Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Energy article makes top-ten

Ha ha! Somebody's paying attention!

My article The Crisis of Too Much Energy made the top-ten posts of the year on Brave New Traveler Magazine.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Josh Kearns 1, neoclassical economics 0

Score one shot against the dominant economic paradigm: Brave New Traveler published a piece of mine on why GDP (gross domestic product) is a shitty indicator of well-being.

Read it here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

WANTED: Pesticide Detectives

How about a way to inject some clandestine environmental science into your travels?

I’m looking for adventuresome eco-travelers to help me to identify a number of environmental bad actors. I’m talking about hazardous agrichemical pesticides, and they’re out there in full force. They’ve infiltrated our drinking water supplies worldwide – and it’s up to us to arrest these ecological criminals.

I’m working on a super-cheap, elegantly simply, low-tech water filtration system that can be constructed by just about anybody, anywhere in the world, to scrub these bad guys out of our drinking water. Next year I’ll be proof-testing the design in the lab, to make sure it scours out the baddies and produces water safe to drink.

But for the next several months, I’ll be visiting crime scenes around Asia and building a dossier of the main culprits – a worst-of-the-worst list of ecological and human health perpetrators. By “crime scenes,” I mean the farms where the biochemical mafia does their sordid business, and the village shops where they get reinforcements.

This is where you come in. By myself I can only visit with a small number of shopkeepers and farmers, and only over a limited area of travel. But with a few more detectives on the global scene, we can cover more area and get a more comprehensive sense of the pesticide thugs that are out there terrorizing ecosystems and breaking-and-entering our bodies.

Your mission as an eco-traveler cum undercover agrichemical detective, should you choose to accept it, is to visit with the local farmers and shopkeepers wherever you happen to be traveling and make a list of the usual suspects. Then send the list to me and I will put it through my eco-crime database and indict the suspected cancer causers, endocrine disruptors, developmental and reproductive system depredators, neurological vandals, aquatic organism killers, and groundwater contaminators.

So what’s in it for you?

For one, you’ll get credited in any forthcoming publications that use your data. I’ll post periodic rundowns on the web so that you can see what my research turns up about the bad actors you identify and compare notes with other traveling agrichemical detectives.

You’ll get an opportunity for behind-the-scenes travel off the beaten path, where you’ll meet people, see stuff and have experiences that most travelers never get. You’ll make friends with villagers and farmers, probably get treated like a celebrity everywhere you go, and catch a glimpse of what ‘real life’ is like outside the commercial fa├žade of the tourist areas.

(And remember that the chemicals are the criminals, not the farmer who applies them or even the shopkeeper who sells them – these folks are just low-level pawns in the international big-money agrichemical mafia, run by the likes of the Monsanto, Dow and DuPont eco-crime syndicates.)

Furthermore, you’ll get a heavy dose of insight into the dangers of chemical-intensive agriculture and the importance of organic methods. You’ll see field workers liberally applying carcinogens to rice or citrus or vegetables while wearing no protective equipment. You may meet folks who have been maimed by pesticide exposure, or hear stories of those who’ve died from it. You’ll witness ecosystems that have been irreversibly damaged. And you’ll witness signs of the economic ruin that comes to farmers from adopting industrial agriculture methods.

As a pesticide detective, you’ll be bearing witness to these ecological crimes and helping to bring the perpetrators to justice. Your list of agrichemicals helps me to design the best possible filtration system for producing safe drinking water. And tales of your experiences spread the redeeming message of organic agriculture.

Contact me at yeah.yeah.right.on (at) gmail (dot) com if you’re ready to sign up as a pesticide detective – I’ll brief you on what are the few critical and easily collected bits of data I need and you’ll be ready to start sleuthing out the bad guys!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cute and funny

Josh brand insecticide - ha!

Agricultural biodiversity conservation in West Bengal

I was fortunate to spend about ten days visiting with farmer, activist and interdisciplinary scholar par excellence Debal Deb at his agricultural biodiversity research station, situated among the expansive rice paddies of rural West Bengal.

Debal started this research station (named Basudha, Bengali for “Earth Mother”) in 2002 in order to conduct in situ conservation experiments with rice varieties. One of the baneful consequences of industrial agriculture is its erosive effect on crop biodiversity. Before the advent of “modern” agriculture, India had an estimated 65,000 unique varieties of rice under cultivation. This number has now dwindled to a few thousand.

HYV rice monoculture.

West Bengal alone historically was home to some 5,500 varieties. Now there are only 542, and with only a tiny handful of exceptions, they are all grown in one singular location: Debal’s farm.

The story that unfolded for me during my stay at Basudha was of the decimation of folk agriculture as it has been practiced for 10,000 years. Folk crops such as the surviving rice varieties in Basudha’s test plots evolved over generations in response to local ecological and climatic conditions, as well as in response to the preferences of farmers who bred different varieties for a panoply of desired characteristics: taste, resistance to pests, drought and floods, aroma, appearance, nutritional quality, medicinal properties, the yields of grain or straw, etc.

Farmers saved seeds and traded these with other farmers at annual gatherings and festivals. The different varietals were regarded with a high degree of respect and accorded much value – seeds were often considered sacred resources.

But sadly, owing to the “modernization” of agriculture, few farmers today place such high value on sacred genetic resources. Debal began his in situ rice biodiversity conservation project by collecting seeds of whatever folk varieties remained from around the region and redistributing them to farmers for free, so that the farmers’ fields would serve as the research and conservation stations.

Debal didn’t have a farm of his own at the time – so he strategized to have other farmers plant out the varieties for him. But he underestimated the narrowing effect that market culture has had on farmers’ mentality – because he gave the seeds away for free, many of the farmers didn’t value them. When he visited one farmer to whom he had given an exceptionally rare variety, he found that not only had the farmer not planted the seeds, he had left them unprotected and they were eaten by rats. The implication: that particular variety of rice has vanished from the earth, forever.

Folk traditions that were widely practiced until just a few generations ago, such as valuing seeds in non-monetary terms and freely sharing resources, have been sacrificed under market culture. Since Debal gives his seeds away for free, he runs the risk of their not being appropriately valued; whereas, if a farmer takes out a huge loan to buy Monsanto’s HYV seeds and they fail to produce a satisfactory yield (or fail altogether, which happens frequently), he blames himself for being a lousy farmer rather than Monsanto for ripping him off.

This is a stark indication of the broader malady that “modern” society faces, whether in India or the US – we have forgotten how or neglected to value things outside of their market prices. If it costs a lot, it must be valuable (like the HYV seeds, which can run 2,000 Rupees, about $50, per kilogram – very costly for an Indian peasant farmer). If something is free or cheap, if it’s value cannot be imputed into the market somehow, then it’s not worth much. (We have yet to put a price on breathable air – but what’s it worth? The market cannot tell us until it has become scarce – by then it will be too late.) This is an economic reductionism of the most insidious kind.

