Monthly Archives: August 2013

“Fight for your world, not your country”

I came across this image via the Facebook page of God, TheGoodLordAbove himself! Not sure who created the image, but it resonates nicely with my recent musings about patriotism and national pride in India. What do you think?


PS: if you know the original source and creator of this image, please let me know as I would like to credit, and indeed thank them!

Is drought a natural disaster in a desert? Only if you’ve buried your head in the sands of the Cadillac Desert

Just saw this post by Tom Yulsman on Discover blogs:

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made an historic announcement today: It is cutting its water releases from Lake Powell to their lowest levels since the giant reservoir on the Colorado River began to fill in the 1960s.

Thanks to increasing demand for Colorado River water, and decreasing supply resulting from profound drought, Lake Powell has dropped to less than half full. To help slow the decline,  the Bureau of Reclamation will reduce the amount of water Lake Powell releases downstream toward Lake Mead in 2014 by almost 1 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is roughly the amount of water a U.S. household uses in a year.

But that means Lake Mead, the other giant hydrological savings bank on the river — and the supplier of 90 percent of the water used by Las Vegas — could be headed for even more serious trouble in coming years.

That prospect has prompted the water czar for southern Nevada to float the idea of asking for federal disaster assistance to cope with dwindling water supplies. Quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, compared the drought and its effects to Hurricane Sandy, which inundated large parts of the Northeast in fall of 2012:

“This is as much an extreme weather event as Sandy was on the East Coast. Does a drought not rise to the same level as a storm? The potential damage is just as bad.”

I started to write a comment there, found it turning rather long, so figured I might as well share my thoughts here.

This news should make it clearer that our mortgage payment on all the thoughtless and heedless development in the Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner’s evocative phrase) which is based on borrowing resources from nature without finding ways to replenish them, is now due (or overdue). And so we have to figure out a way to back out of the ongoing unsustainable development of cities and farms throughout the US southwest.

It is interesting to think of Vegas seeking federal disaster relief assistance to deal with this water crisis, although I’m not sure what federal dollars can do if the natural water supply itself is dwindling. What do those seeking federal assistance have in mind for the money they may get from taxpayers elsewhere? Is it for changing the landscape and nature of development to reduce water use, or to put in more/longer straws deeper down into the reservoir so we can suck it dry faster? Does this request for federal disaster relief funds also mean that we are acknowledging that Vegas itself (and other cities like it) is a man-made disaster, not this decade-long drought which is part of what happens in desert regions?

Yulsman also links to this time-lapse animation of satellite images from Google’s Earth Engine to show the dramatic growth of Las Vegas over the past 3 decades, mirrored (in a manner of speaking) in the shrinking waters of Lake Mead over the same time period. Here’s the last frame of this animation, from 2012:

Vegas Landsat timelapse 1024x558

Does that look like a natural disaster to you? Or more like the not-so-gradual unfolding of a man-made disaster? One that anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the ecology of the region should have anticipated, but no one in any position of power thought to stop or even slow down. And now, after a decade-long drought (which, in a desert, is a surprise to whom, exactly?), we are being asked to treat the completely foreseeable (Cadillac Desert was published in 1993!) water shortage as a natural disaster on par with Hurricane Sandy, and therefore deserving of federal assistance?

While some of the socioeconomic effects of droughts may be similar to those of storms, in as much as they inconvenience the conduct of business as usual, our response to drought cannot be the same because there are fundamental ecological differences between these natural phenomena. It is possible (if ill advised) to recover from storms and hurricanes by rebuilding infrastructure and houses, and to pick up the pieces. It is also possible to redesign those cities with architectural and engineering solutions that might increase resilience to future storms. Many civilizations/nations have managed to survive / thrive in hurricane-prone areas for long periods of time throughout history, because those disasters, while causing damage, do not fundamentally reduce the amount of natural resources available for our use; if anything the heavy rainfalls can actually enhance the fertility of the regions for agriculture. Prolonged droughts, which are characteristic of desert regions, on the other hand, have a tendency to wipe out civilizations that build up beyond their natural resource means. The very name of Phoenix, Vegas’ big brother to the east and rival to the affections of Colorado river water, is testimony to cities past that have crumbled in the desert.

Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, many smaller cities, as well as major farm areas like Imperial Valley, have all flourished over the past half a century owing largely to dams and canals and pipes that have allowed us to harness and redistribute water across the entire region in defiance of natural hydrological cycles. Did we really think we could get away with this forever without paying some cost? If we build cities and farms that consume more water than is naturally available (remember why these parts are called deserts!), it is inevitable that we will face such “disasters”, and once the rivers and aquifers are sucked dry, we won’t really have anywhere else to turn. The American Southwest is littered with archaeological sites that are testimony to such overreach by past civilizations which eventually bit the proverbial dust in these deserts.

