Saturday, July 28, 2007

Fueling a Corny Debate

Americans are joining the green movement in droves nowadays. Some of them because various media sources have brought to their attention that global warming, disputed and ignored by the American administration for a long time, is very much occurring all over the world and the consequences are not remote to the United States. Others have been brought to this awareness through faith groups which have spawned environmental movements asserting that the bible makes them custodians of the earth and all in it. Yet others are following the example of opinion leaders (mostly located in Hollywood) and coming to the conclusion that going green might not only pay but also make them feel better and look good to others.

Of course, as happens with all such movements in a system as highly skewed towards a capitalist mode as this one is, the big industries do their best to cash in. So we have a "green" movement in more ways than one. Rather than curbing expenditure on a simpler greener life, the greening of America takes a uniquely American approach. You buy your way to being more energy conscious. You spend on specialized products (no one has yet addressed what happens to the old energy-non-efficient replaced products in a nation as given to throwing things away as we are). What is even more disturbing is that some of the green replacements are short-sighted and could come back to haunt us. For instance, the new super fuel ethanol.

Ethanol, which is basically alcohol, is a healthier fuel option than petroleum in important ways. It is a renewable resource since ethanol can be man-made unlike petroleum. It burns quite cleanly not releasing as many effluents and pollution as petroleum. Brazil has been at the forefront of developing and using this technology and at the moment almost 50% of all cars there are able to use 100% ethanol or flex-fuel (ethanol-petroleum) as fuel. Combination or hybrid fuels reduce consumption of petroleum and our reliance on petroleum resources.

However, ethanol is produced from organic food sources such as sugar cane, corn and other grains such as sorghum. Ethanol is produced more efficiently using sugar cane than using corn and other grains. Sugar cane doesn't grow everywhere so the source of choice in the US currently is corn. However, it takes a lot of resources that are not energy neutral to grow the quantities of corn required to produce ethanol. Large swathes of land, water, fertilizers (that are generally petroleum based) and pesticides. One may argue that the left over by-product of the process would make feed for cattle and in turn cattle manure could be used as fertilizer thereby reducing some of the energy consumption in producing ethanol. However, this still remains an energy-intensive process.

The problem is twofold. Firstly, as long as petroleum remains expensive and automobile manufacturers focus on short-term fixes that modify current technology only slightly, food grain based ethanol will look attractive in comparison (despite its own high associated costs which are being subsidized by the tax payer, but that's another story). The second problem, which should trouble us even more, is that diverting food crops to other uses and driving their price up when poverty and hunger are still a problem in much of the world is just morally wrong. This solution can come back to bite us.
Copyrights associated with the pictures can be viewed by clicking on each image which will take you to the copyright page.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Women bleed

Lybrel is finally here.

This new birth control drug is being heralded as several steps above the color-coded pills that I illicitly (at least in the eyes of my Roman Catholic mother) indulged in during college. Not only does it prevent pregnancy most of the time – women will finally be relieved of menstruating altogether.

Reading Karen Houppert’s editorial about Lybrel reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend’s husband recently. I was sharing with her (and he was, at first, an unfortunate bystander) the news that my Keeper had just arrived in the mail. I was about to be a menstrual cup virgin no longer. The Keeper is essentially a little rubber “cup” that fits inside your vagina and captures the menstrual fluid as it flows.

My friend’s husband was disgusted, apparently by the possibility that I would come in contact with blood.

I tried pointing out that it was, in fact, my own blood, and I was totally okay with it. He was horrified anew. I tried explaining that the Keeper is reusable, which attracted me. But there’s another reason, too.

I had my babies at home – there was a lot of blood, though less than you might think. I also had an unassisted miscarriage at home – even more blood. Blood, my blood, was in both cases a beautiful reminder of the brutal fact that I am human. Not only that, I am a healthy woman – my body is working just like it should be. The blood is proof.

I didn’t even come close to winning him over, though. And, really, I don’t think he’s alone. This is the reason why Lybrel’s existence is so completely unsurprising. Our culture is so thoroughly anti-woman that it predictably would want to do away with everything that reminds us that we are women. And it expects us to celebrate our sexlessness with verve and gratitude. Apparently, we can now get on with life.

For me, several years into my thirties, I am experiencing what I think a lot of women do at my age. I am feeling, to my core, how my body changes throughout the course of the month. And, without a hint of new-agey mysticism, I will tell you – I think it is incredibly cool.

My moods – the ones that Lybrel’s maker, Wyeth wants to anesthesize – shape who I am as a mother and wife, as an activist, and as a writer. As I bleed every month, I do feel the cleansing process of my body – I do feel renewed. (The folks from Wyeth are snickering now, no doubt.) As I cease to menstruate, the passion I feel for life is unequaled – this is the time of the month when my most impassioned emails get sent, when my work building an ecovillage bursts into full bloom, when that damn dissertation actually gets some attention. This is the time when I savor every inch of my amazing husband. It’s when I take my children blueberry picking and dig up every tillable inch of my backyard and plant morning glories and birdhouse gourds and lettuce and beans and beautiful flowers. Sometimes I feel life so deeply it hurts.

