Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Tryst with Richard Dawkins

A week ago I happen to be in the picturesque and warm medieval town of Olomouc (pronounced Olomoots). A two hour train ride away from Prague in the Czech Republic, Olomouc is a quaint little town of about 100,000 inhabitants. Its narrow cobble stone lanes, ornate pastel buildings, majestic cathedrals and meandering Soviet era trams, take you back in time in an instant. Its history is rich and tragic, but today Olomouc is a vibrant sleepy European city with coffee shops, restaurants, monuments and open plazas attracting a healthy stock of tourists each year.

I was here to screen my new film Salam, at a film festival called AFO, organized by the university and industry partners. In its 54th year, AFO has become a premiere film festival for films devoted to science, history and the human condition. The festival is completely organized by the young students and their energy is palpable and refreshing to experience.

As most European countries, Czech society is fairly homogeneous. The only non-Czech you see are tourists, medical students and some immigrants from the middle east running Shwarma restaurants. Despite an old church on every corner, this nation has the unique distinction of being one of the most non-religious countries in the world. The students I spoke to, were very proud of this fact. But on the same note they were also fearful and skeptical of the right wing government that had come to power and the rising racism, Islamophobia and Antisemitism gripping the country, as a result. The older generation they said had very deep rooted xenophobic views towards "outsiders".

Having gathered an insight into the country, we were not very optimistic about getting a sizable audience to our screenings. The story of Salam, is the story of the Pakistani Nobel Laurette physicist Abdus Salam and the intersection of science, politics and Islam in relation to his life. It is also a story of intolerance and bigotry.

As expected we did not get the audience we were hoping, but we were pleasantly surprised when the world renowned evolutionary biologist and Atheist Richard Dawkins walked in and sat in the first row. Religion and science are two of his favorite topics and our film fit the bill. After the screening he walked up to me and my producer and congratulated us on making a "beautiful and sensitive" film.

Abdus Salam was a devout Muslim. What fascinated me about his story and got me interested in making this film, was how he reconciled his belief in Islam and god, all the while working in an area of physics that was attempting to understand the universe in purely scientific terms. As an avowed Atheist, Richard Dawkins has spent a lifetime writing books and giving talks, making the argument that the two are not compatible.

Richard Dawkins was in Olomouc to give a talk at the festival. He was the main attraction and it was quickly proven right when I saw a long line of people meandering down the block waiting to get into the auditorium. As filmmakers at the festival we got front row seats. As the audience gradually brimmed the 500 seat auditorium to capacity, it became clear how popular he was in this little town. I spotted only one protester outside asking people to not attend and be saved by Jesus.

Without any pleasantries Dawkins walked to the podium and began his talk. With images projected on a big screen behind him to illustrate the contradictions he found in religion and dogma, he made a strong and precise case for science. Eviscerating religious doctrine mostly in Islam and Christianity he lambasted the arrogance of religion's claim of knowing things, when it clearly did not. Listing the astounding discoveries science had made all the way from Darwin's theories on natural selection to current cutting edge work in genetics, he made the argument that unlike religion, when science does not know something, it shows humility, and gets back to inquiry.

Religion on the other hand, without evidence, but with unwavering arrogance and gall, says it has the answers to everything, as god the "master architect" is at work in mysterious and miraculous ways.
And has been so since the dawn of time. For many the dawn of time began only a few thousand years ago.

With lucidity and a glib Oxford demeanor, Richard Dawkins showed the great mind that he is. The response and applause from the audience to his sharp humor, was an indication of where most people stood on matters of religion and god.

He ended the talk by saying, that there is only one life we get and that is all there is. He was fortunate that he was given the one he has, and there was nothing more to it than that.

After a short but terse talk, Dawkins took questions from the audience. One audience member retorted that he had met a priest who had said to him that no one knows what god is. Anyone who says they know who or what god is, is but fooling you or lying. He then went on accuse Dawkins of using religion and the idea of god as a "straw man" to further his own agenda, claiming that there are religious people out there who are progressive and less dogmatic than those he sites.

