Categories
Issue 17

When a Camera Trap Image Connects a Community and Foresters

Protected areas in tropical regions cover about a quarter of the world’s nature reserves and are considered to be the first line of defense for wildlife protection. One of the greatest conservation challenges they face is dealing with continuing anthropogenic pressures. As protected areas continue to undergo degradation, and the adjacent areas have a series of human-use regimes, it is most important to have partnerships and alliances to work together across forest governance systems. 

In this talk, Dr. Nandini Velho explores a decade of research and science communication with residents from Pakke Tiger Reserve and Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh, a state which spans two Global Biodiversity Hotspots, and is among the most biodiverse areas in the world. She discusses her collaborative work with the forest department, residents, musicians, film-makers, educators and illustrators for natural resource management. 

This includes working with a team on creating nature interpretation centres, publishing a collaborative book on memories of the forest and exploring the medium of virtual reality for nature education. Sharing some of her insights while doing field work, this was an enabler in gaining experience in designing and implementing communication projects on tight deadlines and limited budgets.

Dr. Nandini Velho’s work has focussed on the human-dimensions of wildlife management as well as understanding rainforest dynamics in tropical forests. She worked closely with local forest managers, policy makers in the Office of the then Minister of Environment and Forests, and engaged with on-ground outreach activities, including healthcare and logistical support of front-line forest staff, conservation education and writing in the popular medium.

She currently teaches at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru.

This session was hosted by the Ashoka Media Studies Department in April 2021.

Featured Image Credit: Nandini Velho

Categories
Issue 17

In the Long Run We Will All Still be Paying Our Debt

The biggest takeaway from Jo Sunghee’s film Space Sweepers is this: there will be capitalism in a post-apocalyptic space society. And since there is capitalism, there will subsequently be poverty, debt and large amounts of harmful waste. The film is set in the year 2092; Earth has become uninhabitable as no plant life can survive on the surface anymore, and the air is poisonous. A corporation called UTS had built a new home for humanity on Mars using genetically modified plants. But there’s a catch, only those who have the money can become UTS citizens, which means most of humanity is left to their devices on Earth and a remaining few float around space selling scraps of space debris to earn their bread. 

To begin with, the dialogue and plot of the movie isn’t pitch perfect ﹘ the villain, James Sullivan (played by Richard Armitage), is a bit caricatured and bears an uncanny resemblance to Elon Musk, and the narrative is rather clichéd. Our protagonists, Taeho (played by Song Joong-ki) and Captain Jang (played by Kim Taeri) do a good enough job making space look simultaneously cool and miserable. And five-year-old Dorothy (whose real name is Kot-nim) is the perfect emotional core for the film. At times, the characters feel under-developed, even with a running time of 136 minutes. But it’s not as bad as when the third act melts into a pot of cheese by painting James Sullivan as the sole problem, and the sole solution becomes killing him off. It’s a disappointing but not unsurprising climax; the neo-liberal, cookie-cutter quick fix to world problems. At least we get our sweet (imaginary) revenge on Elon Musk.

Ultimately, however, the film has its plus points as well. For one, the world-building is convincing enough and  the CGI is pretty cool. The story is gripping and funny. Watching Kim Taeri clad in leather jackets and spitting profanities for nearly two hours isn’t that bad a sight either. Most importantly, Space Sweepers sparks a rush of satisfaction in any viewer who’s had enough of SpaceX philosophy and how rockets are going to save the world.

The political message of the movie regarding the environment, unlike quite a few sci-fi films, is not only loud and clear but also comprehensive. Firstly, the idea that corporations will bury solutions to the climate crisis to prioritize their profits could very well be a reality, but what’s more interesting is that the movie almost concludes that technology won’t save humanity from our problems, that we need to radically change our economic structures, that making the world more equitable is part of saving the planet – until it doesn’t. Which of course, is the real dystopia ﹘ that technology, which has the great potential to liberate so much of humanity, is in the end appropriated by capitalism to reap profits. 

All in all, Space Sweepers is pleasantly critical of global capitalism for a blockbuster, and not simply in a sensational, vague way, if you cut it some slack. Moreover, it’s a truly internationalist film, with characters of many ethnicities and countries, and a script that moves seamlessly across languages. It doesn’t feel forced in the least, and for once, it’s relieving to know that the human race’s diversity of language and culture ﹘ the film is truly multilingual, with different ethnicities speaking their own language, connected by translator devices that everyone has ﹘ will survive the end of the world. Perhaps it’s a sign that non-Western audiences and creators are more committed to linguistic diversity (or less bothered by it). I’d watch it if I were in the mood for something lighthearted and fast, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must-watch. 

PS. Also recommended if anyone is sick of seeing white people in sci-fi, only because it’s a place we’ve all been in. 

Featured Image Credits: http://www.cbr.com

Tanvi Rupakula is a writer for Navrang, the Film Society of Ashoka University.

This review first appeared in the Navrang Journal, check out more of their articles here.

Categories
Issue 17

Lawyer-Author & Sci-fi Fan Gautam Bhatia Chats with 95 yr old Sci-fi Legend Chandler Davis

In recent years, within the science fiction community, there has been a reckoning—of sorts—with the genre’s racist, sexist, and colonial past. From pioneer and first-contact stories being thinly-veiled justifications for colonialism, to male-coded obsessions with conflict and conquest, to a near-absence of non-white characters except as props or as antagonists, there is much in this history to confront, to discuss, and to overcome. And as the last decade has shown, this discussion is not always a comfortable one.

In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said talks about the “contrapuntal canon”. In discussing how colonialism forms an (often) unacknowledged backdrop to the classic literary texts of the Western canon, Said writes that, nonetheless, “we must … read the great canonical texts with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented in such works. The contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes – that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.

While Said’s point is about tendencies internal to literary texts, we can also think about it in the context of literary traditions. Science fiction is not a monolith: even as racism, colonialism, and sexism played a dominant role in SF-production through the long 20th century, there were always writers and texts that questions, challenged, and subverted that dominant paradigm. The contrapuntal canon, or the hidden transcript, as it were.

At Strange Horizons, we see ourselves as committed to a plural and diverse vision of SFF, and therefore, as a continuation of this older – and sometimes submerged – tradition of against-the-grain writing. To know – and understand – more about our forebears, for this Fund Drive Special Issue, we decided to interview Chandler “Chan” Davis, one of the most outstanding exponents of the contrapuntal canon, at a time at which the dominant, regressive tendencies of science fiction were at their apogee: the 1940s and the 1950s.

A mathematician and a science fiction writer, Davis was notoriously dismissed from the University of Michigan, and jailed, during the McCarthy years. He wrote a range of science fiction stories (some of which are collected in the anthology, It Walks In Beauty), exploring themes around nuclear disarmament, sexism in society, labour and capital, and first contact and language. The science fiction critic, T.G. Shenoy, recently put together a compilation of his stories, which can be accessed here).

