasmine, it suffuses the air all around, seeps into your lungs inside, bathes you in fragrance outside. It emerges, imperceptibly, from millions of soft, white-petaled flowers packed along the branches of waist-high bushes ranging all around you under the shade of rainforest trees. A week earlier and you would have barely seen the waiting green buds clustered at leaf axils, a week later and the spent blooms would have wilted away. You arrive on exactly the right morning, a week after the first rains of summer, at the tropical coffee plantation in glorious, copious, synchronous bloom.

Coffee Flowers

Arabica coffee in bloom. By Marcelo Corrêa (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Listen to the morning buzz. No, this is not the artificial twitter of virtual voices flickering out of your phone or computer screens. This is the real thing: the morning chorus of birds carrying the sibilant twitter of sunbirds and white-eyes, alongside the clarion clang of racket-tailed drongos, the rhythmic metronome of barbets, and the raucous cries of great hornbills. All around sounds the delicate, pervasive hum of pollinating bees—small stingless bees, striped honey bees, giant rock bees—all living up to their clade name, anthophila, the flower lovers. Dip into the flower, sip the nectar, shrink and become the bee.

Rock bee in the Anamalai Hills

Rock bee (Apis dorsata) hive on a rainforest shade tree above a coffee estate in the Anamalai hills. By T R Shankar Raman [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Share and savour a bole of fruit. The jackfruit, like disfigured, spiky footballs, hang heavy from the knobbly bole of the shade tree. A macaque has eaten a monkey’s mouthful out of one, revealing oozy white latex and pulpy yellow innards. Now, the leaves shiver behind a leaping red-black blur. Cream-faced, tuft-eared, bushy-tailed, the giant squirrel soft-lands on branch, scurries to bole. Hanging by his hind feet, he pulls a marble-sized seed wrapped in pulpy flesh to his mouth. Later the fruit could fall or be yanked down by a hungry elephant. Take a bite yourself. Savour the fruit of giants.

Jack fruit tree AJT Johnsingh DSCN2331

Jackfruit tree in copious fruiting. By A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ratufa indica and jack fruit

A pair of giant squirrels tearing away at jackfruit. By Chinmayisk [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Eyeball the headlines. Look up the news: for instance, about yesterday’s gathering of eminent area residents at the annual jack feast. Parallel furrows on tree bark show Sambar had stripped off a snack, just before Elephant came by after her mud bath and rubbed herself on the trunk. By night, Civet came for the rainforest fruit platter, placed a seed-studded scat on a rock as his mark of approval. Porcupine left a quill behind, unexplained. You can only surmise what the writers on this landscape are up to, or mean, by the marks they leave behind.

Indian crested porcupine

Indian crested porcupine. By Harsha Jayaramaiah [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

5. Clean up after. A tiny bird, small enough to hold in your fist, shows you how. The flowerpecker flits above among the mistletoes adorning tree branches like Christmas decorations. With his beak, the bird pinches the mistletoe fruit, sticky to touch, to pop the seed and wipe it off on a twig. Or he swallows it and will later have to wipe the goopy seed off his butt on a twig where the seed will grow into a future mistletoe. Biologists call this directed dispersal, but there’s something even more admirable in what the little fella does that you could emulate: don’t just wipe stuff off, regenerate what you consume.

Nilgiri flowerpecker planting a mistletoe seed. Photos by Kalyan Varma (http://kalyanvarma.net).

6. Read the coffee grounds. Open all your senses, sip your brew now: imbibe a little of the land of elephant and hornbill and civet in India, or the land of tamandua and toucan and coati in Costa Rica, or whichever tropical place made your coffee. (You didn’t think you made it yourself, did you?) Look in the cup, imagine a future where you will cherish and feel connected to lives and lands so impossibly wonderful wherever they are.

Ltm panorama highres

A lion-tailed macaque looks out from a rainforest tree over coffee plantations and forests in the Anamalai hills. By T. R. Shankar Raman [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Conversation biology: eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

In a recent email exchange with a journalist I greatly respect, I wrote:

I am personally ashamed at how little we (as scientists) have done to either study carefully or explain the issues or even share our experiences in the public domain. The op-ed was just my small attempt to get some of those thoughts out for public discussion and criticism.