To which Dawkins replied, it is inconsequential what the priest said he did not know. What is consequential is what he claims to know using his religion as the foundation for knowing.

What we truly know today is vastly different from what we knew a century ago. Through scientific inquiry, with absolute certainty, we not only understand what the universe is made of and how it came to be, but we also know the fundamental building blocks and processes of life in all its complexity.

In contrast, there are numerous facets in nature that are still a quandary. We still do not have a clear understanding on how consciousness works and how the myriad species that form life on earth perceive the world in such different ways. What we do know, is that the size of the human brain dramatically increased in size over thousands of years of evolution. Maybe that has something to do with why humans can look in a mirror and with absolute certainty know they are looking at themselves, and other animals cannot. The quest to unlock more puzzles keeps relentlessly advancing, in line with the human spirit. Some at humanity's own peril and others in absolute wonder.

Richard Dawkins famously said "One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all". There are many who are satisfied with non-answers that gratify their immediate need for comfort and contentment and a desire to have it all. In a chaotic world, that promises to get even more turbulent on a global scale, the enduring institution of religion will always prevail, feeding on humanity's frailty.

The idea of god, the cosmic pilot, the supreme architect, the all knowing, the divine healer and forgiver, the punisher and the purifier, fills a void for many. "God delusion" is real no matter what we truly know, this even Richard Dawkins knows.

It is what it is.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The "Witch Hunt" Report

After almost two years, the Special Counsel's report was submitted to the Justice Department on March 22, 2019. The investigation which the president incessantly called a "witch hunt", submitted  a 380 page document to the department. The Attorney General then summarized it over a weekend into four pages, concluding that the president and his associates had not colluded or coordinated with the Russians to manipulate the 2016 elections.

On the matter of obstruction of justice, the conclusion was less certain. The Attorney General quoted "while the report does not conclude the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him". The indeterminate nature of this statement left a lot to be explained. As a result, a call to make the entire report public, has since gone louder and louder.

Spearheaded by Robert Mueller, the investigation launched eight days after President Trump abruptly dismissed FBI director James Comey. The FBI director at that time was investigating possible links between Trump associates and Russian officials. Following Comey's firing a slew of Democrats called for a special independent probe to ascertain if the president had engaged in the obstruction of justice. The special counsel's office that was formed as a result, took over both the investigations from the FBI.

As soon as the investigation began, speculations ran amok. As Robert Mueller along with his band of assistants methodically went about his business, the media went into a frenzy. As dubious men associated with the Trump organization began to be thwarted and prosecuted, everyone began to theorize that the noose around the president was tightening. Late night comedians began to have a field day by conjuring images of a president in handcuffs. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and their ilk, were all forecasting a doom and gloom scenario for the president. And the president himself was helping along by lashing out on Twitter against Robert Mueller and his own Justice Department, and calling the whole affair repeatedly a "witch hunt". His propaganda network, Fox News, was helping him develop a false narrative, that the "deep state" was out to stymie his presidency.

While the investigation proceeded under the threat of being shut down anytime, the Justice Department was in turmoil. The hand picked loyalist Jeff Sessions was jettisoned for being at odds with the president. The deputy attorney general was seen as disloyal and was constantly publicly berated by the president. The person who temporarily stepped in as acting attorney general was inept and unqualified. By the time the new attorney general was appointed the investigation was reaching its end. And when William Barr received the report, he had only been in command for a few weeks and his decision to summarize the massive document into four pages and not willingly submit it to congress, was perceived suspect.

In June 2018, William Barr had sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department, asserting that Mueller’s investigation of Trump for alleged obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived.” In the memo, Barr made an argument — that presidents cannot be investigated for actions they are permitted to take, such as firing officials who work for them, based on their subjective state of mind.This was an argument consistently made by the president's lawyers.

Even though the summarized report was not entirely decisive, the president and his propaganda machinery declared total and complete vindication. While there are many parallel investigations still on going, and probably more will be launched, the president rightfully decided to gloat in his usual manner by again calling it all a massive witch hunt and a waste of precious federal dollars. The public had pretty much lost all interest in the proceedings and a certain apathy had set in which was palpable.

