An Echo-friendly Death, Finally!

Pratima H

Once upon a time I stumbled upon an interesting phrase, which despite its supposedly Latin origins, sounded all Greek to me: Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice

It hints – Look around where a dead person lies, at what he leaves behind and you would know his/her legacy, imprints in life and the journey, in just a glance. Or something to that effect, I presume.

May be now is the moment when I finally grasp its full meaning. After an intense, mind-stirring, radically-refreshing chat with a woman who is trying to change the way we see and plan our impact on this world, post our deaths. It’s not a bad idea – once we are dead, our bodies can still be put to a better use, instead of serving as just a sad memory several feet under. Our bodies can be of some use to grow another flower, seed or may be even an-almost eternal tree somewhere. Won’t we be living and breathing beautifully that way, long after our temporary robes vaporize? Isn’t that a quixotic way to go back to Mother Earth and contribute to her life-giving soil?  May be that way our loved ones can cherish us in more poetic ways? May be then someone will come by and remember us by plucking a flower from a happy Eden and not by leaving one at a somber grave? Death, it seems, should not be the end of it all.

The last few years have allowed people to give a personal signature to death too and more people are taking interest and showing courage to confront what happens to their bodies after they are gone. The pre-mortem menu of the death industry is bursting at its seams and talking of diamonds, space flights, fire-rockets and what not today.

From Swiss companies that compress and super-heat cremated ashes to turn carbon into graphite under extreme pressure and heat and into a man-made diamond which can be worn by a adored kin; to firms helping people in saying Au Revoir with a theatrical fire-works night; ‘dying’ is slowly taking a new connotation. Now, people are listening to rockets for self- incorporating funeral ashes and stuff like Memorial space flights, and toying with new ideas like sending a small portion of ashes into space or to be orbited around Earth.

Suddenly cremation ashes are not a grotesque thought and maybe there is a short but happy feeling of romance in the way we perceive death, per se.

Saying Goodbye has just got a new and happy ring to it.

Amidst these changing notions and perception-shifts about Death, Katrina Spade is trying something even more radical, eternal and ground-breaking (pun-intended). Spade is the founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project, a new system for gently and sustainably disposing of the dead using the process of composting. She has been focusing her design career on creating human-centered, ecological, architectural solutions.

2est mossy headshotPrior to architecture school, she has studied sustainable design and building at Yestermorrow Design Build School, with a focus on regenerative communities and permaculture. While earning her Masters of Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she received a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to build and monitor a compost heating system, a project which helped initiate the Urban Death Project. She has also earned a BA in Anthropology from Haverford College, a Masters of Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is an Echoing Green Climate Fellow.

So what is she exactly trying to do with her architect’s hat and a romantic, down-to-earth heart? And why is this going to be embraced well when people are hard-wired into a certain ‘death-experience’ as per social mores, religious interpretations, medical science angles, family rituals and habits running deep and long for centuries now? Why would digging this idea not unearth unexpected legal, social, ethical surprises?

In short, what makes one believe that this is the best way to echo your life and presence beyond one’s body despite so many organ-donation options, cemeteries and sophisticated death services around? We ask her everything and Spade comes out flashing a brave smile, passionate answers and contagious confidence till the end and making the word ‘bizarre’ as beautiful and positive as it should ideally be.

Come, dig this.

Dying by living and changing into soil. Where did you get this bizarre idea from?

When you call it bizarre, I know it sounds a little odd. But the current options, from burial, caskets, embalming etc; are actually the bizarre ones in my opinion. In fact, when you assess them carefully, cremation is the least bizarre and works well for people of a certain faith. As to where this idea got infected in me, well, I have two lovely children and one day as I was watching them grow, it hit me that I am not going to be around forever. We are all going to die! We have to realize that fact. My family is not very religious in a certain sense and there are not many cultural drivers to that part – what happens to my body after I die? So that’s how I decided to explore this idea.

Tell us what the ‘Urban Death Project’ is actually trying to do and how is it an eco-friendly way to die?

Conventional burial is chosen by more than half of Americans today. Wasteful, toxic, unproductive, and expensive, this option undervalues the potential of our bodies. Each year, in US cemeteries, we bury enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build 1800 single-family homes, and enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. In addition, cemeteries in cities around the world are reaching capacity; the concept of owning an individual plot for perpetuity is deeply flawed and unsustainable. Cremation rates are rising fast, from 9% of Americans in 1980 to almost 50% today. This trend demonstrates an interest in alternatives options, but cremation adds to climate change and pollutes the air, emitting over 600 Mn lbs of CO2 annually.

The Urban Death Project is not simply a system for turning our bodies into soil-building material. It is also a space for the contemplation of our place in the natural world, and a ritual to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by connecting us with the cycles of nature. Our mission is to create a meaningful, equitable, and ecological urban alternative for the care and processing of the deceased.

Have you seen or confronted religious arguments going against this?

