Wednesday, November 29, 2006

New Blogger...

Recently (I mean in mid-August actually...) Blogger introduced a "beta" version in which you could connect your Blogger account to your Google account. I was in fact a little late to try out this transition, which was probably good since I avoided all the initial bugs and glitches which early transitioners faced. The new beta version has some features that I had wished for in a previous post on this blog.

In the beta version I can now attach "category" tags to all my posts. This was one of the features I (and I am sure many other Blogger users) had wished for. Most other blog hosting websites have had this feature for a long time. Curiously, Blogger calls these tags "Labels" instead of "Categories", probably to distinguish itself from other sites, but it essentially does the same job. So you may notice "Labels" I have attached to the post at the bottom of the post (along with Technorati tags). Clicking on a label will take you to all the posts that are categorized under that label. For example click on the "Elephants" Label to see all my posts in that category. The Technorati tags are actually similar to labels, except that clicking on them takes you to all the posts tagged by that... well.. "tag" on Technorati.

The beta version also has a better template management interface through which you can make changes to your blog template. This has a user friendly interface to change fonts and colors and to add page elements such as blogroll, linkroll etc. It also includes a better way of adding and updating blogrolls and linkrolls. This is another thing I had wished for. Using this interface I can also display all the categories and number of posts filed under each in the sidebar. There are only a limited number of templates that are available with the new interface though.

I have upgraded my other blog "Oorjaa" with these new features. It was much easier on Oorjaa because there were only a few posts to take care of. There are a couple of new posts on Oorjaa too... so please take a look at them. I will be upgrading this blog using the new interface pretty soon... once I decide if I should change the look of the blog or not. If you have an opinion on whether "Transmogrified" can use a bit of transmogrification in terms of the looks itself, please leave a comment to that effect. I also need to update the blogroll and linkroll.

There are still some bugs and glitches in the new version though. I noticed some while writing the posts on oorjaa after I upgraded it. For example, when I try to insert an image into the post it gets inserted at the top of the post by default instead of being inserted at the present cursor location. The spell checker (always a good thing to do before posting) is horrible. It highlighted stuff in my post in all the weird places, sometimes highlighting half of one word and half of the next, for no apparent reason. Also it messed up all my links. So finally I had to use Word to do the task. Hopefully Blogger will get to resolving these soon.

Another feature I have been using for some time now for both of my blogs is "Google Analytics" to track the traffic. It is much much better that other traffic monitoring sites that I used previously. It give me much more relevant information regarding the traffic. Here is a snapshot of the geo-location of visitors for the month of November for example (click on it for a larger image). A bow of gratitude to each one of you who helped to put a tiny dot on the map! Keep coming back.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bodhi Vakya... "Centrism"

Bodhi Vakya means 'words of the enlightened one'. I think everyone has little glimpes of enlightenment at one point or another. Some may call it the "aha!" or "eureka!" moment. Often I come across little gems of sentences that carry profound wisdom (Buddhist panna, Sanskrit pradnya). I would like to think, the person was having a glimpse of enlightenment while writing them. This is a continuation of the previous "Bodhi Vakya" series and somehow it is also a continuation of the theme of the previous post.

The recent election here in USA has led many people to conclude that the country has voted strongly for a "centrist" position, as opposed to the bitter partisan rivalry and polarizing ideological stances. Almost all political parties are driven by some ideology. The ideology serves as the starting point for defining all (or most) of the party's position on social and political issues. More often than not, solutions derived from one or the other ideology are hardly the "optimum" solutions for the problem at hand. However it is often observed that people are keen on adhering to their ideology more than solving the problem in a reasonable amount of time. As a result the optimal solutions are often dumped in the thrash can.