Now 95 years old, Chandler Davis very kindly agreed to this interview, which was conducted via collaborative Google Doc earlier this year. The interview also contains responses by Hannah Taieb, Professor Davis’ daughter. Through this interview, we hope to give you a window into a lost – but important – part of the history of our genre and community.


Gautam Bhatia: Let me start with a somewhat broad set of questions. You wrote science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s as an avowed communist, at a time when the United States was consumed by the Red Scare (which saw you jailed for a time, as well). Your stories reflect your politics, whether it is satirising corporate culture in “Adrift on the Policy Level”, or the very direct references to union-busting in “Last Year’s Grave Undug”. How welcoming and open was the science fiction community at the time to left-wing ideas? Was it more difficult, say, to publish pro-Union stories than anti-Unions ones (such as “The Roads Must Roll“, for example)? Was there a group of writers who shared your views and beliefs, and wrote stories that, in a similar fashion, reflected those views?    

Chandler Davis: The science fiction community in the 1940s was a strange conglomerate. The Futurians were Communists or sympathizers from before my time; Robert Heinlein had several biases including a sentimental acceptance of militaristic values; John Campbell had his own biases, including a worship of technical fix carried over from the Hugo Gernsback era … I could go on and on. The strangest thing was the extent to which it was a community, without people dropping their individuality. Now to some degree this was illusory: an author might think it prudent not to rhapsodize about the wonders of a future Soviet America in submitting a story to an anti-communist editor (prudence we had to practise in our non-SF life as well), and an author might try to improve chances of acceptance of stories by writing under pseudonyms concealing gender or ethnicity.

To some degree it was mere expression of allegiance to the science-fiction tradition we all honored. But on the whole it was a genuine sense of community, across fracture lines which outside the genre-bubble, in the real world, were guarded by snarling watchdogs. I don’t think I resented “The Roads Must Roll” when it appeared, for example, I may even have been grateful that unions were recognized as part of the scene, but my firm pro-union beliefs were not shaken. (Going to work in a union shop about that time, I volunteered to serve as a shop committeeman the first chance I got.) We listened to ideas coming from ideologues of world-views we didn’t share at all. It was for me a liberating time in the same way as the New Left twenty years later. Maybe somewhat older leftists like Phil Klass and Fred Pohl didn’t feel the same liberation.

Hannah Taieb: I was moved and fascinated to see that the “bubble” of science fiction fans and writers took shape so firmly as a community, superseding the harsh divisions of 1940s/50s America. I guess as a daughter, having grown up watching my father pushed away and attacked by McCarthyism, it was moving to me to imagine that within the sci-fi community Chan was not rejected by sanctimonious red-hunters, or at least that he didn’t experience things that way— didn’t see himself and other leftists as somehow in a separate world. Instead, he experienced a sense of “community across fracture lines”, a feeling I didn’t get the sense of  Chan often experiencing.

GB: In 1949, you wrote an article titled “Critiques and Proposals”, that dealt with stereotyping in literature generally, and in science fiction in particular. In that article, you called upon science fiction writers to make an active effort to not only avoid stereotyping (on grounds of race, gender, ethnicity etc.) but to work towards breaking them down, even if it means an – initial – defamiliarising effect for the reader. You made the point that the very fact that much of science fiction was set in the future allowed writers to imagine realities in which those stereotypes no longer existed – foreshadowing something that Ursula Le Guin would say many years later, about the role of science fiction writers being to imagine alternatives (including to capitalism). Do you think that more than other genres, science fiction allows for such possibilities, and that writers in the genre should be actively thinking about how to construct such possibilities in their fiction?     CD:  Oh, thanks for bringing this out so clearly, Gautam! Yes, emphatically. Is this to say merely that science-fiction ought to be always utopian (imagining and figuring forth a better world) or dystopian (warning against wrong policies by exhibiting horrid futures they might lead to)? Not at all. With Ursula LeGuin, I want SF to open up thinking about the future in more complex ways too.

Ursula Le Guin wanted science fiction writers to imagine alternatives to the way we live.

GB: In “Critiques and Proposals”, you talked about how editors (in 1949) were unlikely to accept a black or Jewish individual as the protagonist of a story, and how science fiction continued to have problems with gender (even though it was ahead of other genres of writing at the time). In many respects, the science fiction has made great advances in these respects over the years. But one thing that you don’t mention in your article is class—and in that respect, there doesn’t seem to have been such an advance. I can’t, for example, recall many recent works of science fiction I’ve read that have had a trade union member as a protagonist. Do you think science fiction has had—and continues to have—a certain obliviousness when it comes to questions of class? 

CD: Yes, to some extent. But many SF stories have presented a class structure different from that we know today, an aristocracy, or an elite privileged in some novel way. Think of Brave New World, for example. That counts as awareness of class structure, and imagining new structures societies might have is manifestly a desirable part of the genre, and recognized to be.

GB: Also in “Critiques and Proposals”, you advance a set of proposals for how writers can escape stereotyping black or Jewish characters in their stories. One suggestion that I didn’t see in the essay is something that the genre grapples with now to a great extent: that it is the job of editors and publishers to actively seek out writers who come from backgrounds that—to quote the end of your essay—“have been discriminated against.” So, just to take your own example: one of the solutions to the stereotyping of black people in science fiction would be to ensure that black writers write for, and are published by, science fiction magazines. I was wondering why you didn’t moot that as a proposal for editors. Was it something that would have been dismissed out of hand at the time?           

CD: No, I just didn’t think of it; I wish I had.

GB: In this 2013 interview with Josh Lukin, you discuss the centrality of the “resourceful protagonist” to science fiction, and the importance of “no hero” stories, in order to highlight that it is structures or institutions that are oppressive. I think this remains an issue with science fiction even today: the writer Saladin Ahmed tweeted about this recently, and I’ve flagged the point in a couple of reviews I’ve written on contemporary science fiction (that is otherwise quite good). Do you think the individualist bent of science fiction has detracted from an accurate identification of the systemic root of the problems that we face, and the need for collective action to overcome them?     

CD: Thanks once again for clear expression of a major challenge for authors. But even if, like Saladin Ahmed, the author is conscious of it, there still may be a protagonist who feels lonely, who suffers from the lack of an effective community of fellow rebels.

GB: Let’s get to the stories themselves! One thing I am struck by when I read your stories is their range: in your science fiction, you’ve explored corporate culture, robots, post-apocalyptic societies, nuclear war, eugenics, and the arms race, First Contact, space opera, the world of work and labour, and so much more. Could you tell us a bit about how these themes reflected your own preoccupations at the time, and how you’d situate your work in the context of what your contemporaries in the science fiction community were writing then?