Hindu and Zoroastrian religions have a non-decomposing dimension. Meanwhile, Christians, Jews and Chris-Looney-Flipbook-set-of-4agnostics seem to have an open ear to options. It is interesting how religion plays a large part of the decisions about death. I am sure every faith deserves their due respect but I personally believe that we are all the same, specially and more so, when/after we die.

What about the legal contours of this option?

Yes, in the US, the option for decomposition is regulated at State level and we are working on the side of State Legislatures adding this to other options as we progress.

Would it align well for someone who would rather donate an organ or the whole body for medical research or other relevant purposes?

Yes, it fits well there. Even if the whole body is donated and used, it can be decomposed. It is a form of recycling our bodies as I put it.

Why would it make sense in a world where there are all kind of death services mushrooming, and some of them – pretty expensive ones?

Well, we have dozens of options to choose from and all I am saying is this is another one. Not everyone should choose to be decomposed. I understand it is a very personal choice and feeling. So if someone wants to focus on a casket or a funeral service or a diamond or whatever, it is an individual choice and every person has the right to exercise this choice. Ours is a NPO and we fully stand with the individual idea of choosing what happens to one’s body after death.

The real estate of death has supposedly gone scant and vertically-stacked as resources deplete and lands grow scarce. How do you observe this perception that after our urban lives, even our deaths are being commoditized?

FUTURE-TREE-TEEWe, on our part, are not proposing to ‘sell’ the concept. It is not about turning into commodities. Our whole lives are a cycle of taking in nutrients from the sun, Mother Earth, nature etc. Imagine how beautiful it would be if we could give at least something back and be productive even after we are dead? We can be a memorial garden or a loving tree that stands tall, warm and beautiful. Imagine being a memory that is ALIVE!

How much footprint has been covered so far? Any plans for India?

This took initial shape during an architecture project when someone said I should look at it as more than a design exercise, as this seemed like a practical, usable design. At one of the programs in New York around Climate Change, the idea took wings. It is still in planning stages. If India is open to the idea and interested, why not? My goal is to perfect the system and make it easy for people, specially municipalities, to build apt facilities. My goal is to take it everywhere in the world, if possible and if welcome.

What is the most heart-touching conversation you have had in this journey so far?

I get to listen so many warm and beautiful stories and every time someone tells me their experience of remembering a loved one, it’s a lovely, hard-to-forget moment. Remembering loved ones is what binds every culture, country, faith no matter how different we think we are when it comes to treating death.

How much support is happening as of now?

The Urban Death Project is working with Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOReSt) to further study the composting process as a safe and effective way of caring for the deceased. The work of the Urban Death Project is made possible by generous support from Echoing Green, a foundation that provides seed-stage funding to innovators working to bring about positive social change. Our Kickstarter campaign is showing the collective desire for a new option in death care. Pledges help us complete the second phase of design development of our unique composting system; and ever backer gets to choose a reward.

Nepal Earthquake: God-sent or Man-made?

– Shashwat DC

As the earth shook, quaked and trembled in Nepal on April 25, 2015, thousands were killed in a matter of minutes, caught under the rubble of the fallen debris of homes and buildings.  Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, the earthquake made the earth shiver for around half a minute, flattening almost everything in the Kathmandu valley. This quake was the largest one in the region in the past 8 decades; and the last big quake that took place was back in 1934. So far over 3000 people are reported to have died across Nepal, India, China (Tibet) and Bangladesh and the toll is expected to rise as more bodies are pulled out of the debris, and all the people that are presumed to be missing are accounted for. 

Earthquakes are major cataclysmic events that occur because of tectonic plates pushing against each other. Across the fault lines, where these plates clash, energy keeps building up overtime and is dissipated in the form of an earthquake at regular intervals of times. These fault lines lie across the world, and the quake caused in Nepal was along the 1,400-mile Indo-Eurasian fault line, with the India plate pushing its way up against the Eurasian plate at a rate of about 5 centimetres, or approx 2 inches, a year. This is why the whole Himalayan plateau is prone to earthquakes, and this is what caused the latest devastation in Nepal.

Events like earthquakes are rarer and unpredictable, and have always confounded the scientific community. While we can’t pinpoint the triggers, we do know the science of what and how it is caused. And one thing we are sure of – the reasons are too big and to multifarious to be pinpointed at one direction. Even in the ancient times, the unscientific man knew that earthquakes were different from rest of the events (which could be blamed to a certain deity or another), hence even the myths were all so very different from the one about serpents changing loads to the giant (on whose head the earth rests) who goes on to turn his head.