Debal realized that depending upon farmers who were themselves suffering under market myopia and the myriad economic stresses imposed by Big Agriculture to secure rice biodiversity for future generations was a risky proposition. He also new that in situ conservation was crucial, since only this keeps the varieties in vibrant co-evolution with changing ecological and climatic conditions.

In ex situ conservation, or what is practiced in the large government and corporate seed banks, seeds are kept under freeze-dried conditions. This damages the seeds metabolic mechanisms such that they will not germinate if planted. The genetic material, however, remains intact, allowing genes from the saved varieties to be hybridized with viable plants. This process produces the so-called “high-yielding varieties” (HYV) that account for the great majority of crops planted under the regime of industrial ag.

So in a bold move, with very little money of his own and no support from any university, government agency, foundation or NGO, in 2002 Debal bought a small plot of land 250 km northwest of Kolkata and set up an agricultural biodiversity research station to conduct in situ conservation of rice varietals. Thus Basuhda was born.

Debal recruited a group of intrepid young local farmers who were looking to go organic as research staff. In the five years since, they have built a big adobe farmhouse and kitchen / dining area. They have held courses on organic farming, organized workshops and events to oppose the influence of Big Agriculutre in the neighboring villages, held classes on science and ecology with local school kids, and hosted a wide variety of folk art, music and sports festivals.

Debal is confident he has collected every folk variety of rice that still grows anywhere in West Bengal, and several varieties from other locations around India as well. Every year, Debal and his team of farmers/researchers (none of whom have a degree in science or have even been to college) plant out all 542 varieties in 2 meter by 2 meter plots on 1.5 acres of paddy land. As the plants develop, they painstakingly record 35 different phenotypic or morphological characteristics for each variety.

They’re also doing research on a number of techniques that may produce higher yields of rice grains, or result in breeds that can better withstand drought or flooding. Their experiments are showing folk varieties to out-perform Big Agriculture’s so-called high yielding varieties along a number of dimensions. And they are conducting ecological studies of rice ecosystem food webs, observing all the insects, snakes, birds, lizards and other creatures that coexist with the rice.

Their data and conclusions from the various experiments is widely published in the peer-reviewed and popular literature. It is also incorporated into the information commons Debal has set up to protect the rice varieties from biopiracy by corporations like Monsanto. (Monsanto has a habit of taking folk knowledge, patenting it, and selling it back to the people who developed it through the generations for a sizeable profit.)

The accomplishments of the farmer/researchers at Basudha would be impressive coming from a university. But coming from this small plot of land, in the middle-of-nowhere West Bengal (the farm isn’t even connected to the electricity grid, let alone do they have a laboratory), and being produced by a motley group of local peasant farmer-boys led by one wild-eyed, nearly pennyless anti-globalization activist, their work is downright phenomenal. For science of this caliber and relevance to come out of such humble circumstances is nothing short of a miracle.

Basudha is a thriving example of democratic science – science by and for the people. A big reason Debal has no funding (outside of a few private donations from friends here and there) is that getting science like this funded is damn near impossible. You see, Big Science is bosom-buddies with Big Agriculture; and this kind of grassroots, democratic science-for-the-people is not what Monsanto is interested in funding.

Simple technology for a democratic science: a bamboo microscope. These were recently featured in an article in Nature.

Those tobacco companies didn’t pay their scientists big bucks to prove that smoking is bad for you – they were interested in data that told the opposite story. Just the same, to promote agricultural methods that put power over food security into the hands of small farmers is not in Monsanto’s strategic portfolio. There are no profits to be made for Big Ag if farmers save seeds and trade freely them amongst each other, and if the varieties they’ve developed over generations have no need for synthetic fertilizers or chemical protection from pests.

* * *

At night we sat around an oil lantern made from the bodies and scraps of old tin cans and listened to the distant shouting, banging and booming coming from the surrounding villages. The ruckus was the villagers’ efforts to drive away the herds of wild elephants that migrate through this area every year. As you might guess, elephants can do incredible damage to a farm. In fact, my ecological economist buddy from Kolkata studies this very phenomenon – crop and property damage done by wild mega-fauna. Elephants eating your rice and trampling your garden, rhinos knocking over your privy, tigers absconding with your toddler, that kind of thing.

At Basudha, we listened as the villagers raised the dead in effort to scare the elephants away from their grain storage huts and back into the forest. The booms were concussion grenades supplied by the government forest service – “scientific forest and wildlife management,” they call it.

This is a relatively new problem, and one for which the “scientific management” of the forest service is mostly to blame. This area used to be covered in diverse forest. Back then, the forest provided plenty of fodder, so the elephants never needed to raid the villages for food. But that diverse forest was razed to make way for eucalyptus plantations. Now there’s no fodder, and the villages have elephant problems.

But the fiber industry? They’re very happy. Eucalyptus is a cash cow in this sense – it grows fast, provides good fiber for the industry, and even allows the forest service to claim that it is practicing reforestation. A win for corporations and the government, and a big lose for the villagers, the elephants, and the untold numbers of other species that have been extirpated with the removal of the diverse forest ecosystem.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Agro-eco-tourism piece on BNT

Well, it's official: I'm a professional writer. I got $20 for this piece on agro-eco-tourism.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Good work and the idea of 'vacation'

Knowing something of my experiences among subsistence farming communities in Asia, the editors of a popular online travel magazine recently asked that I supply a short piece on ‘agro-eco-tourism.’ They wanted me to explain why, in their words, “Working on a farm beats sitting on a beach.”

The audience of this online magazine, according to the editors, consists predominantly of young travelers (late teens, early twenties) who are more or less “green” in both their political leanings and their degree of life experience. I was asked to “point them in the direction of enlightenment through sage travel advice,” a tall order, to say the least. I – reluctantly – accepted the challenge.

The charge issued me by the magazine’s editors caused me to think precisely why I would recommend this type of travel, what makes it superior to more conventional forms of tourism. This turned out to be a difficult question, a question for which I found it hard to provide answers that were substantially more than platitudes and pablum such as, “You gain a deeper experience of the culture and the ecosystem when you work alongside the locals.” In fact I’m not sure what I submitted to the magazine in the end represents much more than that.

The reason, I think, that I have had such a difficult time providing a meaningful answer to the editors’ question is that my travels are not, in the first place, motivated by recreation. Rather they are an extension of my work and research. The particular experiences I’m going for under the (admittedly contrived) rubric of ‘agro-eco-tourism’ follow logically from my studies and work as a researcher in environmental science and ecological economics.