We really have to face up to that long-term history and the ecological reality of living in and building a civilization in a desert region. There is no way to sustain any city in the long run if its water footprint exceeds the natural supply, however many straws we stick into the aquifers. Any long-term solution has to incorporate serious changes to the nature of development in the region, which must reduce water use and incorporate better ways to conserve water and try to replenish the aquifer instead of continuing to grow as these cities have been doing for some decades now.

I rather doubt that’s what they have in mind for the federal disaster relief dollars: a rethink and reorientation of the entire pattern of development in the region, with the goal of actually halting further growth and bringing our use of natural resources back in line with the natural rate of replenishment of those resources. If society intends federal disaster relief funds to mitigate the effects of such disasters and to try to prevent their recurrence, I have a humble suggestion for Las Vegas: use the funds to shut down or move the casinos and golf courses and other excessively thirsty unsustainable businesses (and the people working in those sectors) out of the area. That would be a good start towards avoiding future disasters, no?

On food, pollinators and what makes me scared (guest post by Maria Schewenius)

A long year ago and a few thousand miles away, I enjoyed my first lovely home-cooked Swedish meal in my then new friend Maria Schewenius’ flat, barely a week after I had flown there to start my sabbatical. Along with the moose patties and potatoes,

A traditional Swedish meal on Maria's balcony

A traditional Swedish meal on Maria’s balcony

the delicious meal Maria whipped up also included a salad featuring the freshest of tomatoes,


Fresh tomatoes growing on an urban balcony


Basil, fresh as it gets

Basil, fresh as it gets

and other herbs

Herb garden in the balcony

Container garden full of herbs

Herbs in the balcony

Herbs and flowers

grown organically right there on the relatively small balcony of her (4th floor, if I remember correctly) flat!

Maria is a young urban ecologist working with the Stockholm Resilience Center on a number of projects of global import, including the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (in which I played a small part) and URBES, among other things. As evident from the above photos, she is also an avid gardener, creatively making the most of the little open space and the few long days of summer sunshine available to her in the suburbs of Stockholm. Lovely flowers brighten up the containers which provide both beauty and food to this small scale urban farmer.

Edible blue flowers

Edible blue flowers

Flowerbed in the balcony

Flowers brighten up the balcony

Recently, though, she has had a personal realization of how much her little urban garden depends upon a larger network of species supported by the ecosystem of Stockholm, what we call ecosystem services in the jargon. Earlier today, she posted the following observation/lament on the apparent loss of an ecosystem service crucial to that supply of tomatoes which we enjoyed so heartily last summer.

My gracious hostess

My gracious hostess

On food, pollinators and what makes me scared:

A discovery and sudden realization yesterday made me terrified. My tomato plants, cocktail type according to the package, beef type according to the size the plants have actually grown to, have not only grown remarkably well since March but also been covered in pretty little yellow flowers for weeks. Now the flowers are falling off, and… nothing. Where little round tomatoes in abundance should now be emerging, weighing down the strong branches of the giant little plant, nothing appears.

Although the theoretical knowledge has been with me for years, it is the real experience, seeing with my own eyes, that truly makes me realize how fragile one of the most basic and vital of ecosystem functions is: pollination. Without honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies, which have been few and far between on my little balcony garden, my tiny scale food production system has crashed in the span of one single season. Suddenly I can start to imagine the potential effects of the global honeybee population decline, although it would be impossible to imagine the full effects if the pollinator system crashed – and I’m quite happy that it is.

As I am writing this, I glance at the gladiator of cocktail tomato plants next to me that with leisure nod along with the wind. One of the branches catches my eye: at its very end, well hidden beneath a labyrinth of leaves, three tiny pea-sized green tomatoes are emerging. There is hope.

Floral closeup

An urban floral closeup

“Where the mind is without fear…”?

Rabindranath Tagore’s hopes for India, from his Gitanjali

Today is India’s independence day, for 66 years ago the country freed itself from British rule, and for the first time actually became a nation, even as its people were torn asunder in one of the bloodiest, but somehow least talked about passages of violence in the history of the incredibly bloody 20th century. A nation whose history, for all its Gandhian non-violence, started in blood, and remains quite bloody with wars aflame both within and without. A nation that is a multitude of nations, where your identity starts with your language, your caste, your village, your region, yet one where a resurgent militant nationalism is being hammered into us from all directions on this independence day. I can hear the chants of Vande Mataram from the windows of my sister’s flat in Thane, where citizens of the housing society are milling about celebrating this independence day with a local flag hoisting and performances and competitions among local children.

