Archive for the ‘Planetwatch’ Category

Bheja Fry!!!

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Meet any one on the street (if you can find any) and the conversation inevitably kicks off every time on the same note. HEAT! This summer, and it has only begun, it feels like living inside a Wok. Yesterday’s maximum recorded temperature was 47.6 degrees, enough to ignite your hair. You don’t have to colour it brunette anymore. Take a walk at noon and a crimson flame will erupt on your head. Spontaneous combustion!!!

You see, it all began with Carbon. That miserable molecule, free or in the company of Oxygen (that thing we breathe), it hangs around and blocks all these sun rays on their way back, the slow moving infrared rays, just blocks them all. We don’t like this policing, we would rather let go these desperate infrareds, they are not communists, are they? But Carbon; Carbon just don’t let them off so easily. As if that is not enough, what does the atmosphere do when we pour a wee bit more Carbon into it? Why doesn’t it just sneeze and send it all away, vamoose, out into the empty universe. It doesn’t do that. Soft-pedaling when it comes to Carbon, that’s what atmosphere does. Of course, I don’t want to blatantly accuse it. There is gravity to contend with, I agree. If only God hadn’t created gravity, if only Newton hadn’t discovered it. Then atmosphere could have sneezed and got it all out of the system. But, nope, we are stuck with all that Carbon, whirling right round our heads and poking into our noses. Happy, free, emancipated Carbon, that infidel, hanging around and trapping all that poor, innocent infrared radiation and heating up the atmosphere and making us run our air conditioners round the clock, piling up the electricity bill and making lives miserable. Screw Carbon. Dammit. I’d like to declare a Fatwa on it.

But, hey, coming to think of it, I’m made of Carbon. Right from an amoeba to this pinnacle of evolution, this supreme being, this I, me and Myself – made of Carbon. Hic!!, Humbug. Didn’t evolution have any sense? Was it blind? Couldn’t it have foreseen it all? What was God doing with all that omniscience and omnipotence? Couldn’t IT have seen it all coming and made some contingency plans? It is time someone knocked some sense into God and this whole rigmarole of creation. If only we were a zirconium based life form, we could have done away with Carbon and all this mess. But we are bonded with Carbon, for better or worse. Oh, we can control Carbon emission, but then you would ask; can we stop breathing, can we stop our cars, our air conditioners, our factories, our….You must be joking.

Our government, can’t it do something? It is for the people, by the people, of the people, isn’t it. Can’t it enforce some law or something, legislate all those infrareds out of Carbon’s sinister custody? Or maybe they can travel cattle class, reduce “Phoren travel”, save forests and cut emissions. Or maybe capture all that Carbon and throw them in jail, kinda sequestrate? That was on the cards, wasn’t it? Instead the government is planning to send more Carbon up in the air by constructing almost 300,000 MW of coal powered plants within the next few years. Can’t blame the government. Their hands are tied. We, the people, the vote bank, are clamouring for power, more and more of it. We need it to support our lifestyle, our consumption, our comfort. So what can the government do? It just goes and pretends to appease us. If people want power, pile it on high, election is round the corner! Does it mean that we are to blame? I don’t like blame games, let me make that loud and clear. Blame it on nature, blame it on devil, blame it on Carbon, but leave me out of it. I do my daily prayers, perform the Puja, visit the temple, do my pilgrimage, worship a million Gods, feed the cows, vote in every election, hoot for Sachin – what more can you ask for? Don’t ever try to sully my reputation. Carbon or no Carbon, my honour, that is impeccable. I’ll never let you fiddle with it. The sky will split asunder and oceans shall rise up and swallow you. Don’t you dare?