In my travels, I’m motivated to uncover holistic approaches to life being lived out in situ – communities thriving in obvious interdependence and synchronization with local eco-systemic cycles and processes. My purpose is to identify cultures and practices that provide for both human well-being and ecological sustainability, and are extensible to other communities worldwide. I’ve chosen this purpose because my studies and life experiences in the West have indicated that civilization has veered dangerously off-course in both of these dimensions (human well-being and ecological sustainability). The aim of my travel is to gather experiences and information that will help to correct the currently errant and destructive course of human society.

Thus, how I travel is an extension of my world-view, to paraphrase Virginia farmer Joel Salatin (who maintains that, “how he produces a chicken is an extension of his world-view”). Choices regarding the particular communities and experiences I engage with flow naturally from my motivation to discern how best to spend my life energy undertaking activities that are both pleasing to me and that I can consider, with a high degree of confidence, to be beneficial to the world.

Accordingly, it is difficult for me to reduce the benefits of ‘eco-agro-tourism’ into a kind of brochure for the enticement of travelers whom, I presume, are engaged in travel from primarily a recreational perspective. Let me be clear that by this I do not intend to insult these prospective travelers, or denigrate their motivations for traveling. A life without recreation is certainly not conducive of human well-being, and is in all likelihood unsustainable as well. It’s just that I’m not sure I can adequately characterize the benefits of my form of purpose-driven travel for an audience that is perhaps more in the mind-set of recreation-motivated travel.

In other words, working on a farm and sitting on a beach are not commensurable or substitutable activities – both are appropriate and necessary, depending upon the intentions and desires of the traveler. “For everything there is a season,” as Ecclesiastes admonishes us to remember.

Even in my travels, which are geared firstly according to the criterion of making progress in my research and projects, I take periods of time out to go backpacking in the Himalaya, snorkeling in tropical seas, or plunging down a river on a rickety bamboo platform. Also, I try and maintain a daily schedule of recreation during “productive” periods as well, going jogging through the villages, swimming in lakes, etc. In this way my traveling life is not unlike my non-traveling life when I’m based in the US.

Which brings up a point that I think deserves attention – the idea, in mainstream Western culture, of the ‘vacation.’ I began my essay for the travel magazine with the following statement:

“Let me start by offering the disclaimer that I have no particular use for what is commonly called a ‘vacation.’ Vacations are for people who find their jobs unpleasant, and so desire to ‘get away from it all’ as often as possible and for as long as possible. For these folks, sitting on a beach is probably the most appropriate option, simply because the idea of working while on vacation would seem repugnant. Even so, I would ask them why they despise their jobs and so need to ‘get away,’ and if this is the case why they keep showing up every Monday AM…”

While it is undoubtedly inaccurate to presume that most people positively hate their jobs, it is surely safe to assume that most people would not turn up for work if they weren’t being paid to do so. It is for these people, who essentially require bribery to do the work that they do, that the concepts of ‘vacation’ and ‘leisure’ exist. The common conception is that one endures one’s work in order to enjoy oneself at a later time – in off-hours or while ‘on vacation.’ The implicit assumption is that one’s work is mainly constituted by undesirable activities – activities one would not choose to do if one were free to choose, or that one would not perform voluntarily if one were not being paid.

Upon making this realization, the two questions that spring to mind are, “Why is work necessarily onerous?” and “Must it be so?” Why do most of us draw a distinct line between work and play, between “business and pleasure”? And is this distinction a necessary and ineluctable fact of life, or simply a mutable facet of the culture we find ourselves – at least for the moment – embedded in?

I tend to think the latter is true, although my belief is perhaps more of a religious, rather than scientific, nature. I don’t believe that our work has to be onerous, or that we must compartmentalize it separately from ‘enjoyment,’ ‘leisure,’ and ‘recreation.’ In fact, I will go further to assert that very often work has been made separate and devoid of pleasure by industrialization and ‘market culture.’ If this is correct, then agrarian values and lifestyle practices present the potential for re-harmonization of work and pleasure.

In an essay published in Resurgence magazine in 1974 entitled “Insane Work Cannot Produce a Sane Society,” E. F. Schumacher states that:

“It has been universally recognized, in all authentic teachings of mankind, that every being born into this world has to work not merely to keep himself alive but to strive towards perfection. ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ To keep himself alive, he needs various goods and services, which will not be forthcoming without labour. To perfect himself, he needs purposeful activity in accordance with the injunction, ‘Whichever gift each of you have received, use it in service to one another, like good stewards dispensing the grace of God in its varied forms.’ (I Peter, 4:10).”

And Schumacher continues:

“From this, we may derive the three purposes of human work as follows:
First: to provide society with the goods and services which are necessary or useful to it,
Second: to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards; and,
Third: to do so in service to, and in co-operation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our in-born egocentricity.”

Schumacher contrasts this characterization and purposing of work with the conditions experienced by British factory workers, exemplified by a statement from The Times that

“Dante, when composing his visions of hell, might well have included the mindless, repetitive boredom of working on a factory assembly line. It destroys initiative and rots brains, yet millions of British workers are committee to it for most of their lives.”

Given this characterization, it is plain why such workers would feel in need of a vacation, and would make a clear distinction between work and pleasure.

Furthermore, this statement pertains to factory workers, but much the same could be said of office workers as well, and workers in the so-called “service economy.” How many of our corporate jobs entail a high degree of mindlessness? How many employees of huge corporations can claim to feel a healthy sense of initiative on the job? And, perhaps surprisingly to some, these questions can only be answered in the negative even by many university students and professors. (I can personally attest to this last, given the many frustrating years I spent in academia.)

This is so, according to Schumacher, owing to overly complicated and outsized societal and economic structures. In other words, when structures such as businesses, bureaucracies, industries and other social, political and economic units grow beyond their optimal size and degree of complexity, the result is the reduction or elimination of the ‘human factor,’ or the ‘human touch.’ Overlarge structures necessarily entail excessive specialization, fragmentation of the parts, and division of labor – an individual begins to ‘feel like a number,’ rather than a person, and becomes “too specialized to be able to attain wisdom,” according to Schumacher.

That our many of our scientists and industrial technicians have become “too specialized to be able to attain wisdom” is obvious, I think, in the advent and proliferation of such technologies as nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; various forms of corporate biotechnology such as GMOs and the ‘terminator’ technology of seeds; the patent absurdities of mainstream economic theory; and the wasteful, frivolous and destructive use of non-renewable energies (which often entail the destruction of renewable sources of energy in their procurement and use, such as forests in the case of mountain-top-removal coal mining).

However, as stated above, I believe that agrarian values and lifestyle practices present the potential for re-harmonization of work and pleasure, and furthermore of consilience between the technological and the ecological. Discovering such values and practices in their particularity is the object of my research and travels.