The op-ed I referred to was titled The Culling Fields. In it, I wrote about the recent notifications issued by the Central government and some states in India to list certain wildlife species—nilgai antelope, wild pig, and rhesus macaque—as ‘Vermin’ under the Wildlife Protection Act. The notifications were spurred by a belief that populations of these animals had boomed and were responsible for serious damage to crops in rural areas, coupled with a perceived lack of better management options for what has been labeled ‘human – wildlife conflict’ involving these species.

Moving species that earlier received protection in the Wildlife Act into its Schedule V (V as in five, for V as in Vermin!) allows anyone to kill those species in the respective states. Already, hundreds of animals have been killed by shooters, often from other states, in a manner that has no scientific basis, design, or monitoring. Videos also suggest a distressing lack of attention to basic humane norms to prevent animal suffering (see this IndiaTV video episode around 0:55 – 0:60 and 1:30). This is no scientific ‘culling’ or research-based wildlife population management. This desperate measure unleashed on unsuspecting animals is simply slaughter.

As a debate on culling emerged, I wrote about why the ongoing killing may not just be the wrong answer to the conservation issue, but a consequence of framing the wrong question. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, or what Sindhu Radhakrishna and I wrote in another piece, here. Nor do I intend to respond here to other articles or the few thoughtful demurring responses I received from people who had written in support of culling. Nor is this the place to discuss why widespread killing of wildlife in other countries, such as coyotes in the US, for example, makes little sense and is evidently less effective than non-lethal methods.

What I would like to do here is talk about another concern: the silence of scientists. Why have scientists in India—particularly conservation biologists and social scientists—for whom human – wildlife conflict is today a major area of research, hardly joined in the discussion to support or rebut or provide nuanced perspectives on culling as a solution? Leave alone participating in the debate, scientists are hardly even part of the backdrop.

As expected, the space is then taken up by well-meaning animal welfare groups and activists, who adopt a more immediate task of resistance, alongside the task of questioning. When activists in India queried the states where culling was allowed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) on whether the culls were based on scientific research studies, they learned that the orders were not based on any scientific studies. When the central government was asked, under RTI, how culling could be permitted without scientific studies, the activists were informed that no new research was required on the issue of conflict. Even with culling underway, questions asked on whether there was any monitoring of number of animals being culled, elicited only this response from the central Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change:

No such information available in the Ministry.

All this should have a sobering effect on the dozens of scientists and students I know across the country (and possibly many more that I don’t) who have spent months and years in the field studying human – wildlife interactions including conflicts. Some of them have spent years engaged in scientific research and efforts to reduce conflicts, often successfully, by working with local people and forest departments. My own work in this field has been relatively minuscule, but I have tried to keep up with the research and approaches to conflict mitigation because they have a direct bearing on wildlife conservation and human welfare. And yet, many of us have hardly spoken up in public to share our learnings to inform or influence policy, practice, and public opinion. One environmental journalist went a step further in analyzing this and wrote that perhaps wildlife conservation scientists don’t really care:

…while the animal welfare lobby has been quick to cry foul, there has been an ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community. This is where the wildlife scientists must step up to the challenge. The truth is that most wildlife biologists would rather spend their time doing pure science, that is studying species deep in the forest and learning new aspects of their behaviour. There is no charm in ‘managing’ human-animal problems. It’s also true that since most of the animals listed are not endangered, most conservation biologists have little or no concern in saving them.

I disagree with much of what that says and the way it is said: the pigeonholing of people who may have real concerns on animal welfare into a “lobby”, the oversight that many wildlife scientists now work outside reserves and in human-use landscapes, and the failure to note a growing scientific concern over common species as much as the rare and endangered. But what I do agree with is what the writer calls the “ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community” (leaving aside my personal opinion that those concerned with animal welfare are part of the same community).

