Monthly Archives: January 2014

“Just a summary of things that I have heard over and over”

Last week I managed to finish writing another article about urban biodiversity – after struggling with it since last October. I had promised it to my young editor Akshat Rathi over at The Conversation ever since the CBO book launch at the UN. I don’t know why it took me so long to write a relatively short article on a topic near and dear to my heart and at the core of my research for over a decade, but I struggled with it and am glad Akshat persisted with me and nagged me to get it done.

The article, “Biodiversity can flourish on an urban planet“, went up on the site on January 23, and apparently has hit some sort of a nerve, because it has been republished a number of places and has been read by a number of people. I’ve received compliments for it on Facebook from friends and strangers, and have had others retweet it. The reader graph on the post really zoomed up once republished it on their front page, and generated a decent discussion thread.

The overall graph at The Conversation shows over 11,000 readers by this evening, which is both gratifying and a bit baffling to me. That is not a number of readers my writing has ever reached, I don’t think – certainly not in such short a time. This blog’s total hit count, since the day I started blogging here, is just over 7000!

On Friday, I even received an email from a philosophy professor at a well-known campus (and AAAS fellow too) with the subject line: “Fan mail“, expressing gratitude for a “well written and researched” article.

Then came another email from Akshat saying that my article was featured on The Economist’s website, under Dark Matter, their weekly wrap-up of “writing worth reading“. I was never expecting to find my writing featured there of all places.

The best reaction, though, came from my eldest daughter (who has contributed to this blog before). She raised a quizzical eyebrow at my excitement over the fan mail, and my post ending up on ArsTechnica and The Economist, and asked, “what’s the big deal? I’ve been hearing all this about urban biodiversity all my life!

Then she took to twitter with this:

Indeed she has heard it all her life… which started two weeks after I took up my first postdoctoral fellowship in urban ecology!

I’m just glad a few others are finally paying attention…


The humble auto-rickshaw gets a starring role in its own movie

As does the humble (or not so much) rickshawwallah. And what a lovely little animated movie it is, too, reminding me that sometimes you need foreign eyes to see the poignant beauty of everyday things in our mundane lives. Thus we have a European visitor, Xaver Xylophon, to thank for drawing and animating this day in the life:

The autorickshaw, of course, is no longer a part of my daily streetscape out here in California. Not that there aren’t days when I wish I could just walk over to the street corner and hop into one for a bumpy ride into campus. But I did get time to reacquaint myself with these three-wheeled beasts during the past year in India. Including in Bangalore where this film is set. Where I even saw, through their windshields and ducking my head out from the side, occasional Grey Hornbills and flocks of waterbirds flying low across the busy roads carving through the green spaces and lakes of that former Garden City.

I am old enough to remember when autorickshaws were new-fangled things in India, shiny little cars on three wheels that drove many a cycle-rickshaw-wallah out of business from the suburbs of Bombay and other larger metros, and into the narrower gullies of the less “developed” towns and cities. Just as their four-wheeled black-and-yellow cousins, the taxicabs, had driven horse-drawn tongas to extinction or a tourist curiosity a few years earlier.

Yet, contemplating peak oil and our post-carbon future, and picturing the fancier human-powered-rickshaws now running around in Europe’s old towns, I can’t help but think that the best days of the cycle-rickshaw may still lie ahead of us. For after all, we’re far from running out of human muscle power even as we deplete fossil fuel reserves. So the noxious black smoke spewing autorickshaw may not be long for our world, but the hard-barganing rickshaw-wallahs will sure continue to keep em running, held together by wire and spit as they may be, till the last possible ride.

And then may we come back to view this film with an extra touch of nostalgia…

Nelson Mandela and the long walk to reconciling humanity with nature

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. Somehow, it even caught the eye of the Ecological Society of America, which posted about it on their blog. Here’s my original version of the essay, before it was edited down for broadcast.

MandelaMonument sustainability quote

The iconic Nelson Mandela monument via Fr Lawrence Lew, OP on Flickr

With the passing of Nelson Mandela last month, we lost one of the strongest needles in humanity’s moral compass.

While many aspects of Mandela’s remarkable life are justly celebrated, one of the brightest moral beacons is surely his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After 27 years spent behind bars, the world would have understood, maybe even condoned him had he gone after his oppressors seeking retribution for the injustices he and his fellow black South Africans had suffered under the white rulers of apartheid.

Instead, Mandela chose the path of reconciliation, bringing victims and oppressors together in nationwide public hearings to air out the real stories of injustice. Subverting any desire for victor’s justice, he found ways to heal the nation without bloodshed. Someone who had once been labeled a terrorist for supporting the overthrow of an oppressive regime had found a way to not only forswear violence, but to actually forgive his own jailers and the other perpetrators of injustices against his people.

Perhaps even more remarkably, his people followed his leadership, and accepted the path of reconciliation to bring South Africa into the community of nations as a new kind of democracy and a leader in the so-called Dark Continent. Others have since set up their own Truth and Reconciliation commissions to deal with crimes and injustices in their countries.

While this process of seeking truth and reconciling formerly antagonistic parties shows remarkable promise to transform human society, can we extend the power of reconciliation to heal humanity’s deepening rift with Nature?

Ever since the industrial revolution, our relationship with Nature is marked by our increasing exploitation of resources in the interests of profit and prosperity for some members of our species. We have transformed the Earth’s very surface, ushering in a new geological era—the Anthropocene—and have pushed many other living beings to the brink of extinction, if not right over that cliff. Earth’s biodiversity has endured at least 5 other mass extinction events in its history, when various natural forces—from volcanoes to meteors—wiped out over 90% of the species. We, the industrial engine of the ongoing 6th mass extinction, are the first such planetary force to have a moral conscience capable of being troubled by what we wreak.