Considering Schumacher’s statements on the purpose of human labor in turn, we see that, first and foremost, agrarian work serves to “provide society with the goods and services which are necessary or useful to it,” such as nutritious, clean food, grown without harmful chemicals and in a manner that is not destructive to the soil or the local ecosystem. Agrarian life also involves the needful activities of providing comely and well-made shelter for members of the community, and the varied necessary community support services such as childcare and care for the elderly and infirm, assistance with household duties for those in need (such as at the time of death of a family member), and so on.

Second, agrarian life enables “every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards.” In the agrarian tradition (much of which is still intact in the remote Himalayan villages of Ladakh, for example) young children work in the fields alongside their grandparents. The older children are very involved in caring for and teaching the young. This contact between the ages and generations is crucial for passing on culture, wisdom and traditions. However, by dividing society into age categories (beginning in grade school and continuing ever-afterwards, until the elderly are consigned to geriatric ghettos called “nursing homes” to await death or the occasional visit of younger family members) these links are severed and the age groups alienated from one another.

Additionally, agrarian work is necessarily generalist work. It takes a huge variety of knowledge, wisdom and experience to be a good farmer, a good husband to animals, a skillful and thrifty employer of appropriate, human-scale technologies, and a good community member. There is great need for diversity of talent, both within and among individuals. And there is ample opportunity for practice and development of talents towards the goal of perfection and harmony with the local community and the local ecosystem. There is always room for improvement, and infinite opportunities for learning and the accumulation and sharing of wisdom.

Thirdly, agrarian life lays bare humans’ interdependence with one another and with the ecosystems that comprise our life support system. Two of the most dangerous illusions of modern society are its obscuring of our vital connection with nature, and its promotion of highly exaggerated forms individualism. Agrarianism seeks to heal this discord by placing us “in service to, and in co-operation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our in-born egocentricity.” Liberation from this egocentricity permits us to leave behind the hubris with which the modern lifestyle regards the environment – as an inert, formless mass awaiting our intellect and energies to re-form it into whichever conformation gives us the maximum momentary pleasure. Agrarianism involves our inhabiting a niche within nature, rather than supplanting ourselves as dominators over it.

Furthermore, in agrarian philosophy cooperation is the rule, as opposed to competition. The modern social paradigm segregates us by age group and professional specialty and pits us in intense competition with one another. To wit: standardized testing, the extremity of emphasis placed on young peoples’ performance in competitive sports, and the draconian regime of “no child left behind” in our educational institutions. And these examples can all be witnessed at once in a single visit to a very ordinary grade school or high school. Adults face similar pressures in the job market and competitive world of professional careers.

Competitive pressures play upon the ego and develop the most base of human instincts for selfishness and greed. Thus we come to regard one another, and just as perniciously, nature itself, as simply a means to satisfying our own selfish desires for possessions, consumption and personal glorification. On the other hand, agrarianism necessarily entails our transcendence, as individuals and as a society, of these destructive manifestations of egocentricity.

When Schumacher’s three conditions for ‘good work’ are met and the rifts between ourselves and nature healed, I think we cannot help but enjoy our work. The escapism that characterizes many workers’ present need for ‘vacations,’ for ‘getting away from it all,’ will be rendered obsolete. The need for recreation, on the other hand, will remain intact, as it is an irreducible requirement for human well-being. Even farmers and goat-herders need to “just sit on the beach” sometimes.

So as to whether “working on a farm beats sitting on a beach,” the answer, I’m afraid, is wholly dependent upon one’s purpose for traveling and one’s relationship to one’s work.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What are you living for?

As humans, we have basic needs for food, shelter, medicine, and a few durable goods like clothing, tools and cooking implements. The quality of our food, our shelter and our medicines all go to promote our health. To be healthy means to be free of disease and sickness, to be strong and energetic, and to live a long life. Beyond this, we pretty much just want to have a good time.

We’re a social species and so we have a need for community – to form bonds of friendship, respect and love. Being a part of a community helps with having a good time (most, but not all of the time – sometimes it’s good to get away from the crowd), and also in deriving our other basic needs. It’s more fun to grow food or build a house with the help of others; the quality of the product is usually better, too.

We have big brains, and although the evolutionary jury is still out on the question of whether these are adaptive or mal-adaptive organs, we have a need to use them for various types of stimulation and self-expression. Intellectual and creative development ranks up there with being a part of a community in importance so far as the need for having a good time is concerned.

So – food, shelter, medicine, a few essential goods, community, and intellectual development and creative self-expression – what else is there? How about security. Having a degree of security in the attainment of these elements of well-being seems to me to be the final criterion.

That’s pretty much it, isn’t it? Isn’t that good news, that life is so simple? Obtaining these needs in sufficient quantities seems like it ought to be pretty easy, doesn’t it? So why does life seem so complicated and difficult most of the time?

If I had to answer this question with only one word, I would say, “institutions.” To quote Edward Abbey, “In our institutions the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. There will never be a state as good as its people, or a church worthy of its congregation, or a university equal to its faculty and students.”

I think Abbey is right in pointing out this deficiency in our institutions. In fact, many of our institutions are deeply flawed, and it is evident to me that these flaws are at the root of our discontent in what should otherwise be a happy and easy life.

For example, one flaw at the root of our modern economic system is its “grow-or-die” mentality – the “ideology of the cancer cell,” incidentally, to cite Ed Abbey again. It is impossible for the human economy to grow indefinitely on a finite planet Earth, although economists, politicians and the heads of the Great Corporations are hell bent pursuing policies and strategies for as much growth as possible as quickly as possible. The symptoms revealing the physical and biological absurdity of this economic foolishness are increasingly apparent in the form of pollution building up in our air, water and soils, the degradation of ecosystems and catastrophic losses in biodiversity, and the disturbance of the climate and global biogeochemical cycles.

Our institutions of the media are deeply flawed as well, first and foremost indicated by the fact that they have done such a shameful job of informing us about things that are truly important – things like the ecological crisis we now find ourselves in and that has resulted in large measure from the economic foolishness I just described. But it would be just about equally foolish of us to expect our media to do a good job informing us on these matters, since the corporate institutions that own the media are one and the same corporate institutions that are heedlessly and recklessly pursuing profits and growth at the expense of our communities and the environment.

Perhaps we might expect to learn about these problems in our educational institutions. But there again, the same “special interests” are at work, not informing us about the ecological and social realities of our world, but rather training us to be effective servants of their world, organized around profit and growth.

The educational institutions train, for example, the specialized servants of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture uses massive amounts of toxic chemicals (including carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins), degrades the soil, impoverishes biological and genetic diversity, destroys rural communities and rural peoples’ livelihoods, treats animals cruelly, is obscenely wasteful and polluting, and is entirely dependent upon huge public subsidies and heavy inputs of non-renewable fossil energy.

