17 May, 2019


Annapurna Express, May 17, 2019

Harvard has asked Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., law professor at the Harvard Law Department and first African-American dean at the college, to step down from his post. The esteemed Professor announced his intention to defend Harvey Weinstein in January, which led to months of student protests before Harvard finally made the call to ask him to step down. Mr. Weinstein is well-known for not just producing exquisite works of cinema, but also for molesting, sexually harassing, groping and raping over 80 women in the workplace. The numbers probably exceed a 100, since not all women come forward.

Twitter was immediately up in arms about this decision, with hundreds of people supporting the lawyer for doing his just duty to defend an unpleasant character. Well-known journalist Glenn Greenwald immediately put out a Tweet in his defense, calling out the “racism”. The fact that over 80 women had faced sexual, mental and psychological trauma for years, with serious consequences to their careers, financial security and emotional well-being seems trivial, compared to the injury faced by Professor Sullivan Jr. in doing his legal duty.

While the right for all violators to a fair defense is enshrined in the law, I wonder if the African-American students who stepped out in such vociferous outrage against the dean’s ouster would have done the same for a white Harvard law professor who took the same decision to defend a police officer who’d killed over 80 unarmed black teenagers? Would they be as enthusiastic if the law professor in question decided to defend the man who bombed the black churches? What about defending the leaders of the Rwanda genocide—surely they too are entitled to a legal defense? But would a white professor who did that still expect to hold on to his teaching position? Somehow I doubt this would be a possibility. 

The reason why a white professor would choose not to defend such a character is simple—while it is written in the law that everyone is entitled to a defense, simple human decency and awareness of the atrocities faced by African-Americans in the hands of the police would make this decision to stay away from such a character a no-brainer.

Note there is no “ism” for women that draws the same outrage—a mass rapist is entitled to his legal defense, but the 80 women who came forth and the many who didn’t don’t deserve the same defense. “Sexism” doesn’t even begin to touch the level of misogyny in the way this debate is unfolding. I see not a single Tweet in defense of the women who were Weinstein’s victims.

If only this debate was just about an African American man’s right to do his unpleasant duty. This is not just the 100 odd women that Harvey Weinstein probably raped in his lifetime, but the thousands of women who have faced sexual violence in conflict and war, the millions of women who have suffered workplace sexual violence and rape, and the ever increasing cases of male impunity which creates conditions ripe for rape of girls, aged a few months to teenagers, at the hands of men of all ages in developing countries.

If Harvard thinks this debate is only about racism, it is wrong. This is about the lives of millions of women who have been affected and harmed by sexual violence worldwide. Sexual violence offenders permeate every institution at every level worldwide, pushing women out from public life, affecting their emotional and financial security, and making them even more vulnerable to violence.
What goes on at Harvard filters down everywhere and becomes legal norms in every other country, including Third World countries with poor legal regimes like Nepal. As an academic institution which often comes in the top rankings of the entire world, Harvard cannot afford to think this is about the abstract rule of law.

To allow someone to flaunt his male privilege in this manner would be akin to allowing someone who defended Nazis to be on the law faculty. The mass atrocity committed by the notorious Harvey Weinstein ticks all the boxes of a crime against humanity. I was myself surprised to learn this, but you don’t need millions of people affected by a crime for it to be a crime against humanity—about 80 will do if the crime is egregious enough. And you cannot have a man who defends crimes against humanity teaching students at Harvard.

For the many girls and women of Nepal who’ve faced violence in school at the hands of teachers, such as the women who were molested as children by Uttam Tripathi at Lalitpur Madhyamik Vidhyalaya, these scars never heal. For the many women in Nepal who were raped and killed during the conflict by soldiers, justice will now only come in the form of how we reshape institutions so they are free of predators, including opportunistic ones who will use their social and institutional standing to defend other predators.

Lets have a true debate about how the victims are in this discourse. It is not law professor Sullivan Jr. If the concern is about African-American faculty and their marginalization at Harvard, the solution is simple: hire the many brilliant black women lawyers who have fought hard and long all throughout their lives against sexual violence. There are many of them, all equally powerful and all equally capable of becoming deans of the college.

Any man this tone deaf to the worldwide MeToo Movement doesn’t deserve to be teaching at one of the finest colleges in the world. For Harvard to allow this man to remain on the faculty would be a travesty of justice.

11 May, 2019


Annapurna Express, May 3rd, 2019

The world’s waterways—oceans, rivers, Antartic ice sheets, Arctic polar bear habitats, Alpine mountain lakes, Himalayan mountain glaciers—are inundated with plastic. At first, it was just a garbage problem, something we as humans thought we would be able to deal with technological prowess. We could always rely upon recycling.

