Seven times around that fire

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Four years ago, the most wonderful woman and I circled a fire seven times.

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Common sense answers (rooted in political economy) to things people have been saying about #demonetization

In November 2016, the Indian government announced a radical plan to immediately invalidate Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes. This rapid move happened without any real democratic debate. The government, as per usual, acted like everything would be OK and told Indians they needed to sacrifice a bit more the greater good. 

And chaos reigned.

Much debate has since been infused with typical jingoist arguments about giving the government the benefit of the doubt for acting in the good of the nation. This has highlighted stark divides between the minority of the country who participates in faux public discourse in traditional and social media, and who often lead the charge to put the nation first, and the actual majority of the nation who is largely left out of this conversation and are also the most marginalized by this great monetary transformation. 

Here in, various commentaries on various arguments re: demonetization all at once. This started as a short response to a few small points raised by a friend of my family. Then I didn’t stop writing for about 45 minutes.

Taken as a whole, these constitute a “common sense” reply to the utter gobar (cow shit) ideology floating around as economic justification for demonetization. These claims rooted in basic economics and, more importantly, political economy. Which is what I study/research.

 

I’ve since made a few copy edits or clarifications, but this remains more a working draft than a final argument. I also admit upfront that perhaps I have things wrong or that time will change what we know. I’ll continue to make updates when someone points out where I’m wrong. I’ll also add some citations later. Maybe.

One final note: I’m trying to write in a something of a common language wielding what hopefully seems like common sense to make it easier for others to engage this topic without falling back on pure ideology.

