The ocean seems kinda pissed

Conservation International has released a new series of HD videos personifying portions of the earth-system with messages delivered by celebrity voice-acting. An unhappy Han Solo Harrison Ford plays the ocean. Nature, soil, the rain forest, water and water also deliver messages in this “Nature is Speaking” series. More perspectives are coming.

The message: From the point of view of nature, humans with their hubris and ignorance seem destined to destroy the natural resources they depend on with hubris. Ecosystems have survived for millennia upon millennia and yet humans, in a relatively short time span, are breaking everything in sight.

(I was in the audience a few years ago in a Washington, DC theater when Bill McKibben sadly joked, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”)

These messages have antagonistic overtone, some more than others. An almost spiteful Ocean warns, “I’m only gonna say this once. If nature isn’t kept healthy, humans won’t survive, simple as that. Me? I could give a damn with or without humans. I’m the Ocean. I covered this entire planet once and I can always cover it again. That’s all I have to say.”

I expect the message+tone will rile some people. And I do wonder if the “nature will survive us all” trope doesn’t do a bit of harm when we’re also arguing that humans are responsible for massive environmental change.

Still, the argument is certainly true; we are destroying the ocean — through overfishing, trash, chemicals, fertilizer runoff, mining and acidification via CO2 emissions. The video poignantly offers no small amount of stunning video to remind us of the ecosystems we’re threatening.

The tag line: “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.”

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India loves its fairness; now you can get “gore” white, down there, too…

Note: I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said by others. I know that.

I made it roughly two-thirds of the way through this video — laughing all the while — before realizing that it was actually a parody. That’s because many segments of India have a post-colonial fixation on “fairness,” as we call whiteness here. Even otherwise reasonable people consciously or subconsciously signal their belief that it is preferable to be light-skinned; so many people “prefer” fairness that I really would not have been surprised if this — whitening cream for your testicles — were a real product advertisement.

The faux Shahrukh Khan in the video is worth noting, as the real SRK has actually advertised “fair and handsome” creams for men even in the recent past. Shahrukh Khan, of course, makes for a big target but other Bollywood stars and cricketers have done likewise. We can be thankful that those who endorse such products are taking more flak for it these days and some are beginning to recant. Katrina Kaif, one of Bollywood’s latest leading ladies, has backtracked or double-spoke, saying she doesn’t support fairness creams even though she has endorsed them previously. Predictably, Aamir Khan, sitting next to her, comes out strongly against.

One might dismiss this as just the theater of the absurd, mass-marketing or ajeeb consumption and little else. And celebrities hawk everything in this country, so why should they make political causes out of every ad.

But the industry is big business. One estimate says that Indians spend more on fairness cream annually — hundreds of millions of dollars — than they do on Coca-Cola (not that Coke should necessarily be the barometer of reasonable consumption).

Meanwhile, the messages behind real advertisements help fuel conversations about skin color in homes across India. Parents tell their daughters to stay out of the sun lest they become “kali” or “black.” Marriage ads pronounce boys and girls as fair or actively seek a partner with a light complexion. And the obsession with fairness is not purely fashion; some overt ads actively promote the idea that you are simply less valuable with dark skin. Just take a gander at late night TV.

(I realize this is not an India-exclusive critique, but this is where I can comment from experience. And with 1.2 billion people in a nation that continues to struggle with class, caste and color, this discussion needs to take place again and again.)

Many people — myself included — have suggested this is a historical legacy of a time when skin color was a proxy for class; someone with darker skin was more likely to have a life of hard labor and drudgery in the sun. This is still a common experience much of the world, where the poor working class spends large portions of its days out of doors. But even in the upper economic strata, where skin color today is clearly not a proxy for wealth, fair skin remains prized.

Perhaps more charitably, we can think of this as an adaptation or coping mechanism for a society that is so clearly stratified on social and economic lines. In present day India, if you are poor or marginalized or discriminated against, you likely have many barriers to full social and economic participation in your community. If skin color is a barrier that can be partially surmounted with a cream available at any corner store (dubious claim but I’m sidestepping the efficacy question for such creams), wouldn’t it be tempting to purchase?

But the enduring power of “whiteness” MUST also be seen in the context of lingering post-colonial discourse and attitudes. Think that sounds like scholars making up stuff to talk about? Here’s some good reading on the subject. When we continue to buy into the idea that dark skin = less value, we also buy into a false colonial logic that reinforced the idea of a lighter=enlightened class of people dominating, subjugating and ruling the dark, black, teeming masses.

If Indians thought of fairness cream as a specifically colonial legacy, I bet fewer would be interested.

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Environmental appeals should be tagged: “Time done already run out”


A good, smart friend recently pointed out that while the science really does argue that there is no going back to a time before climate change or Arctic ice melt or dying polar bears or ecosystem disruption, Greenpeace, an environmental NGO that I support with heart, hand and wallet, continues a campaign that suggests it’s not too late to fix things.

Note: I don’t believe we’re really taking issue with Greenpeace’s campaign to fight uber-consumptive capitalism and industrial destruction of remaining Arctic resources. Rather, it’s the message which obfuscates and confounds a deeper truth: Time really has run out. We’re past a point of no return.

My friend Michael:

Is this a good appeal, still? Time is not running out, it has already run out. Already released GHGs are forcing the warming that will within a few years likely make the Arctic ice free during the summers. We cannot save the polar bear, or rather, we cannot save the polar bear’s habitat. I think Greenpeace knows that.

