Friday, June 20, 2008

A Case for Vegetarianism

I am scared right now. Petrified. Mortified. The whole world is in big trouble right now. The proverbial shit has more or less hit the fan.

Fidel Castro, in what is now a classic letter (written in 2007), lamented about the growth in use of biofuels. He felt it fundamentally unethical to put food inside the fuel tank.

A little more than a year down the line - and here we are. Food prices are headed north all around the world. Inflation in India has reached double figures. All the gradual progress that was made over the last few decades .. uplifting the 100 million people or so from poverty .. all that could disappear if the prices do not drop quickly.

Let me go on a limb here and make some guesses. I am assuming that the reader of this article is not accustomed to feeling hunger (because, in all probability, he or she is rich enough to afford a decent meal). Almost all the people I know in India and in the US are rich. Almost all the people that we know are rich. As a consequence, all of us are more or less spent forces in actually empathizing with the billions of hungry on this planet.

The planet (populated like never before) is facing a massive shortage of food grains. It is not as if the planet is not growing enough food. We're growing enough to feed 9 billion vegetarian people. It's just that the rich have billions of cows, pigs and hens to feed (and eventually eat) - and they do so by snatching the food away from the mouths of the poorest of the poor in India, Africa and China.

When billions of people on this planet cannot afford a decent meal, does it make ethical sense to consume foods which eat what the poorest of poor could eat? Is is humbling to know that more crops are consumed by animals that are eaten as meat than actual human beings.

Add to this the further ethical bankruptcy of causing pain to a sentient being when one could very well have avoided doing so. Animals suffer when killed. They don't like it. Ought we be torturing them like this?

Further, it takes much more energy to raise animals to be killed and eaten. It requires much more resources. And with the planet boiling over - a gram of CO2 saved from going up into the atmosphere is worth its weight in gold.

I only hope that people eat meat because they are ignorant of these hard facts. But I have a deeper, more nagging suspicion. Evolution has hard wired a certain hypocrisy into humans. People can live happy lives fully cognizant of the fact that their actions have contributed to the silent genocide that is third world hunger - but not care enough to mend their ways. Because all there is to life is fornicating and passing on one's genes.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Look East, Not West

There is this tendency among a lot of well-to-do Indians of looking at America as a model of development. This could owe a lot to the US' pre-eminence as a super-power on this planet; its (relatively) liberal immigration policy (creating a million or so Indian immigrants); mind-boggling technological breakthroughs in its universities and corporations and the perception of glamour (a "sexiness", if you will) associated with all things American (such as Hollywood and the ipod).

Americans are a pampered lot. They have a lot of area for each person (there's only 36 people per square kilometer here: that's 10 times area per person than India) - which makes being an American an inherently prosperous proposition.

A more relevant model of development can be found further to the west of the US - across the international date-line. Japan.

With 330 people per square kilometer - the same as the Indian population density - Japan is the world's third largest economy in absolute terms (China replaced Japan in the second spot a few years ago). With the same amount of "geographical luck" as an Indian has, the Japanese have managed to make their people some of the most prosperous in the world.

Japan's per capita GDP (ppp) is $33k per year. Japan's energy consumption is ~4000 kgoe/year (kilo-grams of oil-equivalent/year), whereas the American values are $45k per year and 8000kgoe/year. Simply put, the average Japanese person is twice as green and twice as lean as the average American. (Links to GDP and kgoe data)

There's this interesting metric to measure how "energy-efficiently" each dollar of GDP is produced. It's the GDP per-capita on the ordinate and the GDP per MBTU on the abcissa plot, which is reproduced below:

Japan is clearly more efficient than the US even this perspective. (If you ask me, this perspective is skewed in measuring efficiency. Supposing a nation were to grow a lot of crops and throw them away in trash cans (like the US does - check out any fast food chain trash cans!), the above metric of energy efficiency would consider the energy in growing the crops energy well spent. As a matter of fact, I consider this a garbage metric for this very reason).

Japan's economic growth was characterized by decades of 10% + GDP growth (fueled by a cocktail of government protectionism and foreign investment). This was called the "Japanese Economic Growth Miracle", for that it was. This period of stellar growth culminated in a major recession - and finally in a hopelessly inverted population pyramid. It is unlikely that Japan will achieve significant growth again: but Japan is still an extremely prosperous nation. A Japan (or an America or a Europe) in recession is still in a much better shape than a 10% per-year growing India (or China) from the most important perspective: the social perspective.

Indian development will be more like Japan's than America's. (China's, on the other hand is more likely to be like a more slightly efficient version of America's - China lot more people (130) per square kilometer than the US (36)).

When this optimistic argument about India's future is made in front of people, they come up with a ridiculous theory of the Japanese being "genetically industrious" and that the Indians are "genetically lethargic". I think this is a load of poppycock. The Indian economy has grown leaps and bounds after Dr. Singh set it free in 1991; poverty has fallen (though the rich have become a tad bit richer) beyond what people could contemplate in the 1980s. (Yes, there are still pockets of poverty in India - farmers still keep committing suicide - but it is indeed becoming an actual electoral issue. This is exactly the kind of issue that populism can solve, I believe.).

And the next time people tell me that compared with democracies in the developed world, Indian democracy is too ugly: I have a few aces up my sleeve. I will tell them about the incredibly stupid gridlock in the Japanese parliament that let a $1 per gallon petrol tax expire for a few days - dropping the price of petrol ("gas") at the pump immediately. (Yes, this did happen! And the prime minister apologized for this retrograde step.).

Friday, June 06, 2008

Beedle Beedle Beedle

Jim Davis has given Jon Arbuckle (and Garfield, the fat feline) cell-phones. These cell-phones don't tring-tring or beep beep. They beedle-beedle-beedle.

My current cell-phone allows me to use any peice of music (any mp3) as a ring-tone. It allows me to use a midi of Beethoven's ninth (that I can download off the internet). It has that "I like big butts" disaster built in as a ring tone.

But when one searches for something that sounds like a phone ringing, alas, my cell-phone does not even get as close as beedle-beedle-beedle. The best I can do it that ghastly tune that at&t bundles every phone with.

I have toyed with the idea of tweeting into the phone (tring-tring). But I suspect that it would be extra-embarassing - so I won't do it. I could get one of those birds to tweet into the phone and record a ring-tone. But (a) Birds have an understandable tendency to wing it when one makes oneself proximate to them (b) Even if one does (somehow) manage to sneak up to a location close enough to one of those birds to record a statement, birds are remarkably recalcitrant.

Technology has scored one over me. It is almost impossible to install a respectable ring tone on my cell-phone. I shall enviously look back at the old days when men sounded like men, phones sounded like phones and little furry creatures from alpha centauri sounded like little furry creatures from alpha centauri.