People adhering to extreme positions often paint "centrists" as having "no ideological spine". Centrism is also portrayed as the position in which you go in whichever direction the winds are blowing. My own preferences and opinions lie sligtly to the left of the center if you need to know... but here is a piece from an essay that I recently came across, that tries to define the "centrist" position more formally. So here is the first Bodhi Vakya.. from Jason Scorse of Voices of Reason..
I want to reframe centrism as the political philosophy that takes the best ideas of all political persuasions instead of simply being viewed as either watered down liberalism or conservatism. In addition, centrism should be viewed as a philosophy of governing that is concerned primarily with societal outcomes, and less so with ideological purity. It is a more humble philosophy that allows for unintended consequences, continually updated assumptions, and the sincere desire to take into account opposing viewpoints. (read the full essay)
The second emphasis is added by me. I think it defines the "centrist ideology" if you will. This reminds me of Buddha's "middle way". Buddha was a very practical person and througout his life he refused to answer any questions regarding the metaphysical descriptions of reality. He reiterated that he was more concerned with alleviating the suffering here and now, in this life. There is a fable in which a lay person asked the Buddha to explain to him the "true nature of reality" before he could accept his teaching. The Buddha answered, "You are like a person who has been shot by a poisoned arrow. Before the doctor cures you, you insist on knowing the exact composition of the poison, whether it is slow acting or fast acting, the name of the person who shot the arrow, his family background and other questions of such nature. These things have nothing to do with your suffering here and now. All you need to do is to try the medicine the doctor is about to give. If it works you can find the answers to the rest of the questions yourself". The Buddha's middle way was concerned with "outcomes" rather than abstract concepts. Similarly a centrist position should be concerned with societal outcomes rather than ideological purity. This then is the official definition of the centrist position that I accept hereforth. A bow to Jason for penning it clearly.

It also reminded me of this paragraph from John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Good Society". So here is the second Bodhi Vakya for today...
Anciently and still, the economy has been defined ideologically. There is liberalism, socialism or capitalism; the speaker is a liberal or a socialist or is for free enterprise. He or she favors public ownership or, as in recent times, privatization. These are the controlling rules within which we live.

There is in the present day no greater or more ardently argued error. In the modern economic and political system ideological identification represents an escape from unwelcome thought -- the substitution of broad and banal formula for specific decision in the particular case.
Left - Right, Liberal - Conservative, all of these serve as labels that people have conjured to define and differentiate one ideology from another. The reality as always is somwhere in between. The only label that defines reality well is "gray", neither black, not white. So when it comes to solving problems, it is best to keep the labels in the closet and wear the hard hats.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Podcast Mania

For two years now, sans TV, the radio (NPR mainly) and the Internet have become our main source of news. Since our local public radio (WPSU) airs NPR only in the morning and evening for some time (and classical music the rest of the day), I began listening to NPR online. This led to discovering a lot of interesting programs and eventually to podcasts. The list of podcasts kept changing for a while as I kept finding more and more interesting ones and dropping some that I didn't like. Now the list has stabilized a bit and I have settled into a sort of weekly routine of podcast listening. So I am posting the list of my favorite podcasts about nature, environment, conservation etc. for all of you to try them out. I have given links to the RSS feed for the podcast at the end of the little intro to each one of them. If you enjoy listening to something that is not on my list please let me know through the comments. So here goes...

1. Living on Earth (via NPR): This weekly NPR program has some really interesting stories from across the world and covers a wide range of environmental issues. From time to time they also have special features. It is through this program that I learnt about David Sheldrick Wildlife trust (program link, trust website) last year and that's how we ended up being the foster parents of little Lualeni. I also came across the story of Radiator Charlie and his heirloom tomatoes through LoE. One of their special features that I really liked was the documentary (link) about Wangari Maathai, the Nobel prize winning Kenyan activist; and her Green Belt movement. [::RSS feed ::]

2. Living Planet (by Deutsche Welle radio): This program features environmental issues in Europe (mainly) and the world. Every week they also have a feature about interesting events and issues related to the environment. The most recent one that I enjoyed a lot was about a solar powered tour boat called "The Serpentine Solar Shuttle", that has recently started ferrying tourists in London. [::RSS feed ::]

3. GLRC Environment Report (via NPR): This is a weekly roundup of environmental news and developments across the US by the Great Lakes Radio Consortium. Every week there is also a feature story from the Great Lakes region. [::RSS feed ::]

4. Allegheny Front: This is an excellent environmental news program featuring stories mainly from Western Pennsylvania. It is broadcast weekly on public radio (WYEP) in Pittsburgh and is also available as a podcast. [::RSS feed ::]

5. Inside Renewable Energy: This weekly podcast by features news and interesting developments about renewable energy issues across the world. [::RSS feed ::]

6. Pulse of the Planet: This podcast has interesting "two minute sound portraits" of the planet earth. I really like these because each one of them is a surprise. One day you are listening to sounds from Erie county fair and on another day you are learning about Wrens from Ecuador. [::RSS feed ::]

