Issue 17

A Thanos snap for India’s growing hunger crisis?


No more people surviving on rice morsels. Or drops of unsafe drinking water every day. No more people with their ribs popping out. No more people dying on the footpath.

*Snap* and people are eating their fill. *Snap* no malnourishment. 

Unfortunately, Thanos’s idea of ending world hunger by snapping his finger and killing half the world’s population in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is pure fiction. Or so implies Paul Ehrlich in ‘The Population Bomb’ where he says, “Conscious regulation of human numbers must be achieved. Simultaneously we must, at least temporarily, greatly increase our food production.” 

Let’s look at our own case. India has dropped seven positions in just one year in the Global Hunger Index 2021 (GHI). This is a tool used to calculate global, regional and national hunger. The GHI releases its score annually based on four factors. Undernourishment, child wasting (children under the age of five who have low weight for their height), child stunting (children under the age of five with a low height for their age), and child mortality (Death rate of children under the age of five). All of these factors are traced back to hunger. This means among many things, a lack of nutritious food. India’s score of 27.5 in 2021 is termed serious by the GHI. But how is the calorific intake doing?

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), defines hunger or food deprivation by it after all.“Hunger is an uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by insufficient consumption of dietary energy. It becomes chronic when the person does not consume a sufficient amount of calories (dietary energy) on a regular basis to lead a normal, active and healthy life.” The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) suggests every individual in rural India consume 2400 kilocalories (kcal) per day. However, a paper published by BMC Public Health says, as of 2019, 95% of India’s population consumes less than required.

The Government of India’s Women and Child Development ministry’s response to the drop in the GHI?“The opinion poll does not have a single question on whether the respondent received any food support from the government or other sources.” While India has improved in some parts, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have simply done better and gone past India in the GHI. The central government has called the survey process unscientific. Like the BMC public health research, recent studies are pointing elsewhere, again and again, to grasp the shifting nature of reality, particularly in the last year. This is crucial to understanding hunger as well. 

For instance, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013 is meant to ensure that “all people, at all times, should get access to the basic food for their active and healthy life.” Through a targeted public distribution system 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population, is meant to be covered. But 75 million more Indians have fallen into the poor category in the last year alone. The poor here is a category of those with a daily income of $2 or less. This is due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Pew Research Centre Analysis. People are earning less and therefore finding protein-rich food more difficult to buy. This is about a diminishing economic ability to afford food items and not about how much grain a nation produces. “Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people,” says Ehrlich. 

Ehrlich’s conscious regulation is what China did and has reversed now. Even before the pandemic though, things were not looking good. Only 44% of the central and state funds allotted to the Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP) were found to have been utilised by 2018-19. The dip in funding the Mid-Day Meal scheme by the central government is evident in the 2021-2022 Union Budget document, where the world’s largest food programme shows a drop of a whopping 32.3%. So fewer people were being reached. Now the numbers of those becoming poorer are up too. This also suggests possible intergenerational malnourishment. As children born to malnourished mothers then sadly walk into life, underfed from day one.

Thanos’ theory does not work, because a sudden decrease in the birth rate will improve things only in the short run. The population will increase exponentially if chronic reasons are not addressed. There is already a draft bill introduced in the Upper House or Rajya Sabha in 2019 which calls for a revised population policy. With a small family as the norm, not as the exception. Except here it is a private member bill. Not one debated in Parliament yet nor therefore drafted into law. 

In it, there is a slew of incentives for those who keep to two children per family. There will also be punitive exclusion from the state’s benefits for the family that does not follow it. With the memory of the Indian Emergency still fresh, when Sanjay Gandhi tried to force a sterilization drive and failed, this 2019 ‘Population Regulation Bill’ sounds closer to Thanos’ snap, doesn’t it?

For overcoming hunger though, some of India’s best results have come when young parents feel secure enough, having good healthcare and nutrition nearby. Where they are. They themselves then are able to see their child grow to live a well-nourished life. It is part of a truer picture of what helps curb hunger. The opposite of a *snap*.

Featured Image credit

Ishita Ahuja is a second-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 17

Building utopia with robot gardeners: Celebrating 35 years of Laputa Castle in the Sky

Sheeta and Pazu’s 19th-century adventure, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, is celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2021. Could this steampunk fairy tale about two orphans also be seen as a movie dreaming up an ecotopia? 

A shorthand term for ecological utopia. Ernest Callenbach who coined the term way back in his 1975 novel of the same name wrote, “What matters most is the aspiration to live in balance with nature, to walk lightly on the land, to treat the earth as a mother.”

High sounding words for our two protagonists who just want to get to the mysterious floating castle of Laputa, you might think. They of course have to fight the military on the ground and the pirates in the sky. In a bid to conquer the world, Colonel Mushka tries to capture Sheeta’s ancient stone so it can lead him to Laputa. The bad guy, emblematic of humankind’s greed and destruction.

In contrast, there are the sky pilots, inhabiting a greyer territory, led by the matriarch Dola. Donning pink braids, Dola is ready to fight anyone in quest of treasure. However, she is more soft-hearted than she lets on. Together, they all race to this mysterious kingdom, where nature and technology live together in peace. The perfect ecotopia. 

The earth speaks to all of us, and if we listen, we can understand. These words set the signature theme of Studio Ghibli, known for its vibrant, ecological storytelling. Neither a foreground for human action nor just a passive scenery, Hayao Miyazaki’s landscape is an active character. As the plot unfolds, so does the landscape- constantly transforming and evolving with the characters. Every action of the human characters affects the larger environment, which affects humanity, all in a vicious loop. The message is clear. Man cannot extricate himself from nature, nor should he attempt to. As the lyrics of one of the songs in the movie unfold, “take root in the ground, live in harmony with the wind, plant your seeds in the winter and rejoice with the birds in the coming of spring.”

