Cycling isn’t free; we’ve got to pay for it.

Sweaty riding on a stationary trainer

Sweaty riding on a stationary trainer

Yesterday evening I set up my bicycle on a stationary trainer outside the most popular pizza restaurant in Berkeley. The line always stretches out the door in the evenings, so it offered an opportunity pedal and sweat (lots of sweating) and talk to people about cycling and explain why I’m riding 320 miles in June to raise money for cycling advocacy. I’m slowly learning the importance of creative fundraising, so that was pretty easy math: good pizza + quick-moving but never-ending line = captive audience.

So I set the trainer resistance to roughly the equivalent of riding up a three-percent grade and just pedaled. I barely got off the bike for 2 hours and 43 minutes. As I said, lots of sweating.

All the while, hundreds — literally — of people waited in line patiently for their pizza and most of them read my sign about how giving money would make cycling easier for them and for all. If someone really stared, then I’d engage them in more conversation. I took brief breaks when kids (or one man) wanted to pedal my bike for a bit.

And I raised $52.

I’m thankful for the generosity of strangers, but I of course overheard some dismissive comments. For example, one young man remarked to a friend, “I don’t know why he thinks I would give to that. Like, why should I pay money for something that’s free?”

I wasn’t there to argue so I let that one go; but it’s worth a bit of discussion, because, well, cycling is not free.

First, and most obviously, cycling infrastructure requires significant funds to pay for planners, architects, engineers, constructors, etc. plus the actual materials. No one thinks that road (re)construction or parking garages are free; neither are lanes, trails, bike racks, bus mounts and all manner of other facilities for cycling. Second, behind all of that material development of cycling as transportation is another expensive process — the education, advocacy, debate and discourse that create cycling as a viable, safe, equitable and sustainable form of mobility. That’s the cost of the work done by NGOs like Bike East Bay, for which I’m raising money.

Of course, that all seems reasonably obvious. But the fact that cycling development does cost money and yet a fair number of people treat it as essentially free is problematic for a few reasons.

First, and this is most obvious, it means that cycling infrastructure will rarely ever been provisioned privately. This stems from cycling infrastructure’s role as what social scientists would call a public good. It’s difficult to exclude or privatize cycling infrastructure (though certainly not impossible) and there is not a clear consumption that takes away from someone else’s consumption. In other words, the “market” will almost always undervalue it precisely because it profiteering is difficult. In property regime theory, that guy on the sidewalk — the one who said he wouldn’t pay for cycling — becomes a “free-rider.”

A second problem compounds with the first, because cycling as a whole — not just material infrastructure like lanes or racks — constitutes a public good. That’s because there are tremendous spillover effects of as more people cycle. In short, society as a whole benefits from cyclists. Cycling improves individual health, reducing burdens on a stretched healthcare system. Cycling also improves public health — primarily through a lack of pollution-based transportation — so that air we all breath is improved. Cycling of course reduces climate change causing emissions — burn fat not fuel! — which will otherwise have cascading detrimental effects on ecological, social, economic and political systems. Cycling also can improve communities by literally increasing the number of eyes on the street moving at speeds slower than the auto-transit car; cyclists are more able to notice when something is “wrong” from a pothole to a home invasion. Cycling is actually fun and can serve as a critical if overlooked source of individual and social happiness, through activity, parks, adventures, etc. Cycling often benefits conservation and preservation in that trails and parks tend to provide additional motivations and protections for green spaces. Cycling benefits also multiply more-than-linearly — i.e. they snowball — as ridership increases, because the more people that ride, the easier it is for others to ride.

A third problem exists in the social inequity that arises when cycling as treated as free. Of course, it is not and so often more affluent people, groups and communities will inevitably find ways to pay for cycling; they may have more political pull and will draw disproportionately more from limited government funds. They may also be able to contribute to private initiatives in their immediate area. Cycling is sometimes intertwined with gentrification as new developments treats cycling infrastructure, active transport and other new urbanisms as luxuries that attract premiums. In short, poor and political marginalized neighborhoods are often less cycling-friendly precisely because they have less ability to pay or advocate for this thing that people treat as free even when they can see it isn’t.

