Sunday, September 2, 2018

Growing through Travel

Typical night-time shot of central Jakarta
Jakarta is not my favourite city. It's a sprawling mass of over 10 million people, with all the associated grime, air pollution, and traffic. But it's also a fascinating and vibrant city, suffering through the growing pains of rapid development, melding eastern and western cultures. You find a stark juxtaposition - luxury and wealth side-by-side poverty and struggle - that make hard questions of power and justice up-close and personal. I've only ever been a passer-through, spending no more than a week at any given time, confronting the frenetic energy of the city. Yet, I think over the years, travel has built up my capacity to stomach - even sometimes crave - these challenging situations. This is a bit tardy, but feeds one of my favourite annual traditions of reflection on how travel contributes to one's development as a global citizen. 

I started writing this post in mid-July, the day I turned 32. While it doesn't seem like much has changed in the last ten years or so, comparing my current worldview and approach to life to that of 22-year-old me, we are so very different. I would attribute much of this moulding of a human being to travel and the kinds of experiences that certain types of travel engender. Perhaps travel is so apparent this birthday, because it took place en route. Or perhaps it is because the past twelve months have been so transient. Between Colombia, the US, Indonesia and Singapore (and not just once...), New Zealand, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Malaysia, not much time was left for good Ol' Brissie. But maybe the topic seems so salient in part due to witnessing the attitudes and political perspectives so visible these days, which might relate to a lack of interaction with different people and cultures (among other factors).
Countryside of North Java, about 90 minutes from Jakarta

Travel, I think, influences two elements of the human experience: insularity (and fear) and reality (including empathy). Insularity feels particularly close-to-home at the moment. There is a general sense of singularity - the particularly abrasive 'America First' mentality - evident in such failures in fostering multi-lingualism or developing geographic knowledge of the world. And while few Americans deign to leave the country for holidays, those that do remain within comfortable confines, most frequently visiting Mexico, Canada, and the UK. It's not just about how many people travel (a bit over 1/3 have passports...), but also the expectations that follow. There was an interesting article at the beginning of this year about the inequities in ability to travel internationally, just by virtue of one's nationality, and the expectation from westerners that they can and should be able to travel, safely and wherever. But further, while these expectations persist,countries close their borders to others.
Removed from the chaos of Jakarta's street-level, rooftop bars
offer luxurious escape from reality

The second thing I think travel brings to one's world-view and general perspective, is a dose of reality - and perhaps addresses some of the lack of empathy that feeds our insularity. A recently-published interview with the late Anthony Bourdain really highlighted how travel cultivates this empathy, disabuses assumptions, and can humble. He argued, "... the more you travel the more you look inwards. Mark Twain said travel is fatal to prejudice. You try to put yourself in a place where you can see things, and let things happen. Where you’re not always in charge, you’re not in control, [you need a] willingness to go with the flow, and understand, you know, you’re in somebody else’s house, somebody else’s country. You’re not in charge ... when you see people, again and again, how much they can do with very little, how people struggle and persist, you know… Look, I believe in some basic virtues, you know? Mercy, humility, curiosity, empathy. Mr. Bourdain hit the nail on the head - travel that forces you to confront the stark realities of the world also helps you see the humanity. Going back to Jakarta, I think that the cumulative travel experiences have been important for acknowledging both the positives and negatives in such a city. Particularly, neither diminishing the hard parts nor letting fear win out (which, 22-year-old me probably would have done).

So I'll end my musing on that. Just to clarify, I recognize that not everyone has the means, freedom, or inclination to travel. This post is not meant to disparage those who don't, but rather highlight the benefits I have found through such experiences. It's possible to stay open-minded and empathetic without globetrotting. Diversity and hardship are not necessarily a world-away, but often right on our doorsteps. 

"To mistakes. To mistakes, because that’s the most important part of travel." - Anthony Bourdain

Friday, May 11, 2018

Lessons from an Empty Stomach
This morning I woke up with a nice a cup of tea and some avocado on kalamata olive toast. It seemed extravagant after five days of sliced banana on basic wholemeal. And while I can't say my calorie count was dangerously low over this past week of Living Below the Line, I still seemed to be perpetually hungry (and there was the whole lack of coffee...). Not only that, but thoughts of my next meal filled most waking hours. 