The election of Donald Trump was a shock to many on the left and the right. His administration has been a disaster from the get go. His association with dubious characters should not have come as a surprise to anyone, as it was all in the open in plain sight, to anyone who was paying attention. Despite all his deplorable uncivil antics and untrustworthy behavior, he was elected president. Many hoped his tenure would be cut short by other means. The media also hoped that reporting on all his unsavory dealings, would result in an impeachment or resignation. Many were openly making jokes about the president and his family in orange jumpsuits. All based on a wishful assumption that there was a "smoking gun".

Now that Robert Mueller has completed his task, the manner in which it is being revealed, is still causing many to believe that there is a smoking gun. The House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a democrat, will authorize a subpoena this week to obtain the full, un-redacted report from special counsel Robert Mueller, starting a showdown between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration. There is talk of even summoning Robert Mueller to testify in front of a committee. The long partisan confrontation in this matter, displaying the acute polarized state of affairs, has barely begun.

The last time a special counsel's office was established in America, was to investigate if President Bill Clinton had had an affair with his intern Monica Lewinsky and if he had then asked her to lie about it. Known as the Starr Report, it was released directly to the House of Representatives on September 11, 1998. Within hours of receiving the report the House voted to release it to the public online.

A year after the report was published, the Ethics in Government Act, which required special counsels to submit reports directly to Congress, expired. The act was replaced by the Department of Justice regulations currently governing the Mueller report.

Whether the full un-redacted report will ever be released to the public is up for debate. But having spent so much of the public's time and resources, they are entitled to know what the president did or did not do in every possible detail. Since doubt has been cast, the citizens of this nation have every right to know in earnest, if the person they have put in charge is actually working for them or not.

It is what it is.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Hyderabad Supplanted

A visitor happened to be in my living room on my recent visit to the city of my birth. In the conversation that ensued he mentioned that at a new real estate development in his city, after the land was leveled and apartments were built, non-native trees were planted for the purpose of landscaping and beautification. The birds of the neighborhood stopped perching on the trees that did not belong. I cannot confirm whether this is true, but this much I can see. Once my backyard used to be noisy with sparrows. Now you would be hard pressed to find even a single one anywhere in the city. No one can explain with certainty, what happened to them.

This is a perfect allegory for what is happening in urban India, where cities have been spreading at an alarming rate, under the pretext of an economic boom. 

In the pursuit of massive development and impressive growth, India seems to have forgotten or has laid to waste all that makes it precious. It feels like urban India is being supplanted much like the rejected trees.

Every time I return, I am appalled at the rate at which cities are expanding and the clamoring that is only intensifying. The destiny of Hyderabad began to transform when American tech companies decided to set up shop to serve their growing need for cheap labor. From Microsoft and Accenture to Amazon and Google, today have massive office complexes stretching across the new parts of the city, which were once green and rocky. Areas that were once considered distant and rural are now prime land and have been so for a while. A network of highways and tollbooths, help transport people to these mega buildings at all hours of the day and night causing traffic jams at unearthly hours. More and more ancient rocks and native trees are torn down to make room for residential towers and mansions, to house the people serving America. The city I once knew is no longer the city of today. I often feel lost and disoriented at times, as a result.

Those who are benefiting from this massive expansion and growth see no problem in how its being done. Its business as usual for many and from the chauffeur to the CEO, all want in on the money to be made from land deals.

There is also money to be made in the service sector up and down the chain. IKEA opened its only outlet in Hyderabad to serve this burgeoning market. Hoards lined up to get in the door the day it opened bringing traffic to a grinding halt. High-end furnishing, bathroom, gadgetry and appliance stores have all opened showrooms to cater to the desires of the upwardly mobile. While driving down a congested and clogged inner road, I saw a Ferrari trying to stay unscratched. Schools with fancy western names advertise on huge hoardings, offering air-conditioned class rooms and courses in French, while keeping a dose of Indian just to feel rooted. Today there is nothing money cannot buy in India, and therefore a hybrid nation is being supplanted driven by unabashed consumerism.

