Tag Archives: environment

Watching the biosphere as it breathes…

…watching the biosphere as it gasps for breath. As we fill the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide than all the photosynthetic organisms on earth—who alone know how to make the molecules of life out of dead COand sunlight—can handle. Carbon that was fixed by their ancestors and ours long ago, then dead and buried deep underground until we figured out how to pull it out of the bowels of the earth, and burn it to build this industrial civilization of ours. Civilization which is pouring all that ancient fossilized carbon back into the atmosphere in quantities that are too much for all those green plants and planktons to handle. So that the CO2 keeps rising in the air, trapping heat, warming the planet, melting glaciers and polar ice, causing the sea to rise more angrily into our coastal cities, churning up storms ever more vigorous and destructive… like the earth lashing out at us for making its biosphere, its baby, slowly suffocate.

Watch the biosphere breathe, because, for the first time, you actually can. See the rise and fall of carbon dioxide in an annual rhythm that is quite soothing to watch. NASA’s JPL has just released a fascinating, mesmerizing video (download it in HD) showing us the global biosphere breathing:


Watching the last part of that video, with the seasonal pulsing of the green and yellow alternately suffusing the surface of the earth, reminds me of the many hours I spent at night watching my daughters sleep when they were babies. The gentle rise and fall of their little chests, the soothing soft sound of breath in, breath out. There is nothing quite as calming as watching a baby breathe as she sleeps. Or watching the entire biosphere breathe as it lives, throughout the year.

But this video is far from calming if you remember the first half. That graph of the annual pulse of CO2, climbing up in the winter, down in the summer, up in the winter, down in the summer, but lately arcing upwards overall, with a rising amount of CO2 in the air. Remember that graph? It is telling us we are adding too much CO2 for the biosphere to handle. A few years ago, we were still hoping to keep CO2 below 350ppm (parts per million). We urged our governments to do something, anything, to keep levels below 350ppm because that, our best science told us, is probably the safety limit for keeping the earth, the biosphere, in a state we know and love. Within a range of 275ppm to 350ppm, a domain which allowed our species to flourish, spread all the way across the biosphere. We tore up much of that living, breathing biosphere in the process, but it still kept on breathing in its seasonal rhythm. And we started adding more and more CO2 into the air, ripping it out of the earth and the biosphere, and pumping it out into the atmosphere, until it hit that upper limit of 350ppm. Go above that in a sustained manner, and we enter a new domain, where all bets are off, for the biosphere, and for our civilization. 350ppm is the safety word. But this past summer, we passed 400ppm for the first time in our recorded history. All bets are indeed off for us, it seems, because we are still not prepared to roll it back to below 350ppm. Governments continue to fiddle, for the 18th time, in Doha this week, amid growing confidence that they will, again, do nothing toward bringing us back into the climatic safe zone.

So watch the earth’s biosphere breathe like a baby, but know that it is also gasping as CO2 levels keep rising. It is up to us to bring those levels down. But first we will have to start by disturbing the blissful, willful sleep of our governments and institutions and corporations… and all our people…

… get them all to watch the biosphere as it breathes.

Archaeologist Brian Fagan to visit Fresno State this week (and a repost)

I just learnt that archaeologist and writer Brian Fagan is visiting my campus this week – tomorrow (Mar 6) in fact – but I will miss his visit! I’ve been wanting to bring him to Fresno for some time now – and here I am stuck in Mumbai when he does actually arrive on campus! If you are on Fresno and reading this, please do go to his talk on the Fresno State campus tomorrow. Here’s more info on the event, which is open to the public:


Meanwhile, since I won’t be able to participate in the event, let me at least throw in my tuppence remotely, by sharing something I had written about him a few years ago. The following is a repost:

“This is a very serious issue, in fact…”

“… that’s why you’re on this show!”

That was perhaps the most ironic exchange between Brian Fagan (who said the first part) and Jon Stewart (who came back with the swift self-deprecating retort) tonight on The Daily Show where Fagan came on to talk about his new book “The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations“. The Daily Show’s promo blurb for today’s show had a link to Fagan’s blog, where he wrote this interesting post about the forecasts of prolonged droughts in some parts of the world being the silent elephants in the climate change discussion. And it was when he was discussing that very point when the above ironic exchange occurred during the interview (look for it @ 3:35 min in the video below the fold) – a double dose of irony if you will!

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Brian Fagan
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Meanwhile, I was touched by another post discussing the Indian monsoon in a historical context, with the opening making me ache for my favorite season of the year back home:

“The peacocks danced at eventide”, wrote the sixth-century Indian writer Subdandhu of the onset of the monsoon. The monsoon is much more than a matter of meteorology in India and Pakistan. The very fabric of human existence unfolds around two seasons–the wet and the dry. The wet season brings warm, moist conditions and heavy rain, carried by the monsoon winds blowing inland from the ocean. The other half of the year, the arid season, enjoys cool, dry air from the north. The coming of the monsoon is a highlight of the year to those who suffered through the buildup after the pleasant winter months–weeks of torrid heat. Colonel Edward Tennant of the British East India Company wrote in 1886: “The sly, instead of its brilliant blue, assumes the sullen tint of lead. . . . The days become overcast and hot, banks of clouds rise over the ocean to the west. . . . At last the sudden lightning flash among the hills, and shoot through the clouds that overhang the sea, and with a crash of thunder the monsoon bursts over the hungry land.” My father was a civil servant in the British Raj in the Punjab during the 1920s. Even in his extreme old age, he could vividly recall the most epochal day of the year, when India became cold and grey, like distant England.