7. Earthwatch Radio: This podcast is produced by University of Wisconsin- Madison. It too consists of a short two minute tidbit about science and environment everyday. It's like having a small "information chicklet" every day. [::RSS feed ::]

8. Natural Selections: This is a short 5 minute program produced by North Country Public Radio. Each week the hosts discuss some topic from the natural world. [::RSS feed ::]

9. Nature Stories Podcast: The podcast sponsored by the Nature Conservancy has some interesting stories from the natural world every week. [::RSS feed ::]

10. Organically Speaking: This podcast features interviews with people who share a passion for natural and organic lifestyles. The interviews are not on a specific schedule but each one of them is very insightful. I like the most recent one with Michael Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma". [::RSS feed ::]

I am looking for some good gardening podcasts but I haven't quite had the time to hunt for them. If you know any good gardening podcasts, do let me know. Apart from these environment related podcasts, I also listen to "The Changing World" [::RSS feed ::], from BBC and PRI. It has these amazing radio documentaries on emerging topics across the world.

That's all folks. Happy listening and do get back if you know 'bout other interesting stuff to listen.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Summer Garden

Our garden is blooming now and we are harvesting its bounty. But wait! That is not how I wanted to tell this story. As I explained in my previous post, we have a garden plot at the Tudek Community Garden for the summer. I wanted to blog about my gardening experience as it was happening. Unfortunately for a multitude of reasons, I wasn't able to do that. So let me "start at the beginning" as they say.

We got our 15 ft. x 20 ft. plot towards the end of April and started digging in May. The garden has recently been expanded and more plots have been added this year. Ours is one of the new plots. Unfortunately, our plot is on a sloping barn hill which had been raised artificially by putting in rocks (The barn and the farm are now a part of Tudek Memorial Park and so is the community garden). As soon as we started digging, we found out that our first harvest would be a few tons of rocks to be taken out of our plot. In the snap on the left you can see me looking over the first bed I dug in the plot, with all the rocks that I took out lined up against the fence. We had initially planned to double dig the plots but we found that it was hard enough to go even one spade depth with all the rocks. So we decided to work the soil only a feet or so deep.

Here is another snap with all the harvested rocks. You can also see all the other plots, not planted yet, in the background. The fence in the background shows the extent of the garden. The Tudek Memorial Park ground is beyond the tree line in the background. As you can see the garden is set in very beautiful surroundings and working there is really a great pleasure in spite of all the work.

The first two beds were ready by the second week of May and we decided to plant beet, white radish, red radish and spring onions in the two beds. Following the biointensive planting technique, we planted the seeds in a hexagonal close packed pattern. Here is a snap of Sampada planting the first seeds in our garden.

In the next snap you can see the tiny red radish saplings coming out. If you look closely (click on the image to enlarge it) you can also discern the hexagonal close packed pattern marked by the tiny green dots that are the saplings. The logic behind doing this is that the plants as they grow up create a natural cover and prevent weeds from growing in between them by blocking the sunlight. This also reduces moisture loss from the soil and conserves water. However for this to succeed there should be enough nutrients in the soil and the soil should be worked well using the double digging technique. Since we hadn't double dug the beds we decided to plant the seeds a little bit further apart than recommended to reduce the density.

The beet and radish saplings popped out of the soil within a week or so and in two weeks they were a good six or eight inches tall. That's when we made our first big mistake. While planting them, we had planted two or three seeds at each point to ensure that we have enough plants. At almost all the points all of these seeds germinated and we had two or three saplings standing at each point. In order to get a good harvest, what we should have done is thin these out to one sapling at each point. But we were squeamish about pulling the tiny little plants out of the soil and didn't thin the beds enough. The result was that we got all of them competing for water and nutrients and very few of them growing into nice big round radishes or beets. The radishes in the snap were infact our first harvest. We got a good harvest of beets as well. None for the white radishes though.

Anyway! By mid June we had utilized our plot fully and there was no more room to plant. All we had to do after that was to weed, water and wait for the harvest. Here is a picture of how our plot looked after we finished planting everything. You can see the tomatoes all staked nicely on the right. The cabbages behind them and two rows of peas on the right, in front of the tomatoes. We had also harvested the radishes by mid June and planted two more rows of peas, some chard, corn and cucumbers in their place. The straw mulch is provided by the community garden... one of the many amenities they provide for amateur gardeners like us.

