Tag Archives: history

Man’s (in)glorious dominion on Earth as a prequel to our Wall•E future

Earth Stewardship is a popular term among my fellow conservation biologists and ecologists lately, what with the Ecological Society of America embracing the term as one of its primary guiding themes for the coming decades. While some of us scratch our heads about what it might mean, precisely, in scientific terms, the ESA has chosen the theme no doubt in order to communicate with a broader public. Stewardship… the word has a strong spiritual / religious resonance… and what ecologist would argue with the call to use our science to transform humanity into better stewards of this planet? Gives us some hope of turning things around even as we teeter on the brink of ecological disasters manifold…

Stewardship also has a better ring to it than that other religiously charged word: Dominion. Some of the world’s dominant religions tell us that their reigning deity gave us dominion over the earth and all its creatures, which were presumably created for our sole benefit. Of course, evolutionary biology tells a different story, but even then we are tempted to place ourselves at some apex of evolution, borne on the branches of, but somehow apart from, the magnificent tree of life. The first creatures (maybe) to comprehend our own story and control our destiny…

Whichever version of this tale of our being you choose to believe, surely our actual history on this earth must give you pause… for we haven’t done a very good job of it, have we? It has been closer to sadistic domination lately than any meaningful stewardship. Or don’t you remember? In that case, you’ll want to watch this three-and-a-half minute animated history of Man’s dominion over Earth. It also makes for a great prequel to the film Wall•E, whose silent first half is some of the loveliest bit of filmmaking magic seen this century. Let’s hope we can steer away from that fate sooner rather than later…

[youtube WfGMYdalClU]
via Jess Zimmerman on Grist.

This film also reminds me of an animated short I had seen long ago as part of a midnight special show screened in a film festival, sometime when I was in graduate school. I think it was at the Old Globe Theater in La Jolla which played a significant part in my cinematic education. As part of this midnight screening, reserved for more risqué, ‘grown-up’ animated fare, I remember seeing a powerful little film which showed a similar history of ‘man’—except in that film, in every instance, whatever the man did turned into a big arse farting out noxious fumes, with the closing shot showing the entire earth as one giant arse spewing dark smoke as the screen faded into credits! Hard to forget that visual, even though I completely forgot the name of the movie!

Anyone else seen that film? This was during the early days of the internet—I think I had Mosaic on the mac in my lab then—well before YouTube was even a glint in its creator’s eyes! I’ve forgotten the name of the film, and so haven’t been able to find it since, even though the imagery of our collective arseholery lingers in my mind. If you’ve seen it, remember the title, and/or know if/where it is online, please do drop me a line! I would love to include it in my next Reconciliation Ecology class along with the above film.

Now what can we do to become better stewards of this spaceship Earth as we start another revolution around our Sun?

So the Iraq war is over, you say? Well… let’s not forget the History of Oil

As my American friends celebrate / breathe a sigh of relief at the announcement today that the US war on Iraq is finally officially over, I can’t help but go back to this brilliant history lesson (which I have posted here before):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DCwafIntj0?wmode=transparent]

So what of the American Plan to Bring Democracy to the Middle East? Well, the war may be officially over, but don’t lose heart, not yet… just have a look at this map, for this is what the “end” of a war looks like now:


Now welcome the weary broken American troops back home from their multiple long stints in Iraq (let’s not think about their Iraqi counterparts); dust them off, patch them up, replenish their ranks, and let’s get them back out there. There is much Democracy yet to be brought to many a thirsty, hungry, desperate (but rich in oil or other resources) corner of this world!

Enjoy the peace, my American friends…


Happy birthday, Marie Curie!

Google reminds us that today is Marie Curie‘s 144th birthday!


Meanwhile, here’s another reminder, for women wanting to follow in Marie’s path:


Things have changed some since Curie’s time, but not as much as they should’ve, especially for women in science. “Just remember that if you want to do this stuff, you’re not alone.”


Science and Democracy in the Arab Spring and American Fall

[The following is an expanded version of an essay that was read on Valley Public Radio about a week ago as part of their series “The Moral Is“. Archives of the audio broadcast will, hopefully, be available on KVPR’s website in the near future. Meanwhile, freed from the constraints of time and word limits, I have expanded some of my thoughts on the subject and included a couple of images to share below. The essay was inspired by a conversation with Dr. Alaa Ibrahim after I heard him talk about the Cairo Science Festival and the role of science in society last February.]

