Sunday, 28 August 2011

The missing link

The news is out – climate change reporting in the media has increased in the past couple of years. A continuing media monitoring study by the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) of the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, has posted the trends on their website. I saw it first on Mike Shanahan’s blog on the environment.

The CSTPR has produced graphs for global trends (2004-2011) and also for India (2000-2011), Japan (2005-2011), UK (2000-2011) and USA (2000-2011).

In the global graph, the curves for the continents look similar. Climate change reporting across the world has increased since the middle of 2006. The tallest spike in all the graphs is around end-2009, which correlates to an increase in reporting everywhere closer to the Fifteenth Conference of Parties (COP-15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held at Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009. There are a few smaller spikes after 2009.

The global trend on climate change reporting (source: CSTPR)

For the global study, Boykoff and Mansfield looked at climate change coverage in 50 newspapers. They used the keywords "climate change or global warming" over multiple search engines to get the number of stories.

Interestingly, after the spike related to the Copenhagen COP, there is a decline in climate change stories in North America and Europe. Newspapers in Oceania show consistent interest in the subject. In fact, since February the number of news reports have been steadily rising from Oceania. Maybe the flood in the eastern part of the continent and the drought in the western part is contributing to the interest in the subject. Though showing a decline in the recent months, Asia and Middle East have been keeping pace with coverage in Europe and North America in the past two years. The study records very few stories on climate change from Africa and South America.

The trend on climate change reporting in India (source: CSTPR)

For the Indian study, Boykoff has looked at four newspapers - Indian Express, the Hindu, Hindustan Times and the Times of India. The Hindu has had the highest coverage, followed by the Indian Express and Times of India. The Indian newspapers have had a peak corresponding to the Copenhagen COP. This is in keeping with the world trend.

There are a few other peaks in the Indian graph. I wrote to Dr Boykoff to confirm what was the reported during the other spikes in the Indian graph. They relate to the coverage around annual COPs.

Overall, the trend for India is clear. There are far more climate change stories in Indian newspapers since end-2005 when compared to the years 2000 to 2005.

The Indian graph caught my attention since it gave empirical evidence to a conversation I had with my environment journalist friend in India a few weeks ago. My friend and I go a long way. We both started writing on environment and development more or less at the same time - in the late 1980s-early 1990s. In 2001, both of us were invited to Helsinki to interview the Finnish Environment Minister, Ms Satu Hassi, before her maiden visit to India. He was representing the Indian Express and I the Hindu Business Line newspaper.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing with my friend the present environmental reporting situation in the Indian media. I have been away from the country for two years and needed to know the situation from him. He said that there has been an increased reporting on environment in India, and especially so on climate change. The CSTPR graph for India confirmed what he said.

The trend is not surprising for somebody who has followed climate change negotiations since the 1990s. India was not listed among the countries that had to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the first reporting period of 2008-2012. Even in the 1990s it could be foreseen that India would be under pressure to make binding commitments on making emission reductions in the second phase. This background went into all the discussions on emissions trading after the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. The sustained growth of the Indian economy in the past decade has ensured that the pressure to make India join has been getting stronger in every annual COP.

In the buildup to each COP, since the one held at Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2006, there have been international stories mentioning about Indian emissions in relation to the global picture. These cues have been picked up by Indian media and there are many stories on Indian policy position before, during and immediately after the COPs. The spikes on the Indian graph are not coincidental. 

In his blog Shanahan asks, “newspapers in developing countries are publishing more stories about climate change, but how much is locally relevant and how much is just recycled from the West?” 

In Indian media the dividing line is not between Western stories and Indian stories. The Indian media generates its own stories, and even when a story from the West is used it is contextualized for India. The dividing line is between the macro policy stories and the local stories on environment which do not link to the  larger climate change picture. 

Many of the local stories which have a link to climate change will not get counted in a study such as the one being done by CSTPR because they do not use the keywords (climate change or global warming) in them. Most of the stories on industrial pollution, forest rights, iron ore mining, wind energy and solar energy may not get reflected. 

