Thoughts that reimagine the jaded, recalibrate the norm

From reason to righteousness, from justness to joy, from mistake to mayhem, we all have stories. Even though many of them are thought provoking, thought adjusting, thought generating, few see the light of day because we live in a world awash in communication overload where the duration between thought germination, thought formation and thought publication is near zero. Within that cacophony of mostly junk, much that should be said remains unheard because those who can say it took years to come by those ideas and would rather say nothing than try to say it in ten words. Here, we have some really cool nuggets that we have culled and mined through our years of engaging with real people, working real hard, overcoming real challenges for real change. These are some of our chronicles, testaments, observations, experiences and analysis on pretty much everything that we can focus our hearts and minds on.  Some are shorter, some are longer, none of it is actually blogging in the conventional meaning of the phrase where inanities are thrown out at people on a second-by-second basis.

Sustainable production and consumption


Sep 21

September 7, 2021

Sustainable production and consumption


Back in 2007 I was on an agricultural training program and giving a talk to farmers in the Aluvihare area of Matale about the various crises in transport, food, energy, climate, finance and garbage. While they listened attentively enough, as the talk progressed, I got the distinct feeling that I was not really engaging them. Finally, when I was done, a middle aged man who had been standing slightly aside from the group beckoned me to his side.


He was Arunasiri he informed me, a man who had farmed his one acre of uplands and one acre of paddy lands for forty years. Summarized, this is what he told me “Sir, I agree that there seems to be a problem with quality of food and cost of food. But I don’t have that problem because I grow all the food I need organically. I have never had to sit at my table with less than six separate dishes to choose from. I know that fuel prices are very high but most of my fuel needs are served by firewood picked from my own lands or from the vicinity and my family goes to sleep by eight o’clock so we use very little electricity. I also agree that some people have issues with transport. But I don’t have that problem because I go to town only once every three months and only to buy salt, dried fish, blades, soap and toothpaste. Once a year I buy a couple of new sarongs and shirts. I earn about 2000 rupees a month by selling a few fruits on the roadside and that is quite enough for everything I need to buy. I know that may people use bins to put garbage in but I do not think of anything as garbage so I don’t need a bin. Most of the people you spoke to are like me. What you speak of may be true of the rest of the world but for us, these things have never been problems so we are wondering what to do with what you say”.


Slthough rueful that my effort of the morning was completed wasted I nevertheless smiled with genuine happiness for in Arunasiri I saw a completely  sustainable man, living in a sustainable community in a sustainable village. Where he is now I do not know.  Neither do I know if his village has succumbed to the insanity and impropriety of the world in the decade that followed.  However, the reason underlying his killer missive of “your problems have never been my problem” is ragingly relevant to us today as we deal with infinitely exacerbated versions of those very crises I spoke about that day.


What do we have today? We have Asia growing the largest amount of food but also having the largest number of starving people in the world. We are bleeding money to power our lives with geometrically increasing fuel prices while largely ignoring our own renewable sources. We carelessly bring home and discard 2500 metric tons of material a day and are literally and figuratively being mowed under by an avalanche of garbage.  The price of money has skyrocketed. Having made all of these things come to pass, we call ourselves civilized, sensitive and intelligent when in fact, the opposite is true.


The reason is not that hard to understand. Connecting people with goods that were produced on the other side of the planet is a horribly unsustainable exercise that was the great, world destroying mathra of the industrial age. With every increase in the miles between the minds and markets of the producer and the consumer, everything becomes more difficult, more expensive, more wasteful and more toxic.


A key difference between the industrial age and the sustainable age is the fact that in the sustainable age, minimizing this distance between producer and consumer is mandatory. Taking the argument to its highest point, the sustainable age must strive to reduce that distance to zero at every possible point. The only way to achieve that is to make the producer the consumer or vice-versa as farmer Arunasiri and his community had done so many years ago. This is easiest achieved in food, energy and transport. In this piece, I will not treat finance and garbage for those wastes deserve fuller attention.


To reduce “food kilometers”, consumers need only to grow a percentage of their food and to eradicate those kilometers, grow all of the food that they consume. Even urban Sri Lanka is comparatively green and we have a tradition of growing steeped in our agricultural heritage that is easily leveraged for the purpose. Happily, with the present government committed to localizing food production and consumption, they have the ability and the capability of lending a helping hand to any and all who wish to engage in food production for their own consumption. Not simply in rural settings but (especially) in urban habitats.


To reduce “energy kilometers”, consumers  need only to generate a percentage of their energy and to eradicate those kilometers, generate all of their energy. Once again, the government has created the enabling environment for consumers to create their own energy through the “battle for solar energy” initiative that provides substantial technical and financial assistance to those (especially) in urban settings to generate their own power.