  1. Statistics vary on just how many people (or how many households) are unbanked. But the number isn’t inconsequential. Some estimates say half. Some say a third. Some say two-thirds. Whatever proportion of our nation is unbanked, those people — who are almost exclusively poor and more likely to be rural — do not have the same access to banking services as the folks who are largely of the urban middle class who also assume themselves to be “regular people.” Documents needed to get a bank account are not universal for many people in rural areas as well as migrants to urban areas. Production of a PAN card, ID proof, address proof, etc., is not something everyone can do. As a (quasi) dual citizen, it took me many years to cobble together the needed paper trail to get my own bank account. Full stop. So the assumption by the government that everyone who has cash can easily move it into a bank account is willfully ignorant.
  2. Forcing previously unbanked into the banking system exposes them to the potential for severe risks. It opens the door to financialization, greater debt, complex banking products, shadow banking, derivatives, etc. While certainly some numbers of the unbanked need access to banking, not all do at this time. One of the main effects of this policy will be to force the unbanked into the banking system (or else they may lose what cash value they have), which is forcing them into risk. Full stop.
  3. There’s a notion floating around that this is a temporary inconvenience. To people who have sufficient safety nets, who participate in a plastic economy using cards, who consume through the Internet and large stores (where prices for some goods are invariably higher), perhaps this is indeed only a short-term annoyance. I dispute that it’s only trivial hardship even for the middle class (especially the poorer parts of that wide ranging category). Note the long, long lines of people who are attempting to move their money into banks. Or who wish to exchange their money for new valid cash. Daily limits on exchange complicate the matter and many people will for some time be stuck with large bills that are legally nothing more than pretty paper. Meanwhile, many are finding out how difficult it is to pay some bills in cash today even if a hospital or a particular service provider is legally required to accept the bill. In urgent scenarios, even people with substantial means may ultimately lose money by operating through grey-market or black-market changers for additional fees just to get their money converted quickly. Banks simply do not have a enough Rs. 100 notes to hand out to people to absorb the currency space previously occupied by larger notes in transactions. So yes, for the better-off portions of the middle class and for the upper class (i.e. folks who are even better off than the aam admi  farmer or laborer or construction worker or school teacher), this will still probably be more than minimal, temporary pain.
  4. I have watched this debate play out on social media among supposed “regular” people. But we on Facebook are not regular people. Full stop. A large majority of the country is poor. A large majority of the country is rural. A large majority of the country does not debate things in English on the Internet. Still today. But many people in official positions (such as media commentators) or unofficial positions (such as Facebook commentators) are applying their personal economic experience and ideas to the majority of the nation, which remains largely rural. That is folly.
  5. For anyone whose life and livelihood depends on cash transactions, even a few days of disruption is enough to trigger a debt and poverty trap. Consider a hypothetical: If I am sabzi wallah, I likely cannot afford to continue to make various payments in my economic circuit nor can my customers who now have great cash shortages. The lack of large bills creates the shortage of Rs. 100 notes which creates a shortage of even smaller bills. As this disruption drags on due to banking unpreparedness, dithering and changing of the rules by the government, refusal to follow the rules by some sectors (i.e. the hospital that doesn’t continue to accept the Rs. 500 notes), there are mounting hardships felt by me (sabzi wallah) and people like me (the actual aam admi) working in cash economy livelihoods. If I (sabzi wallah) must take a loan to make ends meet, I may be permanently indebted (especially as another effect of this will be to permanently reduce cash business). If I expend my savings to cover my lack of business, I am also more precarious. Maybe not in debt now, but my safety net is gone. This applies to me, the sabzi wallah, as well as many other cash-only livelihoods. Think of the autorickshaw driver, who most likely does not own his own rickshaw outright. He largely works on a commission basis to pay back a kind of debt to the vehicle owner. But his customers can’t easily pay him in plastic and they don’t have small bills. A lack of small bills also likely makes it more difficult to buy petrol, whatever his rights might be. The cash economy worker is both losing income and losing the currency needed to maintain his him. In short, there will be people who previously operated in the cash economy who will see their livelihoods evaporate, permanently.
  6. Why permanently? That is because this move will force a transition to a plastic economy. That might not seem like such an issue for people like me (PhD student) who already order many things on Amazon and BigBasket and travel by Uber. But this is a HUGE sop to e-commerce and larger-scale credit card-based vendors. Consider our corner store in Sanjay Nagar that does not have a credit card processing machine. We may still return to him if this debacle eventually clears (i.e. if there are enough small bills one day put into circulation). Some people certainly will. But a healthy percentage of his customers have been forced into plastic transactions — people who now turn to netbanking and credit cards and so on — and they will be less likely to return to the corner store. The same holds for the sabzi wallah or the auto-rickshaw driver or the dhaba. Meanwhile Amazon and BigBasket and Uber (and their competitors) will see business boom. The point is that it’s not just cash economy livelihoods that are phased out or temporarily asked to sacrifice. There are also clear economic winners, and that is a huge injustice.
  7. Now, I finally get to the government’s supposed rationale for this. Let’s start with the idea that there are fake bills endangering the economy through fraud and inflation. Maybe some folks are counterfeiting bills. If the Rs. 2,000 notes are drastically more technologically complex, this could tamp down some fraud temporarily. But if fraud can occur at one level of technology it can almost certainly occur at another. Of course, our Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 were already relatively high tech with watermarks, embedded security strips, etc. So we are right to be skeptical that this will slow down counterfeiters drastically. Furthermore, I’d like to see convincing evidence that it’s widespread. The existence of “black money” doesn’t automatically mean that counterfeit bills are a massive problem. I’ve encountered two fake bills, both Rs. 50 notes they’re really, really poor forgeries. And changing out the bills for higher-tech ones by itself won’t change an economic system that overlooks cheating and has a thriving money laundering sector. I hear the argument that terrorists are massively trading in counterfeit bills. I am skeptical that this is true, but perhaps policy/police should target the laundering systems that allows them to legitimize fraudulent currency, rather than just targeting all people who use currency.
