Monday, March 31, 2014

Climate chaos in four minutes

[Approximate Watching Time: 4 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative] 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Kogi of Colombia and the Sami of Norway

[Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes]
[Mood: Sympathetic, empathetic]


Numerous native and indigenous peoples all around the world have been sounding the alarm over what we, the "younger brothers", are doing to the planet. Our culture, the dominant culture, is a commercial civilization where the members of the culture have a worldview that's very different from those of the indigenous peoples of the world. Based on Science and Technology, and theories of "progress", our culture has much to do with why we've drifted so far from what we used to be: responsible stewards and guardians of our surroundings with a sense of the sacred. The younger brothers forked off of their roots and, over the generations, having forgotten their roots, have spread all over the world, especially in the last 200 years, decimating indigenous peoples through a mixture of genocide and assimilation. It's not something we were taught in school, but commercial civilization replicates itself through force. In fact, mandatory state schooling is one of the primary ways civilization replicates itself forcefully. The numerous crises confronting humanity in these times, even calling into question the fate of our species, make this a good time to consider what indigenous peoples across the world are telling us.

The difference between commercial and indigenous cultures has little to do with the differences in culture between the East and the West, or between the developed and developing world. Just as there are rich people everywhere, and just as there are poor people everywhere, both commercial culture as well as indigenous cultures are present in almost every part of the world. Even Europe, the exporter of commercial civilization to all corners of the globe, has indigenous people living in its northern areas. The Sami people, numbering about 90,000 live in the very North of Europe covering Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.


Members of the commercial culture, the "younger brothers", are actually a lot more similar to each other wherever they live, East or West, developed country or developing country. In the same vein, the indigenous peoples of the world are a lot more similar to each other, wherever they live. They're more similar to each other than they are to the commercial peoples living next to them. As far as worldviews go, a middle class professional in Norway's capital city, Oslo, has more in common with a middle class professional in Colombia's capital city, Bogota, than either of them have in common with either the Kogi or the Sami. Look at the pictures of the Sami people above and tell me if they don't look like the Kogi in the most human way you can imagine. The smiles across their faces say a lot more about their worldviews and their general attitude toward the human condition than a thousand peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals say about the members of commercial civilization.

Like the Kogi of Colombia, The Sami are under threat from commercial civilization, the "younger brothers". From Wikipedia: "The indigenous Sami population is a mostly urbanised demographic, but a substantial number live in villages in the high arctic. The Sami are still coping with the cultural consequences of language and culture loss related to generations of Sami children taken to missionary and/or state-run boarding schools and the legacy of laws that were created to deny the Sami rights (e.g., to their beliefs, language, land and to the practice of traditional livelihoods). The Sami are experiencing cultural and environmental threats, including oil exploration, mining, dam building, logging, climate change, military bombing ranges, tourism and commercial development."

The indigenous peoples of the world are humanity's last hope. If there's anyone, it's they who still remember the relationship between man and nature, and between matter and spirit, the inter-relatedness that we've forgotten. We'd only need to look around and pay attention to what's going on around us to realize the implications of this "great forgetting". How on Earth could we get a CEO to pay attention to a tribal elder? I could say that's a million dollar question, but then I would be speaking the language of commercial civilization!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cassini (and other space adventures)

[Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes]
[Mood: Amused] 

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft is a marvel of technology. According to NASA, "Cassini-Huygens is one of the most ambitious missions ever launched into space". On NASA's official Cassini web page, we find, "Two elements comprise the spacecraft: The Cassini orbiter and the Huygens probe. In 2004, Cassini-Huygens reached Saturn and its moons. There the spacecraft began orbiting the system in July 2004, beaming home valuable data that will help us understand the vast Saturnian region. Huygens entered the murky atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's biggest moon, and descended via parachute onto its surface." While all that sounds quite clever (well done, humanity!), the saga of how Cassini got to Saturn in the first place speaks even more to humanity's cleverness.