How can we be healthy if our food is poisoned and its nutritional value reduced by bad farming methods? How can we be happy knowing animals are suffering for our food, and knowing that our trip to the supermarket makes us complicit in the destruction of the environment as well as rural people’s livelihoods around the world? How can we feel secure knowing our dinner is dependent upon fossil fuels, for which war after war is being fought to procure?

Our flawed educational institutions also inculcate a learned helplessness that goes along with the overspecialized training we receive in the service of a bad economic system. To the extent that we are employed as specialists, we have neither the time, nor the skills, nor many of us the inclination, to be generalists, to be able to do a variety of tasks for ourselves.

How many of us could, if we had the time, grow our own food, and process it, prepare it, preserve it for winter? How many of us could, if we had the time, build our own home and design its landscape, making use of ecological principles for efficiency and aesthetics? How many of us could plough a field or log a forest using a team of horses? How many of us could make our own clothing or tools or furniture, if we had the time and inclination to do so? How many of us could wander in a forest identifying edible mushroom species (as opposed to the deadly poisonous varieties), or herbs, roots, barks or other plant materials from which to derive medicines to treat common ailments?

Very few of us can do these things, because we have not learned to do them, nor have most of us learned even that is important that we learn to do them. Instead, our educational institutions render us dependent on corporations and other institutions to employ us according to our “profession.” We sell our labor to one institution for a wage, which we use to buy all the things we need for our lives from other corporate institutions. And thanks to our media institutions, which help corporate institutions by fostering in us the sensation of unlimited wants through advertising, we can never seem to “get ahead,” or keep up with what is “fashionable.”

How can we be happy if we are always wanting something more? If we are constantly made to feel inadequate with what we’ve got right now? How can we avoid feeling anxious if the level of affluence we hope to achieve is always receding away in front of us, even as we grasp for it more fervently? And how can we avoid feeling depressed at the meaninglessness of all this?

It turns out that our medical institutions have their answer to these questions, too – prescribed pharmaceuticals.

Well, bullshit.

I ask you now, as I have asked myself many times, “What are you living for?”

I am living to be healthy and happy and secure. For this, I simply need adequate food, shelter and medicine, to be part of a community, to be stimulated intellectually and express myself creatively, and to attain a measure of security in the procurement of these elements comprising genuine well-being. And as we have already seen, meeting these needs and achieving security should be simple and easy; if it is not so, it is because of intervention and interference by flawed institutions.

Therefore, meeting human needs and achieving health, happiness and security should follow naturally from the opting-out of participation in flawed institutions, and the pursuit of well-being in a more efficient and direct fashion. That many people achieve affluence through obedience to institutions but lack health, happiness and general well-being also recommends this strategy.

What does achieving considerable security in health and happiness require? If I had to answer this question with one concept, I would say, “local self-reliance.”

Local self-reliance necessarily involves the creation of a local economy for food and other essential goods. Food, especially, must be clean, nutritious and appetizing, and produced using sustainable and ecologically appropriate methods, unlike the products of the industrial food system.

Local self-reliance means to a reasonable extent relying upon traditional knowledge of medicinal plants, herbs, barks, roots, and ferments in health care and the treatment of illnesses.

Local self-reliance calls for the substitution of ingenuity and the labor of humans and animals in place of artificially cheap (due to subsidies), polluting, non-renewable forms of energy. Homes are built with locally abundant materials such as mud, stone and straw, and make use of passive solar heating and cooling, rainwater collection, solar water heating, etc. The guiding design principles are sufficiency, good craftsmanship and ecological appropriateness, not boastful opulence and shoddy construction as with most modern suburban houses.

Local self-reliance involves the promotion of quality in the local community, of neighborliness, of more face-to-face interactions, and of cooperation instead of competition.

Local self-reliance involves the pursuit of intellectual stimulation through learning about the local bioregion - its ecosystems, climate, geology, hydrology, and wildlife. It involves the development of place-centered knowledge, while also encouraging the incorporation of a diversity of knowledge from other places and cultures. It requires us to take responsibility for educating ourselves, which is the only way we truly learn anyway. To quote Abbey again: “Freedom begins between the ears.”

Local self-reliance involves the promotion of forms of creative self-expression that produce things that are both useful and beautiful – like a rocking chair, a painting or sculpture, a piece of music, a tasty dessert, an efficient woodstove, or a composting toilet. (Yes, even a toilet should be beautiful and well-made – manure is very valuable to soil fertility. It is a form of real wealth, contrary to the symbolic wealth represented by money.) Craftsmanship and care are central to these creative works.

Local self-reliance means that we will have to work, and most of us at least some of the time with our hands and bodies. It means that we will almost certainly get sweaty and dirty with some regularity. But it also means we will have to think. We will have to undertake problem-solving exercises that require the use of our intellect as well as the use of our conscience and our compassion and our intuition – we will have to think ecologically. Our scientific efforts will not be divorced from our morality and emotions, as the modern paradigm has attempted to enforce, with disastrous results.

In short, local self-reliance means getting what we need to live long, healthy, happy lives in ways that are direct, efficient, ecologically sustainable, and secure. How most of us live now – dependent upon huge, complicated bureaucracies that have neither our best interest nor that of the environment in mind, to supply us with everything we need for our lives in the form of purchasable consumer items – is not local self-reliance. It is the furthest thing from it.

As long as we rely upon far-removed institutions that operate according to logic flawed at the deepest fundamental levels, and in fact whose “success” completely depends upon the continued failure of our communities and the destruction of ecosystems, then we only exacerbate our own frustration in attaining true well-being. The attainment of true well-being requires us to turn our backs on a broken system and begin to do things the right way, for ourselves.

We cannot expect institutional support for this work, and nor should we. It’s not needed anyway. If you look closely at it, you’ll see that there’s really no substantive basis for the idea that we need all these institutions – the idea has come from the institutions themselves and serves only to prop up their dubious legitimacy.

For example, ask self-reliant Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, whose farm is an intertwining symphony of ecological miracles, what he thinks of the USDA, and he will make clear for you just how much he needs that institution to ensure the healthful condition of the meat he produces. Corrupt bureaucratic agricultural institutions do more to hurt the production of clean foods at the small scale than they do to regulate the massive industrial producers whose environmental, sanitary and labor practices, not to mention treatment of animals, are so offensive.

This is largely because main driving purpose of any institution is its own continued existence. A bureaucracy wants most to grow; if not that, to at least stay a constant size; and above all, not to shrink and die. This is, for example, often why there is so much road construction. Much of it is not necessary; it’s just that the DOT gets a certain amount of money, and if they don’t spend it all this quarter or this year, then next quarter or next year they get less. The bureaucracy’s got to maintain itself – so wasteful, redundant spending and extravagant use of resources ensues.

