Tag Archives: US

Musings on the tinkling of glass from the almost shattered ceiling of American democracy

Dear Most Powerful Democracy(TM) in the World,

Congratulations on taking another step closer to having a woman break the ultimate glass ceiling in your country, with Hillary Clinton being declared the presumptive nominee of one of your two political parties. We look forward to welcoming you to the large community of nations that have been electing women leaders to head their government for decades now. It may surprise your citizens—especially those rooting for the big orange loudmouth presumptive nominee of the other party—to find that even a number of Islamic nations have elected women to their highest offices. But don’t be embarrassed about joining this group now. When it comes to matters of democracy and human rights and equality, “better late than never” always applies. Long arc of history and all that considering, you know?

I imagine you know that your presidential election tends to capture the attention of the rest of the world, and this one in particular has the world in its thrall like a spectacular car crash that one cannot look away from, even though the outcome may be disastrous for occupants of the cars and spectators alike. The popularity of the orange loudmouth with the strange hair alternately baffles and frightens the world’s citizens who can scarcely believe that so many citizens of this superpower nation, known for your leadership in science and technology, for crying out loud, are falling for the dubious charms of a globally well-known con-man. That one of your two parties, half of your entire political spectrum (seriously, America, how on earth do you do democracy in such a big diverse country with just two political parties? But let’s leave that question for another time!) has been hijacked by a narcissistic demagogue happy to use bombastic nationalism and xenophobia laced with racist and sexist slurs to score television rating in this election turned into reality show, is…incredibly depressing.

At the same time, though, what’s happening in the other party offers more hope for the world. A fierce battle over liberal/progressive ideology between, gasp, a woman and an old school socialist? Who could have even imagined this in America a decade ago? Now it appears that the woman may be winning the party’s nomination to become the first female presidential candidate ever in your long and storied history as the world’s leading democracy? And a majority of your citizens might well retain their senses to elect her to follow your first Black President? How wonderful of you to finally move into this new phase in this new millennium! (Let’s set aside, for now, the more touchy subject of how they both have continued to rain bombs on much of the world – but we must address that too, soon, after you send the lunatic orange man packing.)

What took you so long?

So many younger nations, often learning about democracy from your own history, have lapped you and surged so much farther ahead in how they run their elections now – you really should feel embarrassed. Looking at you from the polling booths of some of these younger nations might feel like looking at a venerable but arthritic old man who is too set in his eccentric ways and unwilling to adjust with the times to learn how to run things in this new millennium. We hope that you will pay attention to and build on the energy of your younger citizens, many of whom have been involved in this election campaign with no little passion, calling out the injustices of the really bizarre ways you still run your elections. Like it is still the 18th century and you are still an agrarian nation deeply mired in social, economic, and cultural inequalities spread across a vast and mostly depopulated continent.

But never mind that for now; let us be cautiously optimistic that you just might follow up on your first Black Man in the White House with your first Woman President! What a way to make another grand entrance on to the world stage, two hundred and forty years after your birth as a democratic nation! So please: don’t throw this opportunity away, and for Earth’s sake, don’t let the narcissistic con-man steal this election too, like his predecessor did at the turn of the millennium.

You still have much work to do in fixing your democracy and bringing it up to date though, all the way from the design of ballots to drawing of voting district maps to how votes are counted in different states to who actually oversees and runs your elections to these myriad and ludicrously convoluted ways your parties hold primaries… to who pays for the whole circus… the list is so long and so hilariously tragic! You really do have a lot of work to do – which may be why you show so little enthusiasm for actually cleaning up the mess! It is like the aftermath of a centuries old frat party (or democracy rave) in your living room when you just can’t summon up the energy to throw all the trash out and start a new day afresh. Yet that is what you need to do! And you might start with the odd thing that happened tonight, and keeps happening every election – when your media gives away the results of the game before the last votes have been cast! What’s up with that?

While we are getting ready to applaud this apparent imminent shattering of the glass ceiling in America, many of us are also baffled at how your much-lauded free press decided to declare the winner before so many states have even held the vote for their primaries! How does your free press, which is supposed to be such a crucial pillar for democracy in a free society, continue to undermine the most basic process at the heart of democracy: the casting of votes to elect representatives? How does this make any sense? I mean, sure, the press has an obligation – and more, a competitive drive – to report whatever it deems newsworthy, so some of the fault lies with those who release these results that can tip the electoral scales. Still, surely this is something that could be fixed by reminding the media of their serious responsibility and making them keep their megaphones switched off until the last vote has been cast? That’s how some other democracies do it, to protect the sanctity of every vote.