Yet, there is one theory or linkage that is much debated, but cannot be truly debunked, namely the connection between earthquakes and climate change. Scientists across the globe are researching to find if there is a direct (or a discrete) connection between the two. While the connection is tenuous at the moment, the scientific community is now looking at various clues and exploring if climate-change related events could be offsetting cataclysms like earthquakes or Tsunamis. Bill McGuire, who is currently Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at UCL, examined the link between climate-change and earthquakes and published a paper (or rather a book on the same). In “Waking the Giant: How a changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes“, he pored over the geological history of the planet and reached a conclusion that events like earthquakes and tsunamis are on the rise. The central idea is that melting ice-caps and rising sea-levels redistribute weight over continental fault-lines (like the one in Nepal) and thereby influence disasters like earthquakes or volcanoes.

Glacier_Mass_Balance_MapBut as for climate change affecting earthquakes, there are tentative hints of some links. Changing ice caps and sea-level redistribute weight over fault lines, which could potentially have an influence on earthquake occurrences. No studies have quantified the relationship to a high level of detail though, so recent earthquakes should not be linked with climate change. About 20,000 years ago, with global temperatures some 6 degrees milder and ice blankets spread all across Europe and North America, the earth presented a very different picture. The sea-level since that time has risen by some 130 metres and has been growing rapidly. Could this be one of the factors (mind you, not the only one) that influences such events?

While there will be many who would readily debunk the very discussion as hearsay or bunkum, the fact remains that catastrophic events like earthquakes and tsunamis are indeed influenced by the man’s hand. Take the case of the 1967 earthquake in Koynanagar (Maharashtra) which was induced by the construction of the Koyna dam. Earthquakes and tremors caused by human activity that alters the stresses and strains on the Earth’s crust are termed as induced seismicity. According to researchers, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which caused approximately 68,000 deaths, was caused by the construction and filling of the Zipingpu Dam that could have triggered the earthquake. Many scientists have warned that construction of dams in such seismic zones like the Tehri Dam or even the Three Gorges Dam will result in huge earthquakes in the days to come.

While the jury is still not out on the fact that anthropogenic climate-change has any influence on natural disasters, the fact remains that the damages caused by such events are exacerbated by the work of man. For instance, the floods of Uttarakhand in 2013 caused much havoc largely due to the manner in which settlements were made across the length of the rivers flowing through the state. Similarly, the floods in Kashmir were much severe since the natural flow of water has been constricted by unplanned and often illegal construction.

And while the link of man to causation aspects is disputed, there is no dispute on the link to destruction caused in the wake of such events. It is pretty obvious that the destruction caused by such events is often directly related to mankind’s increasing footprint. The last nepal earthquakemajor earthquake to strike Nepal in 1934 (8.2 magnitude) was some 3.5 times more devastating than the current one (7.8). Yet, the current has caused more damage (relatively) simply because of the hap-hazard urbanisation that has happened over the ages. The mounds of rubble everywhere are a stark reminder of the monumental failure of building prudently in seismic zones.

With the Himalayan glaciers on a constant retreat (not as much as the IPCC reported) creating giant lakes, or the scores of dams being built to harness hydro-power, the frequency of such cataclysmic events is going to only increase. And, the naysayers might well turn into an ostrich and bury their heads in sand, but the severity and the finality of the situation can no longer be denied.

The essence of the argument was brilliantly captured by Bill, when he wrote in the Guardian.

If we think about climate change at all, most of us do so in a very simplistic way: so, the weather might get a bit warmer; floods and droughts may become more of a problem and sea levels will slowly creep upwards. Evidence reveals, however, that our planet is an almost unimaginably complicated beast, which reacts to a dramatically changing climate in all manner of different ways; a few – like the aforementioned – straightforward and predictable; some surprising and others downright implausible. Into the latter category fall the manifold responses of the geosphere. The world we inhabit has an outer rind that is extraordinarily sensitive to change. While the Earth’s crust may seem safe and secure, the geological calamities that happen with alarming regularity confirm that this is not the case.

Tough times lie ahead for all those on the Blue Marble, and the earlier we come to terms with it and start taking action, the better it will be for all.

German solar disruption moves to Modi’s digital India. Is Australia game?

However the international narrative is a bit different. The German/China led solar disruption of the last ten years is now Silicon Valley driven with significant Digital India potential. Responsive Australian innovation policy is missing in action.

India’s climate narrative

If you Google the words “Prime Minister Modi climate change”, 842,000 links emerge. Over the last 24 hours the international press has filed 37 articles covering India’s emerging climate policy stance. “Prime Minister Modi says India must lead on climate change,” headlines the Washington Post. “India will set Climate Change conference agenda: PM Narendra Modi,” says the Economic Times from New Delhi.

When he led the State of Gujarat, Narendra Modi oversaw India’s largest solar program and made it clear that he wanted to reduce coal dependence. On February 28 2015, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that India is raising its duty on coal to 200 rupees (A$4.2) a tonne to fund an ambitious plan to generate 100 gigawatts of solar by 2022 (alongside wind, biomass and small scale hydro targets).