CD: One striking example of my writing responding to the preoccupations of the time is my responding to the threat of nuclear weapons. All of us in the science-fiction gang who learned of the Manhattan Project only in August 1945 felt at least a momentary joy of vindication: we had been saying this might happen, the general population didn’t know, and lo! we were in the right. But most of us soon realized, “Hey! this is a calamity, an atrocity” (and to think it was done in the name of the American people). Some of the authors sounded the alarm. I cite especially [Theodore] Sturgeon’s “Memorial”, my “The Nightmare”, and Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses”, but there were several others. We put it before our audience a rather large and international audience– that if your country is the target of nuclear attack, then it is up to you not to strike back but to do everything to RESTRAIN your country from striking back. We were right, but our message didn’t stick, in the USA or anywhere.

Theodore Sturgeon addressed the issue of nuclear war in his stories

GB: Cooperation and language are two recurring themes in your work. They come together in your story, “To Share The World”, which is quite a wonderful First Contact tale: a species that human beings refer to as the Nibblies communicate through electric current, and their form of communication constructs a world that is by definition experienced and articulated in and through community. It put me in the mind of some of Samuel Delany’s work, and more recently, China Mieville’s Embassytown. How do you understand the role of language in shaping the world, and the role of science fiction in interrogating this relationship?     

CD: Language may not shape the physical world, but it surely shapes the social world, and I don’t think I brought out in “Share Our World” or any of my other stories what range is imaginable in other intelligent species. Hey, to make this point clear, I’ll have to get back to the task of writing and dream up some more extraterrestrial alternatives! It’s worth thinking about. In the real world, I don’t think we’ll experience First Contact in the sense of Murray Leinster‘s SF, or mine, or Carl Sagan’s, but thinking about it is important for life in the real world because it helps enable us to handle the changes going on all the time in here-and-now social evolution.

HT: Gautam raised the question of the “resourceful protagonist” and the importance of “no hero” stories, and later came to the issue of cooporation, using as example the Nibblies in To Share the World which Gautam points out have a “shared world” that is in contrast with human beings. I just wanted to point out that to me there is a link between Chan’s interest in “no hero” stories and his creation of stories with multiple heroes with complex interconnections. My favorite of Chan’s stories, along with It Walks in Beauty and Letter to Ellen, is Hexamnion, with its coorperative multiple protagonist(s). I am not making a point here, except to bring together the two issues, and to say that I think Hexamnion deserves a mention along with the Nibblies, in talking about images of cooperation.

GB:  Sticking with the theme of language, in your novelette, It Walks In Beauty, there is a point in the story when the protagonist, Max, resolves to think of and refer to Paula as “her” instead of “it”. Immediately thereafter, he catches himself wondering “how much difference would a pronoun make to – her?” “It Walks in Beauty” was published in 1958, and it’s quite extraordinary how these lines foreshadow an issue that would come to the fore many decades later; it’s only now that we are seeing mis-gendering being started to be taken somewhat seriously, and there’s still a long way to go. I wanted to ask what was in your mind when you made your protagonist think of correct pronouns as something important, as almost a revolutionary move.

CD: It is a fortuitous resemblance. I didn’t imagine the kind of gender-challenging we see now, though Ursula LeGuin and Samuel Delany did, impressively. I did fix on stereotyped sex roles, as they exist, and the damage they do to genuine human relations, and I’m proud of the acuity of my critique. “It Walks in Beauty” is near-future SF as opposed to imagined-world SF, as I intended to make clear by reference to an actual 1940s popular song. Exaggerated though the problems were in the story, they’re real problems, and I meant Paula’s optimism at the end—despite the failure of her attempted lesson—to stand for my own determination in 1954 (when I was writing) to do something to fix them. The editor, my friend Fred Pohl, thought the bitterness had to be let stand, and changed the ending. Without consulting me, yet! I told Judy Merril, and she agreed that my original ending was better. I insisted that subsequent reprinting of the story use the original faintly hopeful ending. I’m still determined to try to fix those problems. We’ve come a long way, baby … well, a little way, and there’s a long way to go.

HT: With regard to It Walks in Beauty, I preferred Fred Pohl’s ending; perhaps, as a woman, I identified with the bitterness of Paula watching the fellow prance off cluelessly. But I’m still glad that Chan, in 1954, the year of my birth, had determination to stick to his feminism even when it got hard and challenged his conceptions of femininity. I’m sure I benefited from that, growing up.

Image Credits: Amazon.in

GB: Quite a few of your stories portray human beings failing—or refusing—to cooperate with each other, even in situations where it would be in their interests to do so, and sometimes with tragic consequences (and in “To Share the World”, the literal “shared world” of the Nibblies is placed in stark contrast with how human beings imagine the world). At times your work almost feels like a critique of the atomism that capitalism has brought us, an atomism that has perhaps become worse since the time you wrote these stories. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about these ideas of community, cooperation, and atomism in your work, and in science fiction more broadly?    

CD: You’re quite right, Gautam, to relate the ideology of market economics to weakness of cooperative behaviour in capitalist society. Not talking about actual markets but about the terribly prevalent ideology of the inevitability of competition—an ideology now called neoliberalism, though there’s nothing neo about it. And you’re quite right that science fiction should bring more to the struggle to break out of it. Utopias are likely to be free of dog-eat-dog ruthlessness, but all kinds of SF could do more to address this.

GB: My personal favourite out of all your short stories is perhaps “The Aristocrat”, where a nuclear disaster seemingly divides people into “human” and “Folk”. The story is told from the perspective of a human who exercises what he believes is an enlightened-despotic rule over the Folk, in order to preserve civilization—until things start to go wrong. I read both It Walks in Beauty and The Aristocrat as being stories that interrogate, and undermine, the categories with which we order the world, and demonstrate, in a way, the futility of endeavours to exercise control over diverse and plural ways of being as well as the arrogance of those who think they can unilaterally shape the future. In particular, “The Aristocrat” pushes back against different forms of historical determinism. I was struck both by how this is at odds with institutional communist ideology, and also at odds with some of your contemporaries, such as Isaac Asimov, whose idea of psychohistory does depend on the world being knowable, and therefore subject to human control. Would you have any thoughts about this?       