Why are the scientists silent? And why is it important to ask this question? Not because science and scientists are infallible or represent the sole arbiters of truth—or other absurd claims on those lines. Not because I believe that science should form the bedrock of policy and governance—there are other aspects of society, politics, and asymmetries of power at play that are probably equally or more relevant. It is because one can envision a supportive role for reasoning—public reasoning—within the framework of any democracy. For citizens of a democracy facing various complex and shared problems that have no single or simple cause or solution, an atmosphere of open reasoning presents various possibilities, ideas, and information, and has the potential to cultivate collective—yet diverse and evolving—consciousness, attitudes, and actions.

I believe this is a discussion worth having because this is not the only issue in which the silence of scientists, including myself, rings louder than the gunshots.

So here are my “eight reasons I am a silent scientist”. These are reasons I have said out loud, just given myself, or heard expressed by colleagues. Instead of expanding on each, I am just going to toss this list out there with a brief line each, hoping that it will provoke you to go right down to the comments box and

  • add your voice and thoughts in the comments to say yay or nay or go take a f.f.a.a.r.d. (Vonnegut 1969) OR
  • add other reasons in your comments that I’m sure I’ve missed in this post.

Eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

1. My research does not address the relevant issues and places

This could be read as a polite way of saying I don’t really care or This doesn’t concern me as it ain’t in my backyard. Still, I wonder, if we study or teach population theory or political ecology or ungulate habitat use somewhere else, say, is it really irrelevant to the issue?

2. I don’t have enough data—my study is not good enough—to say anything yet

Don’t we love this one? Read it as you will, as humblebrag or a noble call to arms issued to one’s peers. But how many of us have not slipped this in at the end of our papers: we need more research?

3. I cannot make statements given the scientific uncertainties

All research is beset with some level of uncertainty. But isn’t dealing with, and reducing, uncertainty integral to science? Climate scientists have led by example on how to acknowledge uncertainty while communicating scientific findings and advances. But are we as conservation scientists content, instead, to say we need even more research until the level of uncertainty becomes acceptably low before we speak up?

4. All I have to say, I say in my peer-reviewed papers and technical reports

In other words, I’d rather not write or speak in public. As something I am culpable of and sympathise with in others, this raises the issue of access to our scientific findings. What have we done to make our research findings, data, publications more openly and publicly accessible?

5. I have spoken up—in government committees that I am a member in

Why bother with the messy and contentious public domain, when I can pick up the phone and call an influential person, a politician or government officer perhaps, or sit on a powerful committee and tell them that this is what science says must be done? (Of course, I asked for the minutes of the meeting to be made public, its not my fault that they haven’t been transparent about it.)

6. It is time to hear other voices, other world views

This one has a lot going for it, if it means actually shutting up in order to listen to other voices, especially of people affected by wildlife. Yet, complete silence on our part could be a lost opportunity for a conversation, for a dialogue or discourse, to share what we have done, learned, and what science, warts-and-all, has to reveal. This could, however, simply degenerate into Let them vent their problems, although they really don’t know what they are talking about, better listen to me instead.

7. This is not about science, it is about politics

A dirty business plagued by environmental illiteracy, corruption, and cronyism, isn’t that what politics and politicians are all about? Heck, if it was about inter-departmental wrangling, squabbling for funds and tenure, or seeking credit over other scientists and institutions, I am an expert on politics. But this is  real world politics in India’s villages, towns, and cities. So let me not say anything to reveal any more of my ignorance.

8. I am a scientist, not an advocate or, heaven forbid, an activist

The tension between science and advocacy persists in conservation biology, with at least one case of an editor-in-chief of a leading conservation journal being ousted due to her position on “removing advocacy statements from research papers”. Yet, if one reads advocacy as giving voice to the voiceless aren’t conservation scientists committed to conservation by default? And if action and resistance can be achieved through non-violence, can inaction perpetrate violence or perpetuate oppression? I don’t want to be an activist, but what does that make me: an inactivist?