We are living through a remarkable year for democracy in the world, with autocratic regimes tottering and toppling like dominoes across north Africa and the Middle East, pushed by the growing will of ordinary people who’ve had enough. It was twitter and Facebook that fomented the January 25th revolution in Egypt, we are told. While these modern tools of communication did help coordinate the movement, their importance was rather overblown by the American mass media, whose pundits largely failed to detect or understand the undercurrents that lead to the revolution. More likely, some say, it was rising prices of food and water that drove people to desperation and revolt. Yet, they all overlook another, perhaps deeper and more fundamentally revolutionary undercurrent in Egyptian society: Science! More precisely, the growing public dissemination of science through events like the Cairo Science Festival held in Tahrir Square—epicenter of the January 25th revolution—a mere six months before that square caught all of our imaginations as a beacon of peaceful democratic revolutions. But what does science have to do with democracy?

Dr. Alaa Ibrahim an Egyptian Astronomer, was a postdoctoral scholar at MIT when he experienced the Cambridge Science Festival, an annual celebration of science, technology, engineering, and math. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the participants in the festival, and the potential to fire up the imagination of ordinary people with the wonders of science, Dr. Ibrahim returned to Egypt determined to start a similar science festival. His efforts bore fruit in 2010 when the first Cairo Science Festival was held “to increase awareness of, and opportunities in, science and its role in development, particularly for Egyptian youth, who represent the majority of Cairo’s population of 20 million.” Young people in Egypt, once the heart of a great civilization, were able to connect in real time with counterparts in the US, and even converse with Nobel laureates. How inspiring that must have been!

Six months later, many of the same youth gathered again at the very same location—but this time to demand freedom and democracy. Dr. Ibrahim was there too, along with his young children. In sharing this story at the International Public Science Events Conference during the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC last February, Dr. Ibrahim suggested a direct connection between fostering a culture of science and promoting democracy. Its hard not to be convinced by his juxtaposition of images of the festival and the revolution in the same physical space, with children who enjoyed science shows earlier now sitting on tanks, chanting for democracy in the same Tahrir Square!

Science is about asking questions about how the world really works. A culture of knowledge with science at its core enables its citizens to ask questions, not only about the natural world, but also about the political world they inhabit. A citizenry with a habit of asking questions is a difficult one for autocrats to control. Ergo, democracy! Last May, science once again occupied center stage at Tahrir Square for the second Cairo Science Festival, highlighting the role of science and technology during social and political revolutions. Indeed, Egyptian scientists continue to play an active role in their country’s ongoing social/political revolution towards democracy.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the once shining beacon of democracy and science both, a rather different political movement has gained momentum recently—but this one is inimical to science. Not only do the leaders of this Tea Party demand serious cuts in funding for science, they also actively undermine the teaching of science in the nation’s classrooms. At a time of economic recession, science and technology are strangely viewed as luxuries we can ill afford, rather than as the very engines of any potential economic recovery. Congressmen, Senators, and all but one Presidential hopeful from the Republican Party try to outcompete each other not by demonstrating their knowledge, but by displaying their ignorance: denying the evidence for evolution or for a human role in forcing global climate change, to name but two hot-button issues. Science is a threat to a certain narrow (but widespread) view of religion, and must therefore be suppressed.

Therein lies another, perhaps paradoxical, facet of the relationship between science and democracy. As Dr. Ibrahim argues—and I agree—a scientific temper provides a good strong foundation for democracy. History provides plenty of evidence for the two going hand-in-hand all the way back to the Greeks who may be justly credited with inventing the modern forms of both these wonderful human endeavors. Yet science itself is most emphatically not a democratic process, being beholden to testable evidence from the real world! Truths and ideas in science, unlike human laws and regulations, stand or fall on the basis of evidence alone, and are not up for debate or popular vote. Trying to legislate away the reality of evolution or anthropogenic climate change is therefore a fool’s errand, for, after all, species continue to evolve in response to ongoing natural selection, and the global climate continues to be destabilized as we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere like there is no tomorrow. Opinions, yours or mine, no matter how popular, don’t really matter to the functioning of the real world, which is the domain of science. Democracy, on the other hand, is the domain of humanity, our social sphere, how we choose to govern ourselves, and it can only benefit from taking science’s hand and grounding itself in reality. Politicians who choose to ignore science, or want to legislate its truths away, chasing popular opinion and votes, do so to their own, and all of our, long-term peril.