While East vs West storytelling often displays this battleground between living in harmony with nature in contrast to dominating it, what sets Laputa apart is its questioning of technology. Are these systems capable of coexisting with the spirit of ecotopia? Let’s look at the example of the Laputan robot soldiers. 

These robots are large, sentient humanoids who can fly. When one of the formerly-thought dead robots is activated through Sheeta’s spell, it quickly devours the military facility. It is framed as yet another antagonist the duo must tackle. But soon enough, we see it meant no harm. It was only trying to escape. When another robot advances towards the duo, it is again not out of malice. It was to lift the glider off a bird’s nest so he could protect a nest of eggs. 

These scenes show us that tech is tech, neither good nor bad. It is what humans make it do. The Laputan robot soldiers are, in equal parts, terrifying. They are capable of unleashing immense destruction. They are endearing, capable of nurturing woodland creatures on their shoulders. Benign gardener or destructive monster, their actions derive from the whims of their human master. Colonel Mushka’s machinations rest on the latter. A stark statement on how industrialisation and war are destructive to culture. 

Yet, it also implies that in the right hands, machine intelligence may set an example of what an ethical relationship with nature might look like. By spelling out the amorality of AI, technology and everything in between, Miyazaki prods the audience to rethink our current technological systems. At best, our systems cater to human interests without factoring in the external symbiosis of living and non-living elements. At worst, they cater only to the interests of capitalists, ignoring other sections of society such as marginalised communities. Even the very creation of these technological systems is rooted in extraction that is exploitative to those from the lower strata of society. For instance, the mining community that Pazu belongs to works day and night to power the technology that keeps their island afloat, yet they receive none of the benefits. Their lives are characterized by uncertainty, suffering, and unremitting labour. 

However, with a little bit of tinkering, humans can build into technologies the complexity of interrelationships that exist across living beings and environments. Coined by philosopher Arne Naess, deep ecology is the environmental philosophy that all living beings have inherent worth, regardless of their utility to humans. Hence, we as a species should strive for ecological harmony between all living entities and non-living systems. It is only through forging future technological systems that embrace all of Earth’s systems can we shift from human narcissism to values of deep ecology. This might just bring us closer to inhabiting an ecotopia. 

Ecotopianism is ultimately a philosophy of hope, one rooted in a desire to change society for the better. And perhaps along the way, one can improve the human condition. Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky embodies this yearning. It presents a window out of the current doom-laden state of humanity, and that alone makes it worth a watch. 

Featured Image credit

Rishita Chaudhary is a second-year student studying political science, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 17

Ecoflix, a new streaming platform says zero-celebrity or ad: Only animals and the planet?

In August 2007, Los Angeles resident Aaron Leider sued L.A. Zoo Director John Lewis and the City of Los Angeles. ‘The zoo’s “cruel, abusive and illegal treatment” through use of chains, drugs, bullhooks and electric shocks,’ claimed Leider was harming the Asian elephants in the zoo’s care. One of them had been bobbing his head in a way an elephant does when stressed. This was Billy. A decade later, the attorney fighting the case lost.

In 2021, David Casselman, that same animal rights lawyer after a nearly forty-year legal career, became CEO, Ecoflix. 

A not-for-profit global streaming platform, ‘dedicated to saving animals and the planet’, says the official website. It also mentions, ‘there will be no advertising.’ Launched during the global climate negotiations at CoP 26, Casselman clarifies, ‘we are not looking for celebrities or famous faces. Instead, we are looking for kindred spirits.’

This decade also marks a century of the thespian or star as narrator for documentaries. This has tilted even more in the direction of  celebrities post 2000, as documentaries began to be more commercially viable. Maria Pramaggiore and Annabelle Honess Roe remind us of this in their recent book, Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary.“If the aim for these documentaries is to get wider press coverage and higher box office returns or viewing figures, then the celebrity voice-over strategy seems often to be successful.” 

Is that Ecoflix’s aim then? A look at the wider behind-the-scenes team offers clues. Let’s look at the Board of Directors first.

American Beth Pratt has had a long association with two of the largest national parks in the US. Niall McCann, from Wales, wears many hats. Nat Geo Explorer, biologist and an anti-poaching charity he helped establish in Africa. Teo Alfero, also American, heads a California-based large-canine rescue center and sanctuary. Will Travers runs an animal charity in England. All four, white, with Beth, the only woman. 

Their Advisory Board has Lek Chailert. Founder of a Thai non-profit working with elephants,  the only Asian among them. The rest are all again white. Like much of their Executive team too. 

Again, save one. The global south, as you can see, seems quite underrepresented.

Let us see what it does for viewers then? 100 per cent of all memberships are tax-deductible for US Taxpayers. This incentivizes US citizens to join perhaps. But global viewers will soon be able to upload their own nature videos, in an upcoming interactive map.

Currently, if a viewer becomes an Ecoflix member, one month of an annual membership fee will be donated  directly to an Ecoflix partner NGO. But the platform confuses by saying that all profit in the not-for-profit streaming platform will be directed toward conservation. “Our impact team makes assessments based on a range of criteria including urgency, need, recommendations and track record.” A fair probe may check, is the partner NGO network connected to the Board in any manner?