CD: Isaac Asimov has Hari Seldon’s knowledge of laws of societal development, and hence his ability to predict the future, break down due to one unpredictable event, the appearance of one individual, the Mule, with unique capacity to influence. Asimov came from the Marxist tradition, and was surely commenting on the great difficulty of understanding history well enough to predict it. I also come from the Marxist tradition. I believe that history can be understood, as the result of deterministic causal processes, but I also believe that the unpredictable events are everywhere. (Too bad we can not ask Asimov whether he agrees; he well might.) If this is a contradiction, I hope it is of the fruitful dialectical kind.  In short, I believe that there is no bound on how well we can know the laws of history, but that our knowledge will always fall short of taking every small contingency into account, and that small changes can have large consequences, so that our predictive power, while improving, will always fall short. I call myself a radical contingentist. Have you read “The Next Thousand Years or So”, a lecture I gave here a few years ago? It accepts unpredictability without accepting unknowability, and attempts to justify this.

GB: Your other post-nuclear disaster story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug”, feels oddly prescient in many ways, especially when Pop says to his companions, “the US invaded itself.” I was reminded of the recent Capitol attacks, and the firmly tongue-in-cheek comments about how the US was finally serving itself a sliver of the taste of its own medicine. Many of the themes that you explore in that story—in particular, how, even in a ruined world, people will still cling tenaciously to the world-views that they have instinctively come to inhabit—feel very real today. In fact, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” could literally be written today and feel entirely contemporary, other than a few odd dated references. Did you anticipate, when you were writing that story, that six decades on, we’d still be exactly where we are now?         

CD: No, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” is another warning story. Magnifying some present trends to show them more clearly. I’m glad we are not where that story depicts us! By the way, this is an instance of the difficulty even of understanding history, let alone predicting. As I also explained in my essay “The Next Thousand Years or So”, mentioned just now, I could not imagine in the 1950s that our society could survive unless we achieved nuclear disarmament.  Indeed it still remains to be understood! We must try to solve that riddle, as part of our solving the grand riddles of history—at the same time as we try to steer the course away from nuclear catastrophe, which is still terribly threatening, but not inevitable.

Chandler Davis; Photo: Alan M Waid

GB: Professor Davis, thank you so much for your time, and thank you to Hannah as well. I hope you do get around to resuming writing those First Contact stories!

This interview first appeared in Strange Horizons and has been republished with their permission. You can see more of their work here.

Categories
Issue 17

Shaleena, 1st from her community to patrol a jungle in AP shoots her own story

First published in RoundGlass Sustain, a treasure trove of stories on India’s wildlife, habitats and their conservation.

Categories
Issue 17

Kapur & Miyazaki: Wild celluloid connections from the 7th Century CE to 2022

Yet another Kapoor in film? 

At about the time, a second generation of the Kapoors were becoming a hit in Hindi cinema, animation films were getting packed movie halls in Japan for the first time. The oil from a camphor tree, was being used to make film stock. All three from the 1950s.

Camphor, from the kapur family was a key ingredient in the making of celluloid. So yes, yet another kapur is in film.

Celluloid, or cellulose nitrate plasticized by camphor. Hailed by some as the first industrial plastic in the late 19th century. Early still photographers and filmmakers through the 1920s to the 50s, found it extremely moldable. Until acetate replaced it. 

While the jury is still out on which is better, Indians have known about the natural and artificial version of camphor, for several centuries. The 7th century Ayurveda work, Mādhava Cikitsā, advocates its natural variety for treating fever. Egyptians embalmed their dead in it. Both civilizational lands continue to value its fragrance. As Karpura in Sanskrit, Hindi and several Indian languages. 

In colloquial North Indian use, some shorthand it to kapur. This slow growing tree is a Taiwanese and Japanese native, with many species of its evergreen variety found from India to Egypt, Mongolia to Vietnam and China to Southern United States.

Camphor, actually references the species, Camphora. For the chemical in the oil, found in the tissue of the tree. Used by modern organic chemistry eventually, to also make film. The East Asian avatar is still used to make both insecticide and perfume. Indians currently find it handy for moth-free cupboards, while many cultures still treat it a like noxious weed.

In Japan though, it remains pretty sacred. An 1890 article in the Scientific American, reminds us that some of the best camphor exported to the rest of the western world back then, came from Southern Japan. Hayao Miyazaki, film director and co-founder, Studio Ghibli, featured it like a body guardian presence in his 1988 anime, My Neighbor Totoro.

Isabel Stevens, writing in the November 2021 issue of the film magazine, Sight & Sound, evokes this connection, “Miyazaki’s film is true to life in acting like a guardian to the girls, whose mother is in hospital, just as it does to shrines across Japan. Throughout the film, the tree is tenderly observed in many different shades of watercolor. All manner of green by day, ink black, grey and purple by night, and dappled with yellows at sunrise.” Stevens also points out that the oldest version of this tree still alive in Japan, is said to be 1500 years old. Another one, she speaks of, survived the atomic bombing at a Nagasaki shrine.

Resilience, clearly a quality of this tree also surfaces in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation films, through a variety of protagonists. Who navigate uncertainty or change. Young girls go on adventures and come of age in some significant or quirky way. While creatures drawn from Japanese myth, simply help pause or protect. Shape-shifting, between the supernatural and the wild. 

Take Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, when it released in 2001. It had a mountain witch and part of the film’s name in Japanese, implied a hidden deity, kamikakushi. A folk tale reference there. Where when a girl was lost, the Japanese were prone to suggesting, she has gone to the kamikakushi. This is invoked in the film’s story as well. 

Miyazaki’s fantasy, as a comfort food offering also speaks to his own youth. When Japan began modernizing quickly in the 50s, his placement of protagonists in rural settings, protected by folklore, was as much to connect the young, as a touch of staying rooted. Himself.

After all, Japan has worn its own past-continuous animistic tryst with nature and spirit life, like a second skin. Be it Japanese literary references of ghost foxes, going all the way back to the 11th century work, Genji Monogatari. Or the more zombie-in-a village-graveyard anime hit, Jujutsu Kaisen, in the Japan of 2021. 

While Indians can watch both My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away on Netflix. Miyazaki’s own tripping the light fantastic has created an enduring following, both at home and abroad. This September, when the Academy of Motion Pictures finally opened USA’s first proper Museum of Film, they celebrated with a Miyazaki retrospective.

In another American hat tip to a wider and younger Japanese anime creativity, nature and film touched base in a new way. Seven of Japan’s anime studios got their hands on some unexpected material. To reimagine the Star Wars connections.

On an open invite from the US franchise. The New York Times pointed to this landmark east-west sharing. ‘It is the first time outsiders from any country have been given this sort of access to the themes, ships, characters and even signature sounds of the Star Wars franchise.

Each anime studio worked its own style and story. Making a rock opera, a family centric reflection and an ecological tale. Nine shorts by nine individual directors. All of them available on Disney Hotstar as a collection called Star Wars: Visions.