Thus have we come to the current state of affairs, where one ancient civilization seeks to rise anew, with the help of science as a handmaiden to democracy, even as the world’s dominant superpower risks losing its leadership in science and technology, because a few vocal but ill-informed leaders have its citizenry convinced that science is useless, even inimical to the prospect of living a moral life.

We live in strange and interesting times indeed.

Harking back to Matewan (in which I got to ask John Sayles a question!)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwEMIvDEFy4]

The above scene from Matewan – indeed, the entire movie – is well worth revisiting today, as them that don’t” work, but rule the country (and indeed much of the globalized world) are dragging the US back to a century ago, to the days of the Matewan massacre and the bloody birth of labor unions in this country. Why, ordinary Americans, “them that work“, may no longer even be relevant to the ruling oligarchs in this country today!

I saw Matewan in 1989, just a few months before leaving India to come to the US, seeking to shape my own future as a graduate student. As a lifelong cinephile growing up on a steady diet of Bollywood and Hollywood films, I – like most of my friends – had mostly envisioned life in the US through the lens of Hollywood glamour. The global marketplace of films doesn’t really have room for anything other than big studio blockbusters and thrillers, rom-coms and raunch-coms. Realistic Indie films like Matewan rarely get worldwide theatrical releases – heck, most of them don’t even make it to the multiplexes of Fresno today! I’m glad I stumbled upon Matewan in a video rental shop in Dehradun. A few years earlier, John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” had given me my first major jolt of awakening towards the reality of ordinary Americans’ life and history – as opposed to the celluloid dreams. John Sayles sucker-punched me with his powerful retelling of a turning point in American history – one not often told in our history textbooks. He described it thus during an extended interview with Amy Goodman broadcast on Democracy Now this morning:

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, Matewan is a movie about a labor strike, a coal miner strike in 1920 in West Virginia. The way that the coal operators tried to keep workers divided in those days was what they called a judicious mixture, which would be to hire a third hillbilly miners from West Virginia, a third immigrants from Yugoslavia, Italy, wherever, and a third black miners from the South, where the mines were just tapping out, and they would come up and be—trying to use them as strikebreakers. Often housed them in three different places, put them into the mine from three different places so that they couldn’t even meet on the job. And they thought, “Well, these people will never get together and form a union.” But in fact, the conditions were so bad and the pay was so bad that they found ways to find each other and ended up forming—the UMW was one of the most integrated unions of that time.

AMY GOODMAN: United Mine Workers.


Go watch the whole interview on the Democracy Now website, where the above remark was followed by another excerpt from the movie. As the conversation continued, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my own name on the radio! Read on for the questions I got to ask John Sayles, and his thoughtful response:

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of John Sayles’ Matewan. As you watch, what are you thinking?

JOHN SAYLES: Well, it’s interesting that that story hasn’t quite ended. The Matewan Massacre, which ends my film, was the prelude to an American incident called the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the first time that bombs were dropped from airplanes. And in fact, they were dropped by American citizens on American citizens. And right now, as we speak, there is a second Battle of Blair Mountain, which is Blair Mountain had been named a historical landmark, then was unnamed because a coal company wanted to take the top of the mountain off. And a kind of coalition of people who think that it’s important history to keep this site the way that it was and environmentalists have joined together to try to fight the mountaintop removal of Blair Mountain. It’s a story that doesn’t end in West Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the massacre at the time, that you cover in Matewan.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, the massacre, at the time, was one of the few times that the coal miners actually won one of these armed engagements, if you can say a massacre is ever winning anything. People on both sides—

AMY GOODMAN: The year?