Yes, it is Vande Mataram echoing through the windows, a chant that since its inception has been used by gatherings of people to “work themselves up into a patriotic fervour by shouting the slogan “Vande Mataram”, or “Hail to the Mother(land)!“, originally a challenge to “Hail to the Queen”! A chant that also started out as part of an invocation of Goddess Durga, and an expression of Bengali nationalism. Which is largely why the secular minded leadership of the Indian National Congress only accepted the first two verses as a national song, and eventually adopted Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana as the official national anthem. Tagore, who was one of the first to sing Vande Mataram in the context of the Indian freedom struggle, at the 1896 Calcutta Congress Session, later offered this nuanced critique of the song:

“The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram—proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating.”

And so Tagore’s song became the national anthem for a nation with secular aspirations, and remains a reminder of that legacy. Yet the spirit of its sibling national song seems to resonate more now in an India many of whose citizens seem eager to shed that cloak of secularism and embrace a more militant Hindu nationalism. Meanwhile the official national anthem too is used, in a manner Goebbels would have approved, to whip up patriotic fervor everywhere, from the cinema multiplex in Bombay’s malls to the television in our living rooms. It has been the law (intermittently) in some states to play the national anthem before every every movie screening, in between advertisements for dental hygiene products and the latest masala fare whipped up by B/T/H-ollywood. Recent versions are accompanied by über-jingoistic visuals that start with scenes of army jawans hoisting the flag in the snowy wastes of Siachen where far too many of them have also shed blood for far too little but nationalistic pride. And the expectation during these cinematic renderings of the anthem is that everyone in the audience stand up in respect, or be subject to abuse, even if they are not citizens of India. One has to wonder how effective this has been, however, given the ill-will and strife prevalent between different communities and regions within this nation.

Meanwhile, on the telly, this independence day started with speeches (from the Prime Minister on down) and parades designed to show off the nation’s military might. Never mind that today’s jingoistic military display came in the wake of a horrific tragedy last night when the fully armed torpedoes in an Indian navy submarine accidentally blew up in Bombay harbor killing 18 crew members. Not exactly the kind of fireworks that should have lit up the skies of south Bombay for independence day.

Independence day fireworks over Bombay harbor? Not exactly…

Interspersed among news coverage of the parades and last night’s tragedy, and “independence day special” broadcasts of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”, in between commercials for axe body spray and “red bull gives you wings”, even the telly exhorts us to stand up for the national anthem many times throughout the day. I wonder how many people actually stand up in their living rooms in front of the idiot box, welling with patriotic pride…

I can’t help but think we would have been much better off as a people, as citizens of a peaceful, inclusive republic, had we heeded the other thoughts Tagore had on the concept of nationalism, for instance in his speeches in America over a century ago:

In spite of our great difficulty, however, India has done something. She has tried to make an adjustment of races, to acknowledge the real differences between them where these exist, and yet seek for some basis of unity. This basis has come through our saints, like Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and others, preaching one God to all races of India.

In finding the solution of our problem we shall have helped to solve the world problem as well. What India has been, the whole world is now. The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.

He went on to add:

A parallelism exists between America and India – the parallelism of welding together into one body various races.

In my country, we have been seeking to find out something common to all races, which will prove their real unity. No nation looking for a mere political or commercial basis of unity will find such a solution sufficient. Men of thought and power will discover the spiritual unity, will realize it, and preach it.

India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

Alas, in the more than hundred years since he spoke these words, we have progressed, if anything, farther away from his ideals, and deeper into the slumber from which he hoped this nation of many nations would awake “into that heaven of freedom“:

WHERE THE mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Breathe, Gaia, Breathe!

Back in December 2012, I found myself mesmerized (and alarmed) by an animated visualization of the breathing of Earth’s biosphere. Mesmerized by the regular rhythm of the biosphere’s breath, and alarmed by what has been happening with rising CO2 levels from our activities. Now John Nelson has created a couple of new animated GIF visualizations of the annual rhythm of seasons on Earth, another mesmerizing vision that brings to mind the regular breathing or heartbeat of a child.

So, this friday, especially if you’ve had a tough work week, settle down in front of your screen, and focus on these two beautifully pulsating views of our lovely earth, this pale blue pulsing dot:

Click here to see the large version (1.4 MB), and here for the bonkers version (3.7 MB).

Click here to see the large version (3 MB), and here for the irrationally large version (8.9 MB).

On exploring the familiar and not taking nearby places for granted

Yosemite Tree MilkyWay

The Milky Way fights the rising dawn behind an ancient tree in Yosemite National Park. Photo credit: Shawn Reeder.

Nightfall in Yosemite! One of those images I wish I had made, to go with my recent post riffing off of Meera’s post on Asimov’s Nightfall

This image is one of thousands from Yosemite National Park seen through the lens of Shawn Reeder over a 2-year period, which he has stitched together into a remarkable time-lapse video showcasing that iconic national park in a range of light:

[vimeo 40802206]
Yosemite Range of Light from Shawn Reeder on Vimeo.

