Monday, September 29, 2008

Armchair Activism For All!

If you want to participate in my armchair activism challenge, the great Green Bean kindly made me a little doodad to add to your homepage!

Apparently, Blogger has now made it super easy to add little images to your sidebar, so you just have to download the image to your hard drive, and then upload it using the "picture" gadget. Easy peasy, no coding necessary. If you are interested in participating, let me know. Let's do our best to bring environmental issues to the forefront!

Unlocking The True Meaning of Holidays

So people who are not traveling, searching for apartments, trying to register for classes, or figuring out how to transfer dollars into pounds tell me that it's almost October. Which means the onslaught of holidays is almost upon us. Gah! Did I mention I HAVEN'T FOUND AN APARTMENT YET?!!!

Okay, um, clearly I have a one-track mind at the moment, but, back to the holidays....

As Halloween approaches, and then Thanksgiving and then Christmas, it is easy to get caught up in the commercialization and rampant materialism. It's not unusual for even a non-consumer to want to spend money on decorations, or to rush through the thrift-store searching for something! anything! to get for friends and family. We like holidays because they offer us ritual, connection with people, and something to celebrate. And when the ritual involves buying 20 presents at the mall, we participate in that ritual. Even if it's not necessarily a ritual we would have chose ourselves.

So how does one celebrate the holidays without breaking the bank, or giving in to the rituals of materialism? Develop new rituals.

A couple years ago, I was going through a bad time missing my dad. The King decided I needed cheering up, so he took me to the Day of the Dead festival on Olvera Street. For those of you that aren't aware, Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrating the dead that takes place on November 1st.

We wandered through the street, taking in the free dance shows, and other festivities. Then we walked into an area of the church where a little art gallery was set up. One of the exhibits allowed people to write letters to the dead, and the letters were then placed in a decorated box that was supposedly the mail box for heaven.

You don't have to be religious to see the value in writing a letter to the dead. So, even though I thought it might feel weird, I bit the bullet, and wrote out a long letter to my dad. When I had finished, I was crying, but I felt a release. I put the letter in the mailbox to heaven, and we went out and lit a candle for my dad.

I really felt that year, that I celebrated the true meaning of the Day of the Dead. I didn't buy any of the ubiquitous skeleton figurines. I didn't decorate my house in cobwebs. I didn't dress up. But I participated in the community festivities. I connected with my father. And in the process I made new rituals for myself.

So as the holidays approach, I suggest the same for you. Don't shy away from holidays necessarily. Attend free community festivities. Spend time with friends and family. Host a potluck in your home. Develop new rituals. And try to enjoy things without stressing out.

Because holidays are not, at base, about buying stuff. They are about ritual and togetherness.

What are some of the non-consumeristic holiday rituals you've developed?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Making The Environment A Right, Left, and Center Issue

A week ago, Joyce posted about who she was voting for and why, which led to a very interesting discussion on her blog.

And it got me thinking.

You see, Joyce and I are voting for two different people. And that's okay. There are a lot of reasons I am voting for my guy, and there are a lot of reasons Joyce is voting for hers. Our candidates differ on a lot of issues, and that's also important and healthy in a democracy.

But climate change need not be an area where they disagree.

When I first started writing this blog, I assumed most of the people reading it would be like me. Liberals from the coasts, or big cities. What I found though, is that the environment isn't an issue upon which liberals have a monopoly. (As well it shouldn't.) Now I am happy to count atheists and evangelicals alike among my blog friends. Conservatives, liberals, and moderates. And my readers came from all over the world. Europe, Asia, Oklahoma, Washington, Virginia, California.

I want Obama to win. I'll make no bones about that. The second my absentee ballot gets here, that's whose name I'll be ticking.


We can't afford to waste four more years dawdling over climate change. If McCain wins, we liberals cannot afford to write him off and wait four years until we may or may not get someone more to our liking in the White House.

That's why I believe the politicization of environmental issues is dangerous. We simply cannot afford climate change to be seen as a left-wing issue. And the truth is, it shouldn't be. I now know many evangelicals and/or conservatives who care deeply and passionately about the environment. If we all work together, I believe that we can make climate change a bipartisan issue. We can make change if we ignore our blue/red divisions, and roll up our sleeves to work together.

No matter which candidate wins, we will still need to keep an eye on him. There are a lot of other issues that are going to draw attention away from climate change, and there are a lot of special interests that are going to do their darndest to keep any president, Democrat or Republican, from making much needed changes.

We need to remind McCain and Obama constantly that they do not answer to special interests. They answer to us.

