Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 20 January 2013
For a year, this column has explored the power of ideas – some proven and celebrated, others still emerging and experimental but worth watching.
We have been especially interested in innovation: ideas applied to solve problems and make life better.
Today, in this 50th column, I want to share two uncommon yet charming ideas that, in their own way, defy conventional wisdom. That’s how change often starts – as a bright spark in unlikely places.
Why bother with outlandish ideas?
One of my Asian heroes, the Malaysian social activist Anwar Fazal, put it so well: “In a world that is increasingly violent, wasteful and manipulative, every effort at developing islands of integrity, wells of hope and sparks of action must be welcomed, multiplied and linked…”
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I look back at the Newsweek magazine’s illustrious history of nearly 80 years, and reflect on the phenomenon of news magazines: are their days numbered, at least in print?
Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 13 January 2013
My column on 30 December 2012, which assessed the lasting influence of Silent Spring and its author Rachel Carson, was focused on the United States where she first raised the issue in 1962 amidst adversity and controversy.
Her advocacy, sustained by many other activists after her untimely death, eventually led to greater scrutiny and regulation of agro-chemicals in the industrialised world. Yet the global agrochemicals industry – which rode the wave with the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s — thrives in the developing world.
According to the Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP), an advocacy group, pesticides prevail because a multi billion dollar industry is behind them, exerting great influence on international standard setting bodies, national governments and local communities.
Their website says: “The enormous influence that these chemical corporations…
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I look at the lasting influence of Silent Spring, a popular science book that first came out 50 years ago, and is now widely regarded as a book that changed our thinking about the environment.
Its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) was an early practitioner of evidence based policy advocacy. She was measured in what she wrote, and asked more questions than she could answer at the time. Yet the chemicals industry accused her of being anti-progress and scare-mongering. Smear campaigns targeted her as a single woman, and suggested that she was “probably a Communist”. How she weathered this storm holds valuable lessons for all modern day activists.
I couldn’t write the When Worlds Collide column this week. Instead, here is a news feature I wrote for Ceylon Today, published on Sunday 16 Dec 2012:
It helps to take a look at the bigger picture once in a while. Today’s modern space and imaging technologies allow us to explore the biggest picture possible – at a planetary level.
Images of our Earth from space have been available for around 40 years. The first images that emerged from early space missions in the 1960s – showing a blue marble hanging in the darkness of space – energized the environmental movement worldwide.
But as technology advances, that vantage view keeps getting better.
Earlier this month, the US space agency NASA released a series of new images that offer an unprecedented new look at our planet at night.
A global composite image, constructed using cloud-free night images from a new…
Last month, NASA released a series of new images that offer an unprecedented new look at our planet at night. The global composite image, constructed using cloud-free night images from a new generation weather satellite, shows the glow of natural and human-built phenomena across the planet in greater detail than ever before. Each white dot on the map represents the light of a city, fire, ship at sea, oil well flare or another light source. (Explore at: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov)
This week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala) is on what these night lights mean. I talk to astrophysicist Dr Kavan Ratnatunga about understanding Sri Lanka at night as it can be seen from space.
What might happen if we suddenly found ourselves in a borderless world? Or at least in a world where free movement across political borders was allowed? Which places would see a mass exodus, and to where might people be attracted the most?
It asks WHY many thousands of young men and women of Sri Lanka have been leaving their land — by hook or crook – for completely strange lands. This has been going on for over a generation.
Here’s an excerpt:
For three decades, such action was attributed to the long-drawn Lankan civil war. That certainly was one reason, but not the only one.
It doesn’t explain why, three and a half years after the war ended, the exodus continues. Every month, hordes of unskilled, semi-skilled and professionally qualified Lankans depart. Some risk life and limb and break the law in their haste.
It isn’t reckless adventurism or foolhardiness that sustains large scale human smuggling. That illicit trade caters to a massive demand.
Most people chasing their dreams on rickety old fishing boats are not criminals or terrorists, as some government officials contend. Nor are they ‘traitors’ or ‘ingrates’ as labelled by sections of our media.
These sons and daughters of the land are scrambling to get out because they have lost hope of achieving a better tomorrow in their own country.
I call it the Deficit of Hope. A nation ignores this gap at its peril.
As usual, I ask more questions than I can answer on my own. But I believe it’s important to raise these uncomfortable questions.
Towards the end, I ask: What can be done to enhance our nation’s Hope Quotient?
“Governments can’t legislate hope, nor can their spin doctors manufacture it. Just as well. Hope stems from a contented people — not those in denial or delusion — and in a society that is at ease with itself. We have a long way to go.”
Karunaratne Abeysekera (1930–1983) was one of Sri Lanka’s most accomplished Sinhala broadcasters. He was also a poet and lyricist — one who had great talent to combine words and phrases in ways that soothed and energised a whole nation.
In October 1982, Karu (as he was affectionately called by friends and fans alike) wrote an especially moving and memorable Sinhala poem in the then popular Sinhala monthly magazine Kalpana. I first read this poem as a school boy in October 1982, and it left a deep impression that the first few lines stuck in my mind for decades.
In this poem, which opens with the words ආයු දායකයාණනේ, සානුකම්පා පාමිනේ…, Karu asks the giver-of-life (unspecified, and not alluding to any religious or superhuman entity) to grant him 10 more years of life so that he can…do more good, and do things he’s somehow not been able to do yet in his life. (He says it much more beautifully.)
Alas, that was not to be. Six months after this poem appeared in print, Karu was gone: he died in April 1983 aged 53.
As we enter a New Year, I borrow Karu’s evocative words and make them my own personal wish — or plea, if you like. I thank Karu’s son Dileepa Abeysekera for helping locating the full words. He calls it a little “time bomb” of the mind that his father has left behind…