Deutsche Bank released a report around this time, noting that current generation capacity in India is at ~280GW and is tracking towards 400GW by 2022, so that solar penetration could reach 25% within the next 8 years. “Given the current installed capacity of ~3GW, the (100GW) target implies an annual run rate of ~12GW for the next 8 years, although actual installs will likely ramp differently,” said the Deutsche Bank report.

Nuclear, for better or worse, remains part of India’s emerging energy mix. Coal will also grow given that India needs to manage a 10% imbalance in energy supply versus demand as it develops a revitalised growth model. But the push for renewables is formidable, and is part of a broader direction in innovation policy.

India’s Innovation policy directions

“India to establish mechanism to aid German investment, PM Modi said in Berlin”.

“We look forward to our 3rd Inter-Governmental Consultations (IGC) in India in October 2015. Our Strategic Partnership is entering a new and more intensive phase,” Prime Ministers Modi and Merkel said in a joint statement during his recent 3 day visit to Germany.

“Our common objective is to encourage greater synergies between German engineering, experience in sustainable development, innovation and skills, and the new opportunities available in India and through ‘Make in India’, ‘Clean India’, ‘Digital India’ and other initiatives towards achieving economic growth and sustainable development,” they said.

Modi continually referenced Germany’s expertise in solar energy and promoted a partnership with India to further reduce the cost of solar. When you add India’s remarkable ICT capability with Germany’s penchant for R&D led value adding, you can see where this begins to lead.

In its independent evaluation of innovation and entrepreneurship across developed and developing economies, the World Bank points out that, “India succeeded in ICT-enabled exports because it has a critical mass of educated and trained engineers.”

Surely India understands that the 21st century’s transforming energy model will be digitally driven.

Internet of Things meets Internet of Energy

The new digital disruption currently underway is called the Internet of Things (machine-to-machine connectivity). It will enable web 2.0 (peer-to-peer connectivity and the sharing economy) to explode.

ICT technologies with embedded networked devices will redefine the last mile of the smart grid – the future smart home where cars, fridges, TVs and pools will be able to measure and share their energy consumption and participate in local, distributed energy management systems. This is where the Internet of Things meets the Internet of Energy, which depends on the imminent arrival of affordable battery storage.

“Internet of Things – From Research and Innovation to Market Deployment” is a research report supported by the European Commission that outlines how the smart home and its analogous smart factory or commercial building is a key nexus for 21st century innovation and technology led economic growth. Graphics below show how this new last mile of connectivity will work.

Rooftop solar and other distributed renewable energy systems are poised (once affordable battery storage arrives) to power the Internet of Everything at the premise level. Homes and businesses are likely to remain connected to baseload renewable supply and remnant fossil fuel and nuclear generation through micro-grids that offer redundancy in power supply and connect energy producing households and firms to each other – to maximise local solar productivity.

The energy mix will be drive by climate and energy security policies and underlying costs. It seems clearer by the day that cost improvements are more likely to come from renewables than conventional energy.

Silicon Valley driving towards distributed everything

Apple and Google are not just good at minimizing taxes: they purposely design the future. Google’s now fully functional driverless car is part of a thread back to smart homes and cities. In 2013 Google bought Nest Labs, a leader in smart thermostats, that key gateway into the smart home, and through micro grids, into the smart city.

Nest convenes the “Thread Group” of 104 large and small international companies (including Samsung, Philips, Whirpool, Wuawei and HTC) who share one goal: To create the very best way to connect and control products in the home.

PC-World tells us, “Thread is developing a networking software stack for linking many types of devices in homes, such as lights, security systems and heating and cooling equipment. Thread is meant to augment Wi-Fi, forming a second network for small, power-sipping connected devices instead of laptops and tablets.”

Meanwhile Apple also is also flexing its electric car muscles. Apple’s not-so-secret Project Titan will either position Apple as the platform/content aggregator that connects devices into car operating systems or create another category killing position introducing the Apple car. Car battery storage is progressing at exponential pace.

I returned from a recent family visit to Silicon Valley stunned by the car industry’s new R&D front end. The car stopped being a manufacturing proposition and became part of the service sector years ago.

As the WSJ points out in in Tesla/Apple electric car wars coverage and the graphic below, a drive through Silicon Valley these days is like a drive through what Detroit must have looked like, way back in the day. Ford, Hyundai, Mercedes, Volkswagen, GM, Toyota, Nissan Honda: they are all moving R&D into the Valley.

You can imagine that town planners from San Francisco to San Jose are doing a bit of thinking about how the smart city is designed for this next phase of digital disruption. It will make what happened to newspapers feel like a cakewalk in comparison.

Julie Bishop’s visit to India: what’s the next chapter in this story?

Appreciating the sheer scale of what is emerging as climate policy, digital connectivity, and strategic corporate and government responses intersect, in Australia must ask: which policy directions will frame our role in this rapidly emerging new innovation/energy nexus?

How will the next generation of Australians have a stake in this future where Smart is the New Green? What R&D incentives and research co-investment strategies will underpin our private sector success, and collective impact models?