Well, that was that... the first half of the story. Since mid June our main task has been to take care of what we have planted and enjoy the bounty as it comes. There are some interesting anecdotes that I would like to narrate separately. In the meanwhile you can enjoy a photo album of the garden with a lot more photos of the garden here. This year the community gardening project was featured in the local newspapers. You can find the article here. It does a good job in outlining the growth of community gardening in the US and features interviews with fellow gardeners and the coordinator/manager of our garden - Joe Banks.

Hope you enjoy the photos. Come back for more about my gardening experience in a few days.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Double Digging

Spring is here! This spring & summer we are going to garden and try to grow vegetables. Two years ago (Summer '04) we tried gardening at a garden plot in Tudek Community gardens here in State College. We had a 600 sq. ft. plot and there were four of us. Our efforts met limited success and we realized that gardening required a lot of patient and regular efforts. We were a bit lazy and didn't visit our plot with the regularity it needed. We didn't utilize all the space that was available to us either. Inspite of all this we got some really good veggies out of our efforts. Some photos of our gardening efforts are here.

Last year we couldn't garden because we were in India for the first two months of the growing season. So I had to stay content on the few potted plants in our balcony and the bulbs that I tried to grow over the winter. The plotted plants did really well indoors during the winter. The bulbs (Crocus, Tulips and Gladioli) are doing really fine too and we expect a lot of flowers.

In 2004 we also volunteered at the Center for Sustainability to help double dig some of their garden plots. Double digging is the first step in the bio-intensive gardening technique, which we were unfamiliar with. So I did a little bit of research on the technique and this year I am going to try it on our garden plot. This technique was developed by Alan Chadwick and furthered and promoted by John Jeavons of Ecology Action. It aims at maximizing the yield from the available area AND maintain the soil quality at the same time through sustainable organic methods of gardening. The center for sustainability has a very good webpage about this technique. Some other links I found are at the bottom of this post.

This year I am using the book "How to Grow More Vegetables" by John Jeavons as a guide for the bio-intensive gardening technique. I am also going to record the costs I incur and the yield from my plot so that I can keep track of the success of my efforts. I will also try to post about the progress of my efforts on this blog.

A few days ago I was looking for seeds online and I remembered an interesting story about the "Radiator Charlie's" heirloom tomatoes, that I had heard on NPR some time ago. So I did a bit of search and found out that it was one of the episodes of Living on Earth that had featured the story. It is an amazing story about a guy who wanted to create the best tomato variety and how it helped him pay off the mortgage on his house. I would like you to hear it too. It is available to download in MP3 format here or you can listen to streaming audio here. The transcript of the show is available too. I am going to see if I can get some of the "Radiator Charlie's mortgage lifter" tomatoes to plant in our plot.

Overall I am pretty excited about the garden plot. First work day is April 22 and looking forward to a lot of roots shoots and leaves.... and a lot of double digging.

May your summer be bright and full of light!

1> CFS webpage on biointensive gardening technique
2> A webpage from bountiful gardens
3> Ecology action biointensive gardening webpages
4> Books by John Jeavons

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... is the other blog I have stared. It is where my posts about renewable, sustainable energy solutions will go.

I explain my idea behind starting a separate blog for these posts here. Oorjaa (and this blog too) is in it's infancy... and I think of both these blogs as a "stage" or a "studio" where I take different ideas I come across and develop posts around them as I learn about these ideas. While I place no restrictions on the type of ideas on this blog, on Oorjaa the ideas will be mainly about "energy". I would like both these blogs to be "fora" too, where people can discuss my ideas. I leave that part to you dear readers, and hope you will join.

I just posted my second post on Oorjaa. It is about a company called DESI power in India which is coming up with some interesting new projects. Read it there.

Monday, March 20, 2006

What's the mileage on that bicycle?

"Huh! what's that again?"
"You heard that right. Do you know the mileage on that bicycle?"

The logic goes thus. Everything we eat is produced somewhere, processed somewhere and transported to our supermarket and from there to our homes. It takes energy to do that. A major contribution of the energy needed to produce, process and transport our food comes from fossil fuels (the stuff USA is officially addicted to, since January'06). When you eat that sandwich, you are effectively gulping down gasoline. Every time you ride that bicycle, you are burning some of the same energy which came from the fossil-fuels. Naturally this bears the question, "How many miles can you go on that bicycle for every gallon of gasoline you consume (indirectly... through the food you eat)?". Got it? Good!