In fact in a curious case, the one US state to get the first Disney hotel dedicated to Star Wars in 2022, is Florida. Where camphor also happens to be a native tree. The hotel conceived apparently like an immersive spaceship experience, speaks to a younger Miyazaki. Whose early sketches were not of humans in anime. But planes in flight. 

Now readying to feed the fantasy of a different OTT generation, navigating uncertainty and change in a pandemic. Who perhaps use celluloid as a shorthand for film itself, like some Indians do kapur?

Tisha Srivastav teaches 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).  

Categories
Issue 15

The Glass Ceiling Has Been Shattered, Says ZSI’s First Woman Director

By Sahana Ghosh

Senior Zoological Survey of India scientist Dhriti Banerjee has straddled two different worlds of research — physiology of drug abuse and working on the use of insects in forensic investigations — in her career spanning 24 years. She has also embraced research and administration with equal zeal. Now, as the first woman to helm India’s premier taxonomic research organisation in its 105-year-old history, Banerjee aims to scale up the organisation’s foray into transdisciplinary fields with enhanced funding and train a new generation of taxonomists, especially women, required to match the demand for its services.

“We need a lot more of us around,” says Banerjee in an interview with Mongabay-India referring to the “overload of identification and advisory services” at the organisation.

“Taxonomy is the mother science of discovery. Once you identify and systematise a species, only then can you start working on the rest of its attributes. As we say, it all starts with the name. The next step is identifying its role in nature and natural surroundings specifically in our ecosystems. Then and only then the underlying importance of the species can be determined.”

“Once that status is ascertained then we realise that it is under threat and hence it needs to be conserved. ZSI has been contributing to the science of taxonomy and systematics for over 100 years and will be doing so for another 100,” adds a confident Banerjee.

Speaking of her goals as the Survey’s director, Banerjee adds that taking the science from the lab to the field is key for the organisation’s work’s relevance and impact on society: “Increased funding is of utmost importance. High-end research today has become extremely expensive and we in ZSI are making our foray into several new fields which need to be funded.”

One such area is the application of genomic tools such as next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology and the collection of genomic data for species conservation. “Unpacking the biodiversity, including the species that we cannot see, in a Protected Area, using NGS can highlight the species richness in an area which could help our Protected Area managers and policymakers in framing better laws.”

“So far we have focused on a few charismatic species for conservation goals because they are visible to us. But there are so many species, such small insects to micro-organisms that are crucial to biodiversity, but need special tools to be seen and assessed,” said Banerjee, adding that the application of genomic tools can aid assessments, monitoring and managing efforts.

“It’s like seeing the glass as half full,” she shared.

Dhriti Banerjee in her office at ZSI headquarters in Kolkata. Photo from ZSI.

Banerjee, who pursued her doctorate studies in animal physiology at the Presidency University (earlier Presidency College), is also not afraid to take up thorny issues such as economic assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services in addition to biodiversity research in agriculturally important sectors to amplify the organisation’s role in science for society.

There has been a growing dialogue on addressing the “economic invisibility of nature”. The recent UK-government commissioned The Economics of Biodiversity: the Dasgupta Review argues that natural capital should be viewed as an asset, like produced and human capital. Between 1992 to 2014, globally produced capital per head doubled and human capital per head increased by about 13% but the value of the stock of natural capital per head declined by nearly 40%, according to the review.

“We, in our country, have been made aware of the value of biodiversity through culture, mythology and religion, but understanding the economic value of biodiversity will make people more aware of it and that we need to protect it,” shared Banerjee.

Better funding would aid such nuanced scientific work, argues Banerjee and would allow the survey organisation to take its science to the masses or “non-niche end-users”, which she likens to the transformative action of performance art from street theatre to films.

“Though we receive funding from several external agencies like the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Biotechnology and others, science can work a lot better with more funding. We are one of the very few institutes that work in the field, in dry lab, wet lab, computer and digital labs simultaneously to generate effective results. Increased funding would allow seamless transitions and make our outputs more effective and increase the penetration of our results to the non-niche end-users.”

For Banerjee, the confidence to blend multiple scientific domains and embark on collaborative work comes from her multifaceted professional experiences at the organisation. Since starting with the ZSI in 1998, Banerjee, the forensic entomologist specialising in species of the order Diptera, has amassed significant administrative and scientific work experience. She worked in finance for five years and another five years as head of office at ZSI which saw her juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, move out of her comfort zone and push the envelope.

An important milestone is the launch and steering of a suite of Digital ZSI initiatives including the ZSI Digital Library at faunaofindia.nic.in. One of the most important learning experiences in her career came from organising the centenary celebrations of the Survey in 2015 for which preparations began in 2012. She was involved in the compilation of The Glorious 100: Women’s Scientific Contribution in ZSI 1916-2015report with colleagues Debashree Dam and Nivedita Saha which documented the women’s career trajectory in the survey organisation.

Percentage frequency of women scientists recruited at Zoological Survey of India between 1940 and 2015. Chart from ZSI report.

“Compiling the report was an eye-opening experience,” remarked Banerjee on the gumption displayed by women scientists who took on a male-dominated survey and exploration domain.

ZSI welcomed its first woman scientist in 1949 (late Mira Mansukhani), three decades after its inception in 1916. She continued to be the only woman scientist for three years, the ZSI report documents. In a hundred years of existence (1916 to 2015), women represented only 20 percent of the total scientific staff strength. But the percentage frequency of women scientist recruitment shows a marked increase from 3 percent in 1949-1960 to 40 percent in 2001-2015.

“What must have been for the women like Mira Mansukhani to work with men when women were seen as ‘burden’ on fieldwork,” Banerjee wonders.

According to a Department of Science and Technology (DST) report, as of April 2018, only 16.6 % out of the total 3.42 lakh research and development (R and D) personnel directly engaged in R and D activities in scientific research establishments in the country were women.

Shifting the needle to augment women’s leadership in a career in science administration and management calls for enhanced confidence-building measures and inspiring leadership that encourages women to push the envelope. “One way is to work (for scientists) in areas that you think are not related, for example, science administration and finance.”

Administration aside, the Kolkata-based Banerjee has had her fair share of thrills and spills in the lab and on the field. Watching maggots creep over the carcass of dead mice in the laboratory during her PhD days in animal physiology (at the Presidency University) tickled her fancy that eventually led her to explore forensic entomology.

“Since they were alive and growing I started recording their growth and maintained the maggots in the lab to see them pupate and hatch into small flies. When I started digging into the web for information, I learned about forensic flies and their role in postmortem interval assessment in criminal investigations,” she shared with enthusiasm. Additionally, the entomology lab next door was rearing biting midges from banana stalks which piqued her interest.