Probably many of my friends reading this would say, there he goes criticizing our happiness, while he lives in New York enjoying the very amenities we crave. What a hypocrite. I have now lived as many years in Brooklyn, as I did in India as a young man. I often wonder, if I had never left would I be seeing all of this from a different lens? Would I be a part of this system that devours without pause?

Since India liberalized its economy and opened the floodgates to foreign investment, allowing the tech revolution sweeping the globe to take root, many have transformed their lives. And this is a commendable feat. Many have risen out of poverty just for being able to speak English and acquire some basic software skills. Many of my peers have seen tremendous success in their professional lives. Some like me have gotten an education abroad and have become CEOs of companies. Others stayed pouncing on the opportunities growth and liberalization offered and built empires and have enjoyed a lifestyle which when I was growing up was a distant dream and still is, even in the west.

There is no question the growth India has seen over a mere two decades has been meteoric. But it has come at a great cost, a tremendous environmental reckoning.

On this visit I happened to have dinner with a Member of the State Legislative Assembly. A powerful man, he had been a successful politician for almost two decades and in many ways had overseen the expansion of the city. He told me that in a few years Hyderabad would become a world-class city. I could not fathom what he meant by that.

After a great deal of pain to the public and endless delays, Hyderabad  launched its overhead rail system connecting large sections of the city with affordable public transport. But the traffic congestion below only seems to had gotten worse. Many more shiny five star hotels had opened since my last visit. The airport was under expansion and countless office buildings and apartment blocks were on the rise along the outskirts of the city. But better air quality and the stability of potable water supply was still far from being certain for many.

India is a vast and diverse country. At more than a billion strong and growing, it stresses on all its resources by its sheer size. It is commendable though that despite these challenges it keeps growing and setting lofty goals for its people. While it has allowed people to amass wealth to buy a Ferrari it often fails to provide the basic necessities of life for many. The Prime Minister launched a cleanliness and personal hygiene campaign called “Swach Bharat” (clean India), which seems to be on everyone’s lips and mind from its effective messaging. How successful it is in realty in changing habits and social behavior, is yet to be seen in any concrete terms. Many NGOs fill in where the government fails, doing commendable work. Many of them feel under attack these days for accepting foreign funding.

When one arrives in any part of urban India, things seem chaotic. The urban landscape is ugly, the streets are congested, the air is dusty and dense, the sheer numbers of its people are in your face the moment you enter its streets. If you are not from here it could be overwhelming and exciting at the same time. But behind all that chaos, things do work. People are helpful, and the hospitality you get is unsurpassed. The cultural creativity and ingenuity of its people is extraordinary.

The politician said to me in blatant terms “In India, you have respect, only if you have money”. Often how people treat you is measured by how much money you carry in your wallet and how you look. Indians are insidiously obsessed with fair skin. Overwhelmingly Indian cinema, television and advertising cast people with fair skin, while most Indians are of darker complexion. Casual comment about one's complexion without much thought is common social behavior. Other refined forms of racism still run deep.

I was in Hyderabad this time to screen my film “Salam”. After screening it at almost twenty cities around the world I was eager to share it with the people of my city. The Hyderabad Film Club graciously invited me to host the screening. And then a bomb went off in Kashmir killing almost fifty soldiers. A terrorist from across the border claimed responsibility. The nation went into a jingoistic frenzy calling for blood. Bollywood immediately responded by banning Pakistani artists from being part of their fraternity. And since my film is about a Pakistani scientist, and the word “Pakistan” had suddenly become more potent than it normally is, fearing a possible mob attack, the screening was cancelled.

I was dejected and disappointed. The decision was made without a review of my film. For a nation and a city that wants to be world-class, from my perspective, it was a sad day. A nation can only be world-class, when it can have total unhindered freedom of speech, with out fear. Many disturbing events over the past few years have shown, that India is far from reaching that status. Films and artists are routinely harassed and censored. Journalists have been killed. And this notion that “you are with us or against us” is peddled as a statement for patriotism and religious nationalism.

