Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Dose of Subdued Earth Optimism

Somewhere in the world it is still Earth Day. Dating back to 1970, this now global celebration marked the heightened awareness of manmade threats to the natural environment. The safeguards introduced at that time - the clean air, clean water, and endangered species acts in the USA - have faced decades of opposition from major industrial interests and now (not even 50 years later) the possibility of scaling back or disintegration. In what many of us would consider a more enlightened age - we have been studying environmental phenomena for decades - it's astounding that there is still this war on nature and the crucial services that it provides and which humanity depends on.*

Fishermen in Ghana negotiate rubbish-ridden beaches
But I would argue that much of the environmental activism comes from a place of privilege (I include myself here), and I wonder how much we are successfully giving voice to those whose health, happiness, and livelihood are much more intimately tied to the condition of the natural environment. Sure, we all suffer if the air is unbreathable, and eventually most everywhere in the world will suffer the negative consequences of climate change, but oftentimes the hardest hit by polluted drinking water or habitat conversion or extensive droughts are those least capable of taking action or raising an outcry.

I bring this issue up on Earth Day, because I'm still of the opinion that the poor and marginalized make it into environmental discussion too infrequently ... and in development circles environmental health doesn't come in as a necessity that underlies food, water, income, and other usual indicators of poverty. A recent article in the Conversation called this issue into focus, introducing the concept of "environmentally-adjusted measures of multidimensional poverty". It suggests that we are actually overestimating the impact of increases in GDP and other econo-centric measures of growth and progress. This is not to say we shouldn't celebrate the strides made in reducing poverty and hunger (or as #EarthOptimism is highlighting, in conservation), but we should also be wary of getting too complacent and continue to strive toward recognizing how interconnected is the wellbeing of nature and humanity.

This blog post is just a week before participating in the Live Below the Line Challenge. If you have a moment, please consider donating to the charity sponsoring this effort to raise awareness and support education.

Live Below the Line 2017 Posts:
Related post: Valuation for Poverty Alleviation (2015) 

* Not to mention an increasing combativeness towards the scientific evidence that supports the importance of the planet's natural systems.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Going Hungry in the 21st Century

Back in 2002, the United Nations decided that by 2015 the proportion of people who suffer from hunger should be cut in half from 1990 levels. We nearly met this target of a basic human right, alongside the other Millennium Development Goals, yet almost 800 million people (over 10% of the world's population) are still undernourished. In the next iteration, the UN set its sights higher with the Sustainable Development Goals, aiming to end world hunger by 2030. While this seems like a no-brainer in this day and age - how many people would argue that people shouldgo hungry?? - there are a number of reasons unrelated to how many calories farmers produce for why we continue to see chronic hunger and malnutrition, as well as bouts of acute famine. This post touches on two factors and specifically famine, as part of the lead-up to the Live Below the Line challenge in May (and I'm also raising funds for the awesome organization Oaktree, so check it out!).

So let's start with what should be a relatively straight-forward and objective topic - weather and a changing climate. Food shortages have been attributed to periods of drought, severe rainfall, and pests for millennia. Rainfall changes might spread diseases that wipe out crops, as prompted the Irish potato famine in 1845. The failure of the monsoon in India has taken blame for famines at the end of the 19th century. And while anticipated overdrawn aquifers and more intense storms may undermine crop and livestock production, our fisheries that feed the world's poorest are at risk from rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification. Even countries like Australia, with a particularly vulnerable agriculture sector, are not exempt from the impacts. Yet politically stable, wealthy nations have the capacity - that many other countries do not - to minimize acute events that often cause famines by importing food and sending aid to their affected populations.

This leads us to the topic of conflict, which can be both cause and result of food scarcity. This isn't news; back in the early 1990's, researchers argued that conflict and civil strife were the prime suspects instigating famines. A recent article in The Conversation captures the sentiment that famines don't "just happen", but are driven by particular social and political circumstances.
So enter 2017, where there is "high risk of famine in some areas of north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen because of armed conflict, drought and macro-economic collapse," according to the Food Security Information Network (FSIN). In the coming year, widespread food insecurity is expected to also pose problems in Syria*, Iraq, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. The region experienced considerable political discontent in the early 2010's, some say spurred on by rising food prices. But here again we encounter the the question of whether food shortages (driven by adverse weather, etc.) provoke conflict or the other way around. An article in The Economist argues that war and violence simmering in these countries made it next to impossible for farmers to cultivate crops to feed themselves and their neighbors, as well as for food aid and supplies to cross border lines. Many of the possible 2017 famines fall into the "avoidable" bucket.