Lets go over the answer step by step:
1> How much energy does a gallon of gasoline have?
This is called the calorific value of the fuel. This EPA webpage says that the energy content of gasoline is an average 113,000 BTU/gallon. That translates to 28,476 kcal/gallon. (1 BTU = 0.252 kcal)

2>How many gallons of gasoline do you (indirectly) consume?
This depends on the type of your diet. The table below shows the amount of fossil fuel input for different types of diet. These numbers are from the book, "Food energy and society", by David and Marcia Pimentel [1]. Note that all these numbers are for a 3600 kcal daily diet (remember 1 food Cal. = 1 kcal). It is interesting to note here that average American eats ~1500 Cal. more than the daily requirement of 2100 Cal. I have converted the fossil fuel input number into gallons of fuel using the calorific value given above.

3> How many food Calories do we burn while bicycling?
My search yielded a number of different values. I found this table on and a few other websites [this pdf, page 21]. It says that 0.049 Calories are burnt per pound, per minute while cycling at the speed of 15 mph. Another table is given in the Dietary guidelines for America, and can be found on many websites [CDC webpage, also this pdf - page 4]. This says that a person weighing 154 lb, will burn 290 Cal. when bicycling at a speed less than 10 mph, for one hour. Translates to 0.031 Cal. per lb per minute. A person weighing 154 lb, bicycling at 10 mph will have to go 125.7 mile to burn 36oo Cal. daily intake.

DietFossil fuel input(kcal)[1]Fossil fuel input(gallon)Miles to burn 3600 Cal.Mileage (MPG)
Vegetarian (0%)18,2750.64 125.7196
Lacto-Ovo (14%)25,2300.89125.7142
Average US (28%)34,5601.21125.7104

There goes the answer to the question. Bicycling is fun, it is a good exercise and nothing beats the mileage on that bicycle.

[1] Pimentel D, Pimentel M. "
Food, energy and society". Colorado University Press, 1996.

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Related posts:
Vegetarianism, Greens Eat Greens

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Elephant Diaries

There is good news about our baby elephant, Lualeni. She is now the mini-matriarch of the herd of baby elephants in the Nairobi nursery, run by David Sheldrick wildlife trust.

The second part of the news is that the BBC documentary, "Elephant Diaries" [view trailer] aired on Animal Planet on March 5th (Oscar awards night). It is too bad that I didn't publicize it on the blog well in advance and snatch some of the Oscar viewers. We don't have cable, so a friend graciously recorded the documentary for us. It was really great to see the story of this amazing elephant family. We also got a chance to see our baby elephant, Lualeni, on TV. YAY!

When the documentary was filmed Lualeni had just joined the crowd and was not mixing with the others just yet. Elephants are very social animals and have very strong ties to members of their herd. Lualeni's mother was killed by poachers probably in front of her eyes. She was rejected by other elephant herds and was finally rescued by David Sheldrick wildlife trust. When she joined the nursery she was a unhappy little elephant. She kept to herself during grazing and feeding and refused to interact with the other babies. After four months in the nursery though she overcame her grief and now is a very happy, playful elephant. She is now the elderly elephant in the Nairobi nursery and is kind of the mini-matriarch of the herd, looking after other baby new-comers. Here is a audio clip, with Daphne Sheldrick, who established the nursery and the trust, talking about Lualeni.

CBS 60 minutes traveled to Kenya in mid-January to do feature work on the David Sheldrick wildlife trust. Hopefully that feature too will air soon.

I am very much fond of elephants. They are amazing creatures who have a life-span similar to humans. They are social creatures much like us. They are very powerful and yet they can be very gentle creatures. They are endangered because of the constant encroachment by humans on their habitat and due to poaching for ivory. The job that people like Daphne Sheldrick and the amazing team of keepers are doing in raising orphaned baby elephants is very admirable and worth of support. The keepers try to provide the elephant babies the love and care they would have received from their herd. The babies develop a strong bond with the keepers. The trust tries to raise the elephant with the aim of returning them to the wild one day. Towards this end, it keeps them as close to the wild and as much in touch with the jungle as it can. Male elephants graduate earlier than female elephants and are quicker to move into the wild joining the wild herds. The BBC documentary features, Emily, one of the earliest female babies from the nursery, who has recently graduated and moved on into the wild.

