I’ve written before about how the “eat local” movement just doesn’t attract me too much while I live in London. Unless I want my family to subsist on parsnips, cabbage and tasteless strawberries, we absolutely must eat things that are not grown not only locally, but also not in the UK. The whole volcano vs. the modern world phenomenon might be putting an end to that though. A large percent of the produce and other food items sold in the UK arrive here on airplanes. And of course, there are no airplanes arriving to the UK at the moment (except, this morning, to a select part of the northern most Scottish islands).

As an illustrative anecdote, yesterday all of the green beans normally available from my on-line grocers were “temporarily out of stock.” That’s because almost all the “fine” and “extra fine” green beans sold in the UK are imported from just two countries: Kenya and Zimbabwe. And of course getting those beans to the UK takes an airplane (or two). I’m starting to wonder if the three browning bananas I have on my kitchen counter will soon have an exorbitant value on the black market (seeing as most bananas come from Ecuador, Costa Rica and several other Latin American countries, and I suspect are air freighted rather than shipped the old fashion way – i.e. on a ship). Perhaps my aging bananas will have as exorbitant a value as a colleague’s Eurostar ticket to Brussels (which he purchased pre-volcano):  this morning he was considering selling it to some desperate “volcano exile” sitting in London St Pancras station at a mark up of 900%…


From Haiti, With Love

January 24, 2010

The pictures of the collapsed Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, some of the first and most striking images of the damage this month’s earthquake created, are a nice visual summary of what’s happened to the already exceptionally fragile Haitian government. Namely, it has partially collapsed. One indicator of just how much of Haiti’s governing is being done from Washington and UN headquarters is that the US government announced on Monday that they would expedite adoptions of Haitian orphans to US families who had been pre-approved for adoptions.

From an international relations standpoint this is of course peculiar. A high school friend and her husband have been waiting to adopt a Haitian toddler almost since his birth, and their file was, until the recent earthquake, stuck in a seemingly endless and excruciatingly slow loop of Haitian bureaucracy, where they were seeking approval for the completion of the adoption by the Haitian government. Now, thankfully for them and for their adoptive son Stanley, the US government’s decision to “parole” orphans whose adoption files were already significantly in process means that my friend is (very anxiously) waiting for good news in Ft Lauderdale while her husband is set-up in one of Port-au-Prince’s “tent cities” helping the orphanage staff and advocating for the children at the US Embassy. They are hoping to have an interview at the Embassy tomorrow, and to bring their little one home to Maryland soon.

The striking thing about this is that the only party who seems to be opposed to Washington’s decision is not the Haitian government (whose voice on the matter has not been reported, but whose position on the issue is impossible to make easy predictions about), but instead UNICEF, who is concerned about the possibility for trafficking of children in the wake of the earthquake. They issued a statement cautiously supporting the government’s decision, but only for children whose files had been previously approved. Their overarching policy is to provide safety for Haitian children in Haiti, in part because there is still reunification work to be done between children, their parents and extended families.

I’m hoping that little Stanley is soon with his American parents, at a safe distance from the chaos of Port-au-Prince (I type this while nervously checking my friend’s Facebook status, to see whether there is any news to report).  I also hope that in the longer run the government of Haiti is capable of recovering, functioning, and taking on the tasks of providing public goods so that future generations of children like Stanley never find themselves in a similar situation.

Recently I learned that man is predisposed to imagine islands, to conjure small pieces of land that do not exist.  In the nineteenth century, maps of the sea drawn by the British Navy included more than 200 non-existent islands.  As the article I learned this in poetically described: “It’s easy to imagine how the mistakes were made. A dark band of sea fog is mistaken for an atoll. A distant alto-cumulus seen through heat is taken for a sea cliff, towering over a bronze sea. A hydrographer jots down the discovery, before the ship gets veered away by weather. The data is returned to Greenwich’s cartographers – and so the geological and the chimerical get mingled.”

Thanks to a family friend visiting London from the US via Fiji, I also recently learned about a very small equatorial island, moored in the South Pacific, 300km from the tiny country of Nauru, which itself is hundreds of kilometers from anything.  It’s history and present seem imagined as well: too complex to fit its tiny size – just 6.5 square kilometers.  The island has two names: Banaba and Ocean Island, the first meaning “stony” in the local language and the second (and contrasting) name given by the British.   Its remote location didn’t protect it or its people from the violent and material tendencies of the 20th century: the British discovered that it was rich in phosphate in the early 1900s and by 1980, 90% of its land surface stripped away through mining.  The Japanese colonised it during World War II, killing off a massive proportion of its population.  Those that survived were forcibly moved to a small island in Fiji, called Rabi, by the British at the end of the war.

