Friday, November 30, 2018

Slow Travel: The Grand Tour

Maps of the US seem to be all over the media recently, a little patchwork quilt of reds and blues - a repeated reminder of the divisions between urban and rural, between coastal and central, between ethnic groups or income levels. But it’s one thing to see the maps of the country’s political inclinations, and quite another to get one’s head around the sheer vastness of these here United States.

Union Station in Washington, DC
I’ve written this from a train. This visit home, I decided to cut out the air travel and catch a few locomotives. Now, this isn’t an earth-shattering decision on my part. My move back home after college was by train. And I had crossed the country twice before, traveling from Washington, DC to Seattle. However, this was my first trip linking together so many rail rides – committing to a full loop (sorry southeastern US…), a “Grand Tour”, shall we say. It meant factoring in a solid 8.5 days in-transit. Inevitably, that makes you stop and think about how big the country is, how different each place is, and how many people call each home.

Just a quick history lesson – while the US wasn’t the first to pioneer railroads, it replicated and expanded upon the technology to an unparalleled extent. During the mid- to late-19th century, trains were the ultimate movers of people and products – capable of covering great distances quickly and relatively efficiently – but they were much more than that. As the name of the route from Seattle to Chicago – The Empire Builder – suggests, trains were also means of asserting national sovereignty and uniting geographically disparate regions. Railways served this purpose in countries like Italy and India, connecting a collection of autonomous city-states. In the US, railways helped assert the notion of manifest destiny and supported rebuilding in the post-Civil War reconstruction period. Between 1855-1871, the US government operated a land grant program for new rail companies to expand west (eventually totaling 730,000 sq km), encouraging settlement and development. Notably, the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad companies (note the link to my alma-mater…), running from San Francisco to New York City. Fortunes were made and lost in the rail business, and economies rose and fell.

With the expansion of motor vehicle and airplane use in the mid-20th century, trains became the less preferred method of moving people. Today, they still significantly contribute to US freight transport, most noticeably for heavier cargo traveling long distances. For instance, rail makes up 15% of US-North America transboundary freight transport (by value, second after trucks). But passenger rail has lagged behind other developed nations. While not surprising given how the country’s transportation network developed, the missed opportunity for the US to lead in rail innovation still saddens me.

Heading north in Central Oregon
Tears aside, there is much to be said from my Grand Tour. It took me across over 7,500 miles of the United States, including a southwestern route I had never been on before. Although I had vowed to use the time for an uninterrupted writing retreat, much of the daylight hours found me distracted by the landscape flying past. Here’s a brief overview:

Leg #1: Los Angeles to Oakland (12 hours)
My first time on this stretch of the Coast Starlight, I was surprised by how popular this route was, not to mention the number of vocal first-time train travelers. Filled with beautiful coastal views complemented by the rolling Central Valley scenery, the routes from LA are notorious for delays, not least because freight is king.

Leg #2: Oakland to Seattle (21 hours; 1,377 miles from LA)
During the winter, you lose all the northern California landscape to the night, but wake up to Oregon’s high desert with the dawn light. This remains my favourite route, perhaps because it invokes those comforting feelings of coming home. It’s also a pretty vibrant leg, with many passengers getting on and off for the shorter trips between San Francisco and Portland (or somewhere in between) and Portland to Seattle.

Skirting Glacier National Park as day breaks
Leg #3: Seattle to Chicago (45 hours; 2,206 miles)
This ride would be amazing in the summer, with some of the most impressive alpine window-watching! The tracks start along the Seattle waterfront, with views of the Pacific for the first hour or so. East-bound you miss the journey across the Cascade Mountains this time of year, but you catch the majestic peaks of Glacier National Park as the sun comes up. Looking at a map, it is also particularly interesting to see how the tracks skirt several Native American reservations, including: Colville, Blackfeet, Flathead, and Fort Belknap. It is a subtle reminder of the region’s tearful history.

While Montana takes an entire day to cross, the majority of which is comprised of sparsely populated prairie (there are less than 7 people per square mile in the state). North Dakota flew by under the cover of night. As the second day broke on Minnesota, we had a reminder of heightened border security, when a patrolman came onboard to ask passengers’ nationalities. Not to sound like a broken record, but people really do use the train! This seemed to be mostly short-hauls, and I expect the train is more convenient for some more rural areas, where major airports are hours drives away. The demographics leaned slightly older, some of whom I overheard discussing their dislike of flying and prefer to avoid the hassle of airports if they have time. Ehem, #32goingon70

Along the Mississippi is apparently the best place to spot eagles…
Leg #4: Chicago to New York City (20 hours; 959 miles)
Chicago is the hub that nearly all cross-country routes go through, and this time proved trains to be oddly reliable: with some snowstorms hitting the northeast and flight/bus cancellations, the trip was packed with people who had opted for the train.

Leg #5: New York City to Washington, DC (3 ½ hours; 226 miles)
Much better than the bus. Period.

Leg #6: Washington, DC to Chicago (18 hours; 764 miles)
Passing through Chicago again, with a few hours to catch up with a friend (or family).

Leg #7: Chicago to Los Angeles (43 hours; 2,256 miles)
As my first time on the Southwest Chief, this leg of the journey was fascinating and quite a contrast from the northern routes. Deserts, canyons, and glimpses of the Rockies – after that first night, it soon became clear we were not in Kansas anymore (which we crossed while sleeping). There were also little reminder of the strong industrial ties to railways – passing offshoots to mines and cars full of coal, destined for ports or other parts of the country.