After I ovulate, blissfully dancing without calling any new babies, I begin to feel more introspective – the world starts spinning a bit slower. This is when it becomes harder to write – and my children and I spend countless hours at the lake, playing in the sand, marking the time with quiet conversations. It’s also when, sometimes, the darker side of me takes over a little – and I mourn what we are losing. It’s when the stories about Iraq bring me to tears, when I worry most about my friends, states, sometimes countries away. It’s when I need to find the reserves of compassion that I didn’t know I had, again.

So when I menstruate, it is honored, and welcomed. It is a subtle, beautiful reminder that I am human and I am woman. That our culture continues to create drugs that define human potential by the obscene standards of a patriarchal, dominator culture is a travesty; that we women would willingly erase that piece of ourselves that is most precious is a tragedy.

Monday, July 09, 2007


I love how versatile the bike is in terms, not only, of uses but also in the benefits one accrues from using it on a regular basis. Here's a little known fact- the car is a highly inefficient form of transportation: it is so heavy that 95% of the energy consumed by it is used to move itself and only 5% to move the person. Think about it and this should make sense to you. How heavy are you? How heavy is your car? How much energy would it take to move you? Makes you wonder which genius came up with the SUV.

The bike on the other hand is one of the most efficient forms of transportation. You pedal and it gets you to your destination. And you get there in a much better frame of mind than sitting in those rush-hour snarl-ups. You get to enjoy the wind in your hair more cheaply than buying a convertible. You save on gas and you help the environment stay green. You have the independence to go where you want to go; even to car-free zones. And you end up healthier every time you pedal. What's not to like?

Countries in Asia, like India and China, have traditionally had many bicyclists as it was the most practical and cheap form of transportation available to the common man. But it is seen as the poor person's means of conveyance at this point and everyone is hankering to get to a place where they can own a car or two now. Parts of north-western Europe on the other hand have been moving in the opposite direction. I loved seeing everyone going about their daily life on their bicycles on this trip to Europe. It did not matter if you were dressed special or had your big dog or all five of your kids with you. You could do whatever you needed to do with your bike. Oh, you need to get to work and its far away? Ok, get on the bike, get to the commuter train or tram or bus, load up your bike and go. Oh your work involves carrying heavy stuff? There are attachments for bikes which will allow you to move things around. I loved how much a part of their life the Europeans had made the bike - especially in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands and some of the other Northern European countries have made riding bikes very much easier for their citizens by providing specials lanes for bikers on all roads. These are clearly marked and do not just meander off into nowhere. Even alongside highways, special bike paths exist for those who want to go longer distances on their two-wheels. Children are taught bike-safety and road rules for traffic at school as part of their mandatory class-work. This leads not only to safer traffic all around but also to a lot more children who are independent and can bike to where they want to go.
Imagine how much we would gain in terms of cleaner environment, less expenditure and use of gas, the (mental and physical) health benefits of a physically active lifestyle if we chose to replace our car with the bike as our main mode of transportation.

[I have provided a link to a private website extolling the virtues and weirdness of biking in Amsterdam with some really cool and funny images. Enjoy]

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Power of One

A young woman in India, Pooja Chauhan, took the unusual step of stripping down to her underwear and marching to the police station to demand action and justice. She had previously registered complaints against her in-laws that they harassed and abused her for not bring dowry and for giving birth to a daughter. Her march resulted in a lot of gawkers and some slow traffic in the little town where she lived but it got her results. The police immediately arrested the in-laws and two neighbors (no explanations have been given for how the neighbors were complicit).

Police say a case may be registered against her for indecent behavior however, they will wait till an examination of her mental state has been conducted. One would like to ask that a case also be registered at the same time against the police for the dereliction of their duty that drove this young woman to the extreme measures she had to resort to in order to bring attention to her plight.

Time and again, the forty year old anti-dowry laws have been flouted in India. Every once in a while a particular young woman's courageous protest focuses attention on this social evil. Nisha Sharma was the last such lightning rod. She called the police on her bridegroom even as last minute demands for dowry were being made. The groundswell of admiration and protest she generated is a testament to how many Indians hate this part of Indian culture and yet, we must be a cowardly nation because we allow this heinous practice to continue, we turn a blind eye when others around us make demands and torture their daughter-in-laws and we also ask for dowry ourselves when we have sons. While the Pooja's and Nisha's are few and far between, we have been inured to the more common reports of young brides burnt and killed by in-laws and husbands.

Neither of these young women were from a particularly privileged or remarkable background. They were not surrounded by supporters or well-wishers who egged them on to rebel. They had nothing to gain and quite a bit to lose. And yet, others in their position have submitted to the violence and injustice perpetrated upon them without raising their voices. It takes a lot of courage to be a Pooja or a Nisha. Some may think it futile since social and cultural mores are slow to change. But each Pooja is a beacon of light, a call to arms in the fight for justice and against tyranny.

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something I can do.
- Edward Everett Hale

[Photographs courtesy of the Times of India and the BBC. Thanks]