Apart from the nursery, the trust also conducts anti-poaching and de-snaring activities and runs a nursery for baby rhino orphans and conducts a lot of conservation related and community outreach activities. Please visit the trusts website and support these wonderful creatures.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Greens Eat Greens

This is a continuation of my previous post about Vegetarianism. In that post, I pointed out that one of the reasons for joining the "veggie" band was - "because it is good for the environment". In other words, "eating greens is important if you truly wish to become Green". In this post, I try to explore this issue of vegetarianism and environment.

In today's globalized world, the food we consume is not necessarily produced in our backyard or even in our country. That bottle of water you may have on your table or that sandwich you just ate for lunch or dinner contained ingredients which probably came from all over the world. Energy is expended at each and every stage in the food production~packaging~delivery chain. Let us have a comparative look at the important steps in this chain for vegetables and for meat (e.g. beef).

  • Growing and harvesting (Fertilizers, Pesticides, Seeds, Farm implements etc.)
  • Packaging (material, process)
  • Transportation and storage (refrigeration, fuel for transport etc.)
  • Processing (most grains are processed into some other product before consumption)
  • Growing and harvesting feed stock for animals (Fertilizers, Pesticides, Seeds, Farm implements etc.)
  • Transportation of feedstock
  • Energy input to the animal farm facility (includes stuff like growth hormones or other drugs given to the animals)
  • Transportation of animals to meat processing facility
  • Meat production
  • Packaging
  • Transportation to final consumer.

It is clear that meat production involves more number of steps than vegetable production. The energy input in most of the cases is in the form of fossil fuels. Most of the fertilizers, chemical pesticides used have significant fossil fuel input in it. Transportation and farm machinery etc. requires fuel. The packaging (e.g. plastic boxes, wrapping etc.) requires fossil fuel inputs. Every morsel of food we consume provides us with energy, which is commonly measured in Calories. 1 food Calorie = 1000 thermodynamic calories or 1 kcal (I can't believe I was unaware of this fact so far!). The energy contained in fossil fuels is also given in terms of "calories/kg" or the calorific value of the fuel. So a simple measure of the energy efficiency of our diet is:
The ratio of calories of energy that we get from the diet to the calories of (largely fossil fuel) energy that go into producing that diet and bringing it to our homes.
% efficiency = 100 x (kcal energy output from food) /(kcal energy input into food)
Now, I am not the first one to come up with this concept. Energy sources are valuable and there have been a lot of studies done to understand how much energy we consume and the way we consume it. David and Marcia Pimentel from Cornell University have done extensive research in this area. Their book, Food Energy and Society [1] contains a lot of data regarding the energy input for various kinds of food production systems. They have calculated the amount of fossil fuel energy (measured in kcal) input in the food production system per kcal of food protein produced, for different food groups (meats, legumes, vegetables etc.). Note that the energy output is only for the protein content of the food a not total energy content. Most meats have large protein content while most grains and vegetables don't. I am tabulating some of the data which is relevant to our purpose here {from [1], chapters 8, 9, 10 and 11}:

Food Products% energy efficiency
Animal Products
Range Beef10%
Range Lamb6.3%

The numbers speak for themselves. It is clear that producing meat and animal products is a highly inefficient operation (in terms of energy efficiency as defined above). It is not simply about fossil fuel consumption. Producing meat/animal products consumes a large amount of land and water as well. But that is a totally different topic of discussion. For some interesting information on that I refer you this study [2]. David and Marcia Pimentel also compare various types of diets in their book. Data collected by them shows {from [1], page 147} that a non-vegetarian diet requires twice as much fossil fuel energy input as compared to a vegetarian diet. Lacto-ovo diet falls somewhere in between these two.

Another interesting study I found online while searching for references is a yet to be published paper [3] by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of The University of Chicago. They have used the energy input data given in [1] to compare the total green house gas (GHG) burden of many different diets (red-meat based, average American diet, lacto-ovo, vegan) with varying percentage of animal products. Without going into details, here are some interesting results one can find in this study {from[3], Figure 3}:
  • The difference between GHG burden of average US diet (27% Animal products) and a totally vegan diet is ~1.5 ton per person per year. Compare this to the difference in GHG burden of Toyoto Camry and Toyota Prius which is ~1.05 ton per person per year.
  • Switching from a red meat based diet (27% animal products) to a lacto-ovo diet (27% animal products) is equivalent to switching from a Toyota Camry to a Prius in terms of the GHG burden.
Anyway, there are many interesting articles, studies, books out there which more or less agree that a plant based diet is more efficient and sustainable than a meat based diet. If you are seriously thinking about switching from that SUV to an energy efficient car, why not think about switching to a plant based diet? At the very least, you can think about cutting down the proportion of meat you consume. If you are a true Green, think about eating green too.