Another example – the corporate commercial media institutions. They don’t inform us. In fact, often they are implicated in our outright deception, as in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Their advertisements are designed to make us feel inferior so that we’ll go out and buy crap we don’t need to try and feel better. The media is heavily into the game of deceit and manipulation – what good do we get from this? Yet how many people “can’t live without their TV”? Not only do we not need it, it’s hurting us. The only rational answer is to opt out of the corporate media institutions.

And for another example, you don’t have to be part of a university to do research. If you need to do research, just do it. Teach yourself what you need to know. (This is the only way to learn, anyhow.) Get university people to help out if you need particular expertise or equipment for some aspect of the project. Take what you need from the system, but don’t become subservient to it.

Also, get over the idea that you need money to do everything. Money is just a symbol – don’t make too much of it. You don’t need money, you need food (so grow it), or a place to stay (so build it or crash with some friends), or a hat (so knit it), or whatever. In many, many cases, knowledge, creativity and resourcefulness can substitute for money. Not having much money forces you to develop these skills, which anyway are necessary for obtaining true wealth and well-being, instead of the symbolic, insecure, false kind of wealth that money represents.

Of course, sometimes you will need some actual money. When these instances arise usually something works out, at least in my experience. If I need to get a job for a bit it’s always been no problem (at least so far). Knowing rich people also helps (but not stingy rich people), as does developing a knack for schmoozing. But I cannot emphasize enough the importance of resourcefulness. (Think like an ecologically astute MacGyver.) Dumpster diving is really smart, and an ecologically responsible and patriotic act as far as I’m concerned.

Here’s another rule: experiential education is always a million times better than institutional education. Travel the world and learn by direct experience as much as possible. Read what you want, when you want – you’ll retain more. You’re after wisdom and reason, not the alienated kind of knowledge that’s mostly what gets bandied around in universities, dehumanized and cut off from reality. To quote Ed Abbey once again: “What is reason? Knowledge informed by sympathy, intelligence in the arms of love.” Context is what imbues information with the qualities that allow for the development of sympathy, deep understanding, love and compassion that turn the storage of mere disembodied facts into wisdom. Context is what you get from experiential learning; mere disembodied facts from institutional learning.

So if you’re like me and you want the happy, healthy, easy life, and a good measure of security in hanging on to it, then eschew the institutions – educational, corporate, political, economic, and media – and get right down to the work of building a viable local economy and promoting local self-reliance. Recruit others in this work – you can’t do it alone and you’ll need all the help you can get. And besides, overthrowing the system is way more fun when done with friends.

This essay is turning out to be a regular Abbey-fest, but I’ve got to end with this quote:

“How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”

‘nough said!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cookstoves in Uttaranchal

For about ten days at the end of September I had the opportunity to do some consulting for an environmental and public health non-profit located in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya. Aarohi (Hindi for “ascendance”) is situated high among the tiny mountain villages near the small city of Almora in southeastern Uttaranchal. It is some of the most beautiful mountain country I have ever visited.

For a few days I tagged along with Aarohi staff as they visited villagers’ homes on a number of errands pertaining to various initiatives of the NGO. Specifically, I was to take a look at the villagers’ wood fired cookstoves and make recommendations addressing a number of common and interlinked problems.

One of Aarohi’s concerns is the sustainable utilization of forest resources – especially firewood – and they have developed a variety of community-led cooperative management schemes for conserving precious forest resources.

For hundreds of years, villagers existed happily and in balance with forest ecosystems, historically dominated by oak. But with colonization by the British, and later, Indian government “development” programs, roads were built into the forest and heavy logging ensued.

More recently some logging regulations have been put in place, and specifically the oak has been protected in hopes that it will reestablish. Presently the forests are dominated by pine, a lower quality wood than oak hardwood from the perspective of building and cooking.

One reason the villagers don’t like to use pine for cooking is that it produces a lot of smokes when burned. Smoke in villagers’ houses is a serious concern – a concern Aarohi specifically wanted me to address in my study of cookstoves. Their health clinic has seen many of the villagers who suffer from lung and eye ailments brought on by smoke overexposure.

And finally, since the villages are located at fairly high elevation (6,000 - 7,500 ft) in the Himalayan foothills, home heating can be an issue, especially during winter months and the monsoon.

So I had a multi-dimensional problem on my hands: how to provide for efficient home heating and cooking with the minimum firewood consumption and the elimination of smoke in the home.


My visits to villagers’ homes revealed that three main types of cookstoves being used: mud stove, three-stone in a conventional fireplace, and mud stove-fireplace combination.

Typical mud stove

Traditional fireplace and mud stove-fireplace combination

Typical mud stoves have a large firebox with two openings, and the pot sits on top of raised humps. A conduit from the back of the firebox connects to another opening over which a pot or kettle can be kept warm. Most often these stoves are not equipped with a chimney; accordingly there tends to be a lot of smoke in houses using these stoves.

Photos showing soot accumulation on walls and ceiling. This home, like many others that use the typical mud stove, did not have a chimney because the residents are concerned to keep heat in the house during the cold months.

The traditional fireplace style uses a three-stone arrangement or horseshoe-shaped mud baffle to support the pot. The combo style uses a conduit sculpted into the mud body of the stove to channel the smoke to a warming spot and then up the chimney. Both of these designs result in much less smoke in the home than the typical mud stove.

Pretty much everyone complained of being cold in the winter. Families – typically 6 – 10 people per household – huddle around their stoves to keep warm, though the heat output is apparently not that great.


Like any good academic scientist worth his salt, I secured an internet connection and proceeded to do some research on combustion and stove designs for rural households. I knew the first place to start was the website of Aprovecho, an appropriate technology research center in Oregon. They have been developing robust, inexpensive and efficient stoves for nearly three decades. (I stole the cartoon images below from some of their materials.)

Based on my reading of Aprovecho’s technical papers, I could immediately see how many of the villagers’ stoves could be improved. For example, simply placing a metal grate in the entrance of the firebox to support the burning wood would result in more complete combustion by promoting greater airflow. This, in turn, would mean a hotter fire, less smoke, and greater cooking efficiency.

A grate for supporting the burning fuelwood.

As it turns out, surprisingly, wood does not burn – it’s the hot gases escaping the wood that burn. Heat from the fire volatilizes organic molecules that make up the wood; these in turn combine with oxygen from the air in combustion – a process that, if carried out completely, converts the hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide and water vapor. If combustion is incomplete, a panoply of partially combusted hydrocarbons is given off in what we commonly call “soot” and “smoke.”

A grate for supporting the burning embers helps ensure sufficient airflow, providing ample oxygen for complete combustion and thereby reducing the production of soot and smoke. It also encourages a hotter fire, which requires less wood to do the same amount of cooking.