Julie Bishop is very smart. I learned this in 2005/6 when I was Director of Business Development for the CSIRO and represented CSIRO in a working group which explored “Strengthening Australia’s Position in the New World Order” for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering & Innovation Council.

At the time, Julie Bishop was Minister for Education, Science and Training during the Howard Government. She is well aware of the drivers behind India and China’s now formidable R&D and technology prowess.

The message from this working group ten years ago which included CEO/Senior executive representation from large companies and the research sector was clear.

PMSEIC Strengthening Australia’s Position in the New World Order report: “Without a more systematic and strategic approach, Australian science and innovation capabilities will be washed over by the tidal wave of progress being experienced in China and India, and by the resulting global response.”

The working group informing Prime Minister Howard clearly understood that:

“The Chinese and Indian Governments are both committed to achieving advanced economy status through a ‘leap frog’ process.”

Will Minister Bishop guide our trade, investment and research partnerships beyond the ‘miner to the world’ model, which now threatens Australia’s prosperity not to mention our climate resilience?

Surely Australia can stand up for a bit more?

The author is Company Director, Resilience Strategist, GAICD. In the past she has been the CEO of Green Cross Australia and has recently joined the Green Cross Australia Board to spread far the climate resilience agenda. She is also the Non-Executive Director of Australian Ethical Investments, a listed superannuation and investment company that demonstrates global leadership in de-carbonized investment. She can be reached at This post was originally published on LinkedIn.


A not-so ‘Nobel’ Pachauri & the Silence of the Green Lambs

– Shashwat DC

Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph — Haile Selassie

On an unusually hot day in February 2015 (possibly as a result of changing climate), one of the biggest scandals broke out in the Indian climate space. It was the day when a 29-year old research analyst working at the prestigious TERI (The Energy Resource Institute) accused the head of the institute Dr. Rajendra Kumar Pachauri of sexual advances and sexual misconduct.  The super environmentalist was embroiled in the scandal and a police case was registered pachauri4against the Nobel Laureate. In the light of the ensuing scandal, Pachauri had to quit as the chairman of IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and then went on to proceed for a long leave from his office.

Before the news of the dishonourable deeds of the honourable septuagenarian broke out– who was apparently fasting for love, or making promises of sublime and wholesome love, or penning emails that began with “Dearest meri jaan” — Dr. Pachauri was the toast of the nation. By his singular position as the head of TERI and IPCC, he had the eyes and ears of the who’s who of the world. He was the pasha of green, the glitzy star of every green gathering. But in a scornful swipe, the pasha turned into the pariah.

Pachauri’s feeble attempts at his defence, first his rather inane claim that his email, mobile and Whatsapp was compromised and hacked, seemed rather silly, if not pitiful. And then just when the cops were getting hot on the trail, the man got himself admitted in a hospital complaining of chest pain (the most typical Indian escape). When he got relief from the courts in the form of anticipatory bail, the gentleman moved back to his house, contemplating the defence with his battery of lawyers. The result is that he is now out with a new theory, from talking about a hacked email account; he is now claiming that his accounts were accessed by many juniors in the organisation. Yet, even as serious allegations have been cast on Pachauri, he has yet not resigned as the head of TERI, the very place where these incidences took place. He is currently on a ‘long leave’, something which even the poor victim pointed out in a letter to the institute as an example of how the institution was taking sides.

Through all the development, there has been a strange muted silence on the whole Pachauri affair. The pachauri1Indian media has been largely quiet, and so have been all the high-flyers who courted him. In fact, there are two very senior women on the board of TERI, Naina Lal Kidwai (Country Head, HSBC India) and Kiran Majumdar Shroff (CMD, Biocon), who haven’t yet spoken a word on the issue. In fact, Ms. Shaw regularly keeps tweeting about all sundry things in the world, but maintains a stoic silence on the issue. Even when the lawyer (Indira Jaising) representing the victim wrote an open letter to TERI, the senior members on board have yet to utter a word.

Similarly, people like Bittu Sehgal or Sunita Narain, who will readily opine on many issues, too have ziplocked their lips. The media too is treating the issue with kid’s glove, not really surprising considering the deep relations Pachauri had forged with them through various programmes, like the ones he used to do for NDTV. No one has truly come out in the open, not even to demand or advise Pachauri to resign from TERI, which seems like a very reasonable demand to make till the allegations are disapproved. In fact in the one singular instance where ET had carried the news on the front page, it was taken down in a short time, with the publication defending the step in some absurd legalese.

Ironically, the international media is having a field day, ripping apart the veneer of sobriety that Pachauri had created so far. His emails are being published, and so are excerpts from his fictional biography Return to Almora, especially all those parts that deal with the hero’s sexual dalliances. News sites and blogs are regularly writing on the issuing and highlighting the hypocrisy of Pachauri.