Given below are the references mentioned above and links to other articles I came across while researching for this post. One of the links given have many good tips if you want to switch to a veggie diet. In my next post I want to answer the question - "how many miles per gallon does my bicycle give?". I think I have enough data gathered to do the calculation, so stay tuned.

Update (03/20/2006): What's the mileage on that bicycle?

[1] Pimentel D., and M. Pimentel (Editors), 1996. Food, Energy and Society, University Press of Colorado, 363p. ISBN: 0870813862 [link]

[2] Pimentel D., and M. Pimentel, 2003: Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3), 660S-663S. [subscription reqd.]

[3] Eshel, G. and P. A. Martin, 2006: Diet, Energy and Global Warming. In press, Earth Interactions. [pdf link thanks to Judith's blog]

[::] Eating Fossil Fuels by Dale Allen Pfeiffer [pdf link]

[::] Why Our Food is so Dependent on Oil by Norman Church

[::] The Ethics of Eating Meat by Charles Eisenstein. (Makes a case for farm raised animals and ethical meat eating)

[::] Fossil Fuels and Energy Use @ The Sustainable Table (Has many useful tips to have a more sustainable kitchen for both vegetarians and meat eaters).

[::] Veg How To? @ VegForLife (tips for converting to the veggie creed)

Meat Production's Environmental Toll by Stephen Leckie @ Toronto Vegetarian Association

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bodhi Vaakya...

Bodhi Tree... means 'words of the awakened one'. I think everyone has little glimpes of enlightenement at one point or another. Some may call it the "aha!" or "eureka!" moment. Often I come across little gems of sentences that carry profound wisdom (Buddhist panna, Sanskrit pradnya). I would like to think, the person was having a glimpse of enlightenment while writing them. Here is one...
Great debates often rage about abstract ideas. Secularism, socialism, free markets, casteism — and non-violence, they have all generated much discussion and more than their share of heat. But more and more, I believe that if they are to mean anything, these ideas have to find body. You have to translate them into daily life, show their relevance to ordinary lives. Absent that, the abstractness itself frustrates, and leads to the viciousness that characterises our debates over these issues.
Read the complete story here. I have read some of Dilip's articles in The Hindu and visit his blog once in a while. Somewhere in one of the comments on his blog, I found a link to the article from which this quote is taken.

Sometimes I get immensly frustrated by the intense discussions on millions of issues and 'isms' on zillions of blogs. This quote aptly portrays my sentiment. Totally agree with "...translate them into daily life..." part too.

"You must be the change you wish to see in this world"... Gandhiji.
"Enlightenment is practice... practice is enlightenment"... Buddhist aphorism

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


There was a post on Sepia Mutiny blog a few days ago about being vegetarian in the USA and related stuff. The post and the many different comments to it, got me thinking about the issue. I was a "non-vegetarian" till February of last year and changed my preferences since then, thanks to a video made by PETA showing the gruesome treatment of animals on the factory farms here in USA. After that friends asked me a lot of questions and there was a lot of skepticism and some appreciation too. I guess the typical questions were:

Q> So no meat huh? It is simply not possible to live without meat in the US man! In India it is fine but not here.
A> I don't think so. It has been really fine till now.

Q> How can you eat only ghaas-phuus (a Hindi term for leaves and grass)?
A> Well given the fact that I ate primarily that for the first 22 years of my life, (till then I was in India and very rarely ate chicken or mutton prepared the Indian way... tandoori etc.) I guess I will be fine. To one guy who expressed total disgust at a delicious dish I was eating, I have said, "well ghaas-phuus is better than rotting carcasses". But that was just mean.