Hunger may seem worlds away for many of us, but it is truly naive to believe that the instability and unrest that is both a contributor and a result of food insecurity is isolated, without far-reaching implications in terms of political security, counter-terrorism, and global food production. In some ways, countries "worlds away" are culpable; for example, the US provided weapons to the Saudis then used to stoke the war in Yemen. It is withdrawing aid to vulnerable regions in Africa. And finally, several countries facing famine are also on the proposed travel ban in the US, a cruel and unfeeling move, but also one way of seeding desperation and resentment. 

It's clear that governments are not working in favour of the health and prosperity of their populations, so its more important than ever that we try to support efforts that are attempting to improve the human condition (and ultimately the environment on which we rely). 

*I should note that most of this post was written before the most recent attacks in Syria, and the situation there has most certainly escalated to nothing short of a travesty, tragedy, and serious human rights violation!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Below the Line in Trumplandia?
I'm not sure where to begin; it's been a while (and feels like longer...). This blog post is actually my first for 2017 - a testament to the craziness of the last three months. It's also creeping dangerously into annual Live Below the Line territory. For those of you just joining us, each year since 2012 I've participated in this challenge, where for one week you eat on a budget at the poverty line and raise money for a charity working on issues related topics. Strikingly, the topics on tap each year - poverty, income inequality, food security - have stayed relatively stable. While this suggests that we're just not getting it right when addressing these insidious problems, the injustice of it all makes me increasingly frustrated.

What do I mean? Well for one, the most poor and vulnerable have the least say over decisions that could make their lives better. What is happening in the US right now is an excellent example of how politics can rapidly turn the tide. As president, Obama passed healthcare reform, tax benefits for the lower income brackets, and ramped up anti-poverty spending (e.g. food stamps), arguably doing more to reduce inequality among Americans than any previous administrations. It's hard to imagine any of this being particularly unpalatable, and yet barely a breath after power shifts we see tax breaks for the wealthy and budget cuts to social support programmes. According to an Atlantic article, "it will be much hard being poor in America"...while the government doesn't directly control economic growth, its policies determine "how growth is shared."'s just the short of it. There are quite a few worries about what the Trump presidency will mean for the poor further afield. At present, the US contributes 22% to the UN budget and 29% of global peacekeeping efforts. An 'America First' mentality and a budget proposal that slashes foreign aid expenditures may have serious consequences for some of the most impoverished in the world. It's still not really America first, though, is it? Is rolling back environmental regulations that hold companies accountable for water and air pollution, easing protections on endangered species, and flat-out denying combating climate change is worth a nickle really making America a better place for the majority of citizens. Because environmental degradation often disproportionately affects the marginalized and minorities, this weakening of the environmental protection is expected to have implications for social justice

While I suppose society simply weathers the ebb and flow of political inclinations, we must acknowledge the collateral damage. Live Below the Line runs from 1-5 May this year in Oz, supporting Oaktree, a youth-led organization that aims 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...

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

I think all of us can agree that 2016 had a bit of a rough run. It was politically charged; it was tragic and sorrowful; it was also beautiful in many ways; and I hope it will open the door to some much needed healing in the year to come. Holding with tradition for the eighth year running, I put together a bit of a recap of the past year seen through the eyes of My Munchable Musings.

This year seemed particularly replete with environmental and social grievances, as if the Anthropocene - the age of Homo sapiens - had finally come into its own. Despite international efforts to overcome poverty and injustice, we are still battling inequalities reminiscent of bygone eras. This was my fifth year Living Below the Line, contemplating the trade-offs the food insecure face in terms of costs, calories, and nutrition. Perhaps a product of my own news filters - thanks selection bias and algorithms for reinforcing our bubbles - but there also seemed to be considerable coverage of human-induced environmental problems and social justice issues. Imminent climate change catastrophes made late headlines, victims of environmental exploitation made small waves, and the world watched rather silently (or preoccupied) loss of human rights and dignity. Thanks Twitter for making the world's atrocities so much more accessible (and Storify for allowing me to rehash it all).

Going back through my actual blog posts from the year, however, there seemed to be much more to celebrate. In true Munchable fashion, we took a bit of a tour through through the beauty of biodiversity and food, at the intersection where art and agriculture collide. About halfway through the year, a challenge to compile a week of photos depicting beauty in nature made its way around the interwebs. A lunchtime conversation spurred a post on the amazing tuber diversity. And of course I could not go a full year without pontificating on the joys inherent in the art of bread-baking. These may seem like small potatoes, but to me they seem more like beacons of hope amidst stormy weather.
Finally, this year saw many developments here at command central. At the end of January, I left the damp of England after 2.5 years and moved to Australia in order to continue the over-education process. On the two month journey between the two Commonwealth countries, I made a second transcontinental rail trip to see immediate family in the US, followed by a first foray into Southeast Asia (including some history lessons and another train trip). Starting the PhD has helped me finally come to terms with my identity NOT as an ecologist, but as intentionally straddling disciplines (good luck with that...).