It is sad state that in these times, serious allegations like sexual exploitation at work are not being raised, just because the alleged perpetrator belongs to the elite section of the society. The duplicity is for all to see. Recently, in a documentary shot by Leslie Udwin, the lawyer of the rapists had blamed the girl for the traumatic incident, stating that it is the woman who tempts the rapist. The comment resulted in a pachauri3huge outrage, as people across the board were scandalised by the sheer pettiness of the thought, and there was a universal condemnation of the same. But here, we have Pachauri, who apparently made sexual advances, and allegedly used his position and influence to bear upon a girl less than half his age and yet no one really bothers to say a word. That is what is damning about the affair. As Gandhi had famously said once that ‘silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly‘.

And this is where the Green Brigade in India falters. They will readily shout from the rooftops when a tiger is killed or mining allowed in forested place, but will turn into rank cowards when one of their ilk is caught with the pants down. This isn’t merely cowardice, but is almost like joining hands with the accused, just because he happens to be one of the most influential souls in India, at the moment. And this is the reason, why the Pachauri case is much bigger that it seems. It reflects the dubiousness of all the enlightened lot, who talk about gender diversity and all that, but will be extremely quite when it is needed they shout. Don’t really know whether the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking or not (as the IPCC had claimed), but the respect of Indian environmentalists sure has shrunk much, ever since the big man from Almora was shown for what he is, or rather what he is not.


consumerism sustainability darwin

If Darwin was locked in a shopping mall?

– Pratima H

Oh! You are so stingy!

That’s one line I have often been stonked with. The place and source of artillery varies – sometimes I come in the line of fire at a high-heeled shoe arcade and at other times the war zone happens to be a really haute-couture handbag Disneyland. In fact, the very line has also bruised me at a blue-blooded handicraft showroom, now that I recall precisely.

The allegation is not entirely wrong though. I don’t spend the way they do and have often fallen short of words when confronting a consumerism sustainability1shopaholic friend, a plastic-money-endowed colleague, a complete stranger (and a complete Barbie Doll version of Corporate executive, at that), and once even a salesperson  (yes, that happens with me).

Let me get clear about the exact reason of this drought of words which I never otherwise face on other occasions in life. There is something about euphemizing this line ‘What’s the point of being a gussied-up avatar of what I was (or the jeans was) yesterday by spending through my nose? Isn’t it the same scarf, a different colour? Same dog, different name?’

But as you would have guessed, uttering these words is like blasphemy in the company of people who worship style, fashion and err, consumerism. Plus, I am always against being judgmental. May be I do not understand their world.

So I have endured. Until last week, when Dan Ariely dawned from nowhere (well, a book shelf if you want details) with a refreshing torrent of arguments in my arid life.

I never thought reading ‘The Upside of Irrationality’ would supply me with the last laugh of sorts for  all my future encounters in a shopping menagerie.

I never thought it this way – May be they don’t understand my world too. I also never paused and flipped back the bullets whenever I found them flinching when it came down to spending on an adventure park, on stupid balloons, on a lesson in some odd music genre or on an ‘eccentric but fun’ flight simulator training. Or on just trying some Ethiopian cuisine on the lark.

But then, I have also forgotten that I always had some partners in-crime.

Till we get to Ariely’s hypothesis, here’s how they have been living it up all this time.

Noahs in a world full of naysayers

Manoj Ramesh is a simple looking, innocent passer-by from the universe of genius geeks. But even though he inhabits the world of wonks as a successful and well-rooted IT industry professional from UK; there is more to him when he switches off that office monitor and swipes away merrily on his Friday roster. In his brief and work-heavy life in London, he has possibly been living like a duck. Everything is as usual on the surface, but beneath the water, the pair of webbed feet has been furiously busy swimming in new waters. They have paddled with force through almost every corner of the world – the weirdest museums, the largest stadiums, the iciest mountains, the deepest oceans and the scariest dance class.

You can never hear from him whiling his time at the same place again. I have been tempted to ask him “Why spending on experiences/adventures is more worthwhile/satisfying than spending on materialistic ware?”

We cannot wait to go diving again. Egypt this time it is!! Manoj

We cannot wait to go diving again. Egypt this time it is!! Manoj

And his answer has been quick, a matter-of-fact one showing his fast reflexes at this one too. He quotes Pat Conroy before he explains the mystery. Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”  Manoj dissects that everyone weighs the Pros and Cons when given a choice. “Questions from, ‘Is this worth it?’ to ‘Will it benefit me?’ almost seem to spring to one’s mind. When it comes to Adventure vs. Materialistic-ware, the answer to my mind is pretty obvious. Adventure/an Experience any day!” He almost screams.

Why, I drill the scalpel further. “An experience does not come with a price tag. A Car /Mobile Phone/Jacket comes with one. Adventures/Experiences come without a ‘Warranty/Guarantee Period’. Materialistic-ware unfortunately do, which are pretty limited. An adventure comes with memories.  I can hardly remember of anything that I’ve purchased and said, Whoa! this is memorable.”