Another brilliant recommendation I found in the Aprovecho literature is the use of a pot skirt. This is an inexpensive device made of sheet metal that can be fabricated locally. Its purpose is to channel the hot combustion gases through a narrow gap surrounding the sides of the pot. This increases heat transfer to the pot and the food inside, the reducing the amount of wood needed for cooking.

A similar effect can also be achieved by recessing the pots into the molded mud stove. This design improvement can also be combined with a chimney to remove smoke from the house.

Another ingenious device for reducing cooking fuel consumption is a haybox. This is an insulating box in which you place your pot of beans, rice, etc. – any food that needs to slow-cook over some hours. Just give the food an initial boil on the stove then pop it in the haybox, which works great to keep the food at or just below simmering temperature.

In sum, my research into designing the optimal cookstove led me to the conclusion that the key is getting as much of the fire’s heat as possible focused right onto the bottom and walls of the pot. Maintaining a good draft is integral to efficient combustion; installing a grate at one end of the fire and a chimney at the other help to ensure adequate draft.

Other than that, the goal is to minimize heat loss to the stove body and surroundings. Many stove builders construct their firebox out of lightweight ceramic tiles, or sheet metal insulated with pumice, ash or perlite, or some other low thermal-mass material. Mud, clay and stone by themselves, that is, without such an insulated firebox, are only OK stove materials, since they have a high thermal mass. This means they will tend to absorb heat energy from the fire. If heat energy is going into warming up your stove body, it’s not going into your food – representing a loss of efficiency and a need for more firewood.

Something else occurred to me as well – the notion that using a cookstove, well designed or otherwise, to try to heat your home in winter isn’t going to work very well, for the reasons I’ve just mentioned. You can either channel heat energy into your food, into your stove body, or send it up the chimney – all bad options if one of your goals is to heat a chilly house on a wintry Himalayan evening.

Yet many households were trying to do just that. The reason the typical mud stove has such large, inefficient openings is because the villagers have been trying to use it for a dual purpose – for cooking and heating. My recent research into the principles of combustion and efficient stove design, however suggested that this design offers the worst of both worlds, rather than the best – kind of like hybrid bicycles, which are too flimsy to take off road like a mountain bike, but are too heavy and put you into a dorky upright posture that prevents you from really hauling ass like you would on a proper road bike.

As any good cyclist knows, you need two bikes for two purposes. (Unless you’re also into downhilling, BMX, dirt jumping, time-trialing, triathlons, touring, and cyclocross, which means you need at least nine bikes, plus something to commute on since locking any of the others to a Berkeley parking meter would amount to kissing it goodbye.)

Anyway, I latched on to the idea that trying to optimize one tool to do two different jobs would result in a tool that does both poorly. How about two tools, each optimized to its own specific purpose?

That question led me straight to Ianto Evans’ and Leslie Jackson’s pioneering work on rocket mass heaters. The rocket heater is a super efficient device, super cheap to build, for combusting wood and storing the heat in a massive thermal battery – a horizontal chimney, if you will, that can be molded using cob (a mixture of mud and straw) into any shape you can imagine. One of the more popular designs is a sofa built right into the wall of the house or cottage. Here I’ve stolen some images of a rocket mass heater from Evans’ and Jackson’s website:

Whereas a well-designed cookstove won’t absorb precious heat energy away from the cookpot, heat absorption into the thermal mass of the rocket heater is exactly what you want. The fire warms the cob body of the heater, which in turn re-radiates the heat into the room. I haven’t seen one of these babies in action, but a trusted friend has experienced a demo of one such heater in Oregon and he vouches for the copious quantities of steady warmth it produces.


Sadly I had only ten days to spend in this verdant mountain paradise in the foothills of the Great Himalaya. But before I left I made the following recommendations to Aarohi to address the interdependent problems of cooking, heating, firewood consumption, and smoky interiors:

1. Insulation. Many of the villagers homes had poor insulation, especially the newer homes. The traditional architecture builds with walls of local stone, often finished with a clay plaster, and gorgeous slate roofs insulated from beneath by rough cut wooden slats covered with a thick layer of clay mixed with organic matter. (Homes constructed in this traditional way are reputed to last over 200 years, and with minimal maintenance.)

Newer construction builds with brick-and-mortar, or concrete, or a mixture of these techniques and the traditional stone methods. Roofs are often made of concrete slabs or tin – neither of these insulate as well, or last nearly as long, as the traditional slate roofs. As is the ubiquitous trend under economic globalization and “modernization,” newer construction is “cheaper” but involves substituting fossil energy and materials brought from afar for locally abundant materials and intensive labor.

Whatever the method of construction, an adequately insulated home helps to retain warmth in the winter and “coolth” in the summer. Roof insulation is especially crucial to temperature regulation.

These photos show older, stone farmhouses constructed in the traditional style. The stone walls of the second house have been finished with a clay plaster and lime wash. Its slate roof is insulated, though owing to the age of the building has degraded and could be refurbished.

The times are changing: this older farmhouse constructed in the traditional style, with a slate roof, has a more recent addition with a tin roof.

This newer home has an un-insulated tin roof – note the holes letting in sunlight! When it’s cold, this family retreats to the basement kitchen, a small, cave-like room with one small window that becomes very smoky. Luckily when it’s warm they can cook upstairs with a three-stone arrangement in the chimney and avoid inhaling much smoke during these periods.

A testament to the durability of the old methods: note the crack in this brick and mortar wall, which comprises the newest part of the structure. The old portion just below, made of stacked stone, appears solid, as does the much older section on the bottom left.

2. Optimized cookstoves. Based on my research into the principles of combustion and efficient cookstove design as outlined above, I estimated that fuelwood consumption for cooking could be reduced by perhaps as much as one-third in most households by optimizing stoves specifically for that task.

3. Try out rocket heaters. Rather than trying to heat the home with a cookstove – a task it is ill suited for – install rocket mass heaters. One of the Aarohi staff, Prakhaj, is building a new home and offered his guest room for the site for a prototype rocket heater. Prakhaj is well known and well respected among many of the villagers, so building a prototype rocket heater at his place, if it works, will have huge demonstration potential. If it works for Prakhaj then many of the other villagers are likely to want a rocket heater for their homes, too.

I’ll need to do some more research and run some numbers to verify the following conclusion, but for now I roughly estimate that the use of optimized cookstoves year-round coupled with rocket mass heaters in the cold months will (1) eliminate smoke in the house and (presumably) the accompanying health problems, and (2) keep villagers toasty warm while reducing their annual firewood consumption by perhaps as much as 25%.