So while the island is part of the nation of Kiribati (which my friend taught me is actually pronounced “Kiripas”), its people  live in Northern islands of Fiji, as an ethnic minority who enjoy limited political and economic rights.   Ocean Island sits there in the South Pacific, all but deserted, and with mountains of old mining equipment rusting on it.  The Banaban descendants in Rabi administer the island, and send money to support a population of about 200 people who still live there.  They spend an out-sized proportion of their limited income on Banaba because if they and their people leave the island completely, the government of Kiribati is likely to claim it as their own.

The question is why would Kiribati want a tiny, uninhabited, rocky island far from everything with no natural resources left to exploit? The answer is a side-effect of globalisation: climate change.  At 266ft above sea level, it is the highest island in the Gilbert Chain which forms Kiribati, a country which is at risk of being gobbled up by the Pacific if sea levels rise much more.  That makes Ocean Island an attractive place to imagine a Kiribati future, a place that is not at risk of becoming imaginary once again like the nation’s other atolls, dispersed over more than a million square miles of the South Pacific.

Think Global, Love Local

February 4, 2009

I recently read a to a playful but interesting article from the online magazine Slate arguing that long distance relationships are bad for the planet.   The author coins the term “sex miles” (a play on the term “food miles”) to calculate just how much carbon you emit to see a significant other that lives elsewhere.

I recently commented on a friend’s status on Facebook saying that I didn’t think that the concept of eating local and reducing food miles was necessarily better for the environment or for developing countries (based largely on  studies which have been published by my former colleagues at ODI).  My comments led to an argument with someone I didn’t know (a friend of my friend), who defended the eat local movement vociferously, despite my attempts to show that eating local in London during the winter resulted in an all root vegetable diet.  I know as we used to get a box of local fruit and vegetables delivered every week, but recently cancelled our account as we couldn’t face any more parsnip or swede and were ready to kill for a green bean.

But I think that the case against long distance relationships is more straight forward from a climate change perspective – it’s hard to see an enviromnetal or developmental upside, plus, they’re no fun for the people in them.   I guess the only possible justification would be in expanding the variety of dates available – if your area is filled with the dating equivalent of turnips, it just might be worth diversifying.

This weekend my husband M. and I realised that our efforts to raise our one year old son N. bilingually are paying off.  Of course we’ve always suspected that he understands both of us, but being good social scientists, this weekend we conducted some tests.  Would he clap his hands if we asked him to do it both in Italian and English?  Yes.  Does he understand other gestures in both languages as well (e.g. bye-bye / ciao is matched with waving)?  Yes.  And even more, does he understand language specific gestures (e.g. the Italian gesture for something being tasty) can also be translated into the other language?  Yes: he understands that if I ask in English whether something he is eating is good, he can respond using the same gesture.  The plethora of Italian hand gestures means that we can keep testing this last one, though it will be harder to test in reverse.

This was all intensely exciting to his two nerdy parents, and reassuring that we have chosen a good strategy in terms of language.  M. always speaks to N. in Italian, and I always speak to him in English.  For now, his exposure to the two languages is about even despite the fact that we live in London, as our nanny is Italian and he sees both sides of our families often.  This is generally the strategy that is advocated by language acquisition experts, but there is surprisingly little information in mainstream baby books / websites about bilingual children.  Most of the US based information focuses on preserving immigrants’ languages in second cultures, and a lot of the information I found in the UK was about “artificially” introducing a second language (e.g. French) to a child, when neither parent is a native speaker.   We sort of went with the one parent, one language strategy because we knew that it what was recommended by other parents, not through any detailed analysis (surprisingly for aforementioned nerds).  And also because it makes sense: who wants to speak to their child in a language that is not their own?

Given that globalisation is about the movement of people, not just the movement of goods, the number of children born to parents of two different nationalities,  who speak two different native languages, must be on the rise (though note that I could not find any hard data on this online).  Certainly it is common amongst the couples we know in London: in some families, there are at least three operational languages as the parents speak two different native languages and speak to each other in a third (usually English).  The kids are fantastic at switching between all three (amazingly to all of us).

There is evidence that children raised bilingually learn language differently.  Whereas mono-lingual babies sort between nonsense sounds and useful sounds early, which affects their babbling, bilingual babies keep their options open as nonsense sounds in one language might be important sounds in the other (this is particularly true when the languages are very different, say Chinese and English).   I’ve been amazed to hear N. make noises which are exclusive to one of his two languages, like “th” in English or “gli” in Italian.

So for globalised babies, double effort in learning to speak.  Our little guy must master not only his mother tongue, but also his father tongue.