While there is much you should learn from studying how other nations run their elections, at least in this one instance, you might consider the Most Populous Democracy in the World: India. Did you know that the press there, while invited and encouraged to closely observe and report on the entire election, is nevertheless restrained from announcing any results until after all the votes are cast and counted? And mind you, restraint is not likely to be the first word—hell, not even among the first 100 words—to come to mind when one thinks of / observes the Indian media these days; they are a cacophonous, obnoxious, loud-mouthed, argumentative lot, are India’s TV talking heads, who seemed to have learned too well the ratings game from your television networks. Yet, when it comes to election results, they exhibit remarkable restraint (or pay the price of jumping the gun).

Media Coverage

In order to bring as much transparency as possible to the electoral process, the media are encouraged and provided with facilities to cover the election, although subject to maintaining the secrecy of the vote. Media persons are given special passes to enter polling stations to cover the poll process and the counting halls during the actual counting of votes.

Doesn’t that sound like something for your press to try, at least for the general election?

Do click on that link and look around the helpful website of the Election Commission of India: all the fascinating details of how that rambunctious cacophony of a democracy, with over a billion people scattered densely across a varied landscape with poor infrastructure and much less money than you, manages to run its parliamentary elections—featuring thousands of candidates from dozens of political parties vying for hundreds of millions of votes cast at nearly a million polling stations—with much less of a fuss and a bother. Imagine, for example, running your entire presidential election, from the first primary to the general election, in just a couple of months instead of the years-long and practically never ending campaigns you force your candidates to run now! Wouldn’t that be refreshing? And conducive to the actual business of governing the nation for the public good?

Of course there is much that is also wrong with the running of elections in India – just see who they elected Prime Minister in the last election. Has any nation figured out a fool-proof way to conduct the messy business of democracy? Shouldn’t they all be talking to each other and borrowing from each other the best ways to make things work most impartially and openly and fairly?

There is a great deal more we could tell you about how to improve and modernize your elections, to bring you up to date in the 21st century. If you really put your mind and considerable resources to it, you might even come up blazing the trail again for the rest of the world, showing us how to get it done properly. Many other nations would love to help you with that, even as you claim to be the designated driver of democracy around the world. It is past time you got your own house in order, and we would love to talk to you about that. Perhaps after you’re done with this most insane of your recent elections, and are able to take a breather. Hopefully.

For now, let us raise a glass to the sound of all that tinkling glass, beginning to fall down slowly from that almost shattered ceiling… the world may hold its breath waiting for the final blow that breaks it fully apart come November. Until then, you do you – in the best way you know how!

– from a humble representative of your friends and well-wishers, citizens of other democracies.

An American Age of Endarkenment

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share an expanded version of my essay lamenting the decline of American support for science.


It is a peculiar moment to be a scientist in America.

For decades, the United States of America has not only been the world’s leader in advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery, it has also been a powerful beacon attracting scientists and students seeking enlightenment through science from the far corners of the world.

That beacon was set alight by a whole generation of scientific geniuses, some born here, many migrating over from Europe escaping the great wars of the 20th century. It burned especially bright in the decades following World War II when America donned the mantle, not only of the political and economic leader of the free world, but also its scientific and cultural leader. It set the stage for unprecedented social progress and economic development driven by America’s investments in its universities.

That beacon is what brought me to these shores, just another graduate student among the countless immigrants streaming into the nation thirsting for higher education in science, and a chance to participate in expanding that frontier of scientific discovery. Just another particle in the torrential brain-drain flowing out from nations across the world that America was happy to soak up and nourish and allow to flourish among its elite universities.

That beacon, alas, began to dim towards the end of the 20th century, and has been allowed dim even further in the first decades of this 21st century which was supposed to be the real era of science and technology enlightening a new age of progress in human history. This is an age which is fulfilling that promise in many ways, yet America, that leader which led us to this threshold, has faltered, and dropped the baton of scientific progress.

It was no accident that the beacon of science burned so strongly in America 50 years ago. It was an active choice by the American people, through their government, to fund science and technology, and higher education in general, that established America as the world’s leader. That depended, of course, on the relatively high levels of taxes collected by the government and invested back into the country’s physical, social, and cultural infrastructure as it recovered from the depths of first Great Depression to soar up into the astonishing heights reached by what’s been called the Greatest Generation in this country.