My film exposes how Pakistan had come to become infected by militancy, bigotry and religious intolerance. From my perspective it was the perfect film to show at a time when people's loyalties to their motherland were being called into question based on their religion. But unfortunately my city failed me by showing that it was not bigger and better than its proclaimed “enemy state”.

The great American writer and thinker James Baldwin famously said “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I love the city of my birth and the land that still inhabits my dreams, and therefore I choose to criticize it with pride. From a vantage point of being both an outsider and an insider I can see it for what it is and what it is becoming. 

While I pine for the city of my youth, which is long gone, I am acutely aware it is an unreasonable expectation to aspire. I know there is still beauty left in the city. There are lakes and rocks that can still be saved and salvaged. There is exquisite beauty in its ancient monuments that need to be preserved for future generations. The sunsets over Tank Bund are still breathtaking. 

Even though climate change will wreak havoc, with hotter summers, droughts and aquifer depletion, the need for clean air and water outside of a plastic bottle is a basic human right. And if that cannot be awarded to every citizen with certainty, rich or poor, then India would have failed miserably and Hyderabad can never be a world-class city, no matter the wealth it is able to generate.
  
It is what it is.


Thursday, January 31, 2019

SHUTDOWN

Long lines at airports. A threat of airplanes falling out of the sky. National parks and monuments shuttered with overflowing garbage and filthy toilets. Federal employees driving taxis to make ends meet. Go Fund Me pages set up to raise funds for coast guard families. People lining up at soup kitchens. These were just a few effects of a partial government shutdown that crippled America as the president threw a tantrum and stopped paying almost a million government employees. All to force congress to support a dubious campaign promise he made. 
As the Democrats, Republicans and the President got down to the muddy business of working out a deal to open the government, the rabid bipartisanship was stark and unabashed. The Democrats insisted that they would only negotiate on the condition of the government being open. The Republican senators would not accept any bill unless they had a guarantee that the president would sign it. And the president would not budge unless he was handed a $5.7 billion check to build his grotesque monument to discrimination and bigotry.
After thirty eight days of brinkmanship and shameful display of incivility, the president relented. It was not the pain and anguish of the people that were suffering that made him change his mind. Being denied the opportunity to address the nation from the pulpit of the house, seemed to have irked the bully president to reconsider his position.
He decided to open the government for three weeks
As the world looked to America and saw the gridlock and the dysfunction, they were appalled at how a developed nation could operate in such a manner. As the United Kingdom was in chaos trying to workout a Brexit deal, America’s dysfunction was quickly compared and a parallel was drawn as both nations dealt with uncertainty, artificially created by a political circus. Probably authoritarian regimes like Russia and China were having a laugh at the theatrics being displayed openly in the media. 
But there is a silver lining to it all. The American system of government, even though being less democratic in its choice, is equipped with checks and balances that were masterfully devised to keep power constrained. At its core, the idea is to draw and push opposing sides to find middle ground and compromise for the betterment of the people and the nation. Even though the assumption is that reasonable patriotic people would rise to the office and put the interest of the nation before politics, the drafters of the system foresaw in their wisdom, that probably there would be times of exception. So they separated power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches to keep an autocratic leader under check.
The mid-term elections resoundingly put the Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives, effectively putting the brakes on the president’s agenda of trash and burn. The Democratic speaker of the house became the second most powerful person as a result and showed decisively to the president that he could not railroad his agenda.
The American system of government is in no means perfect. It is a work a progress and was always meant to be so, to help the nation adapt to changing times. It is this very nature that allowed the emancipation proclamation, civil rights, social security, women’s rights and other countless reforms to be enacted and rolled out through the land. It is the same system that has sent countless Americans to their death in wars and invasions across the globe and allowed the nation to be infested with guns. It is also the same system that elected Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and Donald Trump to the highest office of the land.
It is what it is.