Future work

It was bad timing to leave off such an exciting project as this, but I had a long-anticipated date with organic farmer and social activist Debal Deb at his agrarian education center in West Bengal. All is not lost though – one of my colleagues, a permaculturalist from Australia, has taken over construction of the prototype rocket heater. I have implored her to send me photos and detailed descriptions of every step of the process. Hopefully I will be able to present these in future blog posts as the project unfolds.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Working with our hands

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons…
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music…
And in keeping yourself with labor you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labor is to be intimate with life's inmost secret.
But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written…
Work is love made visible.

From The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

* * *

One of the absurdities of modern culture is our attitude towards work.

The common conception, and that promoted in our educational institutions and popular media, is that the summit of human achievement is a high paying job that involves no work. For those of us not “fortunate” enough to, like wealthy stockholders, “let our money work for us,” then to the extent that we can avoid work, can “appear busy” when the boss is around and return to non-work when unsupervised, we supposedly gain an advantage. And if one does have at some point to “do some work,” then heaven forbid one get dirty or break a sweat doing it.

In India, as in most countries, “developing” and otherwise, you can tell a lot about a person by their hands. You can tell if a person works with their hands doing physical labor. And you can make a fairly accurate guess what social class they belong to. Manual workers have rough hands and are socially denigrated because of “a prejudice that begins in the idea that work is bad, and that manual work outdoors is the worst work of all. The superstition is that since all work is bad, all ‘labor-saving’ is good,” according to Mr. Wendell Berry, a farmer and essayist from Henry County, Kentucky.

A Ladakhi man praying at a gathering with the Dalai Lama near Leh, Ladakh.

The trend in a highly technologized society, like the US already is and India is fast becoming, is towards the creation of ever more “labor-saving” devices to help us avoid having to do work with our hands. Ironically, despite the proliferation of such devices in the typical Western household, we find ourselves short on time most of the time.

In Ladakh, or “Little Tibet,” a high elevation desert region of northernmost India, time is something the people have plenty of, despite the conspicuous lack of “labor-saving” devices and the leather-worn character of the peoples’ hands. Also conspicuously absent in Ladakh are obesity, diabetes and other diseases related to lack of exercise and poor diet, as well as health clubs, pilates studios, and joggers.

An ornery dzomo (female yak and cow crossbreed) overlooks Hemis Shukpachan village, Ladakh.

I found out how rare are joggers in Ladakh, how rare are “exercise nuts” like myself in general, while I was living with a family in the remote village of Hemis Shukpachan. I was there in affiliation with the International Society for Ecology and Culture, doing a participant-observation study of the Ladakhi’s traditional culture and subsistence agrarian livelihood – at least what’s left of it since the influence of economic globalization and “development” have crept into this tucked-away corner of the universe over the past three decades.

The author posing for a photo before carrying a bale of mustard from the field to the threshing area.

I deduced the rarity of joggers in Ladakh by my Ama-le’s (host mother’s) reaction to my daily runs. Poking fun at me, she altered the words of a popular Ladakhi tune with the lyric Norbu sgnha-ba la skyot le, along with some other Ladakhi phrases to the effect of “Norbu (my Ladakhi name) is going crazy…Norbu is having mental problems…” She referred to my activity with the same phraseology applied in conversation to describe dzos (cross-breed of yak and cow) that go wild and run off up the mountains passes. I recognized the phrase since it was my job, on an almost daily basis, to chase after the blinkered dzos and bring them back to the corral.

A Ladakhi man carrying wheat.

In a way, Ama-le was right – my running is the result of mental problems. I tried to explain, mostly unsuccessfully, I think, that running for me is a kind of meditation, of mental healing. I thought she would understand this because of the emphasis on meditation in Buddhism. But I think running, or really any gratuitous form of non-utilitarian physical exertion, was just too weird – especially during the harvest, when we were already spending plenty of energy carrying massive bundles of barley and brimming baskets of apricots up through the fields and pathways of our steeply inclined mountain village.

A Ladakhi woman winnowing the threshed wheat.

My body does feel better when I run, or swim, or bike, or get some kind of regular endurance exercise, but it’s really a brain-thing. The mental benefits outweigh the physical, at least 90% : 10%. And when you’re a farmer, especially at 12,000 feet elevation in Ladakh, your body doesn’t need much exercise on top of all the farm work.

A young Ladakhi woman at the barley harvest.

But in the typical occupations in the modern economy – the jobs we’re supposed to aspire to that pay a lot and involve no work, or at least don’t involve work where you’d risk getting dirty or breaking a sweat – the physical component is really lacking. Most of these jobs plant your keister in front of a computer screen for forty or fifty or sixty hours per week. Add to that the hours that your keister is planted in a car seat on the commute to and from work, and planted on the sofa at home in front of the TV, and you find your keister has been so well planted it’s started to grow.

A Ladakhi man harvesting barley.

So the common thing to do, in this modern, high-tech world-of-the-future, full of computer controlled, downloadable, BlueTooth-compatible, automatic whiz-bang gizmos and labor-saving devices, is to carve a big hunk out of your salary to give to the health and fitness club industry. This industry is stocked with eager professionals who will devise for you your very own personal routine of activities that will for certain result in getting dirty and breaking a sweat and involve the lifting of heavy objects, the climbing of simulated stairs, the running or quick walking along automated virtual pathways, plus all the bending, stooping, reaching, punching, pulling, grabbing, hauling, stretching, swinging, crunching, jumping, jousting and even crawling that you’re missing out on while inhabiting a cubicle instead of out working on the farm like your not-too-distant forebears did.

The author carrying a bale of mustard.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “It is a tragedy of the first magnitude that millions of people have ceased to use their hands as hands. Nature has bestowed upon us this gift which is our hands. If the craze for machinery methods continues, it is highly likely that a time will come when we shall be so incapacitated and weak that we shall begin to curse ourselves for having forgotten the use of the living machines given to us by God. Millions cannot keep fit by games and athletics and why should they exchange the useful productive hardy occupations for the useless, unproductive and expensive sports and games.”

A Ladakhi grandfather at the barley harvest.

The agrarian lifestyle keeps our hands busy with meaningful work and our bodies tuned to labor according to their design. It is immoral to aspire to a high paying job that involves no work, and it is absurd to expect to look and feel good and healthy while leading a sedentary life and eating bad foods. A modest amount of “frivolous” exercise suffices to provide meditation and mental benefits; let us enjoin the “productive hardy occupations,” such as farming, to fit our bodies to their intended uses.

A Ladakhi mother and her dzo.

A fortnight in Uttaranchal

The Great Himalaya, visible above the mountain village of Almora.

The cottage where I stayed.

One of the hazards of walking through the forest just after a rain, at the tail-end of monsoon season...
Ahhh! Leeches!!!

The Great Himalaya after a rain.