Yet, at the heights of that arc of progress, many Americans somehow decided—were persuaded by forces of a new endarkenment—that paying taxes, and investing in public goods was somehow inimical to the American drive for freedom from tyranny. Government of the people, by the people, for the people bizarrely became painted as a new tyranny that must be starved of taxes and drowned in a bathtub. It astonishes the world that these forces have succeeded in turning the US government lights off, quite literally this October, and starving higher education and science of the funding that made it the world’s leader.

This too, is no accident, this dimming of the beacon of science in the leader of the free world. For just as its universities and science laboratories defined this nation in the late 20th century, it has also been defined by what Isaac Asimov famously described as a constant thread of anti-intellectualism “winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. That anti-intellectual strain flourished in the shadows even as the beacon of science and technology burned bright, and is now doing its best to douse the light in the name of freedom.

It is no accident, it may indeed be part of America’s self-contradictory DNA, that the land that attracted and nourished and became home to the largest number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences also has the highest proportion of people among developed nations who don’t accept the facts of biological evolution. That the nation with the largest number of climate scientists, and the most comprehensive coverage of weather on television with whole channels dedicated to it, is also home to the greatest number of climate change and global warming denialists.

It is no accident, therefore, that America has slipped from its position of the world’s leader even as its beacon has been doused and starved of the public funding which kept it burning brightly for so many decades. That other nations are picking up on this, and beginning to surge ahead, by following America’s earlier lead in investing in higher education and science and technology to fuel social and economic progress. That my own native country India has just sent an unmanned probe—rather cheaply and efficiently—to Mars at a time when even Neil de Grasse Tyson must keep lamenting at every opportunity the death by a thousand budget cuts being administered to NASA, that jewel in America’s scientific crown. As he asked: How much would you pay for the universe?


India’s cheap rocket carrying its exciting mission to Mars, and a bid to claim the baton of space exploration seemingly dropped by the US after decades of leadership.

It is not too late for America to regain that lead, to relight the beacon, by renewing its commitment to invest in the public goods that made this country great. To rediscover its own heritage of how government is a force for good when allowed—nay, made—to invest in the public goods that brought the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. That. one hopes, is one of the lessons to be learnt from the recent government shutdown, which hit particularly hard the enterprise of science in this once—and hopefully again—beacon of enlightenment for the world.

It sure is a peculiar time to be a scientist in America, but it doesn’t have to remain so.

Waking up to a more progressive America?

America, you beauty!

Not only did you re-elect your African-American “Islamic Socialist” gay-marriage supporting president, you also: elected more women to the senate than ever before (still highly underrepresented at just 18 senators), elected the first ever all-woman state delegation in New Hampshire, shut down the GOP’s senate rape caucus and several of the most virulent tea party leaders, voted in gay marriage in 3 states (making it 9 in total), legalized marijuana in 2 states, and in California, weakened three-strikes law, and voted to raise taxes for education!! All in the middle of an economic depression and in an election where the white oligarchy poured billions of dollars against all of these causes. Could it be that this election has actually been a bigger win for progressives than we had dared hope? Bigger surely than the last time around? Well done!

And my progressive friends: time to really get to work now, harder this time, to hold the President’s feet to the fire on the environment, human rights, Guantanamo, drone wars, foreign policy, and everything else he promised but failed to deliver the first time around. Drop your despair over his failures – recognize that he had the most intransigent and well funded opposition ever faced by any American president – and recognize the big progressive space he seems to have actually opened up in American politics. He galvanized all the racist, misogynist, regressive political forces of the white oligarchy into a frenzy that had us all scared: and beat them handily despite all his apparent failures (in the eyes of the right and the left) in his first term! Yes, I know he is beholden to some elements of the oligarchy too, but this election also shows that money, even unlimited corporate money, cannot buy votes, not yet in this country. Yes, the country is still sharply polarized, but he spoke about the need to change the electoral system to make it more inclusive. Yes he has failed on many environmental issues, but he broke the deafening climate silence last night in his victory speech, and spoke to a recently storm-battered nation that may actually believe in the reality of the threats from climate change now, about wanting our children to live in a world without the destructive power of global warming.

Perhaps I am being delusionally optimistic (optimism is a character flaw I gladly embrace), but this morning I feel that this election is a bigger win (or series of wins) for progressives in America than the last one when Obama was voted in on that wave of hope-and-change. Now lets make sure this country doesn’t slide back.

Why teach kids to walk when we have invented the wheel?

