Tag Archives: blogging

Instant Noodle Soup and Ecological Enlightenment on the Trans-Himalayan Urban Frontier

KeeGompa panoramic

I haven’t been posting much on this blog lately, and in case you’re wondering why, I had a good excuse. I spent most of June up in the trans-Himalayan desert, in Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India. I went up with my whole family at the impromptu invitation of old friends who have been working in the region for nearly 2 decades – it was a long-term dream come true for me and Kaberi! We drove up from Delhi, taking three days on the road to get there. Then we were supposed to stay for just about 10days before driving back. As it happened, while we were there, that awful intense monsoon storm hit Uttarakhand and the lower reaches of the Spiti-Sutlej valley. We only received some rain and an inch or two of unseasonal snowfall, with the snow melting away within hours. The larger storm battered the mountains below us quite heavily though, and all our exit roads got blocked. So we got stuck there for another 10 days… but how can anyone complain about being stuck in such a gorgeous landscape, with such lovely creatures for company?

I took the snow day to write one of the longer essays I’ve written lately, pondering the nature of urbanization, and how the global city now seemed to have no limits, having penetrated into the far reaches of the Himalaya, right here at the edge of the roof of the world. Where a monk at an ancient monastery (Kee Gompa, pictured above) offered this tourist a bowl of instant noodle soup! In turn triggering a contemplation of apparent lack of limits to the reach of urbanization on our planet, which is now posted up on The Nature of Cities blog where I am a contributor.

Have a read, and let me know what you think. What is your experience of the limits of urbanization? What is the smallest patch of urban habitat you have ever seen? What makes it urban?

War correspondence for The Nature of Cities

A few months ago, while attending the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Bombay, I met David Maddox of Sound Science, an organization he co-founded in 2004. David is an urban ecologist and conservationist who opted out of academia and is doing great things for urban conservation, adaptive management, and science communication. He recently put together a fine online portal for wide-ranging essays about nature in the city on this semi-urban planet of ours: The Nature of Cities blog. As David says though, this has already become rather more of a platform for longer-form essays about urban ecology than a typical blog – and that I think is a very fine thing thing. He has done an excellent job of bringing together a great (and still growing) group of writers from around the world—urban ecologists of every stripe from academics to activists, designers to planners to economists—who are sharing their insights and perspectives on what nature means in this urban world.

After some terrific discussions—including on a long bus ride where we sat together in the evening traffic winding our way past Dharavi to the Cricket Club of India for dinner—David invited me to join The Nature of Cities as a regular contributor. I am honored to be part of this collective through which David is curating a veritable archive of contemporary thought in urban ecology. Whether I bring anything of value to this conversation… well, you be the judge. My first contribution to the blog, where I don the hat of a frontier correspondent reporting about water use and abuse in Fresno based on my group’s research, went up this past Sunday. It is a much longer essay than my average blog post here, but worth your while, I hope. Allow me to lead you on with this teaser graphic:

Urban Water Use in the Cadillac Desert

Do leave a comment below the post (or here – but better there) if so moved. And don’t forget to bookmark / subscribe to The Nature of Cities!

ScienceOnline2012 in Review

Nice short video overview of the ScienceOnline2012 unconference I attended last january, just days before my life went into a turbulent period from which I am still recovering. I had several blog posts in mind to record my own experience at the meeting, and summarize the discussion in the un-session I was able to lead there. It is nice to see this video which reminds me of the warmth of that unconference, and jogs memories that should help me write those blog posts… just as soon as I’m done catching up with all the other more urgent scheisse that has piled up at work in my absence! In the meantime, enjoy this video, which even has my own hairy face on camera for a second, laughing at something Brian Malow, the Science Comedian said during lunch on the final day. Its only been a couple of months, but feels so long ago that I have to say: ah, the memories!