What Aldo Leopold wrote in the Round River is  probably as true of science as it is of the ‘harmony with the land’ he wrote about:

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.

 References Cited

Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

A weekend in Lake Tahoe

Carved by glaciers, filled by snow melt and cool creeks of clear water, the crystal lake is bluer than the sky itself. Ensconced by a ring of rugged ridges, some softened by blankets of snow, the lake seems separated from the rest of the world. It gazes at the heavens like an unblinking but shimmering, sparkling eye. From a distance, the bristling conifers on the surrounding slopes—Jeffrey pine, lodgepole pine, western white pine, incense cedar, and white fir—seem as gentle as eyelashes, the crestline of the mountains becomes the ridge of the eyebrow, and the folded ranges rolling away into the grey-blue distance become a forehead, furrowed in thought. On the skyward face of the Sierra Nevada, alongside more than 25,000 hectares of forest, alpine meadows, and granitic rocks in the Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe shines in the sun.

Lake tahoe map

Lake Tahoe looking at space (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On Memorial Day weekend, the metaphor can only go so far. What do I make of the white wakes of boats, the stream of cars, the sibilant rush of tyres on steely tarmac, and the pressing throng of several thousand people, bikers, dogs, and ourselves? All spattered over Tahoe’s eye, like scratches and smoke and pieces of grit? At the edge of the wilderness and the lake, I now stand, perplexed for a moment, reflecting on my own metaphor.

Cyanocitta stelleri -Emerald Bay, El Dorado County, California, USA-8

Steller’s Jay; by Wolfgang Krause (Picasa Web Albums) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From the branches of a nearby pine, a Steller’s jay with its dark wedge of a head laughs—a staccato, rasping laugh—before his feathery blue shape plunges into the woods.

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It is a bright, clear day over Lake Tahoe, as we head out from the rented house where we stayed the night, and the tops of the trees are touched gold by rays of morning sun. High above everyone, a lone osprey wings his way with purpose—across the open sky towards the lake.

Osprey In Flight By Carole Robertson

Osprey in flight; by Mandcrobertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At a trailhead near South Lake Tahoe, my brother and I enter Desolation Wilderness. I am astonished at the crowd of weekend visitors on foot, although there seems to be fewer people here than by the lake itself. Unlike around the lake, there are no roads in the wilderness reserve, and none are permitted to be established, so one can only enter on foot for hiking or camping. Yet, as a board placed at the trailhead declares, Desolation Wilderness receives more visitors on a per acre basis than any other American wilderness. A sheaf of entry permits hangs on the same board—voluntary permit forms that we fill out with our details, drop into an attached box, before going on.

Wilson's Warbler - Wilsonia pusilla

Wilson’s Warbler; by Linda Tanner (Flickr: Wilson’s Warbler) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We take a short, slow walk on the trail winding through scattered shrubbery, punctuated by taller conifers, and threaded by dense vegetation along the streams. From a shrub, a western wood pewee, a brown flycatcher-like bird, flits out after an insect and loops back to his perch. A Wilson’s warbler, smaller than my fist, his face a heart-stopping flash of gold, energetically gleans insects off the leaves. On the trail, sprightly and shrill squirrels dart aside for us while, overhead, sleek and handsome violet-green swallows scythe through the air. Further ahead, at a little creek, in shimmering sun-flecks under the quivering leaves of an aspen, I bend to the stream, cup cold, clear water in my hands, drink deep, and stand up, refreshed.

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In its high glacier-scoured valley, Lake Tahoe sits at the edge of myriad lines. Fault lines form a great ‘V’, whose arms open to the north encompassing the lake, and are flanked by mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Carson range to the east. Other invisible lines, too, slice the landscape: climatic lines-in-the-air, edaphic lines-in-the-earth, the lines defined only on maps and in human perception, where bristly conifers yield to sparse sagebrush, where California becomes Nevada, and valleys of silicon give way to basins of sand. Beneath all runs a deeper line, impressed in the human mind, which many visitors imagine they cross, when they leave the city and suburbs behind, for a spell outdoors in nature, for a trip into the wilderness.