Monday, December 31, 2018

As the Mud Ball turns

As humanity commemorates the completion of another earth's cycle around the sun, it dawned on me that I would be marking half a century of my own existence on this mud ball. So I revisited something I wrote ten years ago and found that not much had changed mother-ship's trajectory. I realized, while I had largely led a rather comfortable life, taking on the challenges of domesticity and a career, the existential questions facing us all still hung in the balance.

A decade ago the human population had not surpassed seven billion. But the nature of its survival was less dismal than it is today. We have burnt carbon and discarded plastic like an alcoholic and now earth's veins are clogging and a cardiac arrest is imminent. But there is one thing that keeps the human spirit alive, the indomitable trust in the idea of "hope".

Hope that it can change the orbit of things to come with ingenious technology and innovation. No matter the odds, the confidence that it can win back time by challenging nature itself. And then there is the arrogance that not much has changed and life will go on as it has for centuries and we shall adapt. The planet is resilient and infinite and there is enough room for it to swallow all our refuse no matter what, is still a popular myth bought and peddled by many in power and their "blind leading the blind" entourage.

Humanity is no monolith. It is but a sum of diverse flawed individuals. A smorgasbord of folly, fortitude and formidable tenacity. And so 2018 was not that much different from years past. Natural and man made calamities, war, terrorism and other earth shattering phenomena made their mark like clockwork. Hunger, poverty, migration, rape and mass murder reminded us yet again of humanity's capacity for evil.

An argument is often made that writers, thinkers, scientists and artists often focus disproportionately on what's wrong with the world. The cynic trumps the pragmatist and the optimist.

Especially at years end, one should focus on the strides humanity has made in tackling some of the colossal challenges that it faces and not just on the devastation its actions cause.

Yes, humanity has conquered many diseases, the Internet is changing the very fabric of society in many positive ways, space exploration is advancing science, rich people are pledging more of their money to do good on a global scale, some nations are taking climate change seriously, some rain forests are being conserved and some endangered species are returning from the brink. And despite all that the media tends to magnify, more people are living in relative peace and security around the planet in a century. Probably this is why the human population rapidly grows, forecasted to reach 9 billion in the next few decades.

While there is relative peace, authoritarianism, fascism and right-wing politics are on the march once again. Democracy which seemed like a system that would readily take hold around the globe, especially after the end of the cold war and a collapse of communism, is again under threat. Identity politics, populism and religious tribalism are dividing people. Social media and the immediacy of the internet are helping disseminate these divisions with scathing effect.

The desire to believe in mythology with resolve and less in evidence, continues to grow. Society is created and crafted when people share stories. The fantastical ones and not the factual ones, continue to be the glue that bind. Hollowed by consumerism, in search of spiritual solace, many are adrift finding meaning in archaic practices, decrepit soothsayers and dubious leaders.

Humanity's penchant for greed and corruption always looms large, and gets larger as some nations experience an uneven and artificial phenomenon known as an "economic boom". The seduction of affluence can blind even the most informed. Consumption and the aspiration to live like the west, is reaching new highs, hoodwinking nations and peoples to gamble their future.

For nations that have always taken tomorrow's sunrise for granted, things seem uncertain. The less fortunate amassing at their borders, suck compassion out of even the most generous of them all.
Governments looking to get reelected pass policies and spend their way to the hilt, offering and deluding their citizens that the glory days will return or are yet to come .

But what they do not seem to understand is that resources are finite, and capitalism in its present form is unsustainable. If economic growth is the only benchmark for success, the roller coaster fluctuations of the stock market will be the new normal. Even the knee jerk experiment of capitalism inside communism, is fundamentally flawed and impractical in the long run. Every year is a litmus test, making certain that the fountain of endless affluence and growth is but an illusion.

So when, where and how do we begin to appreciate the future from the present and reverse course? When do we begin to look at ourselves beyond the trappings of power, politics, greed, religion, dogma and division and think of ourselves as the one ocean rising. When do we begin to accept that our progress and problems are interconnected and that nations and people are all essentially the same, sharing the same destiny. When do we recognize that no nation is immune to the ebb and flow of economic and social upheaval, despite their historical make up. And when do we wake up to the realization that walls do not work.