This isn't surprising. If your basic needs - food, water, shelter - aren't met, it's difficult to think of other more frivolous things. Abraham Maslow got at this idea in his 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation". Also referred to as "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs", his theory outlines five levels of needs: physiological, safety, love & belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Deficiency in a lower level of needs causes anxiety, and means an individual will prioritise fulfilling those needs first and foremost. "Where will I get my next meal" would supercede "how well am I doing at work" or "should I hang out with friends tonight". Chronic deficiency of these basic needs can ultimately hinder people from reaching their potential, and society as a whole from being more enlightened and just (see the "growth" tier: self-actualisation). And, as one can imagine, things like poverty and conflict can lead to perpetual loops in the bottom rungs of the hierarchy.
Cinner & Polnac (2004) on coral reef conservation
This hierarchy also offers some insight if we care about the environment and conservation. Particularly in the early years, "fortress conservation" dominated the agenda. This largely entailed putting tracks of land - say, tropical rainforest - under protection, kicking out any people that lived in the area, and barring entry and use. Besides this being morally questionable, it also often fails to protect the area of interest. This isn't to say that we should get rid of all protected areas - save Yosemite! -  but rather that the needs of people living around and reliant on protected areas must be considered. Studies have shown that socio-economic factors influence people's perceptions of conservation, and thus need to be accounted for to develop appropriate strategies. You can imagine that someone with an income too low to purchase food, but who lives near a forest with deer and other tasty critters, might prioritise his need to eat and feed a family over the value of an intact protected forest. Some of the strategies to address this tension have included buffer zones around protected areas, where local people can harvest non-timber products like honey or bamboo; and community-managed marine and forest areas, which allows people to use certain resources to meet their needs while fostering the motivation and capacity to sustainably manage them. These, too, don't always work out as planned, but they are steps toward more just and equitable conservation that address humanity's hierarchy of needs.

Thanks to all the support from friends and family during the week, and for contributing to the Oaktree Foundation's mission! It made all the difference (and contributed to the 'esteem' level of my needs).

Read More:
How just and just how? A systematic review of social equity in conservation research - Me, Liz Law, Nathan Bennett, Chris Ives, Jess Thorn, and Kerrie Wilson, 2018 (open access)

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Who Walks the Line?

We joke sometimes about being starving graduate students, or the poverty of a 'research higher degree'. While most of us discussing this topic have never experienced true, chronic hunger, and have never reached the point where financial woes eclipse every other aspect of life, it is true that 'what is poor' is not entirely straightforward. 

At the international level, major development organisations have worked to set poverty lines that delineate the point at which people across the world can't meet their basic needs. Countries individually define their poverty lines, and then the poorest countries dictate the international poverty line. This line set by the World Bank stood at $1.90 per person per day as of 2015 (based on 2011 data). How the poverty line is calculated - based on incomes and costs of goods, not to mention incomplete data - has faced its fair share of critiques over the years and more recently. But the concept of a poverty line itself, and whether countries are considered "developing", have also been called into question.
I recently came across an interesting discussion on tiers of income, and how those may be more informative and reflective of reality than a simple cut-off for those who are considered poor. This approach characterised four different classes of income, and how many people around the world fall into these categories. At level 1, about 1 billion people live on less than $2 per day, which translates into transport by foot, cooking over a fire, and fetching water with buckets. Around 3 billion people live on between $2-8 per day, and may get around on bicycle, use gas for home-cooking, and send their children to school. At $8-32 per day, we see around 2 billion people who have running water, might own a car or motorbike, and possibly have a refrigerator and electricity. Finally, the remaining 1 billion people live on more than $32 per day, and they typically own cars, have running hot water, and have been able to complete at least a high school education. This gives a sense of what people can afford, but what the knock-on consequences might be - such as having electricity makes it more feasible to study at home and progress in school. Taking this further step is in line with thinking of poverty as multi-dimensional. Someone's income is only part of the story. Access to services - like medical and education, supportive social environment, and relative sense of wellbeing can all contribute to an individuals' perceptions of themselves and poverty.

This week, I'm not giving up my comfortable living conditions (running water AND electricity), my postgraduate education and healthcare, or my perception of overall welfare. But I am eating on AU$2 per day, while garnering support for Oaktree, a youth-led organization that aims to educate and empower youth in the Asia Pacific as a way to alleviate poverty. Check out my fundraising page and keep tabs on this year's Live Below the Line challenge.

What happened during LBL in...
2017 - Below the Line in Trumplandia?
2016 - Bad Accounting: Who Pays for Our Food?
2015 - Starting a Conversation on Hunger
2014 - Frugal Foodie on a British Pound: The Challenge Ahead
2013 - Loving the Lentils
2012 - What the World Eats

Friday, April 27, 2018

How Just, and Just How?

 It’s a long-standing ambition, for society to reach some sort of just and equitable ideal. What that means in practice differs, depending on the time, place, and people involved. But it does seem that meeting basic human rights and needs and the notion of ‘fairness’ are prevalent across discussions of social justice and equity. Things like poverty and hunger connect pretty clearly to equity. For conservation, however, it’s a bit fuzzier. In theory, conservation is driven by values around making the world a better place. Yet we also have to ask ourselves - who gets to decide how conservation happens, where, and who benefits or suffers. 

A few other researchers and I recently thought we’d try to get a better sense of how research in conservation has so far approached equity - especially how it’s defined, measured, and evaluated in studies. We sifted through a mound of papers, synthesizing information from the 138 that considered how social equity and conservation fit together. Besides a general upward trends in the amount of research explicitly on this topic (and alphabet soup present as SDGs, REDD, and CBD have become prominent), there are also some trends in what and how.