Trust me, it is actually quite unlike England, being grey, yes, but definitely not cold – but rather invitingly cool after a blazing hot summer! Oh how I miss the march of those grey clouds across the Bombay coastline…

Fagan goes on to describe the discovery of correlations between the Indian monsoon and El Nìno events in the Pacific…

Generations of meteorologists have tried to forecast monsoons, notable among them Sir Gilbert Walker, a brilliant statistician with a passion for flutes and atmospheric pressure, who is remembered for his discovery of the Southern Oscillation, the driving force behind El Nino and its opposite cousin, La Nina. There is now fairly general Agreement that monsoon failures sometimes, but not invariably, coincide with El Nino conditions in the Pacific, as was the case with the terrible famine and monsoon failure of 1875-6, which killed tens of thousands and ravaged at least a third of Bengal.

… before adding some strong words about the historical context of the famine and the culpability of the British empire:

While much of India starved, the British Raj was busy exporting grain to the world market. Meanwhile, the Viceroy, the eccentric and erratic Lord Lytton, who happened to be Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, was preoccupied with a gigantic durbar in Delhi, which included a week-long feast for 68,000 maharajahs and officials. An English journalist estimated that at least 100,000 rural farmers perished during the festivities, which were designed to be gaudy enough to impress the orientals”. Lytton’s shameful famine policy was one of laissez faire. The historian Mike Davis, whose book Late Victorian Holocausts should be required reading for every historian of the nineteenth century, estimates that at least 20-30 million tropical farmers perished during that century as a result of drought, famine, and famine-related diseases.

And as Fagan rounds off with an alarm bell about how future wars will be fought over water even as we waste our current resources on unnecessary wars while avoiding facing the real problems looming ahead, I’m reminded of the Indian journalist P. Sainath’s powerful book Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts.

Let this not be a eulogy for our pale blue dot…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGeXdv-uPaw?wmode=transparent]

… even though it is a eulogy for several environmentalists who laid their lives down in defending our home, Earth.

This is a non-commercial attempt to highlight the fact that world leaders, irresponsible corporates and mindless ‘consumers’ are combining to destroy life on earth. It is dedicated to all who died fighting for the planet and those whose lives are on the line today. The cut was put together by Vivek Chauhan, a young film maker, together with naturalists working with the Sanctuary Asia network (www.sanctuaryasia.com).

Content credit: The principal source for the footage was Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s incredible film HOME http://www.homethemovie.org/. The music was by Armand Amar. Thank you too Greenpeace and http://timescapes.org/

(Hat-tip: David Inouye and Bittu Sahgal)

“I will be a hummingbird” – Wangari Maathai

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-btl654R_pY]

Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, first African woman and environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, lived the life of that hummingbird she talks about here: struggling all her life with great energy, trying to turn the tide against the deforestation of Africa by planting over 30 million trees, inspiring many others to join in the cause of restoring environmental balance and justice to a planet engulfed in “development”.

The above clip comes from the documentary “Dirt! The Movie”. The animated sequence accompanying Maathai’s story has won awards on its own and is a strikingly inspirational moment in the film. Although, as an avian ecologist (and a pedant), I have to say I would be even more worried about the state of our planet if said little hummingbird had to fly past elephants to put out the forest fires: for the two creatures do not naturally occur on the same continent! Sunbirds would be more likely in the African jungle than hummingbirds in that role… but hummingbirds, I suppose, make for a more romantic hero to inspire us all! And inspire us all she did.

Alas, the real life “hummingbird” telling us the story is herself no more: Wangari Maathai passed away yesterday at the age of 71, after a struggle with cancer. May her work continue to remind more of us to do everything we can to put out the fires…

A school in a bottle. Or many bottles, recycled.

Do your kids get whiny because you say “No” to some new toy they want or candy or soda or something they saw advertised on the telly? Do they wish you were richer so you could buy them all the stuff they want, and take them places?

Next time, show them this video about the bottle school… tell them to Hug it Forward. Watch their eyes widen and their jaws drop as they forget about their wants and start talking about these little kids. Worked wonders with ours this past weekend!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3gl1wWJdTM]

Grist has a bit more on the story.

Carolyn Steel on how food shapes our cities, and an expedition into a city’s bowels


Much food for thought in that talk by Carolyn Steel, and an excellent historical overview of how cities, especially in the west, have grown in relation to modes of food production and distribution.

Are urban dwellers really more carnivorous than their rural counterparts? Are urban dwellers in the developing world as far removed from food production as those in the north/west are?

On the other side of any city’s metabolism is something we pay even less attention to than where our food comes from – where does it eventually end up, along with our other waste products? How does a city like New York manage to keep itself relatively clean, and unflooded, given the rivers of sewage that must surely be flushed down the drain every day? This fascinating (if disgusting to some) story from the New York Times a couple of days ago chronicles a remarkable expedition through the bowels of the city, through a different kind of wilderness, below our feet.