Yes is the short answer. Of the thirteen Ecoflix partners listed, five work in animal care in the US. Many others have multi-country projects. The highest number come from Southeast Asia and Africa. Like Gentle Giants in Thailand which looks after captive elephants. Or Indonesia’s Danau Girang Field Centre involved in field research in conservation. 

The African Conservation Foundation team again seems overwhelmingly white, even when African. It leads many projects it says on behalf of Africa’s endangered wildlife and habitat. Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection runs what is said to be Liberia’s very first chimpanzee sanctuary. Cameroon’s Limbe Wildlife Centre runs a zoo turned sanctuary for chimpanzees saved from wildlife trade.

Indian data shows that paid subscribers to OTT platforms have shot up since 2020. Wrestling overtook cricket in sport viewership on TV in India since 2018, with the rise in Oriya, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Assamese and Marathi content. With streaming platforms like Ecoflix, who say that any ‘kindred spirit’ will be able to upload nature related content, it remains to be seen how this plays out, in terms of representation of a wider range of voices, especially post the pandemic? 

Pramaggiore and Honess Roe’s documentary research, also reminds us that, “Voices in documentary are inextricably linked to issues of power. To ‘have a voice’ in the wider world is in some sense to have power and recognition; similarly, the presence or absence of voices in documentaries grants power to some and denies it to others. The disposition of voices expresses the way in which the filmmaker exercises his or her power over the material of the film. Voices also determine the form of a documentary.” 

So with a wide swathe of multi-continental presence, whose voices might have been included at the launch of this platform? The Ecoflix Foundation’s first and so far only original documentary is Free Billy. 

The campaign’s description remains instructive, “perhaps the biggest surprise, Billy is not in an unenlightened zoo in a poor country, but in Los Angeles Zoo in California.” 

Featured Image credit: Ecoflix’s Facebook page

Anushree Pratap is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 17

Animals with human voices: Can we ever find Nemo in real life?

Hey! I found Nemo!” My five-year-old brother yelled at the top of his lungs. Dashing across the aquarium towards the orange clownfish. Pressing his nose against the cold thick glass separating Nemo and him. His eyes followed the fish, inside the deep blue water of the tank

Hi Nemo, do you want to be my friend?” He asked hopefully, staring at Nemo. Chirp. Pop. Chirp. Pop. Chirp. Pop is all he could hear as Nemo swam around. “He could speak in the movie, why is he not speaking up now?” As he glanced at the fish closely, it dawned.“The Nemo I know is so much cuter than this, I don’t know what this orange fish is.” He walked away, with his head down.

Animation movies with an animal protagonist continue to talk human. Walk like one too. Take the just out Netflix animated movie, Extinct. The movie follows two fuzzy-looking characters with holes on their stomachs, almost like a donut.With strange looking bunny ears and tiny floppy feet. 

Incredibly cute?

Realising they need to protect their species from going Extinct, the pair time-travel from 1835 Galapagos to Shanghai today. Interestingly, scrolling through the trailer’s comment section, one may find several “Aww”. But are these harmless looking fuzzballs in some way problematic? 

Depicting wild fauna with features of humans, the way we speak, express emotion and think, is anthropomorphism. Heavy word, right? But haven’t you seen instances in the mass media? Take Nemo in the movie Finding Nemo with forward-facing eyes, just like our species. Brushing  teeth like humans and going to school, for crying out loud! 

The real A. ocellaris clownfish, on the other hand, has outward-facing eyes. Or look at the movie Dumbo, where Dumbo the elephant is shown having an emotional outburst, crying hysterically. But in reality, research shows humans are the only ones who shed tears when sad. Animals display their emotions in other ways.

A 2020 research paper by an American non-profit organization, the Animals and Society Institute, says that using anthropomorphism in films can influence people’s attitudes towards animals in both a negative and positive manner. It may also impact how they expect animals to behave in real life, based on what they have seen on screen. The Finding Nemo Effect may be one negative instance. 

Since 2003, the already endangered ocellaris clownfish species witnessed cases of local extinction as more and more people wanted to own a fish resembling Nemo. Because they liked the movie character. Anthropological literature over the last decade is challenging the view that this leads to conservation success stories somehow. The International Union of Conservation Network, a global body putting out a list of the endangered species year after year, wrote this exactly a decade ago, “all species of marine turtles (“Squirt” and “Crush”) and more than half of all hammerhead sharks (“Anchor”), mackerel sharks (“Bruce” and “Chum”), and eagle rays (“Mr. Ray”) are threatened. Seahorses (“Sheldon”) are the most threatened group of bony fish in Finding Nemo, with two in five species at risk of extinction.”

Then there is the Bambi effect. Walt Disney’s Bambi, an all-time children’s favourite movie, features an adorable looking deer and follows an emotional journey of its mother’s death. The aesthetic portrayal of animals may drive people into thinking that only striking animals are worth saving. While one may wince at the idea of kicking a puppy, they may not react the same way to the suffering of other animals, often seen as less desirable.

To make wildlife relatable for children, movies also tend to paint a picture of the natural world that does not exist in reality. For example, in the 2000 animated movie Dinosaur by Disney, an orphan dinosaur Aladar, is raised by a family of lemurs. “The family unit is described in anthropocentric terms.” Children are likely to believe this is their real family. These movies are constructed to be a feel-good ride, making the viewer want more. However, that might add to a problem bigger than just children learning incorrectly. 

According to Gerbner, a communication theorist, cultivation theory proposes that the more frequently we consume a piece of content, the more are our chances of believing that the virtual imitates the real world. Will this content not play a role in shaping children’s understanding of reality? Leaving children more confused about the natural world? This may be a much larger concern now with the rise of OTT platforms. 