So here's my proposal/challenge to you all. Until the election in November, email your candidate(s) once a week regarding an environmental issue. Keep it constructive. If Obama's health care policy gets you going, but his lukewarm statements on coal leave you cold, tell him so. If you love Palin's family values, but hate her position on polar bears, tell her so. Remind your candidate that you WANT to vote for them, but that they need to EARN your vote. If you don't know who you are going to vote for, so much the better. Write to BOTH Obama and McCain, and tell them what they need to do to swing your vote their way.

And you can write whatever you want, so if plastic is your big issue, talk about that. If peak oil is your issue, you can write about that. If you have no idea what to talk about, I'll be sharing my letters here, and you can use mine as a template. And if you're not an American citizen, you can still take part in the election madness by writing to your elected officials.

Climate change has been too much of a non-issue in this election. Let's make sure our voices are heard. If you want to participate in my Armchair Activism For All challenge, please leave a comment and I'll add your name to my side-bar. (And if anyone with any spare time wants to make a cute doohickey for graphically challenged me, I'd be much obliged.)

It's hard to believe that one vote, or one e-mail can make a difference, but remember, the past few elections have been decided by very small numbers of votes, and it doesn't appear like this election will be any different. If we all make our voices heard, we can change the world.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Onwards and Upwards

Last week, I spent the week in the villages of India, in one of the poorest parts of the world, in fact. There's much to write about, but I need a little time to process I think. It was a fantastic week, but lord did I get tired of the cows everywhere!

Yesterday, I arrived in Delhi. Where there are thankfully fewer cows, and unfortunately infinitely more cars.

There is also a subway slowly being expanded, so perhaps next time I come to Delhi, I'll be able to ride it! And the auto-rickshaws proudly bear the label "CNG Fuel."

This has been an eye-opening trip. So much of India has changed in the past five years since I came last. Fancy, clean, air-conditioned stores have been erected all over the cities. Cell phones are ubiquitous in the cities and even the villages. Organic cotton baby clothes are sold in the department stores, and organic rice and tea are sold in stores catering to a more health-conscious public. Soda bottles, which used to be refillable glass bottles, are moving to plastic. And the washing machine, which I never really thought would take off in India due to cheap washer women, is now everywhere. (No dryers though. People still line-dry their clothes.)

India is poised to make many of the mistakes we in the first world have made. But it's not inevitable. Even now, Indians still tend to be more conservationist than most Westerners. Frequent power outages make Indians more concerned about electricity. Lights are shut when you leave the room, as are fans. Out of habit, most of my Indian relatives stick with the bucket baths instead of the showers. My cousin exclaimed, "I can't get used to these tissues they have at the office. I prefer my handkerchief."

All this could change easily. But if Indians are careful, they might be able to learn from our mistakes. They might be able to keep their cell phones and their handkerchiefs too.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Bucket

What do you know? A bucket of water is all you need to wash yourself properly, shave, wash your hair, and then wash your underwear. When I think of the buckets and buckets of water that I use to shower, I'm a little amazed at the waste.

But I have to admit. I do miss showers terribly.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Affluence: The Debate Rages On

Several years ago, I was on a plane to Indore, and sitting next to me was a young, educated fairly well off ( we were on a plane, after all) man. We got to talking and he asked me where I was going. "It's a village called Bagli," I responded.



There was a slight pause as this young man tried to figure out in his head why in the world a young Indian-American would be traveling to some God-forsaken place like Bagli. Suddenly, he hit upon it.

"Is your dad, like the prince of Bagli?" he asked me.

I stared at him a little confused. Then the pieces clicked. Of course. The only reason he could come up with for my traveling to some village called Bagli would be if I were a local royalty!! To unpack this a little, an affluent person would only travel to a village to exploit the people, not to help the people.

A few days ago, the second APLS Carnival was published on the topic of affluence. Though I haven't yet been able to read all the entries, it remains true that the word "affluence" is still a controversial term.

I've always been in favor of keeping the word of affluence, as most of you know. Affluence is a loaded term because so often, wealth has been used to separate people. To provide a gap.

But it is important to remember that affluence has also been used, and is perhaps necessary, to unite people. To bridge the gaps.

Where would Doctors Without Borders be without the help of affluent countries and individuals? Or the Peace Corps? Greg Mortenson built schools in Pakistan because he could do what the tribal people and the government of Pakistan could not. How did this happen? Because Greg Mortenson came from an affluent society. He had the benefit of the education such a society provides. He could afford the airfare to attempt the climb of K-2. And then he was able to find wealthy connections who helped pay for the school. Mortenson, even when he was sleeping in his car, had so many assets that the people he was trying to help lacked.

