Resurrecting the Book Club: Gaviotas (Part 1)

Gaviotas Once upon a time I had the bright idea to do a book club. Unfortunately, time evaporated after the first book. Well, I still don’t have any time, but I did managed to read the second book on the list, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, while on vacation. Over the next week or so, I’ll put down my observations/thoughts inspired by the book.

Book synopsis
In the 1970’s, a group of scientists (engineers, biologists, botanists, agriculturists, sociologists, doctors), teachers and artists founded a community in the llanos region of Columbia. Before they came, many would have called those miles and miles savannah north of the Amazon rain forest, a wasteland. However, the founders saw a dream. They wanted to show the world a different way of living: sustainable, self-sufficient, and environmentally viable. Not a utopia, per se. They didn’t believe those were possible anyway, but they did believe that they could create a decent approximation. Given the state of the world at the time, they also figured that people would need to learn how to make such uninhabitable places habitable. With the relentless urban expansion, the depletion of non-renewable resources, and continued poverty, people would be pushing into these areas sooner or later anyhow. The Gaviotans wanted to lead the way.

Somehow, Gaviotas became an oasis of calm in the midst of maddening turbulence. In her heyday, Colombia was a pearl, but drug trafficking, guerrilla warfare, paramilitary action, and kidnappings had tarnished her tremendously [Read the 5/17/07 BBC story of hostage escaping the FARC]. Somehow, Gaviotas was relatively immune to the violence that surrounded it. I say relatively because there were instances where people were taken away by guerrillas never to be seen again.

Overall, the community sounds like a paradise for thinkers and inventors, where your garage workshop grew to encompass an entire village. Together, they made marvelous things: a solar kitchen, biogas systems, solar panels, windpumps, water purifiers, etc. etc. By the end of the book, they also started to beat back the savannah, turning it back into forest.

My gut reaction:
It was my third time trying to read the book. Though the writing itself is good (Weisman knows how to turn a phrase), the execution is somewhat tedious. So many people were involved in making Gaviotas a reality; Weisman was bent on recognizing them all. While this is quite fair, it makes a good chunk of the storytelling a litany of names and comings and goings. Yawn. You get to know Gaviotas the place, but you don’t get more than a passing sense of any of the remarkable people who live(d) there. Okay okay, since it is a story of a semi-socialist shangri-la, it makes sense that no single individual stands out as the hero of the piece. Still.

Otherwise, it’s a good read.


This Week’s Top 10 (5/6/2007-5/12/2007)

Here are my favorite environment, health, climate change, international development or country specific blog posts (and articles) for the past week in no particular order.

  1. Make Money, Save the World from NYTimes

    ALTRUSHARE SECURITIES is a brokerage firm, engaged in the sort of things you might expect of a Wall Street outfit, like buying and selling stock, and providing research on companies. Unlike its peers, however, the firm is majority-owned by two charities that each control about one-third of it.

    So is it a for-profit business? Or a nonprofit fund-raising machine?

    In fact, like hundreds of new businesses starting up around the country, it is both. Altrushare is an example of the emerging convergence of for-profit money-making and nonprofit mission.

    The practice is even creeping into corporate bluebloods like General Electric, whose $12 billion Ecomagination business promotes its products’ minimal environmental impact as well as their positive impact on the bottom line.

  2. Suzuki edits the Sun from Gristmill

    Famed Canadian eco-hero David Suzuki was handed the reins to guest edit an entire edition of the Vancouver Sun on Sat. May 5.

    “What I would love to do is put a green slant in every area,” he added, explaining he thinks the mainstream media do not do enough to highlight how the environment is connected to all areas of the news.

  3. Veiling Our True Predicament: Part I – Global Dimming from Celsias
  4. Urban farms empower Africa from Christian Science Monitor
    Aid providers in Congo and elsewhere are discovering that lessons in farming can succeed where food handouts have not.
  5. For a warmer future, Australia employs Aboriginal wisdom from Christian Science Monitor

    To white Australians, the flocks of red-tailed black cockatoos which flap above tree canopies are a memorable highlight of any weekend hike. But to Aborigines, the parrots are living, squawking barometers.

    “A month ago when the cockatoos were flocking and the wattle bushes were flowering, we saw that as signs of rain,” says Jeremy Clark, chief executive of the Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre in the Grampian Mountains of Victoria State. “Sure enough, we’ve just had two weeks of rain.”

    Where meteorologists base their prognostications on satellites and synoptic charts, generations of Aborigines have observed the behavior of animals and the continent’s flowering of plants.