“Is it still necessary for kids to learn their times table when they can pick up their iPhone and ask Siri what is 20 times 2?” asked Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

A new set of national standards, called the Common Core, has sought to answer that, offering states a guide for what skills and knowledge children should have at the end of each grade level.

The ultimate goal is to get every child college and career ready. That means, cursive is out and keyboarding is in. Repetition and rote learning are passe while critical thinking is, well, critical.

Literature and novels see less class time than literary nonfiction and informational texts, including essays and speeches. Spelling gets a cursory nod, with the caveat that kids can consult “references.”

via New education standards end rote learning, cursive.

Oh boy… I’m not really looking forward to the next generation(s) of unimaginative students who will come to college ostensibly able to ‘think critically’, but unable to solve “20 times 2” in their heads, or spell anything correctly (or even write by hand) without looking up “references”, nor have even read any good works of fiction!

Now I’m all for moving away from rote memorization and towards critical thinking and information processing skills, don’t get me wrong. But doing the times tables in our heads, or spelling words correctly, ought to be like breathing and walking, really. Its been some millennia since we invented the wheel and a century since we even motorized them – but we haven’t given up on walking yet, have we? So why do these school administrators think we don’t need to use our brains for basic tasks like arithmetic and language, which are among our unique abilities as a species?

“You kind of make choices on what you’re going to spend significant time on,” said Maria Santos, Oakland Unified deputy superintendent.

In sixth grade, for example, that means “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research,” or “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.”

That sounds reasonable enough, and can build skills my students rely on considerably as I make them read, research, reflect, and write (both technical papers, and less technical blogs) a lot in my ecology and evolution classes. But let’s hear what that school administrator has to say again:

In other words, the new system focuses less on learning facts and more on using that information to synthesize and create new ideas, said Domenech, a supporter of the national standards.

“What we’re trying to do is to take the level of learning to the higher levels of cognitive development,” Domenech said. “What (students) have to learn now is not how to get the data, but what to do with it when you have it.”

Whoa – come again? Students don’t have to learn “how to get the data“, other than from the internet and “references”? Are you serious? Say goodbye to preparing them for careers in science then, because here it is all about how to get the data. But then again, the Governor of California is ready scratch a whole year of high school science requirements in this state, so I guess the whole point is moot anyway. Let us prepare, instead, a new priesthood that will only sit around interpreting already published information rather than gathering any new data, because that’s all been done, apparently, in this pinnacle of human civilization we now occupy.

Can the human brain even build or maintain the capacity for “higher levels of cognitive development” without the solid foundation of basic numeracy and literacy? Yet this is in the new national Core Standards, this lack of “dwelling” on the basics?!

But the Common Core doesn’t skip over the basics, such as multiplication tables or spelling, it just doesn’t dwell on them, Domenech said.

“We cannot lose sight of the basic skills,” he said. “On the other hand, we shouldn’t spend 12 years teaching basic skills.”

Oh – so you do think the basics might be important – but just not enough for teachers to “dwell on them” all that much in class. We already get students coming to college utterly lacking in basic writing and maths skills, so how is not dwelling on these basic skills going to “get every child college and career ready“, exactly?

At least some of the local teachers are finding ways to “adapt” to these new standards without losing sight of the basic skills, which I guess is a strength of the American school system with its varied local control. Then again, its this same local control which allows many teachers to “adapt” to science standards requiring the teaching of evolution while actually teaching creation myths in the biology classroom. So there is that.

Perhaps I am overreacting, based on the reporting in just one article. If so, I sure hope some teachers will stop by to tell me if there is more to these new national common core standards that actually address the existing holes in how and what kids are taught, than simply getting rid of some basics to replace them with an over-reliance on technology and the internet. Please, tell me there is more…

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? 

You should feel so safe against all threats, my American friends!

Click on the image or here for a larger, more readable version of this infographic

And nice that the world has such a Big Brother! So the US alone spends almost 43% of the entire planet’s military budget! There had better be some serious extraterrestrial threat then, for the US to save the world… or who the frack are they fighting and why?

Here’s another graph, showing the more-than-doubling of US defense spending over the last decade:


Surely the military industrial complex never had it so good before the twin-towers were brought down by entirely non-military means. I feel so safe now… don’t you, my American friends (and daughters)? And surely, this had nothing to do with the disappearing surplus and rising record deficits the US has seen over the same period. Couldn’t be. Also, never mind that your health-care, your retirement, your union, and your job may be on the chopping block (if they aren’t gone already) because the rich and the corporations in this country must get more tax cuts – at least you’re safe from all those military threats looming large against the US! Do share if you know what those threats are that necessitate such an enormous military budget – 6 times that of the next big-spending nation!