Lake Tahoe, with a surface area of 50,000 hectares, is the largest of the Sierra lakes, 35 kilometres long, about 16 kilometres wide, and upto half a kilometre deep. More than a hundred years ago in The Mountains of California, John Muir—writer, naturalist, and an early proponent of wilderness preservation whom Bill McKibben has called an “American mystic”—evocatively described the landscape and waters of Lake Tahoe.

Its forested shores go curving in and out and around many an emerald bay and pine-crowned promontory, and its waters are everywhere as keenly pure as any to be found among the highest mountains. ~John Muir

Golden Hour at Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe Image: © Frank Schulenburg via Wikimedia Commons

On the map, Lake Tahoe nestles alongside the great tract, lying to the southwest, of over 25,000 hectares of sub-alpine and alpine forest, lakes, and meadows, and high peaks in the Desolation Wilderness. The wilderness areas in the United States were created following the enactment of the landmark legislation in 1964, the Wilderness Act. The Act defined a wilderness as an

…area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…

Under the Act, a wilderness was also envisaged as an area

…which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of  man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…

Desolation itself was designated by the US Congress in 1969, from an area that was part of Lake Tahoe Forest Reserve established seventy years earlier. Not long after John Muir’s book was published, tourists were already visiting the area, which became part of the Eldorado National Forest in 1910, and later notified as Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1931 before it was inducted into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Despite its rather forbidding name, or, perhaps, because of it, Desolation Wilderness now manages to entice well over a hundred thousand visitors every year. As a place for more routine recreation rather than wilderness tourism in the same landscape, Lake Tahoe receives, every year, around three million.

Like elsewhere, the history of human presence and use in the Tahoe Basin landscape is longer than the history of preservation efforts. The Washoe lived, hunted, and fished here for over 8000 years, leaving a smaller imprint on the land than what came later. A little over a century before the wilderness legislation, human impact on the landscape escalated with the discovery, in 1859, of silver ore in the famous Comstock Lode. In the ensuing ‘silver-rush’ and mining boom, ground was broken for trails, railroads, and roads through the mountains, and the demand for timber spurred logging in the Tahoe Basin.

Kingp050

Comstock Lode, c. 1870; via Wikimedia Commons

Old-growth forest area in the basin soon declined by two-thirds and, as logging continued into the twentieth century, plummeted further, until less than two percent remained. The legacy of logging is still marked on the land, and the forests—now with fewer large trees, more pines, and an altered fire regime—are still changing.

And yet, it is possible to imagine something different. Ascending the grand Sierra, one feels a certain exhilaration, like finding beauty untempered by loss. Scaling a high pass down to South Lake Tahoe, turning off the road into Pioneer Trail, one can imagine a frontier landscape that early visitors, forerunners of others to come, came to explore. One imagines miners prospecting for ore, riders seeking land, timber, or game, or even thieving raiders of the wild west escaping the law—outlaws riding into the outback with rangers on their tail. One imagines a time when people left the urban and the suburban, the ranch and the farm—all of it—behind, and set out on expeditions into uncharted territory. Into wilderness. Desolation.