All stories do not need to make a mention about climate change. But if they do then they will help building the concept of climate change among the readers. The issue of climate change and global warming are still vague for the uninitiated. That is still because the reader cannot link between the developments that he experiences in his day-to-day life to something related to a warming world and discussions that experts have in international meetings.

And herein lies the catch in the entire climate change narrative - the missing middle link. There are stories on global meetings and policies and there are local stories. How the macro links the micro and vice versa is mostly lost in the reporting. This, however, is not a gap with the reporting alone. Scientists themselves shy away from making the connection. Maybe the science on climate change is still evolving and it is not possible to make definitive statements.

At least in the recent years, journalists, scientists and policy makers have tried to talk about the linkage with climate change during major extreme weather events. In August 2010, for instance, there were two important stories that had caught global attention - floods in Pakistan and fires in Russia. The events were heavily reported.There were a few caveat-ridden hints to climate change in some stories and when interviewed scientists did make some indirect references.

Nearly 20 years after the UNFCCC came into being, people do talk about climate change. However, it is still a distant concept, which does not link to day-to-day realities. It will become tangible and palpable only when it reflects in local stories. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

A story about stories

A scientist reprimanded me once for asking for a story. “I do scientific research and am not in the business of telling stories,” he said, before ending the phone conversation.

Perhaps the use of the word “story” irritated him. A journalist uses the word so often that it becomes a creature in itself in newsrooms. Life is a story, and so is death, accident, tsunami, fashion show and the infidelities of a celebrity.

A scene from the movie In the Valley of Elah
However, I am sure journalism borrowed and used the word only because the concept of storytelling has been with humanity ever since civilization and culture started. I can imagine the editors of the newspapers of early days asking their reporters “do you have a story to tell our readers today?” But much before newspapers started there are records of cavemen telling stories about the wild animals they saw. Cave etchings testify to these storytelling sessions around the fire.

Growing up in a boarding school, we often reenacted the cave situation. Starting a fire inside the dorms would have got us expelled, so we exchanged stories while warming our hands over an electric stove to ward off the cold of the nights in the Nilgiris. There were new, fresh stories when we returned from holidays. Seven weeks of separation from friends was enough to generate creativity. Some amongst us told tall ones; the others were wannabes. Like the cavemen, we also recorded our succinct messages on the walls for posterity. A cryptic “PGP was here” scratched on the wall marked the tiger’s territory in our teenage social forest.

From time immemorial stories served the same purpose as our sessions around the electric stove. They brought people together. When domesticated agriculture started, communities sat together during that part of the day when they could not do any farm work and told stories.

In most societies storytelling evolved into an art. In Kerala, the Chakyar koothu tradition has evolved into a sophisticated performing art form. Not much unlike the present-day standup comedians, the Chakyars narrate mythological stories, interspersed with modern-day parallels.

Much of country music does the same. A guitar is not a difficult instrument to carry. It can give both rhythm and tone to music. The narrative, however, is not mythological. In a country of mixed histories that would not have been possible. The country songs instead dip into stories of yore, and talk about miners and railroad engineers.

Epics in all cultures tell the stories of the struggle of good against evil. They instill good values in societies.

It is because of the timelessness of stories in the epics that references are continuously made to them even in the present day. The movie In the Valley of Elah tells the simple story of a father wanting to find how his son died. The story of post-traumatic disorders suffered by young American soldiers returning from Iraq is weaved with the David-Goliath story of the Old Testament through a story-telling session between an old man and a young boy. The old man’s struggle for truth against a stonewalling army establishment is compared to David standing his ground and fighting Goliath.

It is said that the forced migration of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of wrath has parallels to the migration of Israelites from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. If Steinbeck linked to the past in this book, the story of Kino when he finds the magnificent stone in The pearl continues to find parallels to the plight of many poor countries when they find oil or minerals on their land.

Ernest Hemingway told simple love stories blended into the background of historical events. In A farewell to arms, Lieutenant Frederic Henry made love to Catherine Barkley, got her pregnant, crossed national borders as she was approaching labor and lost her in childbirth while the First World War raged in the background. In For whom the bell tolls Robert Jordan participates in the Spanish Civil War.