Do human beings who have lived in tiger habitat for generations really need to be tossed out to save tigers?

At the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC last week, I had my fair share of irritating moments listening to speakers on topics that (in my humble opinion) they knew not much about, yet had a symposium platform to pontificate on at a conference with more media coverage than any I have ever seen at any scientific gathering. Most of the irritations came during talks about conservation and natural resource governance issues, which didn’t get as much media coverage as some other topics. Aside from occasional tweets and a question or two that seemed to catch the speakers off guard, I kept my irritations to myself. I am reminded of one such moment, however, by an excellent article by Janaki Lenin on “The best laid schemes of tigers and men” (published also in Governance Now under a duller title but may not be accessible there), which begins thus:

The media leaves little doubt about the dire straits that we find the tiger in today. Millions of dollars are raised at home and abroad to secure the future of this magnificent beast. But the people who are paying dearly for the conservation of the charismatic big cat are the unglamorous local people who have had to quietly forsake their homes and traditional livelihoods to make way for the tiger.

This reminded me of a discussion at the end of a session on “Changing Climate, Changing Approaches: Conservation in the Face of Climate Change“, when the rather hapless discussant said something about how amazing the US Endangered Species Act was as a conservation tool, and asked why no other country in the world had emulated the US in adopting such an exemplary law? Seriously – that’s what he asked!

Granted, I had missed half the session (having foolishly gone to another even more frustrating talk on caste systems…), but this discussion did seem to be banging on a bit too much about the Endangered Species Act, which surprised me given the rather broader discourse I expected based on the title of the session. So when the above question was posed, I couldn’t help but raise my hand and point out that the US wasn’t really all that exemplary and that other countries – like India – also had strong laws (and, occasionally, strong ministers pushing to implement the laws), so the problems lay elsewhere. John Mathews of Conservation International (who had given a good talk just moments earlier) then chimed in as well to talk about how India had a history of protecting sacred forests (i.e., whole ecosystems) thousands of years before the ESA was invented to save individual species. As my friend Eric Johnson tweeted in the moment:

“India has sustainably managed sacred forests for 3,000 years. Americans are smug about protecting one fish: A to Q by @leafwarbler #AAASmtg”.

Its hard for Americans not to feel smug about themselves, though – but Indian tiger-wallahs can surely match that smugness with their own breast-beating about how the tigers are beset upon by “too many people”, as evidenced by an immediate response to Eric’s tweet from @dyingtigers:

“India has laws, but not enforced. 99% of tiger habitat is GONE!! India has too many people + tigers don’t vote”.


How can one have a rational conversation about real solutions when caught between hubris and hysteria? Janaki’s thoughtful article is how! She provides an excellent (and balanced!) perspective on India’s rather well-intentioned laws and how we have stumbled and bumbled in our interpretation and implementation of said laws. And how, in doing so, we are failing both the tigers and the poor marginalized human inhabitats of tiger habitats who have lived with the beasts for generations only to find themselves in the conservation crosshairs now. As Janaki concludes:

“In this day and enlightened age, can we rightfully protect the tiger by impoverishing the people who have lived with it until now? Ironically, conservationists bemoan that the public is not more engaged with protecting wildlife and yet, they condone an undemocratic system that serves to turn any wildlife-tolerant tribal into an ardent opponent. Is it really so difficult to save the tiger without being unfair and callous to fellow human beings?”

Excellent questions indeed that must be answered by all of us, from government officials to conservationists to ordinary citizens, from Washington, DC to New Delhi and everywhere in between.

Can patriotic greedy bastards succeed where birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers have failed with climate change solutions?

Nice reframing of the climate change conundrum and possible solutions in this trailer. I’m intrigued and look forward to seeing the whole film – wonder if this way of packaging the inconvenient truth will go down better with conservative deniers of climate change than Al Gore’s slide show.

Also makes me wonder: whatever happened to the precautionary principle? Isn’t that essentially a conservative idea?

Why don’t we just poke for democracy? You know, instead of waging wars and such…

A deconstruction of the US’ attitude towards democracy:

“… er, so, if two speeches and a social media site is all we needed to spread democracy… er… why did we invade Iraq? Why didn’t we just, I don’t know, poke them?” – Jon Stewart.