Scientists used a cunning technique to propel Cassini toward Saturn where it now hangs out. Called a "gravity assist" in formal terms, NASA describes the technique: "The rocket that launched Cassini in 1997 was the most powerful available to NASA, but it still wasn't powerful enough to send the nearly 6,000-kilogram (13,200-pound) spacecraft on a direct course to Saturn. Instead, mission designers planned multiple flybys of Venus, Earth and Jupiter, using each planet's gravity to boost Cassini's sun-relative speed and send the spacecraft out to Saturn."

It's humanity's ingenuity on full display. Cassini first goes to Venus, an inner planet closer to Sun, circles it twice, mooching off a small fraction of Venus' orbital kinetic energy in the process, comes back toward Earth, mooches off a fraction of Earth's orbital energy, flies by Jupiter stealing a bit more energy there before finally making it to Saturn. Once there, it uses a similar technique to steal off a little energy from Saturn's moons as it visits Saturn and its moons.

Voyager 1, the farthest human-made object presently, has left the solar system with energy gained from similar gravity assists. According to Wikipedia, "As of Sept 3, 2013, Voyager 1 is over 125.3 AU (18.7 billion km) from the Sun, and is in interstellar space. It gained the energy to escape the Sun's gravity completely by performing slingshot maneuvers around Jupiter and Saturn." The probe is expected to continue its mission until 2025, when it will be no longer supplied with enough power from its generators to operate any of its instruments. At that point, Voyager 1 will become the first object that humanity will have chucked out into interstellar space, a piece of metal and plastic bearing the unique signature of man-made trash found everywhere on Earth.... that is, until Voyager 2 joins it a few years later.

Cassini and Voyager 1 are not the only probes that use gravity assists. And gravity assists are not the only tricks up their sleeves. They're both powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These are the electric generators on Voyager 1 that are expected to stop working in 2025. Radioactive materials such as plutonium, curium and strontium are the most often used isotopes in these generators.

RTGs, according to Wikipedia, have been used as power sources in satellites, space probes and such unmanned remote facilities as a series of lighthouses that the former Soviet Union erected inside the Arctic Circle. Safely using RTGs requires containing the radioisotopes long after the productive life of the unit. While the US has safely launched 28 space missions that use RTGs since 1961, "RTGs pose a risk of radioactive contamination: if the container holding the fuel leaks, the radioactive material may contaminate the environment. For spacecraft, the main concern is that if an accident were to occur during launch or a subsequent passage of a spacecraft close to Earth (for example, during one of those gravity assist flybys), harmful material could be released into the atmosphere; therefore their use in spacecraft and elsewhere has attracted controversy." There have been several known accidents involving RTG-powered spacecraft: "In 1969 the launch of the first Lunokhod lunar rover mission failed, spreading polonium 210 over a large area of Russia. Other failed space launches ended with the radioactive material burning up in the atmosphere or falling into the ocean. There were also five failures involving Soviet or Russian spacecraft which were carrying nuclear reactors rather than RTGs between 1973 and 1993. In 1978, Cosmos 954 accidentally reentered Earth's atmosphere, strewing radioactive uranium 235 over 124,000 kilometers in Northern Canada, and exposing several people to harmful radiation. This was the only time the 1972 UN Liability Convention has been invoked." Of course, human beings have been testing nuclear weapons by detonating them on land and in sea for a long time before we invented space technology, so these accidents should not be a surprise. But there's something to be said about a species that blasts nuclear reactors into space.

Notice how the section on Cassini's power system is entitled "Safety", in an Orwellian way!

What do we make of a species, some of the members of which seem to be having so much fun with flybys and plutonium? Imagine a human-like species somewhere far away in the distant galaxies. You notice that their numbers have grown tremendously in the last hundred or so years (from 1.6 billion in 1900 to over 7.2 billion today). During this time, they have also started playing with dangerous substances some of which they launch into space, then bring back perilously close to their planet to do a "flyby". Some of us might say it's perhaps this species' destiny to travel in space. Hence the risky experiments. Some might wonder if that species is behaving in a childish manner. Imagine, further, watching these aliens put some plutonium on a spacecraft and launch it out of their solar system into interstellar space not really caring where it might travel after its power source stops working... essentially hurling a radioactive piece of junk into the universe at a speed of 35,790 mph! Of course, they don't completely rule out the possibility of the probe being found by other intelligent life forms out there. And they kindly include several greetings on a gold-plated copper disc...