  8. On the subject of terrorism… As I understand it, another justification for this demonetization is that terrorists will lose whatever amount of rupees they have stockpiled in Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 denominations because they don’t want to risk being ID’d when they try to change out that money. First of all, I ask for some definitive proof of this before subjecting the entire country to a debacle such as this one. Second, a terrorist like anyone else go through the painful process of changing small amounts at a time. An inconvenience, maybe. But remember, the government believes that everyone in the nation can endure this inconvenience. So also could a terrorist. Third, if terrorists are really, truly were willing to commit terrorism, it seems like they also probably are willing to commit other crimes and coerce or pay people to change money for them.
  9. I’ve seen scant instances of serious evidence that economy altering forms of black money are held in cash as a “stock.” Can a non-political entity (I realize there isn’t actually one) give me a percentage? A lot of this “stock” is in property. A lot is in gold. A lot is out of the country in other currencies. Can the government really justify all the hardship I’ve outlined above to pursue some amount of black money that is perhaps unknown and also perhaps not significant? Are there not other ways — i.e. actual investigation of illicit revenues and improving financial bureaucracy — that don’t punish all of us in order to punish some of us. But, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose I do have a substantial amount of black money that I was intending to put to some nefarious purpose. At the very least, I don’t wish to pay taxes so I keep my money sitting around in cash. If I’m that chalu, don’t you think I’ll still try to work around demonetization in the same way that a terrorist could? What’s more, if I’m rolling in that much black money, then it’s probably very little skin off my nose to employ enough people to help me get around it. Or I turn to the grey market for money changing. Or I work through a temple or a hospital or another service that is required to accept cash in a way that may very well become a money laundering window. Those folks who support the government on this are tacitly saying that the holder of black money in cash will simply say, “Oh, you got me. Here are those back taxes, and I’ll be a good person from now on.” Does that strike you as reasonable?
  10. A related point is that this move (and illogical justifications for it) would seem to misunderstand black money. Demonetization does absolutely nothing to address the system that generates black money. Black money is not a “stock.” It is a “flow.” Black money is really the output of a black business (or a white business with a black accounting system). These businesses are a separate problem not addressed by this. Sure, as the owner of said “flow” of black money, I may lose some money on trading my black bills in through elaborate measures, but I can continue to operate my under the radar enterprise easily with the new Rs. 2,000 bills. As outlined above, this is unlikely to get someone who benefits from a black money stream to straighten up and fly right.
  11. I hear the word “corruption” thrown around. As though this will stop making people pay bribes. (I’m not sure that anyone argues this will stem a deeper version of corruption that comes from legal manipulation of the system or corruption enterprise as a stream of black money). It seems like this really is meant to address a cartoon character of someone with a briefcase of cash (ostensibly black money) that changes hands illicitly. First question, which is easier to pay as a bribe: four Rs. 500 or one Rs. 2,000? As with counterfeiting, it seems like this might be at best a temporary disruption in such trade. But briefcases can still be configured to carry Rs. 2,000 notes.
  12. A more complex justification says that perhaps property buying via hordes of black money cash will be curtailed if the cash economy is constricted. But it seems I’ve laid out a way around the black money rationale of the government, which then suggests I can still figure out how to buy property. Also, when Rs. 2,000 notes are back in circulation, won’t cash purchase of houses return to business as usual?
  13. There’s been a justification that there is no perfect solution to a huge complex problem like this one — Multiple tentacles. Corruption, lack of tax paying, corruption, exploitation, cheating, lots of sectors that need to be regulated differently, hugely diverse economy, etc. This logic says, the Indian economy itself is a huge “problem” and therefore the government must take “surgical strike” action to fix it without the hindrance of democracy. A follow-up point is usually that, yes, there is likely to be some collateral damage but we need action. This viewpoint is naive. Huge problems are not solved by autocratic, magic bullet solutions. They’re just not. Complex systems require careful, reasoned recalibration (if even that is possible) with adequate protection and consideration lest the react unpredictably. Based on the logic above, it seems like we could predict that this anti-democratic magic bullet option wouldn’t work.
  14. Which suggests that all the popular justifications, which I have tried to dispense with above, are not actually the real justification. I don’t honestly think that Modi et al. are this stupid (i.e. that they actually thought this would just “fix” things), which really makes me think more a collective change to give a massive sop to the financial and credit-based economic sectors. When a solution doesn’t bring benefits or answers to supposed problem, perhaps there are other people/sectors/issues it was intended to benefit all along.
  15. I have to address the idea that this is something good and we have to give the government benefit of the doubt. Simply put, that’s not how it works in a democracy. In a democracy, which we sometimes pretend we still are, large decisions that will have large impacts are discussed, debated, reasoned. Yes, that means that sometimes “decisive” action can’t be taken. Sometimes that discussion leads to gridlock or causes them to be turned down or subjects them to mob rule. OK. That’s how democracy goes. Because it’s still better to have wide participation and general consensus about the way we all move ahead in this world than to have a few experts making decisions at the expense of the many.
  16. A related charge — and one of the most scary — is that people who dissent are unreasonable. That we’re anti-national. Yeh sabse bada gobar hei. Dissent in a democracy is healthy; it’s the essence of participation in the setting of the collective will and agenda of a democratic country. But then we barely live in a democracy. We’re headed toward fascism, and I have no problem saying that. It’s one thing to have faith in a nation or the ideal of a nation. But it’s also very democratic to criticize a government or a politician or a leader. Dissenting over a policy a core principle of democracy. Calling someone an anti-national because they dissent? Suggesting that we must support the government for the good of nation? That’s drifting toward fascism. The other side of the “aren’t people too worked up” coin is “people shouldn’t be worked up at all.” And, what is that? Fascist.
  17. More on that point. Some folks seem to argue that critics of demonetization are really just anti-BJP and pro-Congress. Well Congress flirted with this idea and it was a bad idea then, too. And the BJP said so at the time. Congress made stupid policy, too. And deserved criticism. But the BJP bhakts seem to not take criticism well. Worse, some often interpret criticism of BJP as criticism of Hindus or being “anti-national.” Which sucks us back into that rabbit hole of the previous point and tacitly argues that the nation can only be represented by Hindu politicians (i.e. the BJP).