Watching videos like this one, or even images similar to ones in the video, I am filled with a mixture of wonder and longing and regret. That last for the fact that I’ve been living within a couple of hours’ drive away from Yosemite, but haven’t managed to really see as much of the place as I would like to, as I really should. For we live close enough to Yosemite that on those rare winter/spring days when rain has washed out the valley’s dirty air and strung it up to dry in the clear morning light, I can even see the tops of the park’s mountains right from our campus.

We go there periodically, of course, Kaberi and I with our girls, and often with friends visiting from out of town, because one of the ways to sell Fresno to outsiders is to tell them how close we are to Yosemite (and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks too)! So we visit every once in a while, have even camped out for several days on end, loving every minute of every trip there, and always coming back wondering why we don’t go more often! After all, back in college where I was into rock climbing, I dreamt of climbing in Yosemite while poring over pictures of El Capitan and Half Dome in books borrowed from the American Center Library in Bombay. Yet, now that I live so near the place, rock climbing itself has receded into a distant memory! Alas and alack!

So why don’t we go there more often?

Oh, we have our excuses: the exigencies of life on the tenure track at a teaching heavy institution, with young children, children too young at first for serious outdoor outings, then too busy with school and extra-curricular activities to find the time for even day-trips, and also, sometimes, often, the financial constraints of a single-salaried professorial life. Our weekends never seem free enough when school is in session, and we’re always trying to travel to more distant places during breaks, when we are done recovering from the exhaustion of the school year. Because, there is always that other thing, you know, where we keep thinking we can always go to Yosemite/Sequioa/Kings Canyon because they are right here, so nearby that we can go anytime, and therefore of course we end up not going there much at all. Familiarity / proximity breeding not contempt but a certain taking-for-grantedness of the sort which makes us neglect our loved ones until sometimes it is too late, and we are left with nothing but regret at opportunities lost, moments never enjoyed because we were too busy chasing distant mirages to notice the beauty so close to hand.

But really, how well do these mundane earthly excuses hold up against the transcendental magnificence of the mountains and the trees and the stars and the skies so within our reach, almost outside our doorstep? Can we not cut down / skip out occasionally on the seemingly all-weekend-consuming treadmills of grocery shopping/cleaning house/chores/grading papers/writing exams for us academic grownups, and soccer/waterpolo/dance/music/orchestra for our kids? Even as we share the growing lament for childhoods lost and alienated from nature, the so-called Nature Deficit Disorder, amid the over-scheduling of our children’s lives, and the hours they must spend poring over screens (for schoolwork as much as for edutainment), it is hard to free ourselves from the anxieties of modern parenthood, of the dread over their futures if they don’t have so many lines of extra-curricular activities, and leadership, and initiative, and engagement outside the classroom, to fill their little CVs so they can hope to qualify for the college of our dreams! Oh fuss and bother! Will they be OK if they don’t do all these extra things and fill their weekends and every waking moment with different structured activities to round out their broad educations and nurture all their talents?

But, will they be OK if they miss out on building a connection with nature instead? Will it really do them much harm if they give the old football game or orchestra performance a miss to instead go scramble up a boulder or splash through a stream or hug a giant tree? I daresay they will likely be all the better for having the taken the time to commune with this magnificent nature right here at our doorstep. Just as much as they have been better for missing school for an entire semester this year to travel (during my sabbatical) to the magnificently ruggedly austere landscapes of Spiti in the trans-Himalaya, for instance, among other places in India. They loved being in Spiti so much, despite being outside cellphone and internet range, these kids of the iPad age, that they didn’t even notice or mind when we got stuck in them mountain villages for an extra 10 days when roads got blocked after some heavy rains downstream (I wrote about it here and at The Nature of Cities). They were loath to leave Spiti then, and are now torn about returning to Fresno, to their much-missed friends, and the normal routines of school life there after months of travel and living out of suitcases.

This video, and others from Yosemite, though, have me thinking, resolving, that it won’t do for us to keep ignoring those mountains when we get back. My mother used to sneak us out of school occasionally, ostensibly for “family functions”, but really because she wanted to take us to a matinee showing of the latest Bollywood flick. Seems to me it would be well worth remembering that tactic, to pull our girls out of some of their weekend structured activities, and take them to Yosemite, and Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, and places in between, so they can get to know these places intimately, and remember them, and cherish them, and make them their own. I have shown them the milky way high up in the Himalaya. I want them to know that it is well within their reach closer to their home too.

Join us if you can, if you need a reason to visit Fresno: we’re right at the doorstep to Yosemite! And for those of you who are unable to make the trip, I hope the above video gives you enough glimpses of beauty.

And if the night seems to get too dark, here are Yosemite’s night skies:

[youtube ZhgR3zVfo-0]