Q> PETA video huh! What rubbish! It's all part of nature man! Big fish eat small fish... Tiger eats the cow... Your vegetables were also alive you know!
A> I know! I never said that I am against eating "non-living" beings. I only stated where I wanted to draw my line (Eating vegetables only. Oh! And also milk and eggs once in a while). I know some Indian friends who eat all other meat (Chicken, duck, fish etc.) but don't eat beef or pork. They are drawing their own line where to stop and I am drawing mine.

As the one of the comments to the SM post pointed out, there are primarily four reasons people are/become vegetarians:
  1. Religious precepts - as with jains, amritdhaari sikhs, jews, muslims, vaishnavs etc.
  2. Incompatibility with dietary requirements - allergies, performance maximization, weight management
  3. Anti-vivisection principles (I take this to mean that someone is against slaughtering of animals but not due to his/her religion)
  4. Psychosomatic aversion - general nausea associated with odor, texture etc
BTW, there is a lot of gradation between "Vegans" and "Non-vegetarians". You can check it out here. I guess I am a "lacto-ovo vegetarian". My reasons fall somewhere in between #1 and #3. In my family my mother and sister have always been vegetarians. My father tried all kinds of meat in his youth and later stopped eating meat. My wife has always been a strong vegetarian. In her case probably all of the four reasons above apply. My family neither encouraged me to eat meat nor did they oppose me when I did.

Reasons #2 and #4 don't apply either. The reason I stopped eating meat was I could not stand the way in which animals were treated before/during the slaughter. So that would strictly fall under #3. Someone pointed out to me that there are alternatives to that and I could eat ethically raised and slaughtered animals instead (like free-range chicken, pasture grazed cows etc.). In principle, yes! But I don't want to do that because it is hard to verify that everywhere I eat (I don't cook meat at home) and it is much simple not to eat meat at all.

Recently I have been reading a lot about Buddhism and practicing meditation with Happy Valley Sangha, thus becoming a culturally Hindu, practicing Buddhist and religiously confused person. That has added a "religious" angle to my being vegetarian as well. People often ask me if Hindus/Buddhists are strict vegetarians. The answer is No! Non-violence is one of the precepts to be followed by practicing Buddhist as well as practicing Yogis (those who follow Patanjali's system of yoga). Thich Nhat Hanh has explained this precept very well in one of his talks. I am paraphrasing it here.
Suppose you are lost in a forest and you want to go north to reach certain destination, you should follow the north star. This does not however mean that you expect to reach the north star. You expect to reach north, following the north star is only a tool or guidance to go north. Practicing non-violence is like that. You want to make sure that you are causing the least amount of harm to living beings. That does not however mean that you will be able to cause "no harm at all". Non-violence helps you to achieve your spiritual goal. The greater your diligence in practicing it, the greater will be the reward. The greater your diligence in following the north star, the earlier you will reach your destination.
There is another argument that I heard very recently about Vegetarianism. I attended a lecture about the ecological footprint and the speaker argued that one way of reducing your ecological footprint is to reduce meat consumption or become vegetarian. The reason is, the amount of energy that goes in to produce meat (and store, transport it etc.) is many time more than the amount of energy one get out of it. For vegetables and grains the ratio is smaller and in some cases less than 1. I am looking for this data and if it is really true, it would add another dimension to my being a vegetarian. My research into this will also be a new post soon.

I was a bit hesitant about writing this post. I don't like "evangelizing" about Vegetarianism. It sometimes evokes a very strong reaction among people. I personally wouldn't want to be told what to eat and what not to either. But there are some people who get offended even when I am not evangelizing about it; e.g. when I ask the waiter about the vegetarian choices they have, others at the table get annoyed. It's as if I am doing a horrible crime by asking about it. Among Indians (especially some FOBs) there is something about eating meat and being cool. I have seen reactions which amounted to: "vegetarian huh! What a sissy!". (BTW, I have observed a similar sentiment about booze). I have learned to ignore such reactions.

Ultimately, how much your choices matter to you depends on what purpose they serve and how strong your commitment to the purpose is. I really admire Americans and Europeans who have been raised in a non-vegetarian culture but have become vegetarian for a principle. Their belief in the principle (be it ethical/environmental or some other) is strong enough to influence their choices. But I have no beef (or chapatti) with those to whom it's simply a choice and doesn't serve any other purpose than filling the tummy. I have had a chance to "taste" both sides and I have to say that both are equally yummy. Since now though, I am sticking with the veggies.

Update (03/10/06): My follow-up post about vegetarianism and its impact on environment is here.

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