Wednesday, January 31, 2007

2nd Quarter Watson report

I submitted this report to the Watson Foundation at the end of January, 2007.

Back in October when I last checked in, I was starry-eyed and infatuated with Beijing, mixing seamlessly with Chinese and international scholars and activists and feeling as though I could truly make a home for myself there. I spent my remaining few weeks in Beijing enjoying the sights, making preparations for my Hong Kong stay, and wrapping up my survey of the Beijing environmental NGO sector. I had been feeling a bit frustrated however because I had amassed a significant amount of information and analysis, yet was not sure what purpose it might serve beyond my own edification. Fortunately, I met a few other young Western scholars towards the end of my stay that shared my interests, and was able to provide them with a summary of my work and contacts that they might find useful.

In the process I realized how pretty much my entire life to-date has been geared towards being productive, and that one of the strangest aspects of this whole Watson experience is that no one is really asking me for any sort of a concrete outcome. I remember, early on, turning to one of my mentors and asking him what he thought I should try and do with the experience and resources that I had just been handed. His advice was that I should walk through the world with my eyes and ears open, engaging in as rich an experience as possible and reflecting upon what I observed. Beyond that, he said, I should not concern myself too much with what comes out of it—as what will surely emerge is a more knowledgeable and experienced person, one who is likely much more capable of both producing and discerning what it is that needs to be produced. Wise words, but as with any good advice, easier said than done.

I spent about a week traveling from Beijing to Hong Kong, and took the opportunity to visit a few smaller cities along the way. As in much of the developing world, the gap in living standards is quite extreme between urban and rural areas, and China has, by its own pronouncements, perhaps the largest such gap. Having spent a couple months being struck by Beijing’s dizzying heights, my little excursion was certainly a strong reminder of the many challenges the nation faces on the path to development, especially on the environmental health front. The contrast was even more striking upon reaching Hong Kong, which is probably the wealthiest city in Asia that I have visited thus far.

Long a home to Westerners, Hong Kong was quite easy to navigate and I fell into a rhythm there almost immediately. Civic Exchange, an environmental and pro-democracy NGO that a friend introduced me to, was more than willing to take full advantage of my past NGO/research experience and to satisfy my desires to be productive. They put me to work examining local discourse around Hong Kong’s air quality, an issue of serious and ongoing contention which has involved the scientific community, local government, and civil society. Since air quality is a continuing focus, there was a variety of different research possibilities and they allowed me a high degree of autonomy. I ended up spending a significant chunk of my time surveying the minutes from meetings of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. LegCo, as it is called locally, is one of Hong Kong’s primary governing institutions since the British handover in 1997. The fascinating thing about reading through the reports from LegCo’s meetings is that I really got a feel for Hong Kong as its own unique entity under China’s “one country, two systems” policy. I observed how significantly the city differs from the mainland, and how it has grappled with a range of issues—environmental, social, and political. On the environmental front, Hong Kong has actually made some substantial and quite progressive strides in recent years—often using the European Union as a model for its efforts. Unfortunately however, pollution does not recognize borders, and as Hong Kong has cleaned up, the neighboring Shenzhen "Special Economic Zone" in mainland China has become a highly-polluting "factory to the world." Most of the rest of my time at Civic Exchange was spent examining Hong Kong’s legislative efforts to ameliorate air pollution, and increasingly, its cooperative exchanges with Shenzhen on this front.

When I was not busy “being a geek,” as my roommates so aptly put it, I was getting to know my latest geographical crush. Hong Kong is one of the loveliest cities I have ever spent time in, and certainly the nicest in Asia, and kindled in me a growing interest in envisioning sustainable urban landscapes. This interest is no simple academic exercise, either—according to a recent report issued by the Earth Policy Institute, 2007 marks a significant turning point in human history, as we become, for the first time, a predominantly urban species. China and India, as well as many other industrializing nations, are struggling to meet the needs of their rapidly growing urban populations as people flood into the cities seeking employment and a better way of life. Given its geography and history placing it at the crossroads of East and West, Hong Kong has evolved into a truly unique urban entity. With dense human habitation (around seven million people squeezed into a little over 100 square kilometers), excellent public transit, a tropical climate, lots of green space, and countless cultural amenities, it is a veritable metropolitan paradise in some respects, at least by my reckoning.