Streaming services are seeing a boom. Netflix, usually cagey to reveal data on views, put out a blog post in December 2020 stating that viewing children’s shows has increased more than 100% in India in 2020 over 2019. Parental controls on what children could see led ironically to kid content showing up again and again for the adults. Who simply got hooked. This category included anime.

Movies like Extinct are becoming increasingly popular too. Stuck indoors in the pandemic, many children continue to understand the world out there through what they watch. This 2013 journal article in Biodiversity and Conservation is part of a long chain of warnings about the pitfalls of anthropomorphism. Making a case for keeping it real.

Real, not reel.

Featured Image credit: Creative Commons

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 17

And ACTION! Towards a greener Bollywood?

Hundreds of people packed into a street. All of them, bathing in tomatoes. Some climbed onto trucks and stomped on yet more tomatoes. Squishing them. Chucking them at the eager crowd. The Spanish harvest festival of Tomatina. 

An arresting sight. But this was a staged event by the people of the Spanish city of Bunol. Zoya Akhtar and her crew were shooting them for her film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The film cost 60 crore according to trade reports and made approximately 90 crore in just domestic net collection.

A hit in 2011, it became the travel watch, ik junoon, ik deewangi for a whole generation of Indian cine-goers. 

In mid-2021, it celebrated a decade.

Tomatina might be a household name today but it also offers a segue to the big-budget Hindi film process. To paint it red, team ZNMD brought in sixteen tonnes of tomatoes from another country. Portugal, in this case. After the shoot, it had to be pulped, to avoid clogging the Valencian town’s drains. 

As per data curated by World Bank, an Indian in 2010 would emit, on average 1.34 tonnes of carbon annually. A single Bollywood blockbuster, approximately, could end up having a carbon footprint of around 10,000 tonnes

A 2020 report published and submitted to the UK Parliament by the British Film Institute, ARUP, and Albert, an environmental action group, offers some context. A Screen New Deal, says one blockbuster film with a budget of more than $70 million, produces an average of 2,840 tonnes of carbon dioxide, on production. A figure equivalent to the amount absorbed by 3,700 acres of forest in one year.

In air mile terms that is eleven one-way trips from the earth to the moon. ZNMD takes the protagonists from Barcelona to Pamplona, through Costa Brava, Bunol, and Seville. A  total travel distance of 2200.9 kilometres across the five towns and cities. The Albert report clarifies that transport is the single largest carbon emitter at 51% of the overall carbon emissions in a big film production. 30%  is by air and 70%,  land travel. The fuel used up by a film, on average, could be equivalent to 3.4 million miles driven by a passenger vehicle. 

This is not to single out Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara particularly, but to perhaps use its anniversary to begin a climate-conscious conversation across the Hindi film industry. Like Pippa Harris, Chair of the Film Forum in the UK says,

This report is being published at such an important moment for our industry. We have all felt the devastating economic and cultural effects of the pandemic, so now is the time to regroup and come back stronger. We cannot continue to create films, in the same manner, we did before with no long-term plan for the environment around us. It’s time for our industry to lead the way both on and off-screen and rebuild for a cleaner, greener future.

If the Albert report has provided the means for a consensus on reporting actual emissions to the British film industry, a similar study was first published by UCLA, in 2006 for Hollywood. While no such comprehensive work has been done for the many film industries in India, it remains the world’s biggest producer of cinema by quantity. In 2018, for instance, a combination of the film industries in India produced 1813 films. The US and the UK, together made 778 movies that year. 

So what are some of the changes that “need to be made to the whole ecosystem”? Here are some reccos Bollywood could begin thinking about.

Reusing production material for different films. Maybe when they are under the same production banner? Sourcing these locally, instead of importing and then transporting them across long distances, would also bolster local economies. This would help them gain materially from film shoots in their area. Back in 2003, Matrix 2 and 3 planned for this and were able to recycle almost 98 % of its set material.

Using renewable energy on set and light sensors, given that studio lights and air conditioning are heavily used on set. Large production houses in India could afford to lead here. The Hollywood study shows how Warner Brothers has been doing this with an Environmental VP at the helm. 

Thinking about what can replace diesel generators emitting 15% of a film’s carbon footprint. Digitization of on-set logistics would cut down paper use too, enabling greater flexibility in daily schedules. It’s something Bollywood struggles greatly with.

Currently, catering service and quality on many high-end productions are determined by tiers. With the highest tier being the star names, directors, and producers. Centralized catering services and shared transport, to and from frequently used film production hubs can reduce the transport part of the emissions. 

Assamese film director Biswajeet Bora’s 2015 debut film in Hindi, Aisa Yeh Jahaan shows it is indeed possible to move towards more eco-friendly filmmaking in India. It claimed to be India’s first carbon-neutral film collaborating with the Centre for Environmental Research and Education (CERE). CERE’s carbon footprint of this film’s production came to around 78 tonnes. To offset it, the unit planted 560 trees, attempting carbon neutrality in the process. Got done at a fraction of the production cost of the full-length feature film, set in Mumbai and Guwahati. 

Stars who often tell the rest of India to save energy through sponsored ads must at least begin the conversation to clean up their home turf. Perhaps, a desire to break new ground, not just in storylines, but also in production?

As Farhan Akhtar celebrated Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’s tenth anniversary (and Dil Chahta Hai’s twentieth) another road trip movie in the same mold Jee Le Zaraa is hitting the production floor in 2022. Can it herald an era of sustainable filmmaking in Bollywood, singing a sequel to Der lagi lekin, maine ab hai jeena seekh liya? 