Oh, well, did you say renewable energy? Government has ambitious plans for that too. But only on paper. January; this January, in its boundless enthusiasm the government revealed to the asinine public, yes, you, me, to us all, a plan, mind you, a PLAN!!! to build solar power plants, 20000 MW of it, by 2022. Long term planning you see. Since it is a plan, and since plans are not as evolved as we are, they are still languishing in sheaf’s of paper, waiting for the distinguished and enlightened minister, whenever he/ she/ it has time to spare from the arduous schedule of personal aggrandizement, waiting for this minister to put a signature, and thus bring it to life, so that it can pull itself out of paper and transform into Photovoltaics etcetera and stare at the sun and soak its rays and turn into electricity and connect to grid and flow into our living rooms and pubs and theatres and shopping malls and office complexes… All that is possible, and probable and yes, of course all that costs money. But we, the proletariat, we the larger public, are we willing to pay up? Nope, that is totally unacceptable. It doesn’t cut ice, you see. Power should be free. It is God’s gift. Thank you Volta, thank you Faraday, thank you Lord God, but we don’t want to pay. We don’t mind pilfering it, but we don’t like to pay for it. Who in their right mind would want to pay extra for solar power, this daily benediction of Sun god, this manna from the sky; it should be free, free, free like freeware. Hey, can’t some geek crack the code and supply it for free, we like it FREE….

Only the air conditioner manufacturers seem to have a correct vision of the future. Off late they have begun rating the a/c’s to work at 60 deg C. If that is any indication, we are gonna have it, full and square. In the face, right hook, left hook, full punch. Knock Out!!! And we are gonna be sizzled, fried, charred!! And return to Carbon!!! BELCH ON, WORLD!!!

Read the previous post – Carbon – The Kernel of Life

Categories: Planetwatch

Breath of life….

April 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Checkout the Breathing Earth Simulation for some scary statistics on CO2 emissions, birth and death rates of countries around the world.

Categories: Planetwatch

Stay Foolish, Stay Hungry!!!!

April 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday, while browsing Google Earth, I was surprised to see large swathes of yellow and brown near my home in Kerala. My impression, from a ground zero perspective of our hometown had always been of uninterrupted verdure. The satellite image was a revelation. It clearly showed that concrete houses and pineapple plantations had supplanted trees and vegetation.

Over the past few years the landscape has changed much and so has the mindset of people. This is of course not a phenomenon limited to Kerala; one finds it everywhere. In most homes, children, after education, have migrated to cities leaving behind the old to tend the farmland. Meanwhile, exorbitant labour charges, scarcity of  fertilizers, vagaries of climate, poor yield and thinner margins have rendered farming unprofitable. While traders and middlemen rake in enormous profits, farmers are left high and dry with hardly an incentive to pursue agriculture. The downturn in farming has come at a time when burgeoning population has lead to unprecedented demand for real estate, especially within commutable radius of major cities.

The nonviability of agriculture coupled with skyrocketing real estate prices have tipped the scale, converting large tracts of farmland to commercial or housing complexes. Concrete, steel and glass have substituted chlorophyll. Gurgaon is the best example of this kind of skewed development. Farmers who sold their land to the real estate mafia became millionaires overnight, owning expensive cars and sprawling mansions. They now provide car rental and real estate services to the new landlords – call centres and multinational corporations.

The rapid deterioration in extent and quality of farmland is among the root causes for the high food prices, water scarcity and extreme temperatures that we face now. These problems can be overcome only by effectively addressing the underlying causes. Dharna’s, Bandh’s, Hartal’s and Rasta Roko’s does not answer the problem at all. However, with an opposition focused on booby trapping the government to derive every miserable political mileage, we are likely to listen to more high decibel rhetoric in the days ahead, with scant attention paid to the real issues.

We are right now teetering on the brink of several crises which can blow up big and hurt us badly, unless appropriate action is taken now. What is at stake is the survival of civil society. A food scarcity can quickly dissipate our civilizational pretenses, turning us into savages. The images of stampede that we see on TV when food packets are distributed during natural calamities could very well become the order of the day. To avert such a calamity, we need to come out of the coma induced by the daily dose of morbid scandals dished out by the political, Bollywood and cricket celebrities and recognize the issues that need urgent attention. Political parties must forget their differences and forge together workable plans to tackle the problems. The need of the hour is not partisanship but partnership.

Image courtesy:

Categories: Planetwatch

Our Beliefs, Their Lives – Superstitious Carnage

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

There are times when I doubt if I live in 21st century. Despite advances in science, technology and medicine, irrational notions hold remarkable sway over us. Shark fin, rhino horn, vulture brain, leopard paws – so goes the list of items which we still believe to have miraculous, medicinal or aphrodisiacal powers. Even though scientific research has busted these claims, large number of people still rely on them.