Oops... sorry we just poisoned you with radiation, but here are some bird songs from planet Earth! Enjoy!

Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision. - Aldous Huxley

Hesitation increases in relation to risk in equal proportion to age. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Relative Deprivation

[Approximate Reading Time: 2 minute]
[Mood: "Aha moment"] 

I just came across this interesting 22-second clip that illustrates the constant feeling of relative deprivation among the world's wealthy as they play their high-stakes, competitive, global games.


Announcer: Ukraine's revolution was supported by some of the most powerful people in the country. Like billionaire Petro Poroshenko.

Woman to Petro: "You don't consider yourself an oligarch..."
Petro: "For sure, no, but people might consider for me because many of the..."
Woman: "But you're the 7th richest man in Ukraine!"
Petro: "9th"
Woman: "9th!"

Monday, March 10, 2014

Friday, March 7, 2014

Conservation Fraud

[Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes]
[Mood: "Never a dull moment"] 

What is man's relationship to animals?

This is a question I've been asking myself a lot lately. Consider these observations... While scientists believe that man evolved from animals over millions of years, certain religious groups claim man was created separately and more recently. Humans seem to connect to certain species so much better than to others. Species than can be kept as household pets elicit strong emotions and stories about animal cruelty make regular headlines while species that are killed for food are routinely treated cruelly in factory farms. People from different parts of the world treat animals differently too. Dog meat is taboo in most of the West but a delicacy in many Asian countries. While some of us eat meat, some don't. Suffice it to say that there is no clear way to describe the relationship between animals and modern humans.

No matter the variety of different viewpoints, there is one particular viewpoint that all modern cultures subscribe to. We believe man is superior to animals in certain key ways. The scientists say this superiority is of an intellectual nature. "Human beings are far more brainy and intelligent than animals. Just look at how humans have been able to alter their natural environment to suit their purposes." Certain religions say man is uniquely positioned to seek and attain salvation or heaven. "No animal can do that." Another common perception among the members of the dominant culture (but not of every culture, especially certain tribal societies) is that animals are not as sentient as humans. We say they have "instincts" but not "feelings". "A cow feeds her calf by instinct, and not because she loves her calf. Humans, of course, love their young so they're a breed apart. They're superior."... so goes the thinking.

There are those who pay no heed to the species collapse underway. Over 200 species go extinct every day. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate.
And there are those who say we need the animals to stick around because they are an important part of the natural, local ecosystems. "If species were to die off, these delicate habitats would suffer because of the ripple effect on the rest of the ecosystem and eventually man would be affected too." However, in both these scenarios, there's no mention of animals' unconditional right to life. Why do we look for reasons to convince ourselves and others that animals need to be around, if for no other reason than the sake of humans? Can animals just not exist on their own accord, for their own sake, irrespective of what we think of them?

What follows is a photo essay featuring a particular charitable organization that I came across recently. If I had heard the worlds "Safari Club International", I might have thought it's one of those fancy eco-tourism agencies that have been catering to the members of the wealthy and middle classes who care for nature.

Safari Club International Foundation brochures on a wild animal-themed tablecloth.

Entrance to a promotional event

Serengeti calling?

It was a handful of protesters that piqued my curiosity as I was driving by. So I stopped to ask what they were protesting.

What exactly were they protesting? The brochure below makes it a bit more clear...

What do we see? A picture of a white man with a native African woman subtitled "Safari Care". A boy holding food subtitled "Sportsmen against hunger". Woman and deer subtitled "Sensory Safari". All that sounds good. But what's with the "Disabled Hunter"?