To me, my affluence is a powerful reminder of how blessed I am. Of how lucky I am. Of the opportunities I have been given. It is also a reminder of the responsibilities that fall to me, as a member of an affluent society.

My entire approach to sustainable living is guided by this. As a result, I think I approach sustainability in different ways from others. Rather than boycott goods made in China, I would prefer to buy Chinese goods made under ethical conditions. Rather than eat only locally, I would prefer to eat fair-trade foods. Rather than giving only to local organizations, I would prefer to divide my money between worthy causes in my backyard, and worthy causes in Africa and Asia. Many people live by the mantra, "Think globally, act locally." But personally, I prefer to think and act globally and locally alike.

I understand that not everyone sees things the way I do, of course. That's what makes our vibrant e-community so great. Where I believe the admission of affluence is a necessary one to have an honest dialogue with a subsistence farmer, my good friend Melinda sees the word affluence as a barrier. I see a bridge, she sees a gap. Still others see both sides, but figure, if affluence is such a controversial word, why bother to use it? Why not just drop it?

I see that point. I don't wish to offend people. I don't wish to push people away. But just because affluence is a touchstone, does that mean we shouldn't use the word?

When I first saw the group "Riot for Austerity" I felt a little "othered." I had no interest in rioting nor austerity. I still don't. And yet, I now consider myself a defacto member of R4A. I understand what they are trying to accomplish. I agree with the goals. And I even understand what "riot" and "austerity" mean in the context of the group. I understand the point they were trying to get across with the word "riot." That maybe the word riot turns me off, but that that's part of the point. That it's supposed to incite some emotion. That it's not a movement about people quietly sitting in their air-conditionless homes eating their local salads and drying their clothes in their windowlesss basements. It's about making some noise and hulabaloo and proudly showcasing your choices to the world. And it's the same with austerity. The word is specifically chosen because it's more dramatic. Imagine, instead, if the group had been called Non-Confrontationally Promote Living Simply But Not So Simply That You Want To Kill Yourself. Although NCPLSBNSSTYWTKY is what most rioters actually practice as opposed to rioting and austerity, it doesn't make a great title for a group. That and the acronym is a little unwieldy.

To me, what separates "APLS" from other living simply groups is that there is both a local and global focus. Yes, we focus on the local with regional coordinators. But there is also a reminder that the world exists outside the US and Europe. There is a reminder that there are children in India who need more electricity, not less. There is a reminder that affluent countries need to invest in poorer nations to develop clean energy sources. That we may need to forgive Brazil's debt in order to save the Amazon. That our community doesn't just extend down the street, but across the world to a poor child sleeping in the street. That those of us in the first world who live in relative affluence have an obligation to help those in the developing world.

I believe, that when you take away the word "affluence," that controversial word, you lose something of great significance and value. You remove a key point of the group's identity and mission. When we are "All People Living Sustainably" how are we different from any other sustainable living group? Would there even be a need for APLS given the sheer number of groups already in existence that promote sustainable living?

Either way, I believe in the work APLS are doing, day in and day out. Whether we are All People Living Sustainably, or Affluent People Living Sustainably, I still plan to participate in this wonderful community.

But I do feel, very strongly, that without the word affluent, a core piece of who we are as a group gets lost. Will it turn other people away? Definitely. It already has. But I hope, that those people might eventually come back, just as I, after many months, am proud to Riot even if I don't literally believe in rioting.

In any case, let's keep the dialogue going. Read more of the discussion at One Green Generation and Green Bean Dreams.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Traffic Sucks

I apologize for the lame post titles lately. I blame the jet lag and the dial up connection.

But traffic does indeed suck. Every time we step outside, my nerves end up rubbed raw by the horror that is Bombay traffic.

And as we drive, I keep wondering, have we brought the worst sides of industrialization to India, instead of the best?

Several months ago, Siddhartha Shome published a piece in Breakthrough regarding Tata's plan to start producing $2,500 cars. Shome supported the plan and suggested that Western environmentalists are hypocritical for extolling Priuses in the United States while chastising Tata for producing a cheap car that gets more miles to the gallon than the Prius.

At the time, I agreed with Shome. Who are Western environmentalists to get on their soap boxes and tell Indians that you shouldn't drive cars that are way more environmentally friendly than 99% of cars in the United States? Wouldn't it be great if Indians started driving more of these ecologically friendly Tata Nanos and gave up their 30-year old gas guzzling polluters?

But once in Bombay, I realized the truth. In India, a 30-year old gas guzzling polluter is never going to be sent to the scrap yard. It will be driven and driven and driven until it dies. Then it will be fixed and driven another 10 years until it dies again. At which point it will be fixed and driven until it literally disintegrates.