A ray of sunlight illuminates Half Dome, as an essay reminds conservationists of Yosemite’s history


On the all too rare mornings when the Central Valley’s dirty air has been cleansed by a winter storm—and before the Tule fog has set in—I find myself fortunate enough to be gazing out upon the snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my office window, my view bracketed by two amazing National Parks: King’s Canyon (with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the US) at the southern edge, and Yosemite to the north. As a hiker and rock-climber in my youth, I spent many hours poring over photographs of these places in books checked out of the American Center Library in Bombay. I dreamt of visiting Yosemite, a mecca for rock-climbers, imagined myself walking through the fantastic landscapes captured on film by Ansel Adams, feeling the granite under my fingers. Rock-climbing gave way to bird-watching as I grew into an ecologist and a conservation biologist, and Yosemite assumed even more significance as one of the holiest places in any conservation pilgrimage of the US, indeed the world. What a model for nature conservation this National Park was, is. How wonderful the wilderness I could picture in these places in the writings of John Muir and others. And how lucky I am now to be living so close to such places. When I gaze out at the mountains, or visit Yosemite as part of the throngs of millions that flood its beautiful valley every year, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like a century or two ago—a fantasy we all share, those of us who despair over the state of the natural world. In my dreams now, though, I don’t see it as a “pristine” wilderness untouched by humans, but a home to a community of native people, the Ahwahneechee who once thrived there, but whose existence has been sought to be erased from our collective memory and imagination, as a centerpiece of the still prevailing notion of a National Park as pristine wilderness, a place where human beings don’t belong (and therefore never did), except as visitors who may be allowed to look and to listen, but scarcely to touch anything.

This week, I am pleased to share with you an evocative essay by Eric Michael Johnson, reminding us of the human history of Yosemite, and of what we in the conservation community have lost in seeking to airbrush humans out of our imagination of what Nature is supposed to look like, “unspoilt”. We must reclaim that history too if we are to reconcile our existence on this planet—not apart from, but as active participants in, Nature. Eric’s guest post on my Reconciliation Ecology blog is part of  his Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or by following Eric on Twitter.


Dr. Vitelli has your latest Scientia Pro Publica # 47

It includes one of my contributions too. Check out the whole nice compilation:

Rc[1]Welcome, one and all, the the 47th edition of Scientia Pro Publica.  It is a special privilege for me to host this rotating carnival of the best science, medical, and environmental writing on the web and the lineup this time around is as strong as ever. 

On beauty, popularity, and what young girls may blog about

Earlier today, I posted a link on Facebook, urging people to vote for my young blogospheric friend Christie Wilcox, who blogs about science at Observations of a Nerd, and is in the final round of a student blogging competition for a $10,000 scholarship, where she needs all the votes she can get because the runaway leader of the online poll right now is someone who blogs about “beauty”, but really about make-up! Seriously!! How can that be so much more popular than science?!

A friend then commented saying one of their nieces blogs about make-up, and surely there is a niche for everyone, right? I agree, there should be room for everyone (and in the blogosphere, indeed, there is!), and I suppose there is a bigger market for make-up than for science, especially for girls. At least that’s what the vote on this scholarship indicates right now in a sad popularity contest (but do vote for Christie, as she could put the money to good use). Nevertheless, as a father of young girls, and a mentor to mostly female graduate students in my lab, I can’t help but feel that surely there are worthier things for them to write about! If you really want to write about beauty, think about what that really means – and it ain’t make-up!

So, for my daughters, my students, my blogger friend seeking votes in this popularity contest, and for my friend’s niece who blogs about make-up: allow me to share some inspiration from Katie Makkai, articulating what it means to be bound by the word “Pretty” (and, oh, unlike many commenters on this video on YouTube, I have opted to share the unedited “profane” version – so be warned ye who may take offense at a “dirty” word):

Our troubled relationship with water (Blog Action Day 2010)

How did we get here, in this parched state, fighting for and over something as basic as water, on this watery blue world? Isn’t water a basic element essential for all life, including humans? Like air? How and why have we lost sight of this fundamental truth?