Equity is 3D. According to people who spend a whole lot of time thinking about equity, we should consider not only the distribution of costs and benefits, but also the procedure of making things happen (e.g. who gets to make decisions) and the recognition for rights, types of knowledge, cultural factors, and the like. The conservation literature has often defaulted to analysing distributional equity, adopting a stance of equity as egalitarian or fair allocation of costs and benefits and capitalizing on concrete and easy-to-measure things … like money. And what is considered ‘equitable’ may be a bit fuzzy or obscured, but making it very clear is essential for keep tabs and evaluating progress.

While the limited view of equity adopted by conservation and insufficient definition are important things to recognise, there are other lessons we can take away from the state of our current equity and conservation research. If we backup and consider why researchers study conservation and equity in the first place, we often see a utilitarian perspective, this romantic notion that social equity and conservation success go hand-in-hand. However, there may in fact be trade-offs between social equity and conservation (or even between those different dimensions of equity). In both research and practice we need to be more critical of our underlying motivations and examine more closely the knock-on effects of any given action.

Like a lot of the research in conservation, there are also some discrepancies between who is carrying out the research and where conservation is taking place. For example, very little research is happening on conservation and equity in Europe or North America, but much of the research is coming from institutes in those regions. This makes it a bit hard to tell how much studies reflect the researchers’ own notions of equity or what is relevant to the local context.

I guess the burning question is still, is conservation equitable? Well, it’s complicated (and inconclusive). We found that studies reported negative or mixed outcomes - so conservation less frequently resulted in positive equity results. But all those elements above (and many more) will influence these endpoints.

If you found this all super-intriguing, you can get even more detail from our review paper in Environmental Research Letters! AND, while we’re on the topic of social equity … During Live Below the Line this May, I’m raising funds again for this awesome foundation that works to end poverty and empower youth. Definitely fighting injustice!

Friedman, R.S., Law, E.A., Bennett, N.J., Ives, C.D., Thorn, J.P.R., & Wilson, K.A. 2018. How just and just how? A systematic review of social equity in conservation research. Environmental Research Letters, 13(5). Doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aabcde 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Fungus Among Us: Fantastical Yeasts

Bread. It's one of the most basic of foods - 15% of the world's calorie intake comes from wheat - and also one of the oldest processed foods. Even before the advent of agriculture, people realised they could turn ground grain into a leavened loaf (as well as alcoholic beverages...). However, they likely didn't know about the little microbes causing their bread to rise. For these fermentation processes to happen, we need our little fungal friends, namely Saccharomyces cerevisiae (and its various strains). And that, my friends, is what we will talk about today - yeast.

This past week, I skipped yoga to listen to a researcher from the University of Queensland regale us with tales about catching and cultivating local yeast species and strains and brewing beer. These funghi are important in the brewing process, feeding on sugars in the grain, converting them to carbon dioxide (fizzy!) and ethanol (alcohol). Different species and strains metabolize sugars in different ways, affecting the flavour (like acidity) and texture (like carbonation). But all this talk of yeasts, got me thinking about bread, and the microbiota involved in my weekly bake.

Now when you buy those little packets of dried yeast, or any bread from the grocery store, you're getting a bountiful monoculture of S. cervisiae. Sourdough starters are more likely a slightly untamed backyard garden - a mix of yeast species (typically Candida milleri, S. exiguous, S. cerevisiae, and C. humilis) and lactobacillus bacteria. These little guys, naturally found in our surrounding environment, will colonize a flour and water mixture left out for a few days (after they've fought off the less deliciously fragrant microbes). When mixed with flour and water and used to make bread dough, a bit of biochemistry takes place. The lactobacilli convert sugars (maltose in this case) to lactic and acetic acids, giving the bread a slightly sour taste. And the yeast do the same thing they do in beer-brewing ...  metabolise sugars (sucrose, and others) to make ethanol and carbon dioxide, giving the bread additional depth of flavour and some lift.

This may seem a bit high-brow, and sourdough bread has definitely developed a reputation as the new hip thing. But it is also commonplace and central to daily life. As a critical component of many diets around the world, the cost of bread, and the essential grain ingredients, is a useful indication of the state of a country and the welfare of its people. We've seen in the past how the rising price of bread can play a role in social unrest and protest. While some of us may get pre-occupied dwelling on the fascinating microcosm within this tasty baked good, it is important not to forget that bread is at its core sustenance - wheat is the primary food of 35% of world's population. I'll be trying to subsist for five days, with mostly this fabulous fermented grain serving as the basis of my diet. Please join me for another year of Live Below the Line and contribute to the Oaktree Foundation.

Read more:
The Biology of ... Sourdough - Discover Magazine 2003
Let Them Eat Bread - My Munchable Musings 2015
Secrets of Sourdough - The Atlantic 2017