So the Tata Nano isn't a replacement for a vehicle already on the road. It's an additional car on the road. And there's the rub.

Because if this were just about the environment, I'd feel uncomfortable telling India, "You don't all get to have cars."

But this is not about the environment. This is about quality of life.

And the truth is, the quality of life is getting worse and worse with every new car that ends up on the roads. The traffic is so bad that merely going outside has become a giant headache.

Forget rush hour. Any hour of the day, the traffic is maddening.

Bombay doesn't need more cars. What it does need is a better public transit system. At present, the train system is a relic from the British Colonial days. And the trains are so crowded, that people are cramped together, and practically falling off the trains. It's so bad that my relatives refused to even take me on a train.

"Why isn't there a proper subway system?" I asked.

"Not enough money."

Of course.

The problem is, a lot of corporations stand to gain from putting more Indians behind the drivers seat. Residents of Bombay may lose out, but Ford, Tata, Honda, and Toyota all win. So there is a keen interest in foreign investment in cars for India.

By contrast, companies don't stand to gain by developing a public transit system. In fact, the better the public transit system, the more car companies lose out.

I think the solution must be, then, to find a way to semi-privatize the public transit system here in Bombay. Because the government doesn't have the money to improve things. If there is a way to create an incentive for corporations to invest their money in public transit, then the system will be updated. Without private investment, I'm not sure the system will ever be improved.

Even if that's not the solution, it's clear that something has to be done. And fast. And that more cars aren't going to make anyone happy. Except for the CEOs of Tata, Honda and the like.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Three Cups of Tea- Book Review

While I'm not generally a huge fan of jet lag, I cherish the first few days in India when I wake up early enough to hear the morning call to prayer. As the loudspeakers summon the faithful out of their bed and towards Mecca, I stare out the window and watch the sun rise over Bombay.

Hearing the ritualistic prayer is a comfort, a reminder of the things that have stayed the same for centuries. For hundreds of years, Bombay Muslims have climbed out of bed in this pre-dawn hour to say their morning prayers. The prayer is also a reminder of the cosmopolitan city Bombay was and is. A city where a multitude of religions and ethnicities live together in relative peace.

But that peace is gradually under assault.

As our plane from London to Bombay flew over Pakistan, I discussed the degrading situation in Bombay with the man sitting next to me. His family is from Northern India, and he bitterly spoke about how the native Maharatis (full disclosure: I'm half Maharati) have been trying, with some success, to Maharati-cize this cosmopolitan city. I nodded in agreement and then mentioned the terrible ostracization of the Muslim populations. At which point, my educated and wealthy plane-mate, sat up straight.

"Well, that's not just a Bombay thing. Muslims have problems everywhere." And then he told me a joke about a man who had made the statement that "All Muslims are terrorists," and then finally, under much pressure, revised his statement to "All terrorists are Muslims." It was clear that this man sitting next to me on the plane agreed that while all Muslims might not be terrorists, certainly, all terrorists are Muslims.

I didn't know what to say, but not wanting to engage in a lengthy debate with a man I was stuck sitting next to for the next few hours, I shut up.

The world has changed tremendously since 9-11, and India along with it. Where once, Muslims may have lived next to Christians and Hindus, now Muslims are pushed out of housing complexes, regarded as potential terrorists by their neighbors.

And it's a vicious cycle. The more Muslims are ostracized, the more they resort to violence. And the more Muslims resort to violence, the more the rest of the world ostracizes them. It's a downward spiral, and an incredibly dangerous one at that.

That's why Three Cups of Tea is such an important book. Perhaps the most important book I've read all year. In a time when most of the non-Islamic world is turning its back on Muslims, Greg Mortenson is gaining the trust of Pakistanis and Afghanis, one school at a time.

Three Cups of Tea relates the true story of Greg Mortenson, an American former mountain climber. How a wrong turn coming down from K-2 resulted in his new life path building schools for girls all over Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mortenson believes strongly that education and especially the education of girls is critical in diffusing tension and fanaticism. He points out articulately that terrorists are not created in a vacuum. And that when children are given education and opportunity, they are much less likely to resort to terrorism and fundamentalism.

Three Cups of Tea makes the case that the majority of Muslims are peaceful people who want the best for the children, just like the rest of us. So, today, on September 11th, I highly recommend you go to the library or your local bookstore and pick up this book.

Is it about the environment? Not really. But it's about humanity, and about the values and beliefs that unite us all.

Five out of five stars, and recommended for everyone, green, dark green, fuschia or turquoise.