This thought comforted us with its reassurance. The familiar mantra: Reduce, reuse, recycle was chanted at institutional settings and activist ones. The power of this repetition was enough to shield us from our own arrogant, self-destructive scientific certainty.

In the past few years, the scale of the plastic threat has become clear. We are now inundated, according to scientific estimates, with 8.3 billion tons of this non-biodegradable material since 1950. That’s one tonne for every living person on earth. Only 6 percent of US plastics was “recycled” (more accurately, shipped to China to be incinerated). This will plummet to 2% with China’s ban.

The US produces 19.5% of the world’s plastics--55 Mtons in 2012, according to Polymerdatabase.com. Europe produces 20%, China 25% (same source). PlasticsEurope’s “Plastics: The Facts” says 51.2Mtons were produced in 2016 in Europe. This industry newsletter also states very high recyling rates which don’t match with facts on the ground.

Recycling has been shown to be a myth: much of it ends up shipped from rich countries to poor communities in middle income countries like Malaysia and Thailand where it is incinerated due to lack of recycling capabilities. Protests of local inhabitants go unheard. How can a city like New York City, mighty beyond belief in the global financial landscape, not be able to dump their trash wherever they want?

The only problem with this model of the rich trashing the poor is the interconnected nature of the planet. Inevitably, emissions from burning plastic returns to people in the USA in the form of global warming, causing massive storms, cyclones and hurricanes in coastal areas. The ocean, rapidly warming through these manmade atrocities, is forecasted to inundated the same New York City which now dumps massive amounts of plastic trash onto South-East Asia.

The scale of this problem is clear to everyone. But no government, municipality or mayor has lifted a finger to halt the tide, despite overwhelming evidence that the status quo is suicidal, not just for humans but for all forms of life on earth. Why is that?

Plastic is a product of the petroleum industry, which has reigned with its petrodollar power for the past century. Petroleum and plastic companies are registered on the stock market, their value counted in trillions. The biggest corporations selling petroleum also sell plastic. Plastic industries employ 1.45 million in Europe and 1 million in the US. In 2012, the US plastic industries made over $380 billion annual turnover, with $13 billion trade surplus (Polymerdatabase.com). These MNCs have lobbyists in Washington. They are an “American success story.” 

Also deceiving is the activist response. “Circular economy” is the catchphrase being pushed by billionaire philanthropists in response to plastic pollution. Institutions which promote this are under the illusion that 1000 billion tons of plastic generated since mankind started to make this destructive substance can not only be vaccumed up and repurposed (a Sisyphean task), but also that plastic can continue to pour out of the pipeline because we now have this reliable Circular Economy in motion.

This is as dangerous a myth as recycling. Any modern object, eg a laptop, is created through multiple supply chains which provide materials and parts from countries scattered globally. A circular economy would need a massive apparatus to reclaim, re-ship and re-purpose each tiny part, the costs of which MNCs do not want to bear. Perhaps policy may make them change their mind. Left to their own purposes, MNCs would rather pump and dump in a disposable economy.

Loop, much-hyped new company, the founder of which socialized with billionaires in Davos and got new customers, ostensibly recycles containers for big MNCs. The only problem: it again asks its companies to create plastic containers—only this time they’re used 100 times instead of once. The hype of the new Silicon Valley entrepreneurs doesn’t match the reality of the plastic menace on the ground.

I asked Nestle on Twitter how they would clean up the mess they had caused so far. They sent me their new guidelines on sustainable packaging. It included a policy to still use plastic bottles, but with 35% recycled content by 2025. To imagine Nestle planning to manufacture this object for the next 6 years when sustainable options are available is deranged, in my opinion. But can any force stop them? What law or ethical guidelines is in operation to modulate, regulate or punish global crimes of large corporations?

Ocean warming and microplastic pollution have led to dangerous dieoffs of plant, animal and insect species--coral, frogs, insects, birds, penguins, polar bears, amongst others.

It is clear the economic costs of our gleeful arson of the planet has catastrophic ecological and economic costs. The pyramid of life is at risk. We can alter our course by globally banning all forms of plastic now. Or we can continue to delude ourselves with bedtime stories of the circular economy, which will cost us another few decades, in much the same way as the myth of recycling lost us valuable time since the 1980s.

Nepalese pay a massive “plastic tax”--we may not realize it, but our food items are significantly more expensive because we are paying for plastic packaging for our food and household goods. The government should invest in sustainable packaging that can be made from our own natural resources, which would save us billions of rupees a year.

This much is clear: Nepal’s Himalayan glaciers, which provide spring water for a billion plus inhabitants, are melting from global warming. Our drinking water supply is at risk. If we continue to manufacture and burn plastic, we have no future in the subcontinent.

Published in The Annapurna Express, 2019/05/03