Look, I study political economy and with it some economics. I’m not going to claim to be an expert in all matters of economics or monetary policy. There’s a lot more nuance to the all of the above and maybe I’ve overstated or understated some things. But I’ve also tried to reason in common sense terms that are understandable to most folks.

That’s because — and I say this with the gravest of faces — this is an anti-democractic, strong-arm tactic that will have few of its supposed benefits. But it will cause a lot of people long-term pain and an even larger number of people short-term pain. And almost no one had a say it whether it happened.

Who thinks that’s what government in a democracy should do?

<small>Note: I made some style, copy and organizational changes on Friday, 18 Nov. No change in the argument.</small>

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Please, help me pay for future social ecology research on the Aghanashini like this…

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I need your help!

I have an ongoing research project in the Aghanshini River estuary in southwestern India. I’m studying how people depend upon and feel about mangroves, as well as their understandings of and attitudes toward conservation, their environment and the forces of development. The above is the geospatial rendering of household surveys conducted by my team during about six weeks. We’re a tiny NGO but we’re attempting big, robust work.

The research is set amid a backdrop of looming destructive neoliberal development in an area rich in socially important biodiversity. In a related project, colleagues and I have estimated the estuary’s ecosystem service value at some $257 million annually.

My grant-funded research is drawing to a close, so I’m pleading with family and friends to help fund my NGO’s work into the future. At Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation, we do a lot with a little, and while I am writing new applications for grants, I am also running a crowd funding campaign in the interim.

Our campaign has struggled to get traction. For some $300, I could gamble on professional promoters to take over might be successful in raising funds. But for the same amount, I could pay one of my team members for another month.

That’s where you come in. If you make regular charitable contributions, please consider my campaign. And, as important, please spread the word and endorse us as a fundraising option in your networks. Our campaign — Eco-citizens and Green Communities of Aghanshini — will pay for environmental education, biodiversity monitoring, social ecological research and more. Visit our site at the international crowd funding platform Generosity and share this link: http://igg.me/at/dCqpA5ixJiQ.

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Meet the white-bellied sea eagle

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My field station sits just off a picturesque beach on the southwest coast of India. Immediately to the north, a rocky headland rises crowned at the top by an ancient fort. The history of the fort, which overlooks mouth of the nearby estuary as well as the beach and sea, is unknown but the stone boundary wall and crumbling foundations inside likely date to the at least the 1600s.

The fort is abandoned but it serves as a commons for local households who harvest the cashews and grasses that grow there. Both the hillside and plateau also have scrub brush, trees and coastal jungle. These spaces provide shelter to all manner of biodiversity — birds, butterflies, lizards, snakes, mongooses, jackals, wild pigs and more.

Flying above them all is my friend the majestic white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster).

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We believe a pair roost in a hillside tree very near our field station, but I’ve seen as many as five together soaring on air currents well above the hilltop. They fish the river and ocean, play/fight over their catch and call out with their raucous laughter-like cries (see below).

I’ve also photographed a juvenile which looks like a ragged brown kite until its stark white and grey adult feathers come it.

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These photos come from my work and that of my foundation. We conduct biodiversity documentation/monitoring in partnership with a the India Biodiversity Portal. We also involve local school children as a form of biodiversity education.

But without a new funding stream we won’t be able to keep this work up much longer. We’ve initiated a crowdfunding campaign to keep our biodiversity research and education alive. Please consider donating and spread the word.

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Cute kids learning about the environment need your HELP!

Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders on a biodiversity walk

Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders on a biodiversity walk

Let me introduce you to the Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation (PCF) biodiversity education program. Based in Kagal, Karnataka, in southwestern India, we work in schools and with students living around the highly biodiverse and important Aghanashini River estuary. We’re really excited about this program but, frankly, we need your HELP.

This program has allowed us to deliver short educational sessions to classrooms, lead groups (like above) on walks through their own forests and grasslands, and contribute actual scientific, spatially referenced biodiversity observations to the India Biodiversity Portal, a national science database and initiative.

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Through a few months of even sporadic documentation work, we’ve actually contributed more than 400 biodiversity observations, including some directly captured by students (like below). Members of my team all work on this part-time in addition to other work, and we’ve still managed to hold two half-day biodiversity walks and six biodiversity camps. We estimate we’ve had at least 80 students of different ages engage with us, some for repeat visits. And we’ve paid individual visits to dozens of parents and school teachers to recruit more. We’re now in the process of starting a regular club through which local school-age kids can volunteer, learn and participate in our work — say checking out a camera for an afternoon of hiking or just having tea with a researcher.