To reduce “transport kilometers” consumers need only to work and study a percentage of time from their places of residence and to eradicate those kilometers, work and study exclusively from home. Here too, modern technology is already eminently capable of providing the spidering required for person-to-person interconnects that do not require them to be in the same physical space.


Doing these things will reduce the carbon footprint of every citizen for all of these areas are high in energy consumption when indulged in using industrial age sensibilities. Most importantly though, it reduces waste geometrically.


But will we? Many of us, who dismiss stress, illness, fatigue, loss of quality time as “occupational hazards” of attempting to compete in the world will think of all of these alternative exercise which will reduce all those industrial age problems as either “a lot of work” or “not worth the time”. Such is the nature of addiction to bad things.  If we qualify in any way to the title “intelligent” this should have ended decades ago but beings creatures of habit, addicts, we have let the runaway train of casual producer-consumer convenience gather so much momentum that it threatens, not only to throw the entire human race off track, but to destroy the track as well. Yet, true to our addiction, we would rather shrug, bury our heads in the sand, watch our idiot boxes, sent our tweets and snaps and posts, by everything that loans, debts, supermarkets and malls can sell us and go to our happy, habit-addled doom than lift a single finger to turn this around.


I have a small hope though, that people will sit up, remove their pink-tinted glasses and see the world for what it truly it. See that we have run out of time. See that we have to bootstrap ourselves into the future and that future will belong to sustainability of we are to have any future at all. See that enabling that that future mandates that these bad habits must be broken. That these horror addictions are kicked. See that like all such things, these must stop and that they  must stop now.

If you are not dead already you should be


Aug 21

August 26, 2021

If you are not dead already you should be

The dumb citizen’s sellout to toxic foods and the disaster to national health

So, you are fairly well to do. You commute daily to your great job or your profitable business. You return each day to a stable family. You take a vacation every few months. You own a few acres and couple of houses and a car or three. You go often to the bank to make a deposit to an already fairly fat nest egg. It’s a great, solid, decent, socially mandated routine and you are probably thinking you do well in terms of the societal norms by which you live. Society probably considers you a smart man and you probably believe that yourself.


Oh, and by the way, you also complete that routine by becoming sick five times a year, going in for a checkup every six months with your spouse in attendance and taking a sick child to this OPD or that battery of specialists every month for treatment for a cocktail of illnesses.  Your kitchen cabinet resembles a mini-pharmacy. You hammer the well-woman clinic, the hair-loss treatment clinic, a dozen deals that come couched in health check-up packages from diabetes to prostrate to toe-nails, every next advert claiming that you can be saved if you gulp this, pop that or chomp the other thing.


Who are you?


You are one of a whole host of upper-middle class citizens of this country that believes, religiously, blindly, that your life is great despite every indication to the contrary. You believe you are doing alright with your diabetes, your hypertension, and your clogged arteries.


You think that chronic kidney disease is something that affects poor rural farmers who live surrounded by a fog of toxic agrochemicals. You have no clue that a full 10-15 percent of the population of Sri Lanka will be subject to serious renal disease by 2025 and that you, thirty-something now will probably be having dialysis at forty-something


You have no idea why your wife had to suffer so much to give birth to a child and had to go visit a doctor fourteen times during pregnancy or why your child needs every kind of shot, pill and pop imaginable just to keep it breathing over its first five years. You haven’t figured out why most women are half dead by the time they have a single child these days and you have no clue why you have penile dysfunction at thirty. You do not wonder that each time you go to a hospital there are, literally thousands of others crowding in, pushing you out and jostling for position. You have no need to understand why the fastest growing and most profitable business sector in Sri Lanka is the health sector.  You think this is the norm when you are being told by your dad that in his day, he visited the doctor maybe once a decade and even then, there were just a couple of others in the waiting room with him. You have no idea how much of your productivity is lost to your little stash of diseases. You have no idea why in the past, people were cured by medicine but now, they are forced into chronic use of drugs simply to keep you going and going in a twilight existence while buying and buying “controllers”.


Who are you?


You are no better and no worse than the low income groups and the middle income groups and you differ in just one way – you have the wherewithal to somehow justify the belief that your shortened, diseased life is somehow great.  You believe that your ability to check into a five star hotel masquerading as a hospital is enough to validate the various diseases you need treatment for. When you buy into the various advertisements calling you to splurge on this insurance and that policy, this vitamin or that energy booster, you erroneously believe that by doing so you can live just a bit longer than anyone else.