It turns out that Safari Club International Foundation is no eco-tourism company. It's not an animal or nature conservation outfit either. And it's not about hunger. Unless it's a strange kind of hunger... a hunger for the hunt.

A few more pictures should make it clearer...

Moose - 4 tags, 100% shot opportunity! and a South African Lion for $19,800


Some of the pictures below are a bit more graphic, so be advised!


They tell you where to set your cross-hairs, where to aim and shoot...

The event had quite a warm, feel-good vibe and the people were actually quite friendly too. If I ran into one of them on the street, I wouldn't think their hobbies included killing animals for fun. There is a difference between killing animals for food and killing them for fun. When the Native Americans killed animals for food, they did so very deliberately, and with much gratitude. It's as if they thanked the animal for giving up its life to feed and clothe the tribe. There have been tribes that have inadvertently hunted certain large animals to extinction in North America, but it wasn't the thrill of the hunt but hunger that brought them to it.

Wikipedia says "Safari as a distinctive way of hunting was popularized by the US author Ernest Hemingway and President Theodore Roosevelt." Hunting has an interesting history in India. "During the feudal and colonial times in India, hunting was regarded as a regal sport in the numerous princely states, as many maharajas and nawabs, as well as British officers, maintained a whole corps of shikaris (big-game hunters), who were native professional hunters. They would be headed by a master of the hunt, who might be styled mir-shikar. Often, they recruited the normally low-ranking local tribes because of their traditional knowledge of the environment and hunting techniques. Big game, such as Bengal tigers, might be hunted from the back of an elephant." As Swathi Shresth says in her dissertation exploring the colonization of wildlife in nineteenth and early twentieth century British India, "While hunting represented domination of nature and natives, the "colonial hunt" also came to signify a paternal benevolent British rule. The importance given to hunting and to the notion of fair play in their hunting served to "identify" the moral and physical superiority of British rulers. The new ideology of paternalism was realized in the figure of the hunter-officer, the Sahib who in hunting dangerous carnivores was seen to act as a protector of the native."

It was business as usual at the SCIF event. Apart from the membership drive, there were several items on display and for sale...

There was also an arcade game setup if you get the "urge 2 hunt"...

and a general festive feel to it all...

The "conservation fraud" that the protesters were decrying was apparent. You can't kill the last members of an endangered species if you want to return next season and hunt. Or if you want your kids to enjoy the hobby as much as you do. So you want to conserve these species and their habitats. I wonder if organizations such as SCIF are the only reason that there are still a few tigers and lions left in the world. Humanity is keeping alive a small number of species so a few rich people can go sport-hunting! I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

And since they possibly can't eat all the meat yourself, nor haul it back home, SCIF members are encouraged to share the carcass with the locals. SCIF will then be able to add a second feel-good cause: hunger...

Conservation and hunger: just the two right shots to load up the double-barreled hunting rifle. Two birds with one stone. Cliche!

The SCIF appears to be the conservation front for SCI. They have different web sites with either linking to the other...

Safari Club International Foundation -
Safari Club International -

Conservation fraud is not limited to little known SCIF. One of the world's largest and most popular conservation non-profits, WWF, frequently engages in conservation fraud. WWF, with its cute panda logo, raises over $266 Million in revenues every year, and spends part of it in helping mining and other corporations access lands currently inhabited by tribal peoples... peoples who have lived on the land and have intimate knowledge of their local ecosystems and who have been caretakers of their surroundings for thousands of years. This 50-minute documentary "The Silence of the Pandas - What the WWF isn't saying" (2011) is informative.

So what's modern man's relationship to animals? It's complicated. It's been a lot more complicated since the enlightenment era than it was ever before. But depending on how you look at it, you could say the trouble started as long ago as Aristotle, a foundation thinker of modern civilization. SCIF and WWF are not alone. They have an entire culture that supports them. As the following quotes from the SCI home page suggest, modern man has had little in the way of a relationship with nature and animals. Aside from the protesters, the event itself was really ho-hum which goes to show how very routine all this is today!