Recently I visited Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. They had a fabulous section on sharks. A huge collection of shark teeth and jaws were on display (the shark’s body is made of cartilaginous skeleton). In one gallery the frozen exhibit showed a Mako shark attacking a Blue Fin Tuna. Several sections were devoted to facts about shark attacks. Contrary to popular belief, the number of unprovoked shark attacks on humans are few. The general behaviour of all species of shark bore no resemblance to the bloodthirsty, vengeful ones portrayed in ‘Jaws‘. After the visit, I developed a new found respect for this apex predator whose beauty, power and elegance was simply astounding. Sadly, sharks are being decimated worldwide. Destruction of habitat and irresponsible fishing apart, the most significant contributor to killing of sharks is the demand for shark fin. Sharks are caught, their dorsal and pectoral fins cut off and left to drown and bleed to death, just so that a chosen few can drink expensive shark-fin soup, basking in the glory of conspicuous consumption. With the rising affluence in China, demand for this aphrodisiacal ambrosia has gone up thereby endangering the survival of many shark species. The fact that shark fin is just tough, rubbery, tasteless cartilage is masked by the mesmerizing power of superstition.

Another case in point is Rhinoceros horn. Rhinos are hunted in Africa, India and southeast Asia for their horn which is simply a hard clump of keratin. The astronomical price of Rhino horn in international market has lead to heavy poaching in recent years. In several countries such as China and Vietnam, the horns are used in traditional medicine for curing fever. The medicinal effects of Rhino horn are far from proven, but the power of superstition continue to kill Rhinos nonetheless, driving them to extinction.

While Shark fin and Rhino horn are the most conspicuous instances, examples of the threat posed by superstitious beliefs to flora and fauna abound. In South Africa, Muti medicine practitioners kill vultures to extract their brains. They hope that consumption of vulture brains would enhance their clairvoyant powers. Snow leopards, a critically endangered species, are killed for their hide and bones which find use in traditional medicine.

The cruelty and utter meaninglessness of the destruction wrought by these blind beliefs are appalling. However, stemming from ignorance and rooted in tradition, such superstitions are difficult to eradicate. One can only hope that someday reason would triumph over ignorant faith.

Categories: Planetwatch

Price of Procrastination

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

With the failure of Copenhagen talks, greenhouse gas emissions are likely to continue unabated spawning disastrous consequences, temperature rise being the most obvious.

Science Museum of London has launched an interactive map in consulation with leading climate change scientists showing the impact of a 4 deg C  temperature rise across the globe. Buttons at the bottom of the map provide details of various types of consequences and geographical location of impact.

Click on the map to go to interactive website

Categories: Planetwatch

Hurricane Highway

December 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Driving down streets of India one notices a peculiar behaviour of pedestrians. A majority of them cross the road, with eyes averted from traffic. Sometimes it is a mad dash with eyes fixed on the opposite side. Sometimes it is a leisurely saunter with scarcely a glance at the oncoming traffic. There could be several reasons for the reckless behaviour – road congestion, dearth of zebra crossings and footpaths, a culture of jay walking, rash driving patterns and poor enforcement of traffic rules among them. The behaviour is extremely risky, based as it is on ‘blind’ faith in the eyesight and driving skills of motorists. One could get run over anytime….
Our attitude towards climate change is similar.

Climate Change – Initially we could only hear its rumble. Later it became visible like a speck on the horizon. Now that it has come closer, its speed and ominous proportions have become clearly discernible. Yet, many among us prefer to keep our eyes turned away, hoping that it will pass us by. Some hate it. Some are overeager to denigrate the supporting scientific evidence. Some refuse to acknowledge it. Among those who recognize the threat, many are reluctant to admit the role played by humans. However, if the ‘flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a Tornado in Texas’ (see Butterfly Effect Edward Lorenz), what unpredictable and catastrophic outcomes can result from our uninhibited and destructive exploitation of the environment? Unlike motorists watching out for pedestrians, climate change is a blind force and could run us over, unless we pay attention.

If we change ways, adopt environment friendly lifestyles, reduce dependence on conventional fuels and embrace renewable sources of energy, we can probably save ourselves. But “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity” as Albert Einstein put it. Harbouring a false hope and continuing our present course could have disastrous consequences.

Rabindranath Tagore, in his poem “Where the Mind is Without Fear” hoped that India would “rediscover the clear stream of reason and awake into a heaven of freedom”. As the Copenhagen summit to reach an agreement on emission cuts is underway, I too wish that “nations broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” would overcome their differences and galvanize into positive action.