Who are you?
You are a person who doesn’t know that the incidence of agrotoxins in your food is at levels that will kill you just as surely as the farmer who is exposed to 100 times that amount.  You have no idea that early onset Alzheimer’s is an urban ill linked to the ingestion of those poisons. You do not know why there are so many special needs units popping up to treat ADHD whose incidence jumps 10 times in children  exposed to organophosphates which you end up feeding your children through the foods you purchase. You have no idea that leukemia accounts for 33% of all childhood cancers and that agrotoxins are a key reason for it and that your child is vulnerable to it even before it is born. You do not know that in certain parts of the world, especially developed countries or those urban centers in developing countries that are significantly developed (like Colombo) 1 in every 8 women will succumb to breast cancer linked to agrotoxins. You just don’t understand that pesticides and insecticides are the reason why so many of our children are suffering from asthma and your child probably does as well.
Who are you?
You are a person who visits the supermarket at least twice a week to buy a few of the 40+ agrotoxin laced poison packets also known as the fruit, vegetables, meat and fish section despite the fact that Sri Lanka has over 550 natural foods that don’t have to be labeled “poisonous! Handle with care”. You are a person who doesn’t care a tiny rat’s rear why there are just two aisles of food and seven aisles of “nutrients” and that those rows and rows of nutrient cans, boxes, packets and wraps only serve to concentrate the toxins already existent in their sources coupled with a chemistry lab full of other poisons just to keep them looking and tasting like food for a long long period of time. You are a person who doesn’t wonder why not even a maggot will touch the contents of a “nutrient rich” package if you toss it out and watch it until it degenerates into dust.
Who are you?
You are a person who believes that something marketed well is better than something that is not. You are a person who will trample a naturally created jak-fruit seed on your way to a supermarket to buy a kilo of toxin laced dhal. You are a person who reads the nutrient list on a package to see if it will solve an imaginary disease marketed for you by a nice looking chick on TV. You are a person who just doesn’t think that natural foods can be had for either low cost or no cost because it is too easy to access and too difficult to market as part of your “wealth display” or your “knowledge  display”.
What are you?
You are dumb. And the dumb die. Sooner rather than later. Despite your social status. Despite your supposed wealth and wherewithal. Despite your lands and your buildings. Despite your insurance policies. Despite your acceptance by society as a “smart” person. If you are not a ghost parked on top of a hospital roof or supermarket display while reading this post, you are already dying.
You know it, and you are just too darn stupid to realize why that is so.
Sustainable engagement: The art of making one’s self progressively unnecessary


Aug 17

August 10, 2017

Sustainable engagement: The art of making one’s self progressively unnecessary

(This may also be found here on the Daily Mirror)


Today, I will tell a story that is of great use and therefore, I shall limit my reading of it because my views on it are not that useful. The dialogues are not a perfect lift because memories such as these are long and rambling as they flit across one’s mind but… the essence is there. Indulge me folks.


Mrs. Seelan (not her real name for reasons that will become apparent),  is a small scale farmer in the Vanni. Back in 2012, I was on a project to uplift the lives of farmers and looking for people who were already on their way without my intercession. I was chock-full of NGO-ese gunk like “empowerment”, “micro-entrepreneurship”, “value-chain enhancement” and a whole load of additional blah. Looking for champions for case studies, I heard of this lady from people in one area as I was rooting around with my Tamil speaking buddy Damien. They were doing fine with a bee-keeping collective but flat out refused to speak about it. Instead, they named another. “Go see Mrs. Seelan” was the stock statement within the community and try as I might, they pointed to none other. Yet, their directive was anything but casual, as noted by the lowering of the voice, the glazing of the eyes, the tiny smile at the edge of the lips.  This then, was one of significant standing among them. A lady held in honor by all to the point that everyone else felt they were not quite as good, quite as enabled. A formidable person, I decided, as we parked our big bad vehicle in front of her gate. A gate  which was one by name only for it was not designed to keep anyone out. We proceeded through into her small haven.


As I stepped out of the super-heated sunlit blaze into her cool, green-twilight, elven-fantasy land it didn’t take me more than a second to realize that our very presence there was an aberration. A break in some complex internal harmony within the place. A distraction at best. An irritation at worst.


We wandered in. We wondered in. There was no hurry to the process of walking across the acre from gate to house and much wonder swirled around us as we did so. Her two acre land was dense and dark with shockingly luscious and green foliage. Birds tweeted in the trees. Lizards and monitors sat, straddled and waddled across the ground. Insects zinged, hummed and chirped in that strange, constant concord of intermingled harmony and cacophony. The very air seem aware, excited and enthused by the idea of life.  Seated in front of her house and bound up with it all was Mrs. Seelan, a tiny tiny lady with many smiles and few words.