Scientists at ZSI and only another lab in Madhya Pradesh are working on forensic entomology, she says. “Forensic flies are a group of flies that you commonly encounter but do not notice as you are not aware of their importance. The shiny bluebottle flies and the grey checkered back flies are the notable ones. They are important nutrient recyclers of our environment. Their small white larvae feed on rotting decomposed organic matter and recycle the nutrients back to our ecosystems. Their role in assessing the time of death, cause of death and at times also localisation of death is enormous. But it is not very well studied in our country.”

*Biologist Dhriti Banerjee, who has straddled the realm of scientific administration and management, is the 105-year-old Zoological Survey of India’s first woman director.

Zoological Survey of India is the country’s premier taxonomic research organisation set up in 1916. In hundred years (1916 to 2015), women represented only 20 percent of the total scientific staff strength. But the percentage frequency of women scientists recruited has increased.

This article was originally published on Mongabay India 

Sahana Ghosh is a science journalist and a LEDE fellow (2019-2020)  based in Kolkata/Delhi. She is a Contributing Editor to Mongabay India.  

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Issue 14

From Zurich to Wayanad, Can The Data Modelling Highway Restore Farmer Science and Soil?

20 farmers, 18 male and 2 female, in crisp mundu and sari respectively, arrive in small groups by 9.30 a.m. at Thanal’s agroecology centre in Thirunelly Panchayat, Wayanad, a district in northern Kerala. Arun R S, working in organic and natural farming at Thanal, passes around recycled pencil and paper and says to the group, “We want to be able to learn from each other, let’s start by writing down the problems we face in our fields and we will find solutions for it.” 

Historically an Adivasi district, Wayanad, from Vayal Nadu, implies a paddy field in Malayalam. So farmers here are rice-growers, who also sow cash crops like ginger, cardamom, coffee, tea, vanilla and pepper. Agriculture, mixed with forest and a little bit of tourism, is the economic heartbeat here. But with the rising cost of chemical inputs and constant fluctuation in the international price of produce, farmers’ income and well-being has been greatly affected for decades. Between 2003-2007 alone, Wayanad had some of the highest numbers of farmer suicides in Kerala. In 2004, when 130 farmers committed suicide, Thanal, an organisation focused on environmental awareness, started work alongside farmers to restore income and land. This project in turn became the agroecology centre in Wayanad in 2009. By 2010, a Rice Diversity Block was started with 4 native paddy varieties.

As of October 2021, they have conserved approximately 300+ traditional varieties, out of which 180 are from Kerala. Arun takes the 20 strong groups for a hands-on session to make cow dung-based biopesticide. Workshops like these help rethink biomass quality and focus on the whole agri-lifecycle from seed to soil. Sudha chechi (Malayalam for sister, often used when referring to older women), working with Thanal as a farm caretaker, facilitates communication between farmers and the local tribal residents. Farmers reach out to her with questions like, “what medicine can be used to protect cardamom leaves from worm attacks?” Sudha, with her knowledge of medicinal plants and their uses, tries to provide solutions. 

Thanal confronts micro-queries and shows actual proof of change. What if they also collated data and made it available in a completely different part of the world, useful for conservation research as well? Thanal’s website is rich with information, but what if data modelling can empower each of their farmers to upload data directly?

Restor, a collaborative effort between Google and the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich, is an organisation collecting data from such micro-movements and locations, to create models. Their website pitch is, “accelerating the global restoration movement by connecting everyone, everywhere to local restoration. Restor connects people to scientific data, supply chains, funding, and each other to increase the impact, scale, and sustainability of restoration efforts.” 

How is this done? The land is mapped using GIS, short for Geographic Information Systems. This allows a user to convert their patch of flat land or agri-field into a beautiful, multi-layered map right from their computer, using GIS software such as QGIS or ArcGIS. 24 year Giacomo Delgado who has been working in Switzerland’s Zurich HQ of Restor as a community and outreach associate for several months now, says, “We are creating state of the art models, as well as pulling best in class models created by other organizations (e.g. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)’s land cover map).

But is this software accessible to a common farmer or conservationist? “QGIS is being widely used across the country by NGOs and common people. ArcGIS is very expensive and is often only made available at universities,” says Dr. Divya Vasudev, co-founder of Conservation Initiatives, a Guwahati based Indian not-for-profit trust, working towards conservation since 2017. 

An example of a Remote Sensed image of a piece of land. The top image shows a normal picture, the middle image is infrared and the bottom image shows an image with elevation information.

“Visual Remote Sensing” by NOAA’s National Ocean Service is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Advancing Internet access and GIS software becoming more advanced, open access, easy to use and in some cases, free or reasonable, has made it possible for Restor to collect data from 72,500 sites across the globe, as of October 15, 2021. 

Restor went public this October 13, by making its data and tools available to all, for free. Nyguthi Chege, an executive director at Kenya’s Green belt movement, says, “with this tool, we can easily determine which species are native to a region and assess the carbon that different ecosystems can store. Information that is so important to get restoration projects over initial hurdles and realize our vision.”

What can this mean for the Wayanad farmers and the agroecology centre working with them? Arun can now draw a boundary in the satellite map for farms transitioning to organic farming. He can then update the database with their restoration status, ownership and intervention type. Conservationists and farmers across the globe can observe how the farm changes over a period of three years and learn from it.

Is it a whole new world wide web, especially for those individuals and communities isolated by access, distance or movement until now? The politics of data ownership, modelling access and ease of use is unfolding in real-time as case histories. 

The field is yet, open.


Cefil is a student of Mathematics and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University. 

The featured image is by dhruvaraj, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Issue 13

Bats in a pandemic: Why should we care?

Hidden from a clear view by our naked eye, the only true flying mammal hung upside down from a tree’s high branches. Sleeping through the sunlit morning, its eyes and made-for-manoeuvre-wings, snapped shut. Waiting for the darkness.To hunt prey. At night, one may have even seen a bat gliding. Before the pandemic.

For after that, it seems to have become prey. In April 2020, the bat roosts found in cave and building in two provinces of Cuba, were set on fire. In May 2020, people in four districts of Rajasthan, killed 150 bats, in a misdirected effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. In September 2021, the only colony of fruit bats in the Nilgiris, is under threat as people want to cut down the trees they roost on. Out of fear? 

This when, different bat species remain important for varied reasons. For much of India’s agri-lands, bats act as a zero-cost biological pesticide, controlling pest populations. Useful broadcasters, they disperse the pollen which clings to their fur, especially while drinking the nectar of flowers blooming in the night. They are vital in preserving natural habitat across terrain, helping forest regeneration and growth of new forests too. But yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic where old and new conspiracy theories also meet?

FRIENDS, OMEN & COUNTRYMEN

Even though we have seen so many reports of bats being culled in many parts of India, it has not stopped the pandemic anywhere,” says Dr. Bhargavi Srinivasulu, a Postdoctoral scientist at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Hyderabad’s Osmania University.

