If @greenpeaceIndia is anti-development, then what is this?

I have largely kept my mouth shut on the Intelligence Bureau (IB) vs. Greenpeace India showdown last month. I guess I’m — surprising even to myself — a little gun-shy.

The leaked report has been posted online; read for yourself. IB has uncovered a large network of NGOs that are attempting to “take down” India’s development.

In the interest of fairness, here’s Greenpeace’s response. You might also want to read some strong reaction here. Or just Google it for all the debate.

As I read it, the IB report (supported by “facts”) says that being concerned about the environment (often in solidarity with other people internationally) and opposing mega projects that sacrifice said environment for questionable, often inequitable, short-term economic gains makes you anti-development and anti-national. I guess that means that substantial numbers of people in our country who stand for inclusive development that doesn’t wreak havoc on people and planet are anti-development and anti-national.

The report makes a stark claim that such opposition knocks two to three percent off of India’s GDP growth. I imagine their calculations must be secret; they don’t cite any numbers but I am sure they exist. This is the IB we’re talking about, and they wouldn’t make such claims if they didn’t know what they were talking about. I certainly don’t believe this guy.

Now, I don’t know what to make of the World Bank report I remember reading a while back that said environmental degradation cuts 5.7 percent off of India’s annual GDP growth. The World Bank is foreign, so I guess it’s probably just anti-national and trying to “take down” India’s development, too.

As I think I understand the IB, having foreign friends or accepting foreign funds, even legally, is questionable. Having foreign ties makes you more likely to be anti national and interested in a “take down” of India’s development. Our current environment minister was the president of a firm that had ties to ClimateWorks, a big foreign NGO, but thank goodness he left that firm as soon as he made the cabinet.

But I’m still a little confused. The IB report makes very clear that big FDI projects like the Vendanta (UK subsidiary) bauxite mine or the POSCO (South Korean subsidiary) steel plant have been held up by all this anti-development and anti-national activity. But I thought the F in FDI stood for foreign. Maybe they’re acceptable sources of foreign money because they support neoliberal, Big Capitalist growth? But then the World Bank supports a lot of that, and I think I’m supposed to be skeptical of that one now.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m an OCI Indian. That means I’m half and half (though I live in India, have Indian family and consider myself Indian). What am I do to? I don’t think there’s an operation for me to cut ties with myself.

The IB report report names a bunch of NGOs other than Greenpeace, including some that sound mostly like poor villagers trying to stop “development” from taking their land or destroying their fishing grounds. I guess they could be threats to national security as well.

I do think this “debate” hasn’t gotten enough coverage. I suspect that our own civil society is scared now that the curtain has been pulled back on their anti-development, anti-national activities that were “people centric,” as the IB put it.

For more full disclosure, I actually do disagree with Greenpeace on some policies/strategies, but I’ve also done consulting work for the organization and I have been donating monthly, because I thought they were protecting trees and fish and the like for poor people who rely heavily on trees and fish and the like. Maybe should I think about putting my money into other investments, like energy projects for the tens upon tens of millions of Indian villagers who don’t have power.

Which brings me to my headline question: If Greenpeace India (or any other NGO interested in protecting the environment) is ant-development or anti-national or both, what should I think about its effort to electrify villages with renewable, distributed technology? IB is telling me to be wary of Greenpeace, but should I be wary of the #bijliforall campaign, which seems to support “development” among some of the poorest members of our nation?

Take Dharnai, Greenpeace’s test village, where residents themselves are buying into a distributed solar micro grid. When I hear their stories, I can’t figure out exactly who or what they are “anti.” Dharnai is a village in Bihar on the Patna-Gaya road. I’ve been to Bihar and seen city and village life. My wife and her family are from Bihar. Large parts of Bihar are very poor and still without electricity.

The general notion behind Greenpeace’s decentralized renewable energy (DRE) pilot is to prove that renewable tech (solar, wind, micro-hydel, biogas, etc.), which are continually decreasing in cost, can be implemented locally and sustainably. More details were unveiled this week, including a Q&A for media, which get into the logic behind DRE.

Thanks to the IB report, I know I should be skeptical; perhaps these villagers are just greedy and want power without paying for it from centralized, large-scale coal, nuclear and megadams. But it really does seem like there might be an opportunity for local solar and other tech to light up villages in Bihar without massive infrastructure, associated costs, subsidies, inequities and environmental destruction.

Maybe another IB report will clear up all of my confusion. Or maybe Prime Minister Narendra Modi could set me straight. He told Parliament last month that he wants to “empower the poor man so that he can fight poverty.”

Solar panels in rural villages do seem empowering. Quite literally, in fact.

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LEGO needs to stop essentially shilling for Shell

Birdday!

Birdday!

LEGO building blocks remain my all-time favorite toy. Even more favorite than bourbon or my dive kit.