Despite our fractious intrusion, she did by us because the great hospitality of our people was not be denied. Indicating a rough seat in her garden, she stepped into her house and returned with two sizable slabs of honeycomb fat and dripping with golden goodness. I sat there, holding it in my hand, and spoke to her with Damien translating.


The people call you the bee-lady, although looking around, it seems to me that you are an everything lady”.

She didn’t reply for a while then “… they call me that because I was the first to teach them the art and they are quite successful now”.

Oh??” The penny dropped.  “So it was you who introduced it to them?

No Sir, many came with the science. They failed. I gave them the art. They succeeded”.

I nodded. “They have formed a very profitable business group but you are not a part of that. Why?”.

She said nothing.

“They respect you a lot you know?”

She said nothing.

Perhaps they would love it if you lead them?”.


She said nothing.


I dropped it. Not entirely insensitive to these things and I saw that I was very quickly going from being a mere irritation to being a downright nuisance so I decided to shut my notebook and concentrate on the honeycomb instead. That honey had a unique sharpness, caused no doubt by the mix of flowers in the area. Tricky thing, eating honey from the source. Much care is needed to extract it and its certainly not an “on-the-fly” type of food that is preferred these days.


In that place, the taste seem somehow enhanced by an infusion of the essence of its multifaceted aliveness. So concentrated was I in the task and the ethos of the place, that it was a while before I realized that she was speaking in a slow, casual monotone, murmuring to no one in particular, almost as if she were revealing something to herself.


Once they understood, my task was done. Some will teach their children. Others will teach their relatives in other villages. All will enjoy benefits. The art can only be taught if the student owns the process. Otherwise, the knowledge is with the teacher. This is the big mistake of teaching the science. The teacher always tries to be bigger. Always wants credit for the skills. Then the student becomes lesser. Less interested. A good teacher must become progressively unnecessary. I never had to teach them the full art. The last third, they figured out for themselves. I was not needed and that was good. I did not need to be known. I did not need to own. I did not need to belong. I was only the source of the energy. They used it to light their own lamps. It is well. My task is done. The benefit of the action is theirs. The recognition for the action is theirs. The respect for the action is theirs”.


Damien was silent for a long while before he translated and I understood why. If roles were reversed, I would have wanted to hold to her soliloquy for as long as possible myself.


When he finished, I said nothing. All was well. All was very very well. We finished our treat, he exchanged a few words with her, we all exchanged many smiles and then we took our leave, walking slowing out of a piece of mini-magic.


As we retraced our steps, Damien said “do you want to know why she spoke?”.


It’s just… well, in all the time I have known her, she has never spoken that much”.

I shook my head. “Drop it bro, it doesn’t matter”. I was not in the least interested in making her into a case study or a report on “best practices”. But he couldn’t let it lie.

He made a mistake, that one…” she had said.

“…but then he realized and he stopped. Many have come here. He is not the first. But he is different this one. He is wiser. He put his book down. I spoke because I saw that he was eating honey as it should be eaten”.

I smiled, nodded, opened the door of our SUV and tossed the notebook inside.

Damien glanced quickly at me, pointing at the discarded book. “You will write it up later?”.

I shook my head as I got in.

Such things are to be passed from person to person. Not report to report. Someday, if I am in the mood, I might tell someone the story. For now, I am satiated”.


“Satiated…” the driver started the engine. “…full, complete, aware. Aware that the world is not really all that bad”.


Mrs. Seelan, by example, exposed the root of sustainability, continuity, durability. She showed the point of takeoff for a more equitable and contented future for us all, less fraught with danger, less driven by fear. To get there, we must understand three things. First, that our base dynamic energy should kindle the potential energy of many. Next, that our capability must trigger innate capability in many. Finally, that when many people benefit a little, entire communities and nations benefit a lot.


Moreover, we must honestly recognize and unequivocally reject our past lives of shame and sham.


Lives where the extent to which we were able to hoard and guard our very minor stores of wealth, knowledge and power defined capability. Where the extent to which we were able to viciously suppress any who dared threaten them, using policy, acts, rights, politics on one hand and lying, cheating, manipulation and thuggery on the other defined ability. We must understand that if we are the reason for the contentment and happiness of many, we are automatically giving ourselves a reward a hundred times greater without any requirement to be counted as those who started it all. As Mrs. Seelan is well and her world is well, so, we, too, can make our worlds well. When we do that, we will heal the planet.


As Mrs. Seelan proved without ever setting out to do so, honor, recognition, power and above all –respect - does not come to people through demand or command or because of what they are but rather, because of what they make others see in themselves.

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