Naturalists in the making...

Naturalists in the making…

We’re also now piloting a new project with high school students in the classroom to implement a seasonal tree monitoring exercise, in partnership with the Nature Conservation Foundation. And we’re developing mangrove-specific curriculum and teaching aids for local schools based on our own research with help from WWF-India.

My point: We’re on the cusp of doing a lot.

But this is also threatened by financial reality. We’ve been operating for months on a shoestring budget. We need gear upgrades and the money to devote a full-time staffer to this work at a half-decent (not luxurious) salary.

The team is brainstorming a revenue model that if successful could make this work sustainable in the long-run and I am writing grant proposals for funding in the short-term.

That’s where you come in. I’m also reaching out with a personal funding appeal for our NGO’s work around eco-citizenship and conservation — and our local biodiversity education in particular. Please see our online campaign page, developed through Indegogo, the internationally reputed crowdfunder.

We have suggested donations — and earmarked contribution options — for all sizes of checkbook. But we of course would accept any amount, no matter how small.

One other way that anyone can help us is to share our campaign page in your networks; share this blog post as well.

For questions about this campaign or to discuss other ways to collaborate/help (in-kind, volunteer work, etc.), don’t hesitate to contact me: ajadhav [at] panchabhuta.org or my personal addresses on the right-hand side of this page.

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Dear urban green thumb, eco-friendly types: You don’t actually need more shiny tech to compost!

Newly planted kale, bokchoy, dill, oregano, coriander and spinach, partially using homemade compost

As per usual, Treehugger.com’s too-frequent love affair with technology has me annoyed. So rather than work on the fisheries governance paper that is my primary looming task, I’m sounding off here.

Dear would-be urban composters and other people who wish to adopt more sustainable lifestyles by composting:

Please try to not get sucked into the Zeitgeist of techno-eco-consumerism. I support most anything that moves individuals, communities and societies toward more sustainable lifestyles, but Treehugger.com’s periodic zeal for the shiny-package, the new-fangled gizmo or the uber-high-tech is unlikely to be sustainable in the long-run (or even the short).

(E.g. I think Lloyd Alter is a smart dude, but his drooling over a “phase change” shirt from a few years ago still sticks in my craw.)

The primary fly-in-my-soup today is this “attractive” but suspect Bono countertop composting system. Essentially it’s a prettily crafted system that aims to be a fill-it-and-forget composter that magically pumps out fine humus (mixed with a bit of soil).

After swooning for a while about materials and design with very little critical review of feasibility and likelihood of success, TreeHugger’s Kimberley Mok ends with this:

While one can also use any old container to start composting, even as a prototype Bono is admittedly quite an attractive alternative to a regular plastic bin. The extra clever features, such as the liquid collection dish, are a useful bonus. No word on whether it’ll be commercially available soon, but easy-to-use, compact composters like this one may win reluctant composting converts over much sooner.

That is TreeHugger’s defense of these kind of short pieces highlighting a new product — that attractive and convenient will win the “aspirational” eco-citizen and convert them to a more sustainable path. I’m not sure that holds up in general and in this case particularly.

I’ll start with an acknowledgment: Composting is not the absolute easiest practice and requires accepting a few basic precepts: You will get a bit dirty. You might touch a maggot. Rotting food smells sometimes. I’m also admit I am lucky to have even a modest bit of outdoor space at my apartment in Bangalore. That said, it’s also not rocket science or even adapting to a new pointless iTunes update.

Another sort of disclaimer: I disagree with those cost-benefit sustainable-ists who remarks, “Why should I compost? I don’t have a car and that makes me more green than you’ll ever be.”

I, too, don’t have a car but I still compost. This sustainability tradeoff game is a childish debate. It too often compares apples to kumquats or makes a reductionist policy argument that everything sustainable can and should be counted in carbon footprint decreased.

Simply put, I agree composting has benefits for individuals, households, neighbors, communities and the earth. Full stop.

So of course I support efforts to bring more people into the let-it-rot fold. In that, TreeHugger.com and I are on the same team.

But, but, but… I pray that would-be urban composters don’t fall so easily for the another-thing-to-buy-that-will-make-it-all-easier logic. Especially when that additional thing you hope to buy is a prototype that is unlikely to satisfy.

First, let’s be honest with ourselves. It’s simply not sustainable to believe we can adopt sustainable lifestyles by buying new-fangled crap in the hope that we don’t actually need substantive lifestyle changes (and, in this case, accepting reality that our garbage smells foul). Maybe this counter-top composter is attractive, maybe it wins hearts and minds, but we should at least stop and question: Is it actually a good thing to try to invent the microwave popcorn or K-cup version of composting? Short-term, seems elegant/convenient, long-term, a sustainability fail.