Monday, September 8, 2008

On Being Affluent

Rich. Poor. Middle-class. Wealthy. Broke.

These words are relative terms. A rich person is defined as rich because he has more money than everyone else. Likewise, a poor person is considered poor if they have much less money than the average person. Without anything to compare to, the words are rendered meaningless.

In our celebrity-obsessed society, it is too easy, then, to watch TV, and think, well, my life isn't like Paris Hilton's so I must not be affluent. If I am poorer than Brad Pitt, then I must be poor.

It is too easy to look at what you DON'T have.

Today, I spent fifteen minutes gazing out the window at some children playing cricket in a narrow strip a few feet from the railroad tracks. While in America, your child might be part of a Little League team that boasts regular after school practices and games with coaches in proper parks, these children were playing on their own, in the dirt. Every so often, the ball would get hit onto the tracks, and a child would scramble onto the traps, pawing through the litter to find his ball. Meanwhile, I would stand at the window, hoping that the child would find the ball in plenty of time before another train came whizzing along.

And as I'm watching them play, I couldn't help wondering, why aren't these children in school? But, then again, I already knew the answer, didn't I?

This is the life of India's poor. Children who lack the opportunity to go to school playing cricket dangerously close to the railroad tracks.

And I'll tell you the truth. When I see these children, and others like them, I get angry. These are children that the world has failed. No child should be forced to beg for food. No child should have to sleep on the street inches away from crazy drivers . And no child should lack the opportunity to go to school. And yet, there are so many children still in this world who are lacking such basic needs.

So it frustrates me when middle-class Americans claim that they're not affluent. That they might own a home, that they have an education, that they've been to college, even, but that they're not affluent.

Because affluence is a relative term. And yes, if you're only comparing yourself to other Americans, you might be right.

But this is an increasingly global world. And we're not going to get anywhere if we only compare ourselves to the lucky denizens of a smattering of first world countries.

Instead, we must open our eyes to the way a majority of the world lives. We must look at these children of India living in the slums by the railroad tracks, not as an exotic species in a National Geographic magazine, but as our children. As our community.

Being in India, I am always reminded of how much I have. I might have only made the median income in California, but I am so much wealthier than my paper assets. I have a first class education, health care, independence, and countless opportunities. I was raised to believe that I could accomplish whatever I set out to achieve. If that's not affluence, I don't know what is.

It is beyond time for us to extend that dream to every child in every corner of the world. The child playing cricket is just as deserving of education and opportunity as a child growing up in Fremont, California or Pleasantville, New York.

We must fight to give all children something to reach for.

And that starts with recognizing what we have. What we were given.


*Get your posts in for the APLS Carnival by September 10th to be included in this month's carnival.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


It's hard for me to express all my thoughts about this country, my motherland, in words. Especially when I'm on a dial up connection! But I'll give it a shot.

This is a weird country, yo.

Heh. Do you like how I started off with such depth and insight?

I'm here in Bombay during the celebration of the elephant god, Ganesh. During this time, giant forms of Ganesh are erected, and then they are taken to the ocean to be immersed in water.

This year, my aunt tells me, the Ganeshes have gone eco-friendly. Because previously the Ganeshes weren't melting properly in the water and they were causing problems, so this year, the Ganeshes are all made from soil and paper.

And so the Ganeshes go eco-friendly while meanwhile the traffic has reached new heights of unbearableness.

As I was walking down the streets, I saw a shop advertising organic rice. Now normally this would be a woo-hoo moment with me, but this time, my first thought was, "I wonder how much that rice COSTS! And who buys it? And who can afford it?!"

Is organic rice yet another new and trendy luxury of India's wealthy? While meanwhile the cost of food is rising and more and more people are having trouble feeding their family?

I last came here five years ago. In that time, India has changed tremendously. Everyone, from the business man to the taxi driver, seems to have a cell phone. New fancy shopping malls, apartment complexes, and five star hotels have been erected. The dilapidated stalls on the street now sell sim cards and blue tooth headsets.

And yet too much seems unchanged. Too many children still sleep on the street. Too many women must beg for money to support their family. Too many people go hungry.

And I can't help wonder, "Is this the best we can do?" Is the twenty-first century a time where we accept the rising economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots with nonchalance because, well what can you do?

I don't know what to do. But what I do know is that nonchalance is unacceptable. Because when you stop caring, you stop trying to make things better.

And things must get better in India. Because too many people are being left behind.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


In London. Leaving tomorrow for India. 

Will update soon. But don't forget, your posts on affluence are due by Sep 10th for the APLS Carnival! So don't be a slacker like me. Start writing!