As someone who has worked on bat conservation for many years across India, from Maharashtra to Telangana, she offers a more nuanced commentary, “Indians in general think bats are a bad omen. So, everything bad imaginable is associated with bats, because they emerge in the darkness, so darkness is synonymous with everything evil, thanks to our movies on Dracula and all. In India, even today you have lots of negative perceptions about bats.” But there is another side as well, she continues,“In certain pockets of Karnataka, there are bats roosting in their cowsheds and there are houses next to the cowsheds, they do not bother. Some are tolerant, some do not tolerate the presence or anything of bats.” 

So how did it shift when Covid- 19 hit all India? Dr. Bhargavi continues,“During the pandemic, it [attitude] was much more negative. People used to give us calls and then ask us — we can see bats flying around, how do we kill them, we are scared for our elderly and our children. What if they come in and bite and my grandmother or mother gets Corona.” She fielded worry and questions, why can’t they be culled, what is their use? Responding patiently, she explained how the coronavirus found in bats is different from the human one and the host that transmitted the coronavirus from bats to humans still remains a complicated mystery. 

WHY WE NEED NOT MORE CAT, BUT BAT VIDEOS IN 2021

A recent study across 17 Spanish-speaking countries on human perception of bats, focused on the role of information and visual stimuli, in boosting a positive response. It also looked at how sociodemographic factors affect it. Published this April by Alex Boso, an associate professor of Social Sciences, at Chile’s University of La Frontera, the research team came together from departments of Forestry, Environmental Sciences, Zoology and Psychology from several universities in Chile. 

Shedding light on how providing information and aesthetic stimuli can increase a positive response towards bats, it experimented in four ways. The first two, solely visual stimuli, showing, say, only a picture of a panda bat and vampire bat. The third condition included both visual and informational stimuli together, in the form of a 72 second bat cartoon video, showing the who what where when why of bats in their natural home.The fourth and final condition offered no stimuli, visual or informational.The study found the third experimental condition, providing both informational and visual stimuli, gave a major boost to positive responses, in the attitude towards bats.

When it came to human responses in the study, males were found to have a more positive impression towards bats than females. Participants with a higher education level, ditto. Christians were seen to have a more negative attitude towards bats compared to those participants of other religions, or those who had no religious beliefs. Previous experience with bats was found to be a significant factor of influence. 

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION IN THE FIELD – FROM KOLAR TO WUHAN

If this study’s findings attempt a link between the nature of stimuli provided and the socio-economic, gender and religious belief being influential in attitudes toward the bat species, in India, Dr. Bhargavi, working largely in rural areas, places some responses in a wider experience and span of time. “When we spoke to the elders, they said when they were young boys, they used to go inside the caves and collect all the guanos [bat excreta] and use it as fertiliser in their crops. Their crops used to be so healthy. They also used to be healthy because they used to feed on non-chemical fertiliser food.” Once this link was broken by either ignorance and now fear, it has been and will continue to affect both human health and the wider ecosystem. 

In cases where there was once a close link between the community, ecosystem and bats, scientist-conservationists reached out.to share how people must let bats be. Or how people could  actively protect them, even during the pandemic. Dr. Bhargavi in her own work, specifically mentions being able to do this in Karnataka’s Kolar area,“When we were doing our various conservation activities, if we had not consistently gone there and told them repeatedly, over a period of time, you know, these [bats] are very important to the ecosystem, agriculture and all, based on scientific facts, videos and pictures. You have to go there and consistently talk to them in a scientific manner, break it down in a simpler manner.” Her field experience and the 2021 study’s centrality of providing clear information and visual stimuli, while in entirely different country contexts, in this way, do speak to each other. Infact a study published in China this February, by Wuhan’s Central China Normal University tried to understand how public fear would negatively affect bat conservation. Not only were the study findings similar, in the role previous knowledge of bats plays and influence of gender/education level of the respondents, there was also a new element.  

A specially curated bat conservation lecture. This, on the one hand, improved people’s attitude towards bats, but on the other, failed to clear the misconception surrounding the alleged transmission of the coronavirus to humans directly. The research recommended clarity in messaging around human-bat encounters for conservation of this much-maligned species. Batting for bat-science, it mentions public display of scientific facts on bats as well as highlighting their benefits. 

But beyond a few driven scientist-conservationists, including Dr. Bhargavi’s own partner, Dr. Chelmala Srinivasulu, more science and easy to understand information about bats, reaching the public, remains perhaps, as important as washing our hands. At the very least, in a National Wildlife Week being held during an ongoing pandemic.

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. 

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Issue 10

Women in STEM: Nipped in the Bud.

The gender imbalance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related jobs in India is apparent even without examining statistics. A quick look at historical leadership positions in organizations allied with STEM such as CEOs of Biotech companies, Chairman of the Indian Space research Organization (ISRO), Director General of the Indian Council of Medical research (ICMR), Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Presidents of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), Aeronautics Society of India (AeSI) and Indian Mathematical Society (IMS)  to name a few, additionally highlights how stark this gap is among the higher ranks. 40% STEM graduates are women but they share only 14% STEM-associated jobs (PIB, January 2021) and this begs the question of why there is a disproportion between women choosing STEM education but not employment.

Government programs supporting the education of the girl child have had a substantial impact in increasing the numbers of primary and middle school educated girls. Incentives at the level of higher education in the form of reservations or financial support have vastly improved but not equalized the gender imbalance. Studying the gender composition of various disciplines in STEM education reveals intrinsic biases and perceptions of what constitutes a suitable job for a woman. Women receive tacit signals to condition their career choices not based on their own aptitude or interest but the convenience of a work schedule that allows them to fulfil their obligatory duties as care-givers. Thus, teaching-focused careers which usually have fixed and predictable hours are encouraged by parents over research-oriented careers within science. With respect to engineering, computer science is considered eminently more ‘suitable’ and only a few women graduate with degrees in fields like aeronautics, mechanical engineering or civil engineering with this number reducing even further when representation in core engineering jobs is considered.

Are we raising future daughters, sisters, or mothers and not future individuals?

Higher STEM education is often seen as an additional qualification to increase marriage prospects for girls rather than a means to make them financially secure individuals with the ability to make independent, informed choices. Learned behavioral traits that are important for developing STEM career goals in children such as decision making, critical thinking, curiosity and making independent choices outside of care-giving duties are either neglected or actively discouraged in a girl child from a young age. Family chores and activities such as assisting adults with minor electrical repairs, finance-associated tasks, playing computer games, household science experiments, help in the kitchen, cleaning and sewing are segregated based on gender. This fails to nurture interest and even leads to lack of awareness of certain STEM career options in young women. Preconceived notions, archaic attitudes (“girls are bad at mathematics”; “boys are better at engineering”, “biology needs a lot of memorization which suits girls”, “girls are caring so should become nurses”, “women can’t be surgeons, they are too delicate/emotional”) condition and limit a certain STEM expertise or profession with a gender. This conditioning may not always be obvious even to the most educated among us and may unintentionally trickle down to those we have influence over.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and not diamonds are a girl’s best friend!

