On 25th May 2004, Somen Debnath left the comfort of his tiny village of Basanti near the mangrove forests of West Bengal, India, to embark on a 16-year-long mission.
With a bicycle, some clothes, and Indian currency amounting to €15, Debnath decided to travel to 191 countries by 2020 to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS.
At the time, he was 23 years old and had graduated from college just two days before.
I catch up with him in Miami, Florida as he’s about to set off for Lake Worth. Having started his journey from India, Somen has already covered over 150 countries across all continents including Antarctica. This distance of over 180,000 kilometres has exclusively been covered on a bicycle.
The goal to spread the word about HIV/AIDS began while Debnath was in college. “I attended a seminar on HIV/AIDS awareness and the lack of knowledge about it, especially in underprivileged sections of the world,” he explains, “Coming from a small village myself, I empathized with those around the world who did not have access to basic knowledge to fight the disease.” Across the countries he visits now, Debnath organizes seminars in schools, and universities - especially in rural areas - just like the one he attended all those years ago.
Over the course of his travels, Debnath has met people from all walks of life - from presidents and prime ministers to celebrities and sportspersons. “It has only reinforced my belief in the innate oneness of all humanity,” he remarks, “More than anything else, that is the takeaway for me as I reach the end of my mission.”
How did he manage to fund his travels? He explains: “I started off with €15 at a time when I didn’t know anything about the internet or crowdfunding campaigns. Wherever I cycled, I always found people happy to invite me into their homes, share meals with me, and donate to my cause. After a few years when I got some publicity, the donations started pouring in via the internet. I have never really worried about the financial side of things. Someone always helps.”
He eventually began to sell each kilometre of his journey for a euro to various enterprises for funds. For instance, his visit to the North Pole is being funded by the Lakshmi Mittal Foundation.
I ask him about his typical routine for the day, which turns out to be as unique as expected. “I generally wake up at 8 am, and cycle for around 10 hours or about 150 km. Along the way, I stop at schools or colleges to speak about safe sex and HIV/AIDS. Earlier, I would simply barge in on them and ask for a stage and a mic,” he smiles, “I now have a team that helps arrange the workshops.”
His most treasured possessions through all his travels are his 400 bracelets, which he never removes. “These were given to me by the people I met along the way. They couldn’t accompany me themselves, so now their bracelets travel with me,” he laughs.
It couldn’t have been all smooth travels for him though, right? “Oh no, not at all,” he laughs, “I’ve had my fair share of negatives. Had my bike stolen six times now. Spent days on end with hunger. Been robbed. Been homeless.” What are the incidents that really stand out? “Once while cycling in Central Asia at sub-zero temperatures, I was offered a lift by a truck and immediately agreed. After driving to a remote location, they stopped and made me hand over everything I had and left me there. It was a very low point,” he remembers.
But the incident which propelled him into media spotlight happened in the city of Herat, Afghanistan. “I didn’t know I was in Taliban territory,” he confesses, “I was approached by bearded men wearing shawls who took me to be a spy and kidnapped me.” For 24 days, Somen was questioned and tortured, kept in a dark dungeon with nothing but a few morsels of rice to sustain him daily. “I thought it was over for me, until I got a little friendly with one of the men and offered to cook meat curry for them. They did not have any mutton, only beef, which is sacrilegious in my religion but I had no choice.” His Talibani kidnappers were so impressed with his cooking that they released him a few days later.
With his journey coming to a close, Somen has already begun preparing for the next leg of his life. Using part of the donations he received over the years, he has built a house in Kolkata that can accommodate up to 30 persons and will remain open to all travellers. The house has four rooms, one of which has been converted into a museum housing the souvenirs that Somen sends back.
“The larger goal is to build a global village after 2020, spread across eight hectares,” he explains, “I should achieve that dream by 2025.” Always the planner.
For Somen, travel is a way of retaining a childlike innocence, thanks to the spectacles of the world that never cease to amaze. He explains that getting caught in the routines of life shortens timespan - one never realizes how quickly life passes. “In serving my cause and making some difference, I have also expanded my lifespan, “ he laughs.
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When we think of “global threats”, we usually imagine terrorist attacks, cyberwars, and weapons of mass destructions. Or maybe, trespassing into the realm of fiction, of James Bond’