It’s not at all a lonely planet for mould-breakers and sunrise-chasers like him. Meet Anjaan, a world citizen employed currently as a Media Marketing-professional based in Dubai, UAE. He is soon starting his own boutique travel agency “hobbycations“. No wonder he is doing that because it is literally impossible to find him at one place ever. You call him expecting he would still be in that absolutely virgin island in Australia he went on raving endlessly about during the last conversation. But Ahoy! This time you find him tasting different ilks of beers in Ireland. And next time, his voice would be transmitted from somewhere in Japan where he would be probably busy with that new Martial Arts regime he just learnt about. Now I know where he gets all that never-ending material to entertain his fans when he is on air.

Don’t wait to make money and then travel, do it backwards: Anjaan

Don’t wait to make money and then travel, do it backwards: Anjaan


I ask Anjaan too about the choice he always makes between spending on a new shoe and spending on new tickets to use the old shoe instead; and he has wiped the mist by saying – One of the biggest life lessons you can learn as you travel is that ‘Time’ is the real currency you should be trying to spend wisely! Time is the one thing that’s limited in its nature and will not increase no matter how much you try. Your income can increase and your riches might double but you will always have only 24 hours in a day.”

Anjaan passionately believes and lives the credo that it’s easy to spend many months in your life saving up for future vacations, but money is not as important as we think.

“Time is the commodity we should keep our eyes on. Of course money can buy you luxurious pre-planned vacations that make things easier but it can also make you miss the opportunity to get close to the core of the place you are visiting, or closer to the people who inhabit that place. Invariably you use money to get someone else to explain to you what’s going on, or to get somewhere quicker to save time. Money, thus, becomes a substitute for time. And the experiences you gather along in time are always far more valuable than any money you will ever make.” He poignantly observes.

There are more people in the tribe that Manoj and Anjaan belong to. Meet Mahala Lewis who lives in Sierra Vista, Arizona, has graduated from the University of Arizona in 2012, receiving a BA in Fine Art and Anthropology. But ask her who she is and she would say she is a person who loves hiking, painting, and hanging out with her two dogs and all her beautiful friends. Lewis was born in Binghamton, New York in 1990 and moved as an infant/child with my two wander lusting parents to a variety of places:  Malaysia, China, Wyoming, Alaska, California, Texas, and Missouri (in no particular order). She has been drawing and painting from a young age, and continues to paint and draw with gouache, pastel, pencil, ink, acrylic, and oil. As she outlines, despite all her parents best intentions, she has held onto this weird artist streak that just won’t shake.  “I’m inspired by my nomadic upbringing, multicultural roots, and the sacred feminine. I create art for pure sense enjoyment and hope some of my work speaks to you.”

We are more creative and engaged when we explore the world without the necessity to act as consumers: Mahala Lewis

We are more creative and engaged when we explore the world without the necessity to act as consumers: Mahala Lewis

Lewis has left many inspiring blogs narrating some of her most toughest and trying times and how looking inward worked as a tremendous healing ointment for her. It’s easy to guess that she too would join that side of table where people choose to expend time and money on an experience instead of hardware.

“I believe investment in experience, adventure, and self-care is more satisfying than materialistic consumption because it offers a chance to learn something new and to practice personal authentic expression. We are more creative and engaged when we explore the world without the necessity to act as consumers. There is also an opportunity to practice humility and mindfulness when you take care of, reuse and recycle the things you already have!” she prudently reasons.

The mystery of chasing moments instead o wardrobe or garage-sale additions is not that much of a riddle for people like Lewis and Manoj. Perhaps for the sheer certainty that nothing is ever certain when you spend on an experience. He recalls how his adorable wife used to be scared of water. “During our honeymoon in Maldives, I had a tough time convincing her that we should try Scuba-Dive, she finally but reluctantly said, ‘Ok’.  The dive changed her very perspective of water. We cannot wait to go diving again. Egypt this time it is!!”

Manoj is also not the least bit guilty of how he splurged his days as a bachelor (traveling around Europe). “It was different countries, staying at hostels, different people I met; the experiences that we shared have enriched my thought process.  The days I traveled with my wife and met many other couples, proved to me that “Made for each other” does happen and a partner brings in so much more to a travel. Adventure with the full family during our trek in Ooty, made me realize that this experience is worth much more than what I ever spent on it.”

Manoj is every bit sure that a few decades from now, when interacting with the next generation, he probably will not tell them about the Materialistic-ware he had or has. “I’d rather be an old man full of wit, who has this twinkle in the eye and say, “Aha!! Budapest!!! I’ve been there and… it was an adventure!!!!

“Adventure/Experience vs Materialistic-ware, like everything, follows a basic principle. “Common Sense Prevails”  If the money is going towards Adventure instead of going towards that heater / Air Conditioner, that will keep you alive given the cold / heat , then it is high time you sorted your priorities!!”