Better that we be honest about this and understand the implications, and how serious of spot we are in. To keep using this as a tool to get people on board can have the effect of giving people a sense that a) look people are doing something about this and since the polar bear is “being saved” its working, and that b) things are not all that serious if we can still do things like “save the polar bear.”

I think its better to start being clear about what we have messed up and cannot fix. If I’m not wrong, the Arctic is one of those things.

His point — one that many people have certainly discussed — has been kicking around my brain for the better part of a day.

I do absolutely agree that we need to come to serious terms with reality. Full stop. There is so much that we’ve already broken and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can fix it. Again, full stop. A realistic picture would be a drowned polar bear washed up on a flooded city waterfront.

But for the sake of discussion… There are two concerns here. The content of the message (bears can be saved) and the goal/strategy of the message (enlist people/donors/members/activists).

The content is wrong. Polar Bears 1.0 cannot be saved. Whatever survives will be a different kind of polar bear (Not-Quite-Polar Bear V2.7.1) in a different place.

It’s the strategy that I’m wrestling with. And I admit that I’ve more often advocated going radical/brutal first. Soft touch isn’t my strong suit.

But I find myself asking, what would a picture of a drowned bear washed up in Sandy-induced flooding with a tag line of “You broke it, you bought it” or “Time done run out already” achieve? Does it move us to the goal of getting people off the bench and into the game?

Source: The Guardian and Ashley Cooper/Global Warming Images

Source: The Guardian and Ashley Cooper/Global Warming Images

It would be the brutal and honest truth, and I hope, would shake some people awake to reality. But would it also risk encouraging others to throw up their hands? Maybe such a message would just convince people to say, “Well, screw it. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Let’s drive Hummers.” After all, humans are much at denial than acceptance.

This is a question we’ve gone round on before, but I’m asking it again. How do we communicate the truth of it?

The truth, at least to me, would seem to sound something like,

“We have screwed the pooch; a lot of people are going to suffer; a lot of natural systems — including humanity — will be irrevocably changed. Things are going to be different, which is our fault, but we have to move forward and work toward adapting to a new normal. This “normal” will ultimately be unstable and not feel very normal. But we must do [insert painful, landscape-changing, status quo-disrupting policies here] until we can achieve some sort of balance in our socio-economic-political relations with our environment. Don’t get your hopes up that we’re going to “fix” much of anything. Remember, we effed things up a lot. The future is going to hurt, but we have to at least try to make it hurt a little less.”

So how does one communicate that and get people involved, when we’re essentially saying that the best we can do is really not much? It seems like an appeal that is tagged “We’re mostly munted” isn’t much of an appeal.

Note: I think that the new distant future, if we succeed, will be pretty nice. Social capital, growing our own food, loving our neighbors, loving strangers, putting down roots, more biking and bowling and sweating, less plastic wrap and fake nacho cheese.

But that’s my version of success, which may not get a lot of people into the game.

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Now that BP is over, a new rush to drill in the ocean?

The NYT this week had a story noting that as the BP Gulf oil spill court case winds down, the Obama administration (cautiously) and the GOP presidential front-runners (with absolute abandon) want to open up U.S. coasts to more drilling.

Their flawed logic goes like this: More drilling = more oil = lower gas prices = happy voters = elected.

Hogwash and pandering. And unfortunately, it’s hogwash left unchecked by the NYT.

Here’s a bit of reality, that any reasonable natural resources economist could tell you: Any extra oil from drilling will come over decades, not months, and certainly not in time to save an election. And the amount of extra oil that does bubble up from the deep (at least that which isn’t spilled again) will only be a drop in the world barrel.

Yes, oil prices are a function of world supply and demand. Just because it comes from our EEZ instead of someone else’s doesn’t mean we get it on the cheap.

So if oil prices are controlled by the world market, then so are gas prices. Sure, some extra oil will result in some decrease. That’s likely going to be three or four cents, per government estimates. Consider that the Energy Information Administration in 2008 (under President George W. Bush, mind you) said that any impact from opening up a large new source (such as ANWR) will be almost nil.

And if the U.S. brings online more oil, OPEC could close down some production to keep the price higher.

Oh wait, and then there’s ever increasing demand from China, India, Brazil and the other big developing economies.

So yes, hogwash. Whatever marginal amounts are obtained in the future from expanded drilling will do very, very, very little to decrease pain at the pump.

Sadly, the NYT didn’t take the time — or even a couple grafs — to give this a bit of scrutiny. I’m sure their reporters and editors know it. But somehow that counter opinion was left out.

The answers instead can be found in alternatives, in a new economy and in new consumption patterns. For example: offshore wind, a green global public transportation network and using less energy.

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Corporate population control hilarity

I spend a lot of my days in grad school debating whether population is a disaster waiting to happen and whether we need moral restraint or mutually agreed upon coercion. Which is the dominant variable in affecting environmental impact: population, affluence or technology?

(Hint: In my world view, it’s not exactly any of those three, but a related yet different issue: consumption.)

But all such debates tend to be repetitive, theoretical and mind-numbing. So, for laughs, here’s a different, ridiculous take on the so called population problem.

Let’s be clear that it absolutely misses any mark regarding how to solve the biggest global problem of our time. Indeed, the message is highly flawed and simplistic; too many Indians knocking boots is not the problem, and consumption of increasing forms of technology by the affluent is certainly not the solution.

And yes, this is just a corporate marketing ploy. But, again, in the category of hilarity to defuse the tension, I give it five stars. That my Hindi has improved enough to get some of the jokes is even better.

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