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The map of Lake Tahoe and its encircling forests bespeaks a different reality that is neither desolation nor wilderness. Everywhere, trails squiggle from trailhead to viewpoint, to alpine lakes and waterfalls, through logged coniferous forests and upland meadows, up rocky slopes to smooth ski-trails, or down ravines, past aspen-lined creeks, back to the lake. The tourist map carries a smattering of points to visit—to ratchet-up your been-there-done-that list—emerald bays, white beaches, silvery cascades—promising vistas that inspire, places that are heavenly. You can even reach Heavenly by gondola lift, ascending to the mountain-top ski resort on cable-car. There is a peppering of private property in the landscape—wood cabins with verandahs overlooking the lake, log houses tacked to wooden jetties where boats with oars and outboard motors are tied, homes fronted by the inevitable garage, the ubiquitous lawn.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day at Lake Tahoe, people are out in numbers. My brother, sister-in-law, a cousin and her husband, and myself are joined by my younger cousin sister and her fiancé, who have driven down from the university at Reno for the weekend. Together, we thread our way through walkers, cyclists, and vehicles to the lake. Everywhere, small plastic American flags flutter on windshields and bonnets, or taped to the spokes of bicycles, go spinning and spinning. Some of the people have cycled up, but most have carried cycles perched on bike racks on their cars and trucks. A few motorcyclists ride past, from bikers on humble, purring Yamahas, to the men mounted on growling Harley Davidsons—faceless people in helmets marked with fearsome stickers and logos, wearing black gloves and leather jackets, sometimes sleeveless, often tattooed. The walkers on steady march, in hiking boots and walking shoes, are outfitted in casuals, shorts, jackets, or outdoor clothes, their heads bare or covered by hats or baseball caps, their clothes of every colour from white to black to flourescent yellow and orange. On many shoulders are slung backpacks with rehydrating tubes leading to water bottles, from many ears emerge the wires of earphones connected to music players.

Then, seeming to outnumber and outpace the bikers and walkers, come the vehicles bearing names strangely reminscent of the pioneer years: cars. The roads thrum to the traffic of the Explorers, the 4Runners, the Outback riders, the Escapes, the Ascenders and Uplanders, the Rangers and Raiders, the Suburban Expedition adventurers. Cars. Cars in steely grey and flaming red. Cars in lake blue and sky blue and meadow green and moss green. Cars in brown and bronze and beige. Cars in passionate pink and pollen yellow. Cars in white and ivory and pitch black. Cars small enough to tuck in your legs and squat into, cars so large that you must haul yourself up like ascending a mountain with handrails. Cars that are trendy hybrids or gas guzzlers. Cars called trucks, called sedans, called SUVs, called cars. Cars with roofs open, retractable, convertible, closed. Cars with people, cars with attitude, cars with unassailable confidence. Cars. Cars. Cars.

Like a giant, colourful, wheeled millipede, the traffic crawls on the road along the lake. In favoured tourist spots, the rarest find is a space to park the car. We drive more than a mile, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, past the stationary millipede of parked vehicles, to find a space to park our own.

Yet, the few hours spent in casual birding in Lake Tahoe are enjoyable, yielding familiar birds and new species, some imprinted on memory. On the fens and fenceposts, flocks of red-winged blackbirds chatter and screech, their epaulets flaming on feathers black as an oil slick. In the trees, a male yellow-headed blackbird gleams, black mask and dagger beak on a sunflower yellow head and neck. On the lake, California gulls bob white and placid, alongside a couple of cantankerous mallard drakes. A tree swallow sweeps overhead, as a skein of Canada geese whips past, and flying even higher, a dark, slow raven rends the air with raucous cries. Later in the afternoon, as we head back to the car park, after seeing the sights, after the photos with lake and landscape as background, we see the osprey in the skies again—is it the same one?—carrying a glistening fish in its talons. Wings held wide, the bird bends its head to its feet to tear at the fish, apparently for a mid-air meal.

Our bird list hovers at around fifteen species, representing a dozen bird families. But the marques of cars seen exceeds twenty: Subaru, GMC, Dodge, Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Lexus, Acura, Hummer, Volkswagen, Audi, JEEP, Opel, Mitsubishi, Chrysler, Land Rover, Datsun, Scion, Chevrolet, Hyundai, and Volvo. And the species and shades of cars—from the tiny two doors to the hunkering Hummers, the Oldsmobiles to newsmobiles, the Corollas and Sequoias, the Jaguars and Mustangs—there was no way to keep count. One SUV is even named Tahoe.

U.S. Route 50 in South Lake Tahoe, California

Traffic and lights in South Lake Tahoe; by Constantine Kulikovsky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps, in our birding today, lost in our own distractions as we were, it is safer to assume that we missed many species. It is safer and more reassuring, because the alternative explanation—that on a pleasant weekend spent outdoors the species and races of cars outnumber the species and races of birds—is truly frightening.