Being more of a small town kind of fella in my past life, I remember early on looking at my overall itinerary for this year abroad and wondering if I was going to be able to survive such an intense urban experience. But as I move through it, I have to say that my thoughts about cities and about urban living are changing, and Hong Kong has played a pretty big role in that. Of course, one downside to such attractive settings is that they can be quite expensive places to exist, and that is certainly the case with Hong Kong. After a little over a month there, I was richer in experience, but also poorer in the pocket, and it was time to move on to Southeast Asia.

Partly due to environmental concerns, and partly because I simply find it to be a more enriching way to travel, I prefer to utilize overland routes wherever possible. As mentioned above, I did so from Beijing to Hong Kong and found the experience quite rewarding. Emboldened by that first endeavor, rather than fly directly from Hong Kong to Malaysia I chose instead to spend a couple weeks making the trip overland. This itinerary brought me through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand using a variety of transportation modes including train, bus, boat, car/minibus, motorcycle, and even bicycle. Along the way, I made a few quick stops to take in some sights, but mostly just spent long days staring from windows at stunning landscapes and a wide variety of lifestyles. The trip was a nice change from what had been a hectic pace of life in Hong Kong, and provided me with plenty of time to catch up on some reading and reflect upon my experiences thus far. But it also provided further insights into environment-development struggles taking place in the region, especially given the significant human and natural calamities that these countries have witnessed within my lifetime. Further, Cambodia and Thailand were my first window into Theravada Buddhist culture, as my experiences to-date have exposed me only to the Mahayana school.

Since arriving in Malaysia, I have been reconnecting with my research partners, trying to find an affordable place to live, and just getting to know the place a bit. Malaysia is the first Muslim country I have ever visited, and the sizable Indian and Chinese communities here also make life much more interesting. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the experience at Civic Exchange in Hong Kong, I have decided to forego further NGO involvement, at least until I get back to India. This decision was a difficult one to make, especially given my ongoing struggle with feeling like I need to be useful and productive, but ultimately I decided to make this period more academic rather than activist-focused. Both the University of Malaya’s Science and Technology Studies department and the Malaysian Academy of Sciences have a lot of interesting resources to offer, resources which I am certain will keep me well-occupied. In addition, I would like to begin giving some serious attention to Hindi study, and between some online resources I found and the Indian Malay community, I should be able to do that.

I am also happy to announce that I think I might have narrowed the focus of my research to a somewhat more manageable topic. In my initial proposal I referenced Yale University’s Environmental Sustainability Index. As I have continued my research, and particularly as a result of my experiences in China, I am becoming increasingly interested in this and other approaches to defining sustainability and developing indicators of sustainability at the local, regional, and national levels. Such indicators incorporate social as well as environmental measurements and therefore serve as an important nexus between science and culture. I have learned that in a wide range of nations, quantitative yet holistic indicators are increasingly being explored as an alternative, or at least supplement, to traditional measures such as GDP (e.g., China’s “Green GDP”). Additionally, a contemporary and influential Indian thinker I have come across has formulated a proposal to build a nationwide network of schoolchildren, all involved via their curricula in gathering local information which could be compiled into a national indicators effort. Following up on this proposal will hopefully comprise the bulk of my partnership with Delhi-based Centre for Science and the Environment upon my return to India in a few more months, and I am currently in discussion with my contacts at CSE about this idea.

I was fortunate to have dinner recently with my fellow Berean and Watson winner Isaac Bingham and his wife Alice on their way out of Malaysia. In some ways Isaac and I, as well as our proposals and overall Watson experience thus far, are about as different as could be imagined. For a minute I even found myself questioning how it is that we are both recipients of the same grant. But listening to Isaac talk about his experiences and observing how animated we both were in describing our passions cleared up any doubts. It also helped me to see how transformative this adventure is, and the importance of simply being immersed in it rather than preoccupying myself so much with the longer-term implications. I look forward to our Watson gathering this summer and to hearing more about how others have grappled with these same struggles, and have been set alight by being given this incredible opportunity.