Mid-way through the year, I did some stock-taking as a 30th birthday exercise. Almost as a physical reminder of this aging, I proceeded to tear my ACL and menisci (...lesson to all that gymnastics takes hours of training, particularly when you are no longer 17). To ensure the year ended on a high note, I scheduled in my first surgery and overnight stay at a hospital the week before Christmas. I suppose out of necessity, the new year will be one of recovery, and not just for me, but hopefully more broadly from all the cruelty, divisiveness, and hatred that has taken place recently. Here's to a more enlightened 2017.

Read Years Passed

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Light Six Candles

The eve of December 24th not only marked ubiquitous Christmas observances, but also the commencement of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Chanukah. It is not a particularly important holiday, augmented and shaped into its contemporary form to align with holiday celebrations around Christmas and New Years. But the holiday itself commemorates two events that

First of all, Chanukah is about a battle victory. While postured as another tale of the underdog overcoming oppression against all odds, it actually recounts the rebellion of a moderate fanatic group of Jews - the Maccabees - against assimilation into the growing Hellenic civilization during the second century BCE. On the one hand the holiday celebrates the survival of The Temple (for another couple hundred years, that is) and associated religious observances, while on the other hand it is shrouded in violence and bloodshed. Some historians suggest this takeover of power led to corruption, which ultimately resulted in the rise in Roman rule in Jerusalem.

But we don't learn about that in Hebrew school. Instead, we learn about the second more mythological rationale for celebrating Chanukah. As the midrash goes, after battle the Maccabees confronted a sad state of affairs in the Temple. The supply of oil for the eternal lamp was enough to last only one day, and yet it kept the flame fed for eight. A miracle! As such, we observe the holiday by lighting candles for eight nights, eating potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly donuts (sufganiyot) fried in oil, and playing tops with the acronym נס גדול היה שם (a great miracle happened there).

While not a fight for oil itself (more like religious ideology and political power), it is interesting to me the juxtaposition between conflict and fuel, which is an issue of great concern even today. In Indonesia, oil palm plantations are expanding with a vengeance, set to double in output in the next decade. But this influx of large, often international companies has instigated a growing number of conflicts with local communities, where the underdog is still losing out to the seductive powers of money and influence.

A bit closer to home for many of us, this last quarter has drawn attention to the ongoing struggle of Native Americans on their traditional lands. Protests around plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to transverse sacred sites and important waterways now include not only members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, but other activists and military veterans. This show of solidarity has so far yielded some success in battle, but the war won't so easily be won with such a corrupting force as this liquid gold.

So while frying up some sweets and savouries in a more innocuous oil, perhaps dedicate some thought to our contemporary conflicts over oil (in its many forms), religion, and power. There are more than enough to last you eight nights.

Sourdough Sufganiyot (modified from Chef in Disguise)
1/2 cup happy sourdough starter (I fed my 200% hydrated plain flour in prep)
2 tbs coconut oil, melted
1/3 cup coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
2 cups plain flour
1 tbs chickpea flour/besan
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

2/3 -1 cup smooth jam
~500ml vegetable oil for frying

  1. Start by sifting the flours, baking soda, and salt together. Add in the sugar.
  2. In a separate container, mix starter, oil, milk, and extract together. 
  3. Combine all ingredients and then gently knead until they are integrated well. Pack away in a tupperware and stick in the fridge overnight. If you want to fry them up on the day, let them sit for a couple of hours covered. Similarly, take the dough out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before you want to start frying.
  4. Roll out dough to a thickness of about 2cm. Use a round cookie cutter (or an empty can, for instance) to cut out circles of dough. Allow to rest on parchment for about 15 minutes. 
  5. Meanwhile, heat oil a few centimeters deep over medium-high heat (I used a wok, which worked well). You know it's ready by placing a small piece of dough in and seeing when it begins to become active and float. Prepare a tray lined with paper towel or clean newspaper to drain.
  6. Dunk a few dough rounds in the oil, using a slotted spoon to to flip over when the underbelly starts to become golden. Then fish out and place on the paper. When it's slightly cool, coat lightly in cinnamon sugar. 
  7. Fill a pastry bag (or ziplock) sporting a decorating tip with the jam. When the donut has cooled, puncture with a chopstick about halfway through, then pipe in the jam. Now you're ready to serve!
More Chanukah Oil:
The Hannukah Story - New York Times 2009