Finally, because the “market” is unlikely to fully value all these benefits of cycling and because we live in an era of government defunding and retreat — a political project of the free-marketers — the development of cycling culture and cycling as acceptable mobility is held back in ways the chief “competitor” to cycling wasn’t. Consider that the automobile became widespread amid government spending projects over decades such as the unfurling of the interstate system and suburban development models, aided by governments; even today massive amounts of federal infrastructure dollars go to projects that benefit drivers to the exclusion of others. Cheap fuel is an official and historical government policy. Car manufacturers are treated as too big to fail. But cycling is trying to come into its own precisely at a time the government is pushed by political ideologues to not spend on other public goods, Parks and public lands are under assault; sustainability and climate change mitigation are black listed topics; research on spatial inequity is actually something the government is trying to disallow. Simply put, cycling has a steep hill to climb.

So while it’s a critical and long-term political project to grab back the reins of government and refocus taxing and spending priorities on projects and programs that can serve so many, in the meantime civil society is desperately needed to fill gaps and fight for all the good that cycling can provide.

And that’s why I’m raising money for Bike East Bay and the cause of bicycling and sustainability. Because, no, in truth, the benefits of cycling are not at all free. They MUST be paid for, by us all.

To support me in this, click here.

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Help! I’m biking 300 miles to fund sustainable cycling and transportation advocacy

A photo stop during a 42-mile training ride in October

A photo stop during a 42-mile training ride in October

Dear family, friends and strangers:

This summer I’m going to cycle 300 miles for a good cause, and I need your help. Let me explain:

In August 2016, I began a PhD program in geography at the University of California at Berkeley. I study human-environment relations in cities and the ocean. On the side, cycling forms a personal and intellectual pet project.

Most of you know that before I moved to California, I lived in India and witnessed some of the great environmental challenges of our time. I have seen first-hand the devastation of both wilderness and urban greenscape, on which people depend for life and livelihood. I have biked and jogged in smog-choked cities where life expectancy drops by years because of toxic air quality. I have sweltered in drought made worse by climate change and walked in villages and neighborhoods where wells continue to run dry. And I have worked for small NGOs that fight for sustainability, conservation and protection of livelihoods linked to the environment.

These issues are hardly limited to the Global South. Industrial pollution weighs heavily on neighborhoods in U.S. cities and even the countryside (often disproportionately hurting minorities and the marginalized). Close to my home in California, drought threatens both farmlands as well as urban drinking water. Of course, most of us, urban or rural, practice lifestyles that generate staggering amounts of waste and greenhouse gases. And now, the current political turn in the U.S. threatens to set back environmental protection by decades.

I try to confront mounting environmental challenges through a personal commitment to cycling — for my daily commute, for exercise, to run errands and for fun. I know I’m lucky in that my circumstances permit me to primarily cycle everywhere (with some supplementary public transit). I don’t have children. I don’t play a string bass or carry power tools. My work is flexible, and no one expects me to wear a suit. I have large thigh and calf muscles.

To make it easier for others to ride a bicycle, I’ve now joined a national charitable campaign called Climate Ride. In June 2017, I’ll be pedaling close to 300 miles along the California coast, all the way from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, to raise money and awareness for bicycling and sustainability.

I’m asking for your encouragement, support, and, yes, sponsorship. I’ve set a personal fundraising goal of $7,001 and I’m going to need help from a network of family, friends and even strangers.

I’ll be riding on a team funding Bike East Bay — an important NGO that works toward sustainability and active transportation around my home, the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. Money I raise helps Bike East Bay educate and advocate for better bicycle infrastructure and protections on the very roads that I ride.

You can make a secure online donation on my personal fundraising page (here). You’ll automatically receive an acknowledgment, and I will be notified of your support. If you’re not comfortable donating online, you can also donate to me directly and I’ll contribute on your behalf.

What do you get by donating?

  • First and foremost, you make a real impact. Climate Ride donations constitute Bike East Bay’s single largest funding stream. Your dollars mean more cycling lanes, more education, more advocacy, more protection. Again, Bike East Bay quite literally makes my life safer every day.
  • You also get a chance to participate with me through my sweat. I am incredibly lucky to have the flexible life needed to dedicate time and energy to months of training. I’ll happily endure muscle pain or an inevitable crash on our behalf. Your contribution means you ride vicariously. See the above photo from my first-training ride in October
  • Regular updates from my training, adventures and snafus. Laugh when my cycling shorts split open; be ready to write a lawmaker when you hear about my crash because of horrendous traffic signaling.
  • As a special bonus, folks who contribute $50 or more will receive a set of high-resolution, print-quality landscape photos from my ride through coastal California. Think iconic Highway 1!
  • Finally, you can answer my own challenge to donors. If I reach my fundraising goal, I promise to turn one of my big ride days into a full “century,” voluntarily tacking on about 30 more miles. That’s 100 miles of sweat and tears in a single day!