Featured Image credit: primevideo, via Google Images

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 17

Diving into the life of Jacques Cousteau: What can Gen Z learn from this French icon?

A man plunges into the depths of the ocean wearing an eye mask. A cylinder strapped to his back. We see him place a strange-looking object on the ocean-bed. Before we have time to wonder what it is, we see a flash. Kaboom!

“Commercial fishing with dynamite is illegal, an act of vandalism. But for the purpose of scientific study, it is the only method for taking a census of all the varieties in an area”,  says a firm heavily accented voiceover, as dozens of fish sink to the bottom. A man goes back into the water, grabs a dead fish, his fingers shoved far into its bleeding gills. Coming back to the surface, his bag is filled with many open-mouthed creatures, cold and stiff. He empties them onto the sand. 

This is a scene from the 1956 Oscar-winning film The Silent World. Regarded as the first documentary on oceanic life in full colour. Co-directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it is an adaptation of his 1953 book. 

Sounds pretty horrifying, doesn’t it? What if I say this man who set off a bomb in the middle of the ocean, eventually went on to become one of the first advocates for underwater life? How could someone who did something that would be considered unforgivable in today’s world, possibly even cancellable, also be someone famously known as the world’s ambassador of the oceans? Or an early guardian of the aquatic voiceless – what he believed to be the silent world?  

Liz Garbus, the two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker has recently released a film about him, Becoming Cousteau. From National Geographic Documentary Films, this 2021 American documentary uses a lot of the real footage originally shot by Cousteau. It takes a close  look at his undersea life, touching upon the great many firsts. 

From co-inventing the first-ever scuba gear to being the one to make underwater filming possible, the French icon did a lot for someone with no scientific degree. The trailer of Becoming Cousteau calls him an adventurer, innovator and legendary filmmaker. Yet could he be boxed into either of those three categories?

An AP News article mentions how one of Cousteau’s editors found it so difficult to label him, he finally went with, “A man looking at the future.” Perhaps it was as simple as that for Cousteau. ‘‘We go see it for ourselves”, says the 2021 trailer referring to his life motto. Wanting to dive deeper, he simply co-created a device that would allow him to do so (the Aqualung, the world’s first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). Wanting to show the world what magic lies within the blue depths, he authored over fifty books and created waterproof filming equipment. “You only protect what you love”, says Cousteau’s voice in the trailer of Becoming Cousteau. 

Or perhaps his own unwillingness to take himself seriously was what attracted people to him. “I am not interested in myself, I am interested in the world outside me”, says the scrawny man in a red beanie, who spent 68 years of his life quite casually changing the face of underwater exploration. 

Image Credit: CALYPSO

Being the first to film the oceanic wonders earned him a Cannes Film-Festival win, two Academy Awards, and a couple of long-running television shows. The shows documented his adventures across the world carried out in his special vessel, the Calypso. It was during these long expeditions that Cousteau realised the urgent need to protect marine life. 

He started the Cousteau Society in 1973. It is still working today to set up protected areas for endangered species, under Francine, the second wife of Jacques Cousteau. His children and grandchildren as part of the society, are involved in constantly improving the explorer’s inventions. Taking forward the work he started.

Cousteau soon became an environmentalist over everything else, laying the foundation for ocean conservation. He even made headlines when he spoke passionately about the warming oceans and the rights of future generations to live on an uncontaminated planet at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit.  

The 2021 biopic truly comes full circle in terms of showing Cousteau as someone who started off killing marine life to battling for their protection. While he followed unethical practices in his early days of filming, he was unafraid to retain the clips. He was willing to call himself out on his mistakes and wanted the world to do so too. An important lesson for us to learn as a generation, so reluctant to display our own shortcomings.  

Most importantly, Cousteau was a man completely at peace in water from a very early age. He thrived in the depths of the ocean. As a review by Variety suggests, Cousteau’s life outside the sea was not exactly a smooth ride. His love for the sea meant his family life suffered. A few years after graduating from the naval academy, he had to give it all up after a near-fatal automobile accident. One that broke both his arms. Hitting rock bottom, he was advised to do swimming exercises to nurse himself back to health. That journey of recovery recharged his seafaring passion. 

Makes me wonder – how many lives were on a pause during the pandemic? How many people felt paralysed and unmotivated in the midst of isolation? As the world takes small steps towards normalcy in 2021, perhaps Liz Garbus, through her documentary, wants us to draw inspiration from this legend who was determined to make a comeback, and boy, what a comeback it was! 

Featured Image credit: Combined Military Service Digital

Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student of Ashoka University pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Media Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 14

The Politics of a Climate Strike: Three Young Activists Talk Impact, Space, and Privilege

With the 3 pm sun beating down on her, 19-year-old Rakshinda A. stood alone with her climate action placard at Gandhi Maidan, Patna. “We had enrolled 12 volunteers in our group and the 12 had confirmed, but they didn’t show up. Some people were saying that they weren’t in Patna, some were saying that there was too much heat so they couldn’t come outside,” says Rakshinda.  

The maidan, has, over the years, witnessed pivotal moments in the nation’s history, from Netaji Subhash Bose’s rallies during the independence movement, all the way to Jayaprakash Narayan’s Total Revolution movement in the early 1970s, during which, the maidan was almost an epicentre. Gandhi himself hosted prayer meetings at the Bankipore Maidan. It was renamed in 1948, after his assassination.