Where The Mind is Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
 – Rabindranath Tagore

Categories: Planetwatch

Engineering Self Destruction – Man vs. Nature

November 25, 2009 Leave a comment


Yesterday evening while returning home I saw some shepherds herding livestock along the road. The shepherds, sheep and cattle looked famished. I wondered where the sheep and cattle would forage in this concrete jungle. Our multistory apartment blocks and office complexes have swallowed their grazing land. The displaced domestic animals in turn invade and graze inside protected sanctuaries threatening whatever remains of wildlife. We came across different versions of this story during our visits to wildlife preserves and sanctuaries like Corbett, Chambal, Sariska, Bhindawas, and Bharatpur.
 The adverse impact on environment due to our indiscriminate proliferation and exploitation is enormous. Peter Matthiessen evocatively described it in the following passage from “The Snow Leopard”.

“One day this boy and other will destroy that forest, and their sheep fields will erode in rain, and the thin soil will wash away into torrents, clogging the river channels farther down so that monsoon floods will spread across the land. With its rapidly increasing population, primitive agriculture, and steep terrain, Nepal has the most serious erosion problem of any country in the world, and the problem worsens as more forests disappear in the scouring of the land for food and fuel; in eastern Nepal, and especially the Kathmandu valley, firewood for cooking (not to speak of heat) is already precious, brought in by peasants who have walked many miles to sell the meager faggots on their backs. The country folk cook their own food by burning cakes of livestock dung, depriving the soil of the precious manure that would nourish it and permit it to hold water. Without wood humus or manure, the soil deteriorates, compacts, and turns to dust, to be washed away in the rush of the monsoon.”

The repercussions of our actions may not be immediately discernible. However, the accumulation of these tiny, seemingly inconsequent acts finally garners sufficient momentum to threaten our existence. Cigarette packs come with warnings in block letters that smoking is injurious to health. But these are ignored since smoking doesn’t kill instantly. Yet, each inhalation progressively harms lungs until it collapses. Right now, ignoring the warning signs of climate change, oil crisis and food scarcity we too blissfully march on to the sound of our death knells.Our callousness to nature can be partly blamed on the implicit assumption that we are superior to it. Most of us vicariously experience wilderness through TV, movies, documentaries, magazines or books instead of being in direct contact with nature. An average city dweller is more familiar with man-made structures from childhood, more used to horns and roar of vehicles than birdcalls, piped water instead of wells or a stream, cityscapes rather than jungles or farmlands. Encounter with animals is limited to stray dogs and cats, cattle and donkeys ensconced on the roads, an occasional monkey, squirrels, pigeons or crows. For the most part these are considered a nuisance or at most a curiosity. Regarding animals in captivity, we feel pity or a sense of wonder, knowing full well that their life or death rests upon our choice. In villages and farms thriving on agriculture, attitude towards farm animals remain utilitarian and often cruel. Habituated to such transcendence over animal and plant life, armed with religious authority which grants right of man over nature and intoxicated with technological accomplishments we soon develop a false sense of “superiority” over Nature.


Inebriated by success we have arrogated the role of master and commander of the world to ourselves intending to control and manipulate it without realizing that we are a manifestation of nature. We are forged from its elements into which we return when we die. Our lives are intimately woven into nature’s scheme of things. By wrecking havoc to our environment we are endangering our own lives. Though we may laugh at his stupidity, we are no different from Kalidasa when he attempted to chop off the branch in which he was sitting unmindful that he would fall along with it.


It is only when faced with natural disasters and calamities that our respect and awe of nature returns. Then we sink to our knees and pray to gods to save us. These gods, omniscient, omnipotent and always favouring man has consistently failed to live up to our expectations. This should have warned us long back that they are a figment of our imagination. With more disasters lined up for the future that realization is far from likely. Going by the indications, our religious fervour is likely to increase.


William Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

The doors of our perception are painted black by the carbon we relentlessly spew into the atmosphere. Soon, we would be groping blindly and gasping for breath inside the caverns. The choice is ours and the time is now. Right now we have to tools and the technology to cleanse our doors of perception. If we let the status quo prevail, our only chance to perceive infinity would be lost forever.



Categories: Planetwatch