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me (see the upper right sidebar of this page).

Thank you, in advance, for your help. Let’s do this together.

Adam

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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.

kidsonhilltop

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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Want to save sharks? Let’s talk about more than shark fishing

Last week the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute released its National Plan of Action for protection of sharks. This is ostensibly one of India’s contributions to its obligations as an FAO member country. Other moves to develop an NPOA for sharks are also ongoing within the Bay of Bengal Programme, for example.

The plan mostly calls for a lot of research, data sharing, better coordination of regulators and stakeholders and, finally, the review and development of new conservation measures. The plan stops short of suggesting for very specific regulations.

While this might seem to make the report toothless — hint, it probably is — this lack of hard measures could actually be a wise move; inclusive and well-thought fisheries policy will come best from a broad, transparent and participatory process, not from top-down, command-and-control, high science advisors.

As a caveat: I’ve been following a lot of this in the background; I marginally volunteer with the Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen, based in far south India’s Kanyakumari region. This association of fishers concentrated around the village of Thoothoor is one of the key actors in India’s “indigenous” shark fishery. And to be clear about my own interests, I’m a diver, I do personally have great appreciation for sharks, I do not eat fish, I work in community conservation and, in general, I research fisheries.

All of that informs the following argument: This plan (and the response from, for example, my scuba diving networks) is too narrowly focused on fishers and consigns the conversation too much to debates about fisheries management. This is an example of problem closure: The problem is framed as one of unconscionable fishing habits (i.e. shark finning, killing majestic fish and so on), so the solutions target fishers.

Emblematic was the response of one mainland India scuba shop in a Facebook post:

India has the largest population of fishermen in the world. But, India does not eat sharks. So, why is it that India is the largest killer of sharks in the world?
It is the greed of a few middlemen selling shark fins to China that is causing this mindless killing of the “Tigers of the Sea”. Come, join us in saving these magnificient [sic] beasts of the ocean from extinction. ‪#‎SaveOurSharks‬ ‪#‎ProjectAware‬ ‪#‎Sharks‬ ‪#‎Fisheries‬ ‪#‎ScubaDiving‬ ‪#‎Environment‬

Yes, middlemen do contribute to unsustainable trade, but, for the record, there has also been an “indigenous” shark fishery in India for at least a few decades. The Thoothoor area fishers in Kanyakumari use longlines and medium-scale boats (under 20 meters) across the EEZ (and beyond) to catch various pelagics — sharks as well as tunas and billfishes. This is their livelihood, not simply a commodity racket; they are not just a bunch of shark finners (though that may also occur).

Also, contrary to the oft-repeated myth, people in southern India (particularly in Kanyakumari) do actually eat shark. Sharks are landed whole and consumed. Furthermore, as the background research to CMFRI’s NPOA makes clear, sharks fishing is not constrained to a small group; a variety of fishing communities across India, including the concentration at Thoothoor, participate in the fishery.

I’m not in denial, nor am I an apologist. Certainly, unsustainable shark fishing occurs in Indian waters — by Indian fishers as well as foreign IUU (or ridiculous LoP) boats. Shark catches are down substantially — as much as 40 percent by my own math over the last ten or so years (depending on what data you use).

But it’s not at all clear which fishers or middlemen are the ones involved in fin trade or which fishers contribute to rampant bycatch or which fishers are simply taking too much shark (along with skate and ray) from the water.

Looking at the pictures of sharks, skates and rays landed is difficult for those who foremost wish to protect marine biodiversity; it turns even my stomach, and gives the sense that majestic and ecologically important creatures are being slaughtered. But this is also a tradition and livelihood that should not be so quickly castigated. Fishing as a practice may also generate its own conservation politics. And, from a ecological perspective, some shark fishing may yet be sustainable, if the external political and economic incentives are more properly aligned and other marine threats are attenuated.

That’s why it’s difficult to get onboard with any knee-jerk agenda that falls back on platitudes that blame one group of people (fishers, for example). The NPOA is reserved in its language, but even it focuses on shark conservation through better management and restriction of fishers.

Certainly fisheries can be better managed. Full stop. And additional restraint is likely necessary. Full stop. But if we resort to the “greedy fisher” or “ignorant fisher” or “race for fish” rhetoric, we are less likely to serve the cause of sustainability or ecological protection. Too many marine conservation campaigns draw battle lines between fishers and non-fishers and see conservation outcomes as an us-vs-them / zero sum scenario. Furthermore, when we direct our attention too sharply at fishers, we lose sight of the incredible amounts degradation that non-ocean communities perpetrate on marine biodiversity. Again, we become complicit in problem closure by framing conservation needs as the need to restrain fishing.