Memorable stories keep coming back to us. Even without being Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, we face the “to be or not to be” question almost every day of our lives. Have we not faced the situation like the salt tax inspector in Premchand’s Namak ka daroga where our principles are initially assaulted and then see us through difficult situations?

There are some story tellers who have the ability of explaining complex scientific theories through simple stories. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist, spoke about the theory of punctuated equilibrium of evolution through comparisons with the price and size of Hershey chocolate bars.

In the mid-1980s, when my father bought our first television set, life was simple. We had one channel – Doordarshan. We watched unending saga of Buniyad and Hum log, the activism of Rajani, and the class conflicts of Nukkad.

Twenty-five years later, we have more than a hundred channels. But even today, while surfing channels mindlessly, at times I come across one frame in a movie which holds my attention. The director succeeds to hold me with the story in that frame. I stay on to watch the whole movie.

“To state is to kill, to suggest create” is an old adage in literature. Good story tellers suggest. They persuade us to experience the situation through our senses.

Hemingway compares this with the dignified movement of an iceberg. In Death in the afternoon he writes: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Stories are the foundations on which human civilizations and cultures are built. They link the past with the present. They blur the boundaries of truth and fiction, like the itihasa-puranas of India. They put gods and men shoulder to shoulder in the same frame, and create a class of demi-gods such as Achilles and Hanuman.

Many a time in restaurants, I have seen someone telling a story to a group at a table. The table would have been far and the language spoken unintelligible to me. But seeing the body language of the raconteur and his audience, I have become a party to the story.

For young adults, the ability to tell a story well is a sure way to attract members of the opposite sex. In my days I tried. I never got a response. Today, I read my university-going son’s stories on his social media networks. And considering the number of responses he gets, I know he has succeeded in an area in which I failed. Unfortunately some genes skip a generation before expressing their traits.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

An urban rainforest

Death is a celebration in a rainforest. The nearby trees grow into the canopy space left by the dead one. Life grows from the dead trunk on the forest floor. Life disintegrates the dead trunk into the forest floor.

When I returned after two years to Chennai on a holiday this summer, the urban rainforest was thriving. New businesses had taken over old ones; malls had been constructed over iconic theaters; new flyovers had eased traffic at old junctions, but reassembled vehicles on different points on the same road.

I missed landmarks, since they were no longer there. I took wrong turns because I did not recognize the junctions.

It is not surprising that Chennai has grown, since in the last decade every city in India has been growing. Chennai is a late starter. Bangalore was the first to grow with the information technology boom, followed by Hyderabad. As a journalist and as an on-and-off resident of Chennai, I have seen the city change. But the change in the past two years was much more rapid than the earlier changes.

In the summer of 1992, when I had moved to Chennai, the bridge across the Cooum at Anna Nagar had just been constructed; at Jaffarkhanpet it was a causeway across the Adyar river; and the main road in Ashok Nagar passing to the airport was dimly lit and donkeys meditated Einstein-like for hours on the shoulder of this arterial passageway.

The next year was a drought year and I had worked on a story on water diviners. These are men and women who have the ability to detect the location of water underground and thereby predict at which point digging for a well will be most productive. I had seen them in action during my childhood in Kerala. In 1992, I interviewed the few remaining ones in Chennai. They said that their service was becoming less popular since apartment blocks were replacing independent houses. When you have 20 families occupying the land that earlier one family did, then it is not enough to know if there is water in the aquifer. You also need to know how much water the aquifer will yield. And this investigation needed a hydrogeologist. Chennai the overgrown town was turning into a city.

When I had moved into my apartment in Virugambakkam in 1997, it was the wild west of Chennai. Today, Nungambakkam has spread into Virugambakkam. Fair enough, since it is easier to have downtown at your door than to drive through the traffic.

We bought our monthly groceries from Joy Stores, and we had credit with him. Then Royal Shoppe, a supermarket, started. Joy Stores closed down. Now Food Bazar has come in our neighborhood. We have a line of credit with them – through Visa card. Food Bazar is part of Chandra Mall, which has in addition to the shopping complex a food court and a five-theater multiplex. All this stands on the ground where National Theater once was.