And so heading into another year of unknowns, instead of making new resolutions, if we as a species can acknowledge the mistakes we have made in the past, that would be a huge step in the right direction.

It is what it is.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Looming Crisis

A decaying dead sperm whale washed ashore at a national park in Indonesia this month. Inside its belly were found, 19 pieces of hard plastic, 4 plastic bottles, 24 plastic bags, 2 flip-flops, 3.26 kilograms of string and 115 plastic cups.

145 long finned pilot whales were found stranded on a remote beach in New Zealand. By the time rescuers reached the struggling whales, nearly half were already dead. The other half were in such pain that they needed to be euthanized. The hiker who spotted them and alerted the authorities said, their screams were unbearable.

The Great Barrier Reef is rapidly losing its coral glory. Rising ocean temperatures are said to be the cause. Scientists are desperately trying to artificially fertilize and regenerate new life on the reef. But if temperatures keep rising, even a fraction change will spell death to one of the great wonders of the planet.

The white marble on Taj Mahal's dome is cracking and its sheen is being dulled beyond repair. Sustained industrial pollution over decades is said to be the cause. The river Yamuna that hugs its banks is a cesspool of filth and disease.

2018 has seen the worst forest fires ravage California on record. 1,667,855 acres have burned, the largest amount recorded in any any given year. A fire this month claimed 88 people and almost 25  are still unaccounted for. It destroyed more than 18,000 structures, becoming both California's deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record.

This month, the US government released its Fourth National Climate Assessment report. 13 federal agencies presented the starkest warnings to date of the consequences of climate change for the United States. The report predicted that if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, The year 2018 is on course to be the fourth warmest on record. It says that the global average temperature for the first 10 months of the year was nearly 1C above the levels between 1850-1900. The State of the Climate report says that the 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, with the 2015-2018 making up the top four. If the trend continues, the WMO says temperatures may rise by 3-5C by 2100.

Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on November 22nd. At the stroke of midnight stores across the nation and online, opened their doors to hordes of shoppers. The Black Friday sale as its called, has become as much a symbol of Thanksgiving as the oversized shiny dead Turkey on the dinner table. As Americans indulged in this excess, buying things they do not need, and as a consequence producing more trash, the state of the environment was farthest from their minds.

And the president of the United States, blatantly ignored his own government's climate report, and refused to act, thus neglecting his prime directive: to protect all Americans from harm.

Alarm bells are ringing all around the planet. The looming crisis is real. Irrefutable scientific data shows over and over again that humans are causing catastrophic harm to the fragile ecosystem. And yet people in power refuse to act decisively, too afraid and corrupted by oil and big business. In their pigheadedness they choose to defy overwhelming consensus, and deliberately endanger the planet and its inhabitants by continuing to resist change. Economic growth and a hunger for more and more material conveniences seems to be the only benchmark to achieve. Most of the nations who signed on to the Paris Accords, are behind in meeting their targets. America is the only nation that is no longer a signatory.

So what does one do when a problem is of planetary proportion?

Mahatma Gandhi, famously said "Be the change you want to see in the world". I think it is too late for that. There is little time to educate the young about what this exactly means. Transformative people who can embody change and influence people en-mass are few. In an era of glamor worship, movie stars and pop stars are more influential, and a use and throw culture of conspicuous consumption is a driving force. Respect for the environment is only an after thought. The toxic nature of humanity is so far reaching, it feels impossible to pull back from the brink. Even the last remaining havens harboring tribes untouched by the toxicity of modernity, are being tested by overzealous encroachment.

This month, another NASA rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars, sending back images of a barren planet, covered in rock and dust. While the images of Mars are breathtaking and the human effort to be able to capture them commendable, the stark contrast is inescapable. The blue spec humanity calls home is infinitely more beautiful and fascinating. And yet it seems we are willing to squander it all away blinded by our contemptible shortsightedness.