I can’t say enough that shark fin soup is abhorrent. But consider that it’s also an easy target. How many people complain as loudly or as quickly about any of the myriad other threats to ocean sustainability overall:

  • offshore oil drilling
  • coastal SEZs
  • microbeads in toothpaste
  • plastic effing everywhere
  • a culture of complacency in waste management and personal disposal of litter
  • ridiculous levels of fertilizer and pesticide application
  • shipping wastes galore
  • industrial fishing that specifically generates feed for chickens for urban consumers but slaughters sharks in the process
  • eco-tourism that capture biodiversity spaces / places only for those who can afford it
  • unchecked urban carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, factories and cars, etc cause acidification/warming, etc.
  • neoliberal policies that privilege some ocean uses/users over others

The list could go on and on and on and on and on. Unsustainable fishing is but one and there already are voices within the fishing community for sustainable practices and conservation.

Rather than limit our discussion to controlling a bunch of wild, ignorant, backwards, pick-your-pejorative fishers, let’s talk about a holistic, concerted effort to:

  • Embed sustainability into lifestyles and livelihoods (among fishers, sure, but also among other classes and bodies that affect the ocean, such everyone who drives a car in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and everywhere between).
  • Generate and sustain conservation attitudes/knowledge/cooperation for protection of the entire community of ocean dependent life (fisher, non-fisher, non-human). We divers can help with this by sharing our passions through education, training and experiences with people other than the rich tourists who can afford dive holidays.
  • Remove perverse and pernicious incentives for degradation (much of which is rooted in runaway urban consumption patterns). Know where your food comes from; was your chicken fed on fishmeal?
  • Halt coastal developments that threaten crucial ecosystems, habitats and the like. This and this.
  • Question current and future offshore minerals prospecting thatsupport an urban, high capital economy.

Let’s do that all of that, instead of only falling back on a “target-fishers-first” rhetoric and appeals to protect charismatic megafauna.

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World Oceans Day: What else died so you could eat seafood?

Shark bycatch in Ecuador

Shark bycatch in Ecuador

In 2010, I was standing on a beach in Ecuador watching all manner of sea creatures get dragged ashore, sacrificed for the targeted catches of high-value prawns and tunas (mostly for export).

Sharks, rays, even a turtle, all killed in the process. Some of them would end up in local ceviche as non-descript fish, but others (like the turtle, a protected species) would simply be left to rot.

I certainly don’t advocate an end to fishing. I work with fishers of shark, sardines, mackerel, crabs, shrimp, oysters and more. I believe small- and medium-scale fishing has a role to play in livelihoods and food across the globe.

But the sight of Ecuador’s illicit bycatch, which led to the photo above, left me asking what kinds of pernicious forces — political, economic, ecological or other — could lead to such wanton sacrifice.

I’m still asking that question. As June 8 is World Oceans Day, maybe we all should be asking it.

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When we actually ask people in SE DC what they think about cycling…

An early table from the 2013 survey

An early table from the 2013 survey

In 2012 and 2013, American University Prof. Eve Bratman and I worked with two of her classes to survey more than 250 commuters in Washington, DC’s Wards 7 and 8. While much of the city — and indeed the country — has seen a cycling renaissance (hooray!), commuters in predominantly poor, predominantly black Wards 7 and 8 aren’t exactly part of the boom.

Above is an early table from the 2013 segment of the survey that specifically asked commuters at a wide range of places what barriers they could identify to cycling. Meanwhile, we note that the overwhelming preference among our respondents in both surveys is still for an automobile.

Ultimately, this leads us to conclude there is more serious work to be done; and we have a few policy suggestions. For a more developed argument, see the initial findings of our exploratory, shoestring research published today by The Atlantic‘s CityLab.

Many thanks to CityLab for listening to us. And thanks to all the co-conspirators (fellow students) in this research. We’re looking at publishing a much more thoughtful, articulated and data-heavy version in the coming months.

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Back to the start

So right, in so many ways.

That this aired in primetime during the Grammy Awards is a powerful statement. I don’t want to see corporate American brand sustainable, simple living as something of its own (hell, I’ve come late to the party). But my heart is warmed over at the thought of such ethics in the mainstream.

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