At a late hour on this Blog Action Day 2010, as part of my keyboard action, I want to briefly explore some aspects of our (humanity’s) increasingly troubled relationship with this basic element. (ok, strictly speaking it is a compound, not an element, but you know what I mean here, right?). But first, here’s a brief video highlighting the need for more action on water issues.
One obvious reason people are now fighting over water, of course, is that we have more and more people living in places with limited if not dwindling freshwater supplies. It is remarkable that some of the fastest growing cities in the world (Las Vegas, for example) are located in the middle of the desert! (Did you know that?) Remarkably, people face acute shortages of safe drinking water even in far wetter places (Cherrapunji, anyone?), because we have on the one hand stripped bare the watersheds by chopping down formerly dense water-soaking forests, and on the other, failed to develop or deliver appropriate water harvesting / saving / distribution technologies to the poor people living there. Of course, when technology does find its way to such places, it is all too often laced with poison. Throw in changes in rainfall patterns due to global warming, and we’ve got a perfect storm of natural disasters compounded by limitless human stupidity to land us in this situation: we dig deep into aquifers or divert water from remote rivers to support megacities growing in the driest places, even as we neglect the small villages in the wettest places on earth! Gotta love that human ingenuity, for only our species could have conjured up such an unlikely paradoxical pickle in which to land ourselves.

What puzzles me even more is how we have fundamentally changed our relationship with water by turning it into a market commodity! Because that ultimate stupidity is what often lies behind water shortages in most places now. We (i.e., our governments, from Kerala to California to Bolivia) are letting corporations take control of our aquifers and watersheds, so that they can sell the water back to us in bottles and cans, with or without sugar’n’fizz, at exorbitant prices. There’s much profit in that, obviously. But supplying potable water and indoor plumbing to those villagers in Cherrapunji? Surely there can’t be much profit in that! Let them buy the bottles, if they can afford it. Such is the wisdom of the market, of course.

The same logic of the “free” market dictates that municipal water supply agencies be run like self-sustaining (if not for-profit) businesses. Thus do we end up with the paradox of places like Las Vegas, where water departments must, even as they encourage citizens to use less water, keep raising prices on the smaller amount of water they use in order to maintain revenues to keep the department viable in tough budgetary times. Incentivize people to save water by raising prices; see revenues drop as people listen to you and use less water; raise prices again to maintain revenues to keep up the water infrastructure; rinse and repeat! Until people revolt. Or, shrivel up, I suppose. Maybe that is the final solution – wean people completely off of water through this spiraling of costs so we have a dehydrated citizenry that doesn’t need water any more. What a tragicomedy of the commons…

Meanwhile, here in Fresno in the Great Central Valley of California, in one of the richest agricultural counties in this breadbasket of the arid west, we have a growing city that is only just beginning to meter water use! And they are doing it quite tentatively, with a non-tiered rate structure that may not be steep enough to discourage water use. Some of us who have already been trying to reduce water use (without any incentive from the city) may see our water bills go down from the current flat rate. I look forward to that! Yet it is also possible that some of my fellow citizens, upon seeing their bills get lower, may actually increase their water use because that new bill tells them they can use even more without busting their original budgets! So what’s the net result going to be? I hope to be able to tell you as we continue to monitor water use in this city.
It seems to me (non-economist that I am) that it is well nigh impossible to find any free-market solutions to these paradoxes, because it is inherently problematic to charge an industry that relies on profits from selling water to come up with ways to reduce the use of water! Can it really be done, from within this capitalist paradigm? Isn’t it time to reconsider this folly, and start treating water like the public good and human right it really should be? When even the rich societies of the global North / West refuse to invest public funds to ensure a safe and steady water supply for its citizens, what profit is there for corporations to provide such supplies to the poorer peoples of the world?

That surely is a fundamental disconnect in our increasingly troubled relationship with water.