Therefore it is no surprise, Rakshinda found a group of social workers, curious to help her here too. “I was sitting with my placard there only and some people came up to me and asked what is this, what are you doing, and luckily they were social workers so it was helpful, ” she says

Rakshinda was one of the many activists observing the Global Climate Strike held worldwide on September 24, and across 51 such sites in India, initiated by the non-profit organisation FridaysForFuture. The theme for the strike was Uproot the System. Climate change may be a global emergency, but weighing its impact requires one to understand that it will affect different social groups on different scales. “That’s why the term MAPA arises, to make communities that suffer the most from the effects of climate change more visible”, says FridaysForFuture on their website. The next such strike is to be observed on October 22.

It is not easy. But these young activists know what they are up against. “These past 10 days we were very demotivated because people didn’t join us and along with that we had to hear lots of negative comments. [People said things like] if you’re striking plant trees, clean the place instead, rues Rakshinda. Echoing her sentiment, FridaysForFuture in the Narrative for the Next Global Climate Strike, argues that climate activism for underrepresented communities has become even harder over the last year and a half.  “The pandemic, on top of other long-standing political and socio-economic issues, continues to devastate MAPA and makes it difficult for local communities and organizations to mobilize for climate and social justice.”

Still, there seems to be no shortage in the drive and desire to make protests count.“The last time, we went into the Delhi Secretariat and received a signed document that acknowledged our demands. This time we plan to follow up on them, “says Eco-Logical, a substack newsletter by FridaysForFuture Delhi.

Speaking to us from Patna, Rakshinda has worked with communities in Barari and Bhagalpur districts of Bihar, on water and waste management. “We had to reach people and ask them their problems and enable them to have resources, it’s a very big process and we don’t have the capacity. Outside the boundary, there is an area where they stay and they migrate here for jobs. But they cannot afford the rent to stay here, so we try to reach out to them.”

Laksh Sharma, a coordinator at FridaysForFuture Delhi, understands how the idea of privilege too weaves itself into the conversation around climate change and MAPA. The 21-year-old explains how getting in touch with all underserved communities is difficult, so they started with who they could reach, “so that was the LGBTQ+ community and women.” 

“We tried to uplift them, bring them to our strike, and give them space so that they can also come and speak their minds,” says Laksh. He was one of the people who led the march from ITO Metro Station, all the way to the Delhi Secretariat, organized by FridaysForFuture Delhi on the day of the September strike. The march culminated with the organization’s leaders handing over their demands for inclusive climate change action to Gopal Rai, the Minister for Environment and Development in the Delhi Government. 

While urban centres in India connect to a growing global movement of climate resistance, it is an ideal native to the subcontinent for centuries. The Chipko movement, for instance, campaigned strongly against the felling of trees, with protestors hugging them. In 1974, led by Gaura Devi, the women of Reni village in Uttarakhand, for example, prevented the cutting down of more than 2000 trees by refusing to move out of the forest.

It can be traced back to the 18th century, when Amrita Devi hugged the Khejri tree in the Khejarli village, which sparked off a movement leading to the then king of Marwar, banning the felling of trees under his rule. While the Central Government of India has had a national award in wildlife conservation on Amrita Devi’s name since 2013 and their first awardee was from a community known to protect the Blackbuck, environmental activism continues to speak of social justice and livelihood security across India. There is in fact a growing realization in urban climate activism in India too, with activists like Laksh keen to create more space for communities affected by climate change at the frontlines.“So this journey of learning and building a community has been the reason that I can go on and on,” he claims.

Mehak Bhargava, co-founder of the collective Millennials for Environment says, “[climate change] is already impacting us on a huge scale. And it’s going to get worse from here if we don’t do something about it… at the very core of me, I don’t want to live a life where I’m constantly battling with one catastrophe after the other”. The 21-year-old, who hails from Nagpur, highlighting the inequalities of climate impact continues.“More than half of the people on this earth don’t deserve what’s coming for them. I just really think that’s very, very unfair.” 

As someone who runs a social media page seeking to mobilize and raise awareness about the uneven effects of climate change, she also acknowledges the powerful role social media, is playing during the pandemic, “Whatever we do now is creating mobilization online, that is creating campaigns pushing out narratives in the mainstream media, like getting the big newspapers to cover events, getting the big people on Twitter or Instagram, and politicians to talk about these issues.” FridaysForFuture Delhi too works social media, to raise awareness on issues slipping under the radar of mainstream media: be it on the environmental impact of diamond excavation in Buxwaha, Madhya Pradesh, or the displacement and degradation that could befall Hasdeo, the coal-rich province in Chhattisgarh, if indiscriminate mining is sanctioned there.

A lot of these activists – particularly the ones in urban India – are still relatively young, and at some level, there is a worry about the repercussions of their activism. The Disha Ravi episode, which saw the climate activist jailed because of a social media toolkit, would still be fresh in the minds of most. There is also the perpetual fear of retaliatory violence. FridaysForFuture has been mindful of this, and while insisting on continuing their protests peacefully and without violence, remains steadfast in their commitment to strike: “We strike because we have no choice”

At the end of the day, these activists are united in their shared politics of an inclusive climate conversation.“MAPA are unheard, not voiceless. They’ve been fighting for their present, not just their future… Don’t fight FOR MAPA, fight ALONGSIDE MAPA,” is the emphatic message FridaysForFuture offers. It is what these urban activists must try to live by.

Ishita Ahuja is a second-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.