In the 1990s, the urban authority had a program called sustainable cities in Chennai. “Sustainable cities” is an oxymoron. No city can ever be sustainable, since these are centers of consumption. When a city draws its water needs from the far-off Krishna river, power from the national grid with power plants across the country, petroleum from Arabia, coal from Jharkhand, fruits and vegetables from the Nilgiris, and rice from Thanjavur and Nellore, it cannot call itself sustainable.

Cities are centers from where the economy moves. Cities are epicenters of power, the place from where policies are made and implemented in the hinterlands. Cities are insular – they consume without bothering to know where it comes from.

Chennai does not have the history of Madurai or Thanjavur. Located 75 km from Chennai, Kancheepuram has a far longer history than Chennai. It was the capital city of the Pallavas, one of the strongest kingdoms in peninsular India between the 6th and 9th Century AD. Hinduism’s Adi Sankara and Zen Buddhism’s Bodhidharma are said to have walked the dusty lanes of Kancheepuram in its glorious days.

Chennai’s history begins as the most important colonial base for the British in India in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the scramble for power in the 50 years after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the British outsmarted everybody else. Robert Clive, the general who enlarged the British presence during that period started life as a writer at Fort St. George in Chennai.

After the First War of Independence in 1857, the British Crown took over the administration of India. They started to create through English education a class of Indians who could administer the country on behalf of the British. The great Indian middle class was born in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata, the centers of British power. Chennai grew with the political and military power supported by an educational system. Those who had education and through it access to employment and capital, did not want others to enter their club. Chennai was educated, middle class and conservative, the trait had become the hallmark of the city.

Chennai benefitted from administrative infrastructure, early industrialization, railways and urbanization. Over the decades it became an important base for the manufacturing sector. The oil refinery added a set of downstream petrochemical industries. New car plants capitalized on the existing auto ancillary industries around the city.

When I started reporting from Chennai in 1992, I realized that the city’s strength was its manufacturing base. It prided itself for its IIT and the ingenuity of its engineer-managers who found solutions to intractable problems. For instance, starved for water in the drought of 1992-93, the refinery and the fertilizer plant bought secondary treated sewage from the Sewerage Board and treated it further to use for industrial processes.

With the information technology boom of the more recent years, the engineer-manager base of the city changed track from manufacturing to developing software. There is a critical difference though. Employment opportunities in the IT sector turned out to be far more egalitarian than in the manufacturing sector. The jobs in the manufacturing sector were less in number, and after these had been taken up by graduates from IITs, regional engineering colleges and government engineering colleges, there was not much left for anybody else. The hundreds and thousands of job openings in the IT sector could absorb graduates from even the engineering and other colleges that had barely managed to get accreditation.

More people earn better today; from a younger age. There is more money in the market and there are more hands to grab that money. Express Avenue has pipped Spencer Plaza as the place to hang out. The supplements of the Hindu and the Times of India are filled with advertisements screaming for my attention. Along with Diwali and Pongal, we also celebrate Akshaya Tritiya, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and whomsoever-can-increase-business day. The restaurant at the junction has a new name, new management. It used to be Safari, Pandian and Amaravathi, in that order of reverse history. Shopper’s Stop, Megamart, Pantaloons have all moved closer – for my shopping convenience.

Like the trees racing to get to that hole in the canopy left by the dead tree in the rainforest, businesses are constantly vying to grab the consumer’s attention. Some businesses die. Others grow from the dead ones. This Phoenix rises from another bird’s ashes.

Monday, 1 August 2011

A river of twists and turns

River Volta is to Ghana what Ganga is to India. It is the icon for the country.

Starting in Burkina Faso and running through the length of Ghana, the Volta twists and turns through the landscape. The name "Volta" (turn), was given by the Portuguese due to these twists. The Black Volta and the White Volta are the main tributaries, with a smaller Red Volta joining the White.

In 1965, the Ghanaian Government built the Akosombo Dam, thereby creating one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the world. The reservoir stretches from Akosombo to Yapei, 400 km north. The hydro-electric project at Akosombo provides power to Ghana, as well as Togo and Benin.

The ferry Dodi Princess does a day trip on weekends, taking tourists to an island in the reservoir and back to Akosombo.