Another analogy: Is this something like a Diaper Genie for compost? The diaper genie alleviates the odor problem of piling up disposable diapers and hides them from sight, eliminating one practical disincentive to using ever-more disposable diapers. I imagine that more honestly confronting the baby-poo-dilemma might encourage realistic problem solving (including regular washing to reusable cloth diapers). I submit that a counter-top composting model aims to alleviate the discomfort of odor or devoting space to a rotting tub of garbage, which allows us to avoid the reality of our waste. Worse, if it fails to work even moderately well (as I suggest below), then it may not even encourage composting in the short-term.

So let’s consider the attractive “tech” critically.

I’m estimating here, as this fawning is all over a prototype (i.e. no long-term demonstration or specs I can see). That jar looks approximately like the depth and diameter of my terracotta pillar system in India. Based on experience with two people consuming a moderate amount of vegetables, a jar this size will fill up in two weeks, long before even the bottom layers have matured. In a healthy US diet, which probably includes more fresh vegetable consumption, that will load up even quicker. If it truly is no-turn composting (just layering), the top, most recently added layers will of course take longer even as the bottom finishes. If you’re aiming to avoid messy compost, that means the “couple months” minimum is from the point at which the bin fills.

So far, this doesn’t make a lot of sense (or a lot of compost). But I admit the demo video is more promotional than explanatory and it is subtitled in a language I don’t speak. I could have misunderstood.

This turn around of well-formed compost assumes ideal conditions re: moisture, air circulation to the core, small grain of organic matter (i.e. chop those rinds, peels and waste bits) and a well-tuned carbon/nitrogen ratio (~25 C to 1 N). Which you won’t get if you’re only adding kitchen scraps and maybe a bit of newspaper. Critiquing the “compost” that the hand model in our demo video appears to take out of the bucket, I think that’s not actually finished compost. And for the record, good soil for growing actually requires more than just compost.

To get more rapid and better-finished compost, you’d need to add even more carbon-heavy materials on a regular basis (to get to that sweet spot of ~25 C to 1 N). Which would of course fill the shiny bucket faster. Which would mean opening the contraption more, which would again release smells, a legitimate composting deterrent for the aspirational. Plus, from a fair bit of experience, to get really broken down humus you’ll need maturation, which means a second vessel to “let it rot” some more. So much for self-contained.

Also, perhaps you could periodically mix the compost in situ (maybe you’re supposed to?); that still seems to defeat the purpose of this shiny, self-contained contraption. That in turn leaves me asking if there’s not a better active solution.

A low-priority nit would be that the hideway juice tray is likely to tip when you first lift it out, spilling compost tea all over the places you don’t want it. It might look “clever” but a spigot (which already exist in other bucket systems) would do you better.

By the way, those smells of rotting vegetables are going to be more pungent and last longer in a no-turn system. Well-turned and managed compost quickly smells like the forest floor. Breath deep. Meanwhile, soaking wet compost with too much nitrogen (what a mix of mostly unturned kitchen scraps will get you) will turn to an anaerobic digestion process that could eventually smell like rotten eggs.

If this is aimed at the tyro composter who is less committed to the cause or someone who has more constraining conditions (e.g. renting a room in a compost unfriendly household or a Japanese pod apartment), then I don’t see it fulfilling its supposed evangelizing mission. The cracks in the powdered spun aluminum veneer —  it fills up too quick, takes too much time, still smells bad, doesn’t produce fully formed compost — become gaping.

I’m envisioning a lot of partially finished compost getting dumped back down the sink disposal or into the trash bin. After that, look for used-but-still-shiny bins on Craiglist.

This adds up to a big function fail that is just overlooked in the name of fashion. It’s too small. It’ll take too long. It’s not a reasonable composting system to generate a yield.

High probability of the opposite of success doesn’t bode well for winning “people who think about going green, stuck thinking that they will have to give up their style and design philosophy,” as a TreeHugger.com moderator responded to my (I admit) unnecessarily snarky original comment on the above article.

That suggests a counter-top composter (as opposed to a temporary storage jar, collector or “keeper” with say a charcoal filter) is trying to force a function where it doesn’t belong. Toilets go in bathrooms for a reason; I don’t have one next to my bed no matter how superficially convenient that might be.

In the same line of reasoning, the counter just might not be feasible for your actual composter.