The featured image is from @fridaysforfuture.bihar via Instagram

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 14

The Storyteller approach: Scientific writing since Silent Spring

As Rachel Carson stood in front of the US Congressional Hearing in 1963, waiting to testify as a witness against the agricultural practice of reckless usage of pesticides, she knew her words could have consequences for the health of millions in America. “I have pointed out before, and I shall repeat now, that the problem of pesticides· can be properly understood only in context, as part of the general introduction of harmful substances into the environment. In water and soil, and in our own bodies, these chemicals are mingled with others, or with radioactive substances. There are little understood interactions and summations of effect.” 

The publication of her book Silent Spring in 1962 had brought the ecological danger of these practices into public consciousness, threatening the chemical and agricultural industry. They critiqued her writing as anemotional and inaccurate outburst and her style as “hysterically over empathetic” and However, Carson’s meticulous research was verified by experts and she stated on record that she had “never asked the reader to take my word. I have given [the readers] a very clear indication of my sources.” 

Master Scientist and Wordsmith

The questions that Rachel Carson raised through her writing sparked the modern environmental movement in the US. A host of environmental and health laws concerning solid-waste disposal, clean air, and protection of endangered species were passed in the years after Silent Spring came out. The US government also created the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), a federal agency tasked with ensuring the protection of such laws, in 1970. Two years later, the pesticide DDT was banned in the US

First of its kind in the world of American publishing, Silent Spring also spawned the genre of science non-fiction literature. Carson blended empirical scientific research with fiction writing and storytelling. She sprinkled the book with cautionary metaphors. With chapter titles like River of Death, The Rumblings of an Avalanche, and The Human Price. Well aware of her audience, she played directly to their fears. In one instance, she spoke directly to suburban housewives, painting a portrait of having to discover mutilated, dead squirrels right in their curated backyard, as a result of pesticide accumulation. 

Carson and her new genre gave rise to works such as Bill Mckibben’s The End of Nature (1989) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe (2006), both relaying red alerts about climate change; and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), which tied the systems connecting agriculture, food, and health together. As Dr. Salma Monani, Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Gettysburg College argues, Al Gore was inspired by and borrowed from Carson’s rhetoric, in his documentary film, An inconvenient truth.

Is there scope for making science more popular? 

The bulk of climate communication in the past has been spearheaded by scientists employing an arsenal of facts and figures. Behind such an approach is the science comprehension thesis, which assumes ordinary individuals will act to mitigate the climate crisis if they are presented with more scientific facts. However, a 2017 study shows it is not only what you present to the public that matters, but how. “Every day, all over the world, online and in print, in newspapers and magazines, there are scientists and academics droning on and on in boring ways about this and that in terms of climate change. They never talk about emotions, they never talk about culture, they never talk about poetry….Their discussions don’t and won’t change a thing,” remarks former journalist and blogger Dan Bloom. 

Usual doom and gloom climate crisis messaging can send readers spiralling, leading both to different kinds of severe mental illnesses and making it difficult to carry out effective climate action. Instead of raw data, dire statistics, and loud proclamations of the end of the world, activists are now switching gear, to tell stories. The handbook for IPCC authors highlights several pointers for groups working with climate communication – Connect with what matters to the audience; Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas, and Tell a human story

59 years after publication, Silent Spring remains a landmark piece in environmental literature because it does precisely that. While deeply rigorous in the scientific method, it eschews overreliance on jargon and data, working the literary tool instead, pathos, personification, and fable. Silent Spring starts with A Fable for Tomorrow, where Carson paints the picture of an imagined tragedy on the verge of becoming a stark reality, where a town afflicted with some evil spell had silenced all life. 

It quickly becomes apparent that this fable is not meant to enchant the reader but to jolt him out of enchantment,” writes Dr. Lisa Sideris, an Associate Professor at Indiana University. “The fabled town is a composite sketch of actual disasters occurring all over communities in America,” she explains, “and so it is not quite factual but neither is it fabrication. It is the sort of science-fiction fantasy that Carson now fears is possible.” Speculative fiction as a writing tool has been used by scores of writers since, leading to the emergence of an entirely new genre called climate-fiction or Cli-Fi.

When Fact meets Fiction 

Coined by Dan Bloom, Cli-Fi is a branch of fiction literature driven by the human-induced climate crisis. At bookshop sections earlier, it would show up under science fiction. But no longer. From ​​surviving in skyscrapers half-submerged by sea-level rise (George Turner’s The Summer and the Sea) to living in a world erupting in a civil war, over scarce water rights (Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife), these storylines also imagine life differently in the near future. Sometimes they can be dystopian and sometimes not. For instance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future reckons with a world where nation-states have begun geo-engineering, to respond to climate changed daily life. They are effective, says Dan Bloom, because, “They use heart to write stories about these issues, not brain. They create characters the reader will care about and perhaps even identify with. Novels are about empathy.

Together, the popularity of this genre signals a shift in climate communication. With an emphasis on scientific accuracy and non-fictional description of social science, perhaps it can help unravel the inherent tension between communicating urgency and instilling hope. In many ways, Silent Spring’s message remains salient today, provoking not only emotional resilience but the courage to recognise what is to be done and by whom. Rachel Carson, in her own words, remains an inspiring silo-breaker. “Many people have commented with surprise on the fact that a work of science should have a large popular sale. But this notion that ‘science’ is something that belongs in a separate compartment of its own, apart from everyday life, is one that I should like to challenge. …Science is part of the reality of living;… It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”

Rishita Chaudhary is a second-year student studying political science, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 14

A Climate-Friendly Autobahn Ahead For The Berlin & EU? Analysing Germany’s 2021 Elections

This is a big moment for the planet – climate-wise and society wise”, insists Niklas Ney, a 26-year-old student of physical education, at Humboldt University. A Berlin resident, his vote was a thumbs up for the Green Party, underlining how and why the Goodbye Merkel election came to be dubbed as ‘climate elections’.