  6. Crime in the Caribbean arrests growth from PSD Blog
    “The new UN–World Bank report links the low rates of economic development to record high crime levels in the region.”
  7. Ethical investing and Darfur: Genocide in the boardroom from Economist
    A moral dilemma interrupts Warren Buffett’s love-in

    The bigger challenge was a debate on a special resolution calling on Mr Buffett to disinvest from PetroChina, a Chinese oil firm, which some shareholders claim is indirectly providing financial support to the genocide in Darfur.

    The fact that Mr Buffett allowed a long debate on the Darfur resolution is to his credit. Most bosses hate this sort of shareholder resolution, almost as much as they dislike being asked to justify their enormous pay packages. By participating in a lengthy, no-holds-barred discussion with shareholders, Mr Buffett showed that he takes their views seriously, even if he disagrees with their conclusion. The mass of them supported their hero, rejecting the resolution overwhelmingly. Of course, the fact that the investment in PetroChina has been spectacularly successful had nothing to do with this result.

  8. Lighter Footstep: A Giant List of Summer Cooling Tips from Green Options
  9. IBM Jams: Big Blue Goes to the BOP from WorldChanging

    The “ThinkPlace Challenge” is a 3-week exercise designed to generate ideas for IBM innovation and strategy teams. Of specific interest is the company’s newly-formed World Development Initiatve, which is essentially a base of the pyramid tiger team comprised of 30-odd employees from all over the company. This is very cool. Companies don’t usually start with a tiger team; BOP projects tend to begin on the corporate responsibility side and then slowly, gradually (if at all) port over to the business units. Kudos to IBM for getting this structural element right.

  10. Global warming in Africa: Drying up and flooding out from the Economist
    Rich countries may be largely to blame for adding climate change to Africa’s litany of problems, but the continent’s own politicians have yet to take it seriously

Video: A Love Song to Public Transit [GOOD Magazine]

Good asked a musician to write and sing a love song to public transit on Portland, Oregon’s new aerial tram—one of only two commuter trams in the country (the other is in New York City).


Other great videos from Good:

Needing to chuck your old electronics? The Basel Action Network, who contributed documentary footage to this video, compiled a list of Responsible Recyclers that will not export your old computer. Check out their list here:

Totes are Hot (Plastic Sucks)
On March 27, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags. The impact of plastic bags on the environment is well known, but what is not as widely discussed is that paper bags are harmful as well. Be a dutiful citizen and use reusable or compostable bags that dramatically lessen your impact on the Earth.

Edward Norton and the High Line
Edward Norton and The Friends of the High Line are helping convert a historic 1.5 mile elevated railway into a beautiful public park.

Jeffrey Sachs, An Interview
Ben Goldhirsh sat down with Jeffrey Sachs in New York to talk about his campaign to end extreme poverty in Africa by 2025. Sachs wrote the END OF POVERTY and is the director of the UN Millennium Project and The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

This Week’s Top 10 (5/13/2007-5/19/2007)

Here are my favorite environment, health, climate change, international development or country specific blog posts (and articles) for the past week in no particular order.

  1. Green Myth-Busting: Gas Guzzling SUVs from Green Options

    Myth: SUVs are the biggest gas guzzlers around.

    Fact: Minivans, pick-up trucks and regular ol’ four door sedans get the same, if not worse, miles per gallon (MPG.)

  2. California to reduce formaldehyde levels from Inhabitat

    California regulators have adopted new standards to reduce the amount of formaldehyde in wood products.

  3. On the road: India needs new roads, rail and ports from The Economist

    India’s acute need for better transport and power infrastructure is opening doors for foreign investors to finance projects in the country. There are even rumours that the Indian government will channel its considerable foreign-currency reserves—which now stand at more than US$200bn—into infrastructure investments, possibly in partnership with foreign funds.

  4. Climate change to create one billion refugees from FP Passport
  5. One Carbon Sink Is Filling Up from Der Spiegel

    The Southern Ocean has grown saturated with CO2 and may lose its capacity to mitigate global warming, according to new research.

  6. Billions of Dollars Pledged to Cut Urban Energy Use from NYTimes

    A coalition of 16 of the world’s biggest cities, five banks, one former president and companies and groups that modernize aging buildings pledged today to invest billions of dollars to cut urban energy use and releases of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

    Under a plan developed through the William J. Clinton Foundation, participating banks would provide up to $1 billion each in loans that cities or private landlords would use to upgrade energy-hungry heating, cooling and lighting systems in older buildings.

  7. Offshoring — where it stops, nobody knows from HTWW at Salon

    Once upon a time, we measured whether a country was “developed” or not by such measures as per capita GDP. Today, the real proof that one has joined the rich kid’s club is whether or not a country is worrying about its manufacturing base becoming “hollowed out” by offshoring.