Look, I think green-trends blogs like TreeHugger are indeed important. I’m on the daily e-mail list. But I also believe appropriateness of tech/design should be prioritized over aesthetics.

Note: I am certain the writer of the TreeHugger post is smart. And yes, this is probably appealing to a certain set of consumers. I’m even willing to concede that there is probably a narrow margin of users who could make this Bono system work OK (though these same users are probably quite expert and would opt for a more practical, useful and productive system).

But there must a middle ground between catering to aspirations and espousing reality. Aspiring to change our lifestyles as little as possible isn’t aspiring to much at all (and actually may be part of the problem).

Bonus material:

Even as a nascent urban permaculturist, I can brainstorm many other suggestions to address problems of the aspirational composter (and maybe bring about a little system change while we’re at it). In that, I’m certainly not the first or the smartest. I’m not claiming to be an expert or industrial-strength composter (though I grow things on my terrace with homemade compost). Even TreeHugger has various posts relating to the range of DIY composting methods that exists; many of those solutions can be adapted.

If you’re really committed to the urban waste reuse project — or aspire to be — here are some suggestions (I’m not the only one saying this) that could actually make composting (or composting-like activities) work for you:

  1. Don’t care what the composting-takes-too-much-space-crowd-says: A small rotary drum composter won’t take up much space on any balcony, terrace, etc. Certainly no more than your bicycle, patio chair, grill, etc. Well maintained, it also will hardly smell. Check Craigslist for a used one. Or adapt a DIY design if you have even a modicum of initiative.
  2. Not everyone has even that outdoor space. OK. Let me rephrase: A small rotary drum composter won’t take up much space in that unused corner of your apartment. Certainly no more than your bicycle, arm chair, DVD stand, etc. Well maintained, it also will hardly smell. Put a plastic mat underneath and sweep now and then. Check Craigslist for a used one. Or adapt a DIY design if you have even a modicum of initiative.
  3. See points 1 and 2 about terracotta (or DIY) towers with collection, maturation and storage tubs — another way to go.
  4. All of the above essentially require some amount of active compost management — aerating, turning, getting appropriate proportions of ingredients. But even moderate management will deal with most of the smell and unsightliness, if that’s the real problem.
  5. On a more philosophical note, active compost management recognizes that waste is a problem to be actively confronted (as opposed to repacked in a shiny jar).
  6. Getting the right ratio of ingredients could also help cut down your other household waste, as you’ll start adding more cardboard packaging, shredded paper, etc.
  7. I mentioned this already: Well-maintained maturing compost smells like the forest floor. So wonderful!
  8. Also, I bet some used books will teach you plenty more and make you a better, happier composter / urban gardener than a powder-coated aluminum jug. This for composting, and this for the world of soil health beyond composting.
  9. You can DIY additional amendment (say, growing a bit of lemongrass if you have the right light and temp) as a pest prevention additive layer after compost turns. Google “DIY compost amendment.” Voila!
  10. You could make DIY pseudo-EM by fermenting some cooking water (I do it with water left over from soaking chickpeas; water drained from rice or even cooked pasta should also work).
  11. If you do have skeptical/annoyed neighbors, housemates or family members, have you honestly tried discussing it with them upfront. I think I won a neighbor over re: our messy terrace garden by offering him a tomato plant. Agree to pool resources (kitchen scraps and/or “browns”) and share rewards (humus or grown produce)? Now we’re aiming at system change.
  12. Does your residential building have outdoor space? I know enough people who say their landlords/managers/association would never agree to composting in a common space but how many have actually tried it? Can you (and maybe your neighbors) petition for permission?  Parking garages, alleys, garbage rooms, etc. already smell of one fume or another and rooftops have this thing called wind. Also, more system change.
  13. Of course, you need not be limited specifically to composting. A popular tested intermediate tech option for the urban, space-conscious, aspirational, would-be organic waste-repurposer would be the bokashi bucket fermenter (or the DIY version). I don’t actually like it that much, but I get its usefulness. Extract the ferment tea all you want. Then when the bucket fills (since we’re assuming you don’t have land in which to bury semi-finished product), find people at a community garden who would almost certainly be happy to bury your fermented waste to help their garden grow.
  14. The earlier point about community gardens really applies to most organic waste. Buy a cheap air-tight bucket or a filtered compost keeper. Periodically drop off waste for someone else who will put it to good use. I bet you could even trade uncomposted waste for healthy soil.
  15. While you’re at it, try for a community garden plot.

This has turned into a long missive about combining appropriate tech philosophy with a love for green, urban thumbs and living. Skeptics (or perhaps the folks at TreeHugger who are poked a bit) could call it a tirade. Fair enough. Excessive techno-eco-consumerism really gets my goat.