As a child, I spent hours hidden away in my room, imagination running wild, building, deconstructing and rebuilding parts of the LEGO city pictured in the fuzzy image below. I could never get enough and they were a prominent part of every birthday, Christmas or other gift-receiving occasion.

I vividly remember my giant airport, my train set, my pirate’s island and more. As an 11-year-old, I spent my savings on spare LEGO building blocks so I could build mass housing for my city from scratch.

This is a version when I was 8. By age 12 it was more than double this size.

This is a version when I was 8. By age 12 it was more than double this size.

And I even had a Shell-branded gas station. Today, I shiver at the thought.

Of course, it was a different time. Few openly resisted such things as surreptitious marketing or product placement in child’s toys. Hell, I didn’t really think about this particular horror until a few years ago.

But given the state of our world, our politics and our understanding of climate science, it’s time that LEGO cut ties with a corporation whose business model depends on destroying the environment. Every day that LEGO continues to shill for Royal Dutch Shell, it otherwise lends the company a false, friendly and benign air.

I hear some folks: “Come, on, it’s just a little bit of product placement and branding.” They’re two Dutch companies, after all. And how many kids at some point have toys — think model cars and trucks covered in ExxonMobil stickers — labeled with the name of this or that company?

This is more than just banal advertising. Through LEGO sets in the hands of children, Shell markets a subtle-but-dangerous message that it’s institutional, that it belongs, that it’s noncontroversial, that it’s fundamental and that it should be accepted. That the Big Oil economy — which includes Shell’s continued attempts to drill in the arctic — is as “harmless” as apple pie (or maybe stroopwafels).

If LEGO started making new sets called Oil Rig Spill Disaster or Warming, Rising Seas, then I wouldn’t complain. That’d be honesty in advertising.

Want a visual appeal that will punch much harder? Watch this brilliant Greenpeace video and sign.

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

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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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Dear India, it’s time for a new marine conservation agenda

Front page of the Hindustan Times website

The 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity wrapped up yesterday. Today the Hindustan Times published my response op-ed, challenging the Indian government to move forward with an aggressive marine conservation agenda. It’s linked from the front page of HT’s web site at the moment.

The op-ed itself is based on my summer research on India’s EEZ conservation status and the institutional marine research/knowledge/policy regime. That research culminated in a published report and atlas of conservation and environmental metrics of the Indian EEZ.

Ignore the random but incredibly humorous Victoria’s Secret ad center screen. Thankfully, that ad is automatically placed only based on my U.S. location. In India, at least, I’m not competing with advertisements of women in lingerie.

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India needs to make bold commitment to marine conservation

An atlas of biodiversity and environmental parameters

I spent the summer conducting a review of scholarly literature, data, government reports and other information sources for spatially explicit information on the India EEZ. The goal was through a GIS analysis to recommend areas with marine conservation potential where India has jurisdiction. The methodology loosely follows examples of the EBSA designation process.

Greenpeace, my employer, has released my work today and is calling on India to show the international community its commitment to marine conservation by taking a bold statement on protection and management, in advance of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity which will be hosted in Hyderabad in October.

You can read my full report here on Greenpeace’s Web site. Still waiting to see if we get any press out of the report launch event held in Delhi today.

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And we’re back…

I’ve only been back stateside less than a week. I spent my winter break in India and specifically Delhi, visiting friends (and one incredibly important person), laying the ground work for research, meeting scholars and activists, reading development material — Seeing Like a State, The Bottom Billion and Development Redefined — and eating.

This included visits to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the Energy and Resources Institute, Greenpeace India, JNU, WWF India, an organic farm and the Centre for Science and Environment.

It also meant many meals of gunpowder and paratha and curry and thugpa and paranthe and chana and bhel puri and, well, everything. I had the best Indian meals of my life in an out of the way faux village and probably consumed more Tibetan momos in the three weeks there than in my entire life previously. Sadly, almost none of this food was properly photographed. This seems like an incredible oversight now.

Unfortunately, the trip was too short. It always is. But I’ll be back in May.

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Voices of Green India: Jayashree Joshi Eashwar

During May, I spent a couple weeks conducting interviews and producing short video testimonials for Greenpeace India. Hear now the stories of activism from a country struggling to protect its natural environment.

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Voices of Green India: Jasbir Singh Chadda

During May, I spent a couple weeks conducting interviews and producing short video testimonials for Greenpeace India. Hear now the stories of activism from a country struggling to protect its natural environment.

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Voices of Green India: Anurag Kumar

During May, I spent a couple weeks conducting interviews and producing short video testimonials for Greenpeace India. Hear now the stories of activism from a country struggling to protect its natural environment.

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Voices of Green India: Abhishek Surana

During May, I spent a couple weeks conducting interviews and producing short video testimonials for Greenpeace India. Hear now the stories of activism from a country struggling to protect its natural environment.

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