Encouraging gender equity in STEM careers needs diverse approaches at various levels but the foundation has to be laid early on. The thinking that gender is not a limiting factor for a career choice should be encouraged from a young age in all children using real-life role models and literature centered on the idea. Awareness about the current existence of implicit or obvious situations of gender bias and discussions about specific situations should be a part of education at all levels. Women from all socio-economic backgrounds should have free, accessible avenues to learn about the various career options in STEM through workshops, community initiatives and CSR endeavors. The latter will ensure that they themselves can either be inspired, bring awareness to people under their influence, not participate in gender bias themselves and help create a support system that bridges the gender gap in STEM careers.  

Rama Akondy is an Associate professor of Biology in the Trivedi school of Biosciences. She received her PhD from the National Institute of Immunology (New Delhi, India) and worked at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) first as a post-doctoral researcher and then as junior faculty. Her primary area of interest is understanding immunological memory in humans by observing how our immune system reacts to viruses, vaccines and tutors. Her proudest moment has been when a figure from her paper made it to a textbook! (Plotkin’s Vaccines). 

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Issue 10

The Scramble For Mars: Why Are We So Obsessed With the Red Planet?

The mysterious disappearance of Mars’ ocean witnessed a major breakthrough in the past week – it might have never been lost at all. A recent NASA-backed study found that between 30 to 99 percent of the planet’s water is likely held within its crust in the form of hydrated minerals. While the extraction of water from these minerals may not be an easy feat, the study has gathered substantial traction at a time when humanity is looking to Mars like never before. Why are human beings obsessed with colonizing Mars – and what does this obsession represent?

The desire to explore Mars initially stemmed from a curiosity to enhance knowledge about the conditions that lead to life on a planet. It is also studied to understand how critical shifts in climate fundamentally alter planets. Recently, though, the paramount motivation to explore the planet is rooted in the objective of establishing an interplanetary human civilization – as a crucial safeguard against mass-extinction.  

The obsession with colonizing Mars is a product of several factors. One argument holds that only a space-faring human civilization faces the best odds of survival. This perspective is closely linked to the fear of death and the desire for “immortality” which motivates sending humans to other worlds. Moreover, a “biological motive(s)” with respect to the innate human desire for migration has been repeatedly suggested to substantiate extra-terrestrial prospects for the human race. Additionally, the romanticization of establishing an interplanetary existence for human beings also arises from optimistic perspectives of establishing a “utopia”. Setting up a space-faring civilization is expected to unify humanity and positively impact perspectives on socio-political and economic systems to finally create an “ideal” society. 

As alluring as these reasons may be, they are not grounded in reality – especially given the glaring gaps in scientific knowledge about how to establish self-sustaining human life on Mars. The argument that only colonizing Mars, and other planets will significantly improve the chance of human survival can be countered by arguing that sending humans to other worlds may not prove to be safer beyond a probability analysis. Attempting to address crises on Earth – such as the climate emergency – may increase the probability of human survival as well. The prospect of reaching Mars can disrupt efforts to find possible solutions to problems on Earth.  

Secondly, it is important to acknowledge that the idea of human progression is one that is culturally propagated. Just as human beings have historically shown tendencies to migrate, they have also displayed the desire to settle down. Justifying colonization of other planets on this basis ignores the fetishization of space travel, that equates space exploration with technological advancement and national power. 

 Thirdly, notions of a utopian human existence on faraway planets are naïve. The connotations of the usage of the word “colonization” elicits references to intergenerational torture unleashed at the cost of building “moral” and “civilized” societies. The modern interaction between “colonization” of planets and the advent of large-scale capitalism is bound to have similar consequences. Though human activities in space are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which posits that international law applies in outer space, the moon and other celestial bodies, the ambiguities in its laws allows corporate entities to circumvent its clauses.

This came to life in the case of SpaceX, a private company based in the United States that designs and manufactures rockets and spacecrafts. The company has declared that the services of one of its products will not fall under the jurisdiction of any Earth-based government; in addition, Earth-based governments will also agree to recognize Mars as a free planet. This position becomes more dubious when analyzing SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk’s, claim that “loans” and “jobs” will be made available for those unable to pay for the exorbitant trip across space to sustain their life on Mars; essentially representing an interplanetary repackaging of indentured servitude. Hence, given the current state of space legislation, it will not be anytime soon that economic and social equality will be ensured for a space-faring civilization – completely shattering any possibility of “utopia” on Mars. 

The colonization of Mars, consequently, also raises important moral questions – particularly about how a Martian society would operate. A new approach suggests that once human beings arrive at Mars, they should disconnect from their Earthly relatives. This “liberation” perspective implies that once permanent human settlers arrive at Mars, they should relinquish their planetary citizenship for Earth – instead adopting Martian citizenship. From that point on, the Martians should be left to their own devices. Any entities – governmental, non-governmental – must not engage with the economics, politics, or culture of this society. While scientific exploration by Earth’s citizens can continue on Mars, sharing research and information should only take place to achieve medical or educational goals. Most importantly, the citizens of Earth must not make any demands for Martian resources. 

The idea behind this position is simple – in order to develop a Martian extension of human civilization, it must be allowed to freely determine its fate, just as human beings did on Earth. Often the mission to establish human existence on Mars is projected as a “moral” position by governments and businessmen, in which case the liberation approach is the most principled execution of this goal. The reason why this idea doesn’t sit well with human society – and probably never will – is because colonizing Mars is, inherently, a selfish, human fantasy. This fantasy emerges from the desire to possess and profit – either in the form of capital or nationalist feats, or both. It is impossible to isolate the race to establish human settlements on different planets from geopolitical, social and economic processes existing on Earth; the maniacal pursuit of Mars is about scientific triumph as much as it is about a show of power.

The obsession to populate Mars, hence, represents the manifestation of the worst in humanity – never-ending curiosity coupled with little regard for ethical, sociopolitical, or economic consequences of the same. Instead of addressing the glaring issues that currently exist on Earth, there are strong desires to “advance” to the perceived next stage of human existence. While it can be debated whether occupying other planets will objectively be beneficial, the only thing that becomes painfully clear is that humanity is preparing to leap from one ill-fated land to the next – with little awareness or regard for the problems it will inevitably carry to the new worlds it explores. 

Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

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