To be clear, I do want to be on the same team as others who encourage the aspirational green people to become formerly aspirational green people. But I also think that a heavy dose of critical evaluation has to be applied; lifestyle change does actually require lifestyle change.

In other words, dealing with excessive waste may actually require smelling the rotten vegetables.

Composting experts out there can surely advise me on where I have gone astray. TreeHugger can feel free to respond as well.

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PAY ATTENTION: We need the ocean and maybe the ocean also needs us

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It’s World Oceans Day, a day to celebrate a fundamental global resource upon which so much of planetary life depends. But this is a rather bittersweet, nominally awareness-raising holiday. That’s because the state of the global ocean — the collection of marine ecosystems from shallowest estuary to deepest trench — is well, abysmal. Cheering on an internationally named “day” then feels a bit like “celebrating” our most prized possessions as we set them on fire.

The ocean from the intertidal-level view

I work in a lightly touched coastal estuary and among small- and intermediate-scale ocean fishers in coastal Karnataka (above photo). My team and I mix research with advocacy. And on a lot of occasions, it feels like we’re losing the battle to protect our coastal and marine commons. And given how mission critical (mission=continued existence) the ocean is, I find myself sometimes quite bleak about the future of our planet.

In my latest project — a study on social ecology and dependence upon mangroves in my estuary/playground — we’re asking people how much compensation they would need to accept a large industrial shipping port proposed by the government. The port would wipe out large sections of mangroves and destroy the healthy estuary. Watching the zeal with which the state government pushes this project is pretty depressing.

But then the research surprises me. Through more than 200 surveys conducted so far (about a fifth of the total target sample), the vast majority of respondents refuse to accept any of the hypothetical compensation bids they’re offered. That includes households offered up to 5 million (50 lakh) rupees. For many of these households that’s equivalent to about 50 years’ income.

So many I don’t need to give up on human-ocean relations just yet.

Happy World Oceans Day.

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Research: How much is a healthy estuary worth?

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No surprise: A whole heck of a lot.

Take the Aghanashini River estuary (classified above based on World View 3 multispectral imagery). Using a benefits transfer assessment with established global ecosystem service values, my collaborators and I have assessed the annual ecosystem service benefits at more than $250 million.

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I presented these preliminary figures at an expert workshop last month; we’re now finalizing an ecosystem service valuation paper which we hope will see academic publication soon.

Of course, valuation of ecosystem services has its downsides. Many have reasonably asked whether environmental resources can truly be valued in monetary terms. One response is that such a monetary calculation is but one of many ways of considering the value of the environment. But they are important for policy and politics. And while many environmental goods may be in reality priceless, without a baseline value, too many policy makers may assign a zero value.

Is it a slippery slope? Yes. So we tread carefully.

Many thanks to Sharolyn Anderson, Paul Sutton and Michael Dyer for a lot of hard work and putting up with my only basic knowledge of remote sensing. Thanks also to the DigitalGlobe Foundation for providing the imagery as a grant.

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Minerals from the sea: Problem closure, neoliberalism and ocean grabbing in the Indian EEZ and beyond

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For much of the past 18 months, I have worked part-time on a large review of ocean mineral extraction in Indian national waters as well as by India in the high seas. The present is oil but the future are a host of other minerals that often fall under the rubric of “seabed mining.”

In this mini-book, I propose that by framing development questions as an urgent race for resources (minerals, in this case) the government problem closes and narrows simply to the “next frontier” of mineral extraction: the ocean. This problem closure (i.e. narrowing the definition of the problem that also narrows the solution set) is problematic on its own, but it is further compounded by a penchant for neoliberal policy and ideology that has essentially set off another kind of ocean grab.

The subject matter is at times arcane, dense and, well, boring. But the way ocean mineral extraction fits into India’s larger development-at-all-costs narrative raises serious questions about the undemocratic nature of minerals governance.

So enjoy (if possible).

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The social and political economy of an estuary worth protecting

Oyster mudflats, a political space that also serves hundreds of households

Last week I presented another set of research findings / summaries of my work with Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation. This presentation casts the Aghanashini River estuary as a political economic space, affected by multiple external and internal optics and development trends. This review ultimately ends in a call for robust valuation of this critical ecology (from non-monetary and monetary perspectives).

To see the full presentation which may yet yield a paper, click here.

Note: There are serious critiques to be made of the ecosystem services valuation paradigm. Yet such valuations remain critical for much policy and management. A balance must be struck between pricing everything all the time and pricing nothing ever. On this I straddle.

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