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Pedal Power solutions to petroleum dependence and polluting vehicles: Arcata Library Bikes, Pedal Power Produce, and more!

CAOE - Committee Against Oil Exploration - stop offshore oil drilling to protect sensitive habitats and cut petroleum dependence.

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Book Review
McKibben's Kerala: Not So Safe from Development

by Jan Lundberg, in India

India's jewel is probably the state of Kerala. Near the subcontinent's tip, it is a land full of coconut trees and gentle Malayalam speakers. But this fabled spice country and socio-political/economic success is being ruined by western-style consumption, "modern" values and tourism. Kerala needs eco-awareness and activism.

The End of Nature author Bill McKibben has released a book on sustainability "success" stories, in large part about Kerala, called Hope, Human and Wild (Little, Brown). As soon as I heard he had written about Kerala, I knew it was time for me to visit, so this column has been written and faxed from Kerala.

On the whole, McKibben's words on Kerala have probably done the world a service. The average American would do well to read McKibben. The reader is left impressed with Kerala's fine people enough to want to learn more or even visit. Kerala has a fairly high quality of life, although its population density is unmatched in India.

People here are generally happier and more secure than North Americans. That must be admitted, even if a gringo sucking the corporate teat would laugh at the idea of a comparable standard of living with a fisherman wearing just a skirt, putting his primitive kayak into turquoise waters. But, hey, this Keralite happens to enjoy a better literacy rate than does Joe America, has a comparable life-expectancy, and owns his little coconut patch and pulls in the bounty of the sea or backwater lagoons.

Joe and Jane America have been having a rougher and tougher time, and must reluctantly face that homelessness is a real possibility if not for them then for some relative(s). The U.S. is a feudal society, depriving the common folk of their right to have land and fisheries whether or not they lack a salary sufficient to buy them. Instead of land reform, the U.S. has its prison boom. Those trying to change our country are up against a well-propagandized and brainwashed mentality: "India's dirty, starving and inefficient, and they'd all come here if they could!" So in a world of diminishing resources, overcoming our obstacles to survival is not aided by knowledge of "alien" cultures. Actually, India functions remarkably well considering the numbers it is saddled with. It is beset by western corporate imperialism, GATT/WTO and the loss of both local self-sufficiency and healthy traditions. My own hope is that the dense population and already thorough mini-development, everywhere one looks, will prevent wholesale bulldozing, Wal-Martizing, video and CD mesmerizing and the like. But as John Trudell says, hope isn't worth much.

An environmental activist or scholar will be disappointed by McKibben's Kerala treatment: He is an apologist for paving dirt roads (p. 146), and there isn't much organization to the Kerala chapter or any footnotes or references. If McKibben comes off as anthropocentric or as buying into the conventional notion of progress, as when he cheers the political victory of villagers' not having road dust on their food anymore, it may be that he is merely trying to appeal to the mainstream. Let us hope he'll realize that paving is not the answer, because of downsides such as increased vehicle speeds. (See "Pave Those Dirt Roads?" available from APM.)

Hope, Human and Wild missed the fact that Kerala is going in the wrong direction toward its precious environment. If things are not turned around, destruction will go past the point that the ecosystem and urban communities can recover. Deforestation has been substantialóimpacting the besieged and unappreciated tribal peoples; a big hydroelectric power project threatens; motor-vehicle pollution is atrocious, and roads are being built.

Two major highways are planned for north-south pollution (travel), one of which is too late to stop, according to Kerala's best-known eco-activist, Sugatha Kumari. That is the coast road, construction of which I saw outside Alleppey, home of famous snake-boat races. The other road is planned for the inland hill country. A beach road was partly constructed but probably stopped, in part by foreign resort owners who cherish the unspoilt tropical paradise. In the capital city of Trivandrum, a huge stadium was erected a few years ago, widening roads. Kumari's pleas to save the many trees and to keep down the added vehicle exhaust were ignored. Interests on the left and right call her a dreamer, nut or CIA agent.

If McKibben had talked with Kumari, the reality of Kerala's plight might have tempered the hopeful and simplified image in the book. Eco-activism is as heart breaking and unrewarding here in Kerala as it is stateside, where real environmental activists are too few and are the underdog over 90 percent of the time.

Regarding tribal folk in the inland forests, they are all "contaminated and polluted by society's development-by-our-standards," says Kumari. The authorities in federal and Kerala government and the developers are "greedy and callous;" blunt language, but as a revered poet she has many admirers, also for helping drug-addicts and the mentally ill. She quoted Gandhi to me several times, lamenting that his village/low-tech values are ignored.

One of McKibben's main interviews was with Thomas Isaac of Kerala's Centre for Development Studies. After reading Alliance for a Paving Moratorium materials, Isaac told me, "We have too many roads." No doubt McKibben's Kerala chapter will generate eco-tourism and more thorough academic and policy-oriented study and publishing. After ten days in Kerala, my daughter and I have seen no other Americans. When they start coming, we hope that eco-activists come and lend a hand. They are needed and could get a good reception from schools' and universities' nature clubs, according to an environmentally minded businessman who supports Kumari. He says she is "the backbone, the lone campaigner" not appreciated enough to raise the necessary awareness all by herself.

In the past 10 to 15 years the climate has changed, removing the famed chill of Kerala's eastern mountains. Thus, coconuts now grow there, and other crops have been replaced. The main reason: deforestation and monocropping of cash crops. Hope, Human and Wild did not discover or pass this serious news on.

For now, the kind people and the sound of the Arabian Sea lapping nearby are what buoy my spirits, and the other-worldly music from the local Hindu temple influences my song writing. My narrow hopes this week are for fresh coconut water to save my stomach, and for my bandana to filter out the exhaust smoke as I slowly return via Indian cities to smelL.A. (Los Angeles). And oh yes, I ride the good Kerala rails on the way, something one can't manage in Carifornia.

For information on Kerala's environment and to obtain the poetry of Sugatha Kumari, write to her at the Society for the Conservation of Nature, Trivandrum-33, Kerala, India. Enclose a few dollars for copying and postage. She requested that people send her any useful environmental literature.


Articles of interest:
Anti-globalization protest grows, with tangible results.  WTO protests page

Tax fossil-fuel energy easily
by Peter Salonius

UK leader calls War on Terror "bogus"

Argentina bleeds toward healing by Raul Riutor

The oil industry has plans for you: blow-back by Jan Lundberg

It's not a war for oil? by Adam Khan

How to create a pedestrian mall by Michelle Wallar

The Cuban bike revolution

How GM destroyed the U.S. rail system excerpts from the film "Taken for a Ride".

"Iraqi oil not enough for US: Last days of America?"

Depaving the world by Richard Register

Roadkill: Driving animals to their graves by Mark Matthew Braunstein

The Hydrogen fuel cell technofix: Spencer Abraham's hydrogen dream.

Ancient Forest Protection in Northern California . Forest defenders climb trees to save them.

Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

A case study in unsustainable development is the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.

Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)



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