Frank Steffe, of Agora-Energiewende, a German energy and climate policy think tank says, “In recent polls, most people specified climate change as the most urgent question for German (and international) politics. This is a success of dynamic new social movements like Fridays for Future. Plus, a historical decision of the German Constitutional Court ruling that Germany’s climate change laws are inadequate and put an unfair burden on the youth, contributed to the discussion.” It is true that almost every leader, across the country’s seven main parties, made electoral promises for climate change mitigation, at home and abroad.

The heatwaves in Germany since 2018, droughts in the eastern part of Germany, poor harvests and the dramatic floods in 2021 showed that the effects of the climate crisis have already reached Europe and Germany”, says Denise Ney, who works with Klimaliste, a political party describing itself as being “the only political party with a plan for 1.5 degrees celsius compliant politics” (referring to the 2015 Paris Agreement). She goes on to praise various groups, such as Ende Gelände, whose activism is one of civil disobedience and occupying coal mines in Germany. “They have worked very hard over the last three years to find their ways into the media”.

The Green Party won a staggering 118 seats in the Parliament’s lower house, almost doubling their seat tally from the last election in 2017, with voters like Niklas chiming in: “Climate as an electoral agenda was the most prominent among 18-30-year-olds. Younger people are naturally more concerned with their own futures. Plus, younger people are also more well-versed with newer forms of media, which allows them to reach out to more people. Older people can often get stuck in their ways in that sense.”

Denise, though, puts this in some perspective. “The results of the election show that parties with programs, which are not enough to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, got more than 70% of the votes”, she says. Discussions around the election were about 10% about the consequences of the climate crisis and more about costs of climate protection measures and consequences like necessary bans, threat to jobs and the economy.” Who will the Green Party stick with then, in the coalition scenario, from which the new Chancellor will emerge at Bundestag, Berlin? 

Will the impact of these elections go far beyond Berlin, the capital city of Europe’s strongest economy? How will Germany and its government realize its ambitious climate goals and lead the conversation for the rest of Europe? Frank Steffe is quick to respond. “The new German Government must be a ‘Climate Coalition’”, he says. The challenge is huge, but German (and European, and international) politics must face it. We have ambitious goals in the German Climate Protection Law, we have an obligation to the goals of the Paris Agreement, and we must support the European Green Deal.”

The Germans were the first in Europe to declare economic progress possible, while being sustainable, in a landmark, 1984 parliamentary report titled, Protection of the Earth’s Atmosphere: it led to the country becoming Europe’s highest user of wind power. Their own history of green politics traces all the way to the 1970s, writes Anthony Gidden in Politics of Climate Change, crediting Germany for being the “original home of the greens” in his book.  

At the same time, it is Europe’s most industrialized nation. In fact, in 2020, it was the second-largest consumer of coal in the European Union, at 22%, with Poland at 43%. Gidden mentions Germany’s high dependency on lignite – ‘brown coal’, and the fact that as of 2010, Germany had at least 22 coal plants being planned or completed. 

The industrial lobby in Germany is very strong, especially, automobile”, reminds Denise. “It has a great influence on the German government. Their ultimate threat is the loss of jobs.” The automobile industry employs more than 800,000 people, and last year, raked in 209 billion Euros in revenue for the country. As a sector, it also adds to Germany’s soft power, with BMW, Audi and Volkswagen’s global customer base.  “For these businesses, it is generally always about economics”, Niklas admits. “But for them, it is about capitalistic competition as well, as far as innovation is concerned.” 

Denise on the other hand argues that the Green Party is trying to “make Germany greener, but not enough to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement. Instead of insisting on the chances of the transformation, like jobs in the renewable energy industry, they are following the framing of the conservatives, speaking more about the costs of the transformation than about the costs of the impact of the climate crisis.

Frank steps in with a significant people-centric context. According to him, “it is crucial to address social inequalities when designing climate policy. For example, we need specific policies for low-income households or people in rural areas to support the switch to climate-neutral technologies, such as, for mobility or heating systems. There is also broad consensus that the revenues of carbon-pricing have to be given back to the people, either via lower electricity taxes or via a per-capita payment for every citizen.”

Niklas, however, sees the picture as one with the glass half full.“ With their electric cars and their battery-operated cars. Others will now follow Tesla’s lead – brands will be pushed to put new innovations in the market. They will have to cater to a market that knows and talks about climate change”. 

So what can this mean at the European Union level? “Germany has the most seats in the European Union Parliament, so on a European level, regardless of what the government is, it can drive the agenda”, Niklas continues optimistically. “I feel that driving new innovations will be a focus of the government.” 

It’s very important that Germany accepts its leading role here”, says an emphatic Denise. “There is a power imbalance between the North and South in Europe as well, so if Germany shows an ecological transformation is possible, others will follow. My hope is the climate movement. The young generation is fighting for climate justice, globally and intergenerationally”, she beams. Climate activist groups like Entrepreneurs4Future or Architects4Future were founded to support the demands of the younger generation and to “show that there are entrepreneurs and companies who are willing and ready for the necessary changes.”

These were important elections anyway: it is a change in power for the first time in sixteen years”, says Niklas. He underscores the increasing demand for greater change, politically, in terms of climate focus, and future pathways, where businesses adapt, without endangering job security domestically and without compromising ecological security in the continent. “We can maybe use this to relook our ways, to drive the society through this crisis” Niklas concludes. 

Europe and the rest of the world are watching.

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).