Like Anjaan recommends strongly as well. “Don’t wait to make money and then travel, do it backwards. Travel non-luxuriously with whatever little money you have, get enriched with experiences and eventually money will automatically flow in. Don’t forget, travel is the only thing that you can “buy”, that will make you richer. You really have limited time – what would rather spend it doing – Expanding your mind? Or enlarging your wallet?”

These words, thoughts and souls rhyme strongly with the theory of Hedonic Adaptation. Yes folks, there is indeed, an empirical study corroborating the seemingly absurd idea of spending on the invisible instead of the visible.

People like Manoj, Anjaan and Lewis are actually seers, easily forgotten in a land where people are obsessed with their and their neighbours’ brand of cars, bags, trousers, houses, furniture, cushion covers and the whole shebang.

This rare breed is not hoarding pointless iron, fur or wood but is rather piling up an even more precious war chest of memories, fun, new consumerism sustainability2experiences and that life of ‘no regrets’.

While they are on that path, they are also on advanced rungs of happiness, and much ahead than you if think you have bigger porches or shoe racks! Ouch! Did that hurt? It should.

For Reily clearly lays it: Adaptation is an incredibly general process that operates at deep physiological, psychological and environmental levels, and it affects us in many aspects of our lives. He goes on to drill that we can maximize our overall satisfaction in life by shifting our investments away from products and services that give us a constant stream of experiences and towards ones that are more temporary and fleeting.


Here’s how it works.

Our Brains are not Morons

Because stereo equipment and furniture generally provide a constant experience so it’s very easy to adapt to them. On the other hand, transient experiences (a four-hour getaway, a scuba diving adventure, or a concert) are fleeting, so you can’t adapt to them as readily.

Areily is certainly not advising anyone to sell their sofa and go scuba diving but what this curious mind hammers home is that we need to understand what types of experiences are more or less susceptible to adaptation. Between a scuba diving investment and a sofa then, select the more transient one. The long-term effect of the sofa on your happiness is probably going to be much lower than you expect, while the long-term enjoyment of and memories from scuba diving will probably last much longer than you predict. Not to forget the part where Areily illustrates how constant comparison with your neighbor’s car or colleague’s phone, will soon dilute the happiness that you derived from its purchase.

The Happiness Quotient with an Adventure/Experience is immense. Something that cannot be measured.  How many of you have purchased a wardrobe and said, this has given me Happiness, I can never forget? Manoj would also quip and ask here. “No two adventures are the same. However, we always seem to have a comparison for Materialistic-ware. E.g.: This car is better than my previous car.”

You may take a moment here to wonder why Bhutan is going ferociously after the concept of Gross National Happiness and not GDP or why Naomi Klein shreds the underbelly of Brand-Hypnotism, and Shopper’s-blindness in her landmark book ‘No Logo’ when she sketches a parallel universe of middle-class youth. “They get up in the morning, put on their Levi’s and Nikes, grab their caps, backpacks, and play stations and head for school…the message is clear – Get the kids and you have got the whole family and future market.” She illustrates a TV ad for Diesel jeans here. It shows two Korean teenagers turning into birds after they commit double suicide, finding freedom only in the total surrender to the brand. Global-youth marketing is a mind-numbingly repetitive affair, drunk on the idea  of what is attempting to engineer a third notion of nationality  – not America, not local, but uniting everything – the shopping nationality.

She also quoted an ad veteran David Lubars explaining the marketing industry’s formula for wooing consumers. “Consumers are like roaches, you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while.”

Is it not possible that we too, as teens or afterwards, have been infected with some contagious brand conjunctivitis, a disease that is not only consuming our wallets, but our time and most importantly and sadly; our focus, our priorities, our energies and our definition of a happy life?

consumerism sustainability3Areily quotes economist Tibor Scitovsky’s work ‘The Joyless Economy’ here. We have a tendency to take the safe and predictable path at work, and by extension in our personal life, and do things that provide steady and reliable progress. But real progress and real pleasure comes from taking risks and trying very different things.

Inject more serendipity and unpredictability in your life to leverage the phenomenon of ‘Hedonic Adaptation in your life, as Areily suggests. It’s like tickling. When we use the right hand to tickle ourselves, we don’t feel much sensation. But when we use our right hands to tickle our left sides, the slight difference in timing between the nervous system on the right and left side of your body can create a low-level of predictability and hence some tickling sensation.

There you go. Tickle yourself, your money and time a new way.  Buy what makes you happy but do make sure it IS indeed making you happy and not just giving a short-term kick. Don’t judge anyone whether it is the those buying intangibles or the ones shopping for tangibles.

But remember that, there is, in fact, neurology and evolution at work, when someone says no to spending on a pointless crocodile skin wallet.

Because the same person might instead enjoy spending that very time, those very nerves and wads of money on watching a crocodile pond. And dare not call him/her stupid or reckless then, for you might just hear that dreaded line:

Oh! You are so stingy!