Coal cars in Colorado
After spending over 160 hours on trains in the span of five weeks, I made it back to beginning, to leave you with a few final thoughts on taking the slow travel option. 1) This was definitely a lesson in Geography, a refresher in neighboring States and overland distances, while tracking that little blue dot inch along my phone’s map. 2) I’m continually surprised at how quickly the time flies. While three days seems like a long time to get from point A to point B, in the scheme of things it isn’t. And when you travel this way, everything tends to feel just a little bit less urgent. 3) Opting for the train has to be more than low-carbon travel. In Europe, there is really no comparison: the default electric high-speed rail produces about a tenth (or less) of the greenhouse gas emissions of flying. However, this is ‘murica! Amtrak trains emit about ~0.45lb CO2/passenger mile (the NE corridor is at 0.37lb CO2 because it runs on electricity rather than diesel), which is comparable or slightly higher than a non-stop long-distance flight (though taking a coach is by far the greenest, though perhaps less enjoyable, option). While sometimes it is the more carbon-friendly option, there are also plenty of other reasons to go via rail (did you see that mountain?).

On that note, anyone interested in a combined rails and trails trip? Until then…

Shameless plug - more photos from the Grand Tour on Instagram.
Credit: Points with a Crew Blog

Friday, November 16, 2018

Food for Thought on Climate Change

It feels as though every time I read the news these days, it seems like the world is falling apart. Whether that's because of the political climate or the actual climate, well, it's hard to tease apart sometimes. It's hard to stomach the actions and inflammatory language of intolerance and prejudice, openly condoned by supposed 'leaders'. But it's also increasingly terrifying to imagine the future world we seemed to have built for ourselves. Only about a month ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released one of its semi-regular reports on the state of our understanding of climate change - the anticipated impacts based on potential scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions. While the past few reports have stressed the importance of a low-carbon pathway forward, the conclusions of this report reached a new level of concern and urgency. To avoid catastrophic warming - 1.5 degrees Celsius - we have about a decade to get our act together as a planet (though a few countries really need to pull their weight).

Now, it's not like we're completely devoid of ideas how to do this. Most of the world has made the important step of recognising climate change is an important issue and pledging to do something (albeit, too little) to halt it. Alternative energy technologies have made amazing progress in terms of efficiency and affordability. Private companies and local government alike have taken steps to curb their emissions and adopt environmentally-friendly practices. While these disparate actions are important contributions and make a statement, we need something bigger and more concerted. And we will have to sacrifice now so as not to suffer too greatly in the future. 

So a couple of weeks ago now, I went to a seminar on climate change beliefs and behaviours. The speaker Neil Lewis Jr of Cornell University raised a key point of debate - should those interested in climate-related behaviours focus on individuals or policy? The scale of the problem - and the fact our atmospheric pollution is a massive tragedy of the commons - necessitates broad sweeping changes likely instigated by policy. But without public pressure to elect officials that will push for those policies, and some willingness to make the sacrifices (I like to think of them more as opportunities...) those policies would require, we're not going to get anywhere ( for the new congress!). 

Now Dr. Lewis noted that people often agree that something needs to be done, but not that it must be done by them. So in theory policy change is acceptable, but when it might raise costs (e.g. the carbon fee on Washington State's ballot), then it's a no-go. But people can and do change their behaviour, and perhaps the thinking around meat consumption is a good current example. According to a recent report by by the UN, dropping meat and dairy from our diets would contribute substantially to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This isn't really news - I mean it made the news - even right after arriving in Australia, I reflected on some recent studies on the topic of meat consumption and environmental problems. While I definitely don't expect everyone to jump ship and turn vegan overnight, people are generally eating less meat and younger generations are more likely to go vegetarian. 

And over the years, we've learned a thing or two about what influences people to change ingrained behaviours. Psychologists have demonstrated there are a number of structural and psychological barriers to changing behaviours - not the least of which is that facts don't seem to matter much when they fly in the face of strongly held views (#fakenews). A crucial point here is that motivations vary between people and backgrounds - so for food choices climate, the environment, or even animal rights (which is sometimes but not always related to the environment) aren't always forefront. But health and costs also may be deciding factors. To me, this suggests we need to do a better job of framing, and in the case of climate change actions doing so in terms of so-call 'co-beneits'!

As a final point, I just want to highlight that climate change mitigation presents challenges from behavioural psychology that don't apply as much to shifting diets, namely timing and proximity. Regarding the first, even William Nordhaus, who pioneered early work on discount rates for climate change action and one of this year's Nobel prizes in economics, has warned that it's too late to wait. However, discounting is very much in-line with how people approach planning and problem-solving. The future is distant, and very much future-self's problem. The immediate costs seem far greater than the avoided ones months, years, decades down the line - let's just say we prefer instant gratification and hate the feeling of loss. For the second, researchers have noted that there is a disparity between countries that emit the most greenhouse gases and those that will suffer most from the impacts of climate change. The U.S., for instance, has started to experience some of the effects with increased wildfire risks and greater intensity storms; but for the most part, the impacts are still this geographically distant phenomenon that don't directly affect many people's lives. Again, psychological studies have shown that people are much more likely to believe in and act on things related to personal experiences. 

Ok, so at the end of the day, where does that leave us? Lots of super smart people are grappling with this question. But as with many problems related to common-pool resources (the atmosphere is everywhere!), it often requires some sort of rules in place to govern how people use it. Although it seems like there are so many causes we can be vocal and active about these days, climate change is not one that can wait, as it threatens the very existence of life on this planet.

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