It is what it is.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Human Hubris

In the new documentary film on climate change "Living in the Future's Past", the actor Jeff Bridges narrates, "Although we are part of the web of life, because we see it, we think we stand above it". This singular distinguishing factor defines our species, and has made us all powerful and dominating. And as we begin to realize, it may also become the reason for our demise. 
But on the other hand, it may also save us.
When Homo sapiens began their evolutionary journey on this planet as foragers, they were very much a part of the web of life. As they grew in numbers and transitioned to hunter-gatherers and  discovered the art of agriculture they began to separate from that web. 
Agriculture started the process of domestication and civilization as we know it began in earnest. Then came ideas of god and religion placing humans at the apex of the living order. 
Tribalism began to take root, leading to conflict and war. Land became the most valuable of all currency and so began the formation of tribal enclaves, which  lead to the creation of borders and the nation state.
Domestication brought about the enslavement of animals on a mammoth scale. Chickens, pigs, goats and cows became the beasts of burden and their abuse became emblematic of the human race.
As the human population grew, so started the rapid decline of biodiversity on the planet. Forests began to shrink as the need for arable land grew. As soon as the balance of nature began to shift, probably the first measurable impact of human existence on the planet began to be felt. 

Industrialization which was fueled by the discovery and use of oil, made the ramifications of the human race on the environment even more pronounced.
Today, 90% of all large animals (weighing more than a few pounds) on the planet are either human or domesticated. Since the appearance of life on the planet, some 4 billion years ago, never has a single species changed the ecology of the planet all by itself in such an indelible way. The complete and utter domination of the human species is so absolute, to say that we are not having an impact on the planet and its climate, is akin to believing the earth is flat. Which to my surprise many do, as they fear what faces humanity.
One thing is certain, with the world living in relative peace, devoid of any major war and famine, and with medicine halting almost all premature death, the human population is only guaranteed to spread and grow even more. Today it stands at about 7 billion. By 2050 it is predicted to reach 9 billion. Humans with ingenuity can figure out ways to feed themselves. With innovative methods of farming enough food can be generated with less arable land. But the enslavement and slaughter of livestock will have to increase as human addiction to meat and dairy will not stem easily. And therefore the chances of preventing greenhouse gasses from reaching the atmosphere seems less tenable.
Early this month, I visited Paris to screen my film Salam at the Pariscience Film Festival. Many films shown at this festival dealt with the subject of climate change and global warming. One particular film, Bill Nye: Science Guy, focused on the anti-science atmosphere that has gripped America, causing people to denounce evolution and adopt creationism with fervor. In America today, we have a president and an administration that openly believes climate change is a hoax. We have a TV channel dedicated and determined to discredit any scientific data, that proves humans are altering the climate. Their listeners and believers are large in number and are determined to take America on a regressive path. America does not stand alone in this matter. Many nations around the world are doing little to rise to the challenge. China and India, the world's two most populous nations continue to choke breathing poisonous air unable, incapable and refusing to take drastic measures. All not willing to hurt the bottom line of their industrial class, to whom growth and accumulation of wealth trumps survival.
A recent report from the IPCC  has revealed that the world's oceans have absorbed more heat than previously thought. This means the oceans are warming more rapidly than predicted. Warmer oceans translate to more severe weather patterns. Warmer air leads to rapid glacial ice melt leading to sea level rise.
At present the alarms being raised are dire. We are heading towards a catastrophe and there is no unified attempt to confront the approaching storm in any meaningful and urgent way. Humans from their limited earthbound view, still believe there are real borders on the ground. Even though images of the blue marble from space show there are none.
We who stand apart and above the web of nature are in a unique position to save ourselves or watch our growth bring it all to an end. As the saying goes, everything that has a beginning must also have an end.
Two things that separates humans from the other species that inhabit the earth are Hubris and Greed. Two characteristics that lead us down the path of self destruction. But on the other hand hubris has also helped humanity achieve the impossible. So maybe we will dig our self out of this hole we are so rapidly digging. 

In the words of the comedic genius philosopher George Carlin "The planet is fine. The people are fucked. Its been here four and half billion years. The planet isn't going anywhere. We are. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas."

It is what it is.


 
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