JOHN SAYLES: This is 1920. And eventually, the Baldwin-Felts Agency—the two guys who were kind of beating up on people at the beginning of that clip were from the Baldwin-Felts Agency, which was very much like the Pinkerton Agency, kind of the Blackwater of the time—ended up marching into town to evict a bunch of people. At that time, they had threatened and shot at and beaten enough people that there was a bunch of miners hidden around town with guns. And when there was a confrontation between the sheriff and the mayor and the heads of the Baldwin-Felts Agency in the middle of the street, pretty much at high noon, the miners who were secreted when the shooting started—and it’s still unclear who started shooting—were in a better position to shoot at the people who were out in the street than the people out in the street were in position to shoot at them. So, more of the Baldwin-Felts agents got killed than miners and civilians did, but there were people killed on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve gotten a question in on Facebook from Madhasudan [sic] Katti, who posted this question on Facebook: “Given that you directed one of my favorite American movies, Matewan, about the early days of the labor union movement in this country, I would like to know what you think of the current efforts to undermine unions. Are we being pushed back to the days of Matewan? And also wanted to know what you think about the general decline in the public perception of unions.”

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, well, this is a long story, but I would say, you know, two things happened. Federal judges and state judges, under both Democratic and Republican regimes, have changed legislation in the favor of companies against unions for the last 30, 35 years. So it’s much harder for a union to go on strike without breaking the law than it used to be. Unions had a very, very brief moment in the sun, pretty much starting when Franklin Roosevelt got into power. And some of his appointees, judges, were more favorable to the right of workers to collectively bargain.

Right now, certainly the conservative Republican agenda is to undo the New Deal. You know, they’re not just trying to undo what recent Democratic regimes have put in; it’s to undo the New Deal, to take us back to something like the ’20s or the ’30s, when unions were pretty much outlaw organizations, considered outlaw organizations. And since so few people are unionized today, their thrust now is not necessarily against industrial workers, but against public service unions, starting with the teachers.

And I think that years of anti-union propaganda, plus mistakes unions have made, you know—and sometimes just mistakes they’ve made and sometimes things that they have not been able to avoid, like organized crime taking over their unions and using them for purposes other than what they should be used for—have undermined people’s kind of image of what unions are. And there are places like Wal-Mart, that if you’re going to work at Wal-Mart, you have to watch a couple weeks of anti-union propaganda in order to hold onto the job.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JOHN SAYLES: They will literally say, “If you want this job, you know, for a couple hours a day your first week, you’re going to have to come and you’re going to have to sit and watch these movies,” and they’re anti-union movies.

Depressing as it is to think about how the oligarchs are now turning the clock back on the rest of us, while making us irrelevant, we can take heart from Sayles’ parting words:

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, a question came to us by email from Pia Massey, who asks if you have any tips for sane survival for artist-activist types.

JOHN SAYLES: Well, I think the sane survival—one of the things is to think of your role not as somebody that, you know, if there are no final victories, there are also no final losses, and that things have gotten better. They usually haven’t gotten better because of what’s been going on at the top. They’ve usually gotten better because of what’s been pushing from beneath. You know, the politicians are only going to be as good as we force them to be. And that however small your audience is, however frustrating it is to get your version of the world or what you want to talk about out there, it’s part of the conversation. And if you shut up, the conversation is one-sided.

It is good for your sane survival to watch Matewan again – even though it is not available on Netflix or iTunes, and reasonably priced DVDs may be hard to find! You may find it in parts on YouTube, I think – just go to the page for the above video and look through the related videos list. 

And if you are in Fresno this summer, let me know if you want to watch it together! While we wait for Amigo to arrive (will it reach Fresno?).

Let’s keep the conversation from getting too one-sided, shall we? 

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.


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.



Unmaking of Modern India, and of democracies everywhere?

Something to ponder, at the end of this interview with historian (eclectically, of cricket, environmentalism, Gandhi and democracy in modern India, among other things) Ramachandra Guha, on the subjects of his new book Makers of Modern India, about the increasingly forgotten intellectual antecedents who shaped our nation:

Q It seems that this robust intellectual tradition in the sphere of politics has vanished today. What happened?

A The period from 1820 to 1970 was exceptional, but now our democracy, like most democracies, has become routine and polemical. The thinking on such questions has shifted to universities and the media. A thinker-politician like Barack Obama is a rare exception; you cannot find his equivalent anywhere else. This is the general trend in democracies.

Q Do you see a politician today who could figure in the list if this book were updated 20 years on?

A (Laughs).

I’ll have to look for the book.