Fifty years on, the legacy of the Wilderness Act still raises questions that deserve attention. Why does the Wilderness Act talk about opportunities for solitude or recreation when, in many areas, a person seeking the former in all likelihood will be interrupted by others pursuing the latter? What does it portend for recreation that is primitive and unconfined, when the ability to immerse oneself into such an experience, untrammeled as the wilderness, eludes most of us, benumbed passengers of a world careening in the opposite direction? Why does the Act insist that man must himself merely be a visitor who does not remain, when all land, forest, and air bears telling evidence to the contrary? Ultimately, too, whose standards of recreation are we to consider? Those of the Washoe Indians who lived here for millenia before the white man, those of the visionaries of the American wilderness system, or those of the ever-shifting throng of tourists at the entry gates among whom a form of recreation may be discovered by each person anew? And what of the other kind of tourism, hovering at the edge of the wilderness, in places like Lake Tahoe: when the desired experience of landscape is something that can be purchased, how does one value one’s place in nature?

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As the day wears on and we walk the trails skirting the lakeshore and adjoining slopes, I realise our time in Tahoe brings more than just rest or recreation. My younger cousin, tall and effervescent, describes her doctoral research on the ecology of birds in the high mountains of California, while her fiancé, a hydrologist, talks about the Tahoe basin and the mile-high cluster of sub-alpine lakes. From them, I learn that Lake Tahoe is among the most pellucid lakes, partly due to the low-nutrient soils on the surrounding slopes and consequent low nutrient loading into the lake. In the 1960s, one could see clearly up to a depth of nearly a hundred feet, but with pollution and sediment load from the surrounding developed areas and roads, water clarity and visibility declined to about sixty feet in recent years. They tell me that concerned citizens are now working to restore the lake and the surrounding watershed. The lake appears to be responding, too, and is slowly recovering the clearness of the past. On the roadside, they point to a stormwater drain installed to trap and filter the run-off that may otherwise find its way into the lake. My eyes follow the drain down the slope to the lake, seeing it, again, with renewed clarity. Among human efforts, ecological restoration appears to be that rare endeavour where the past can become a measure of progress.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe (15387213956)

By U.S. Geological Survey from Reston, VA, USA (Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We turn back to the house where we will stay the night. It might be the last night we will all get to spend together for a long while yet.

In the evening, the cars stream back to city and town, as people leave the wilderness behind for the urban and suburban, leave nature for office and home. Yet, the wilderness they leave behind will not sink into great desolation, and the home that lies ahead will not be disconnected from nature. The people have touched Tahoe and, perhaps, some have been touched by Tahoe, in return. Who knows how many found their solitude, or a primitive and unconfined recreation, or forged new connections with nature, or among themselves? And what, finally, is the real catalyst of it all, if not the landscape itself? For it is the lake and the wilderness, by their presence, accessibility, and grandeur, that drew each of us briefly outside the busy, self-contained cocoons of our lives. And yet, watching the departing vehicles and recalling the milling crowds, I cannot help thinking: catalysts are supposed to remain unchanged by the reactions they facilitate.

The envelope of night slips over the lake. The slithering roar of the highway subsides to muted shush of tyres. One can now stand on the slopes above the lake and the city of South Lake Tahoe, and look—look down at the sprinkling of lights in the landscape, glowing in boats and houses, beaming from streetlights and cars. To the sighing of wind in the pines, one can look at the lake and imagine the unflinching eye reflecting the light of stars.

Writing about the environment: a letter

Road to Perdition, a piece by Neha Sinha and myself published in the July issue of Fountain Ink, triggered a response from Aasheesh Pittie: a handwritten letter that he has posted here on his blog. Aasheesh critiques our piece for not being emphatic or dramatic enough, given the drastic, unprecedented, and barely-regulated assault on India’s environment now underway. He raises vital concerns on how we write about the environment and hoped his letter would begin a dialogue. In the spirit of taking the conversation ahead, here is the letter I wrote in response. Do read his letter first before reading on. And add your thoughts and comments!

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