Even as we justify our actions in the name of economic growth or progress, our morality tells us that something is deeply wrong when they result in the ravaging of the planet, and the devastation of so much life. How can we reconcile our destructive acts with any morality that teaches us to respect life, and to be good stewards of the land for future generations?

Can we expand Mandela’s vision of reconciliation to offer ourselves a shot at redemption from Nature, just like he offered his oppressors? Unlike him, Nature is amoral and lacks any conscience to offer us a path at redemption. It is up to us, therefore, to recognize the consequences of our actions, admit our culpability, indeed guilt, in destroying Nature, and seek forgiveness—through actions which repair the damage we have done—if we are to ride out this Anthropocene extinction crisis with our civilization intact.

Mandela once said

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Nature, of course, is not our enemy, although we’ve been acting like all of Earth is enemy territory we must conquer. In 2003, speaking at the IUCN’s World Parks Congress in South Africa, Mandela also said

A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else.

Can we make peace with the Earth, start working with Nature and transform ourselves into her partner?

Even as many former supporters of apartheid and critics of Mandela turned around to celebrate his life last month, can we turn ourselves around as a civilization, to reconcile and rebuild our relationship with Nature? That would be the deepest, most meaningful way to expand Mandela’s legacy.

New beginnings at 22?

Its been an interesting sort of day, another one where I try to overcome my own writing block and find inspiration from a perhaps unlikely quarter. Well maybe not so unlikely after all… it is a story 22 years in the making.

I started the day rather late in the morning, with these words shared on my Facebook timeline:

“Twenty-two ellipses we have travelled around the sun together on this pale blue dot. Our new year always begins on January 2nd, ever since that cold Kolkata day when I donned that denim jacket to sign on the dotted line with Kaberi, her lips still pursed quizzically. Through thick and thin we have traveled together since, and I didn’t even notice that last year our marriage hit the legal drinking age! So let me raise an extra glass to you now Kaberi, and to us…”

A short while later, our two daughters (8 and 13) had us both sit down on the couch and presented us with this painting they had labored over the previous night:

22 years  Woah

With these words on the back:

22 years  gosh


Woah, indeed! And definitely something worth celebrating, given these remarkable children we have grown, how I do not quite know!

Its been a low sort of holiday break for us all, perhaps our bodies and minds telling us they needed a break after the intense year (2013) we have all had in our family (immediate and extended, back in India). I’ve shared some of what we did in previous posts and elsewhere online, hinted at some of the darkness that shadowed our sabbatical in India, and may yet write more about them… if I can get my writing mojo flowing again.

With both girls recovering from cold infections, and our bodies exhausted from finally setting up our new home over the holidays, we couldn’t even get ourselves up to do the thing we often try to do on our anniversaries: go for a hike. Heck, I haven’t even had the energy or motivation to make my customary annual greeting card yet! But when one is feeling so burnt out…

Meanwhile, other writing deadlines make baleful eyes at me as they loom ever closer, one coming up in a few hours!

But, instead, we simply gave in to lethargy, and, at the behest of our eldest, spent the afternoon/evening watching a marathon of season  1 of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series: The Newsroom. I am quite enjoying watching television shows with my teenager nowadays, trying to see some iconic shows from the past (e.g., Buffy…) through her eyes for the first time. And she had been wanting to catch up on The Newsroom for quite a while after having seen the first few episodes with me in India last summer.

So we blew through the second half of season 1 today, with the political and romantic intrigues building up to quite the climax. Our marathon was punctuated with pauses, some for me to explain to S the political and media critiques on the show and the historical context to events depicted, and some for S to exclaim in exasperation or joy, and explain to us grown-ups the finer points of the romantic entanglements of the protagonists of the show! I’m not sure I was anywhere nearly as savvy about politics or romance when I was 13! Certainly had not a shred of her passion for the world, and righteous anger at how grownups have screwed everything up.

As the show’s critique of Tea Party Republicanism rose to a crescendo through the series finale, S was literally hurling small objects around the room, livid at how short-sighted and stupid these politicians are, and how money has screwed up so much of our lives. Her passions spilled over into twitter, a medium relatively new to her, but one she is taking to quite naturally these days, engaging many of my more grown-up friends in serious discussions. I’ve tried to capture the passion in her twitter conversation in this storify.

Later, as I struggled to bring my focus back to writing the 500 words I need to submit by tomorrow, even as the rest of the family prepared for bed, S dashed off a rapid-fire 550 words on her tumblr blog, trying to distill her anger about the world and consider what might be done about it. Go read the whole post, but let me share an excerpt here:

It isn’t just hippy stuff, wanting a planet that can sustain life, wanting to put an end to useless death and hurt. These arethings that should matter to us more then money and power. We need a revolution. We need to take the Earth and land away from the ignorant and bad, and give it back to the good. And you know what? That isn’t hard to do. We need awareness. So go. Together we can put an end to the hopeless bitter war that is our world, and build a new one.

So, 22 years after starting this family, Kaberi and I have that most remarkable thing in our home: a teenage rebel with a passion for rebuilding the whole world! How and when did this happen? Where did we go right (or wrong) in our parenting?

Is my job as a parent done, now that we have a passionate, articulate, caring, strong young woman setting out to change the world? Or is it only just beginning now?

Before turning in, S had one more spark of inspiration, submitting this six-word science fiction short story in response to io9’s call:

The red grass grows on fresh graves.

This girl… where did she come from?