    Except, South Korea is a lot better off than the Warriors. It is the tenth largest economy in the world. Per capita GDP in 1963, $100. In 2007, over $25,000.

    Offshoring — the price a nation pays for making it to the top.

  8. Organic Bees Surviving Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) from Celsias
    Our friends over at Land’s Sake, an organic farm in our area, also have mentioned that their beehives are doing rather well these days.
  9. Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget from World Changing
  10. Deforestation: The hidden cause of global warming from The Independent

    In the next 24 hours, deforestation will release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as 8 million people flying from London to New York. Stopping the loggers is the fastest and cheapest solution to climate change. So why are global leaders turning a blind eye to this crisis?

Development Porn: NGO Imagery

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Development Porn: NGO Imagery

This recent post from the THD Blog [Fair Trade Photography Battles ‘Development Pornography’] really stuck in my gut. I do most of the design/marketing work for AIDG and the issue of how to present the organization and people we work with through photography is something I struggle with all the time.

We try hard to stay away from pics that feel like development porn. First what’s a good definition of dev po (I’m just going to abbreviate it this way. I don’t want Google to get the wrong idea. ;). For me, I suppose it’s pictures that are shocking, pull on your heartstrings shamelessly and often, as Reuters puts it, “still perpetuate a colonial idea of incapable Africans [or other folks from developing nations] waiting passively for help from their white saviours”.

The one picture that we use that make us feel somewhat sketchy/exploitative in this way is the shot on our front page of the little boy. I took in 2005 and I do love it; the colors, his expression.

Brandon 2005

His name is Brandon. His auntie, Beatriz works at the Casa Guatemala, an orphanage for abused and abandoned children located on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. I don’t remember all the details (my Spanish was shakier then). I’m not sure if he lived on site or was just there for the school day. He came by out of curiosity when we visited the site in summer 2005 to check on the biodigester AIDG had installed their in April. Pete and Benny were discussing the biodigester with Javier, one of the workers who would be using the fuel that the biodigester would generate. Brandon let me take a few shots of him. Here he is with his aunt.

Brandon and his aunt Beatriz at Casa Guatemala

What is it about the pic makes me feel a bit … you know… manipulative? It’s the fact that he is a this super-cute anime-eyed earnest-looking kid. It also makes me feel a bit naughty because but just as “Sex sells” in advertising, I know kiddies sell in development. Why did we keep it then? A big reason is that when I think of “sustainable future”, all I can think of is children either reaping the benefits or suffering the consequences of our decisions today. Yeah, it’s not a particularly innovative association. It could be called lazy even, though I think we’re using the image honestly.

It does beg the question as to whether a lot of what is now considered dev po is related to general laziness. Photo-editors and marketers are just falling back of easy associations to get their point across, wringing every last dollar out of imagery of the long-suffering developing country person until donors stop responding. They are failing to realize or underestimating the negative impact that the repetition of this type of imagery can have. For instance, when someone says Ethiopia, the first image in my head usually isn’t Haile Gebrselassie, the amazing 5,000 distance champ and world record holder [I saw him run in the UK. So so rad]. It’s famine. And I’ve got to say that despite their tireless work, many NGOs have done their target populations a serious disservice by leaving their donors with a similar knee-jerk association.

Let me know what you think? If you think we’re skirting that line too much, I’d really like to know.

Another interesting thing that this brings up is the relationship of the photo’s subject to the photographer. In the post, they mention the following fact: “Upwards of 90% of the images of the majority world that are seen in the western media are produced by white photographers from the USA or Europe.”

When I was in Cap-Haitien, Haiti last summer, I took various pictures of people who were involved in the charcoal training workshop, as well as folks who were on site. I took a few shots of these 2 sisters. Here is the pic they posed for me [a Haitian-American female.]

Same Subjects, Different Photographer 1

Here is how the posed for Dan, an engineer who was also on the trip [a white American male] a few minutes later.

Same Subjects, Different Photographer 2

Of interest:
Imaging Famine
Kijiji Vision

Different tenor.

What does $456 billion buy?

So being a non-profit, we are apolitical (gotta always pop that caveat in when talking about the Iraq War). Recently the Boston Globe asked the question: What does $456 billion [the projected cost of the war in Iraq by September this year] buy?

Here is one:

According to World Bank estimates, $54 billion a year would eliminate starvation and malnutrition globally by 2015, while $30 billion would provide a year of primary education for every child on earth.

At the upper range of those estimates, the $456 billion cost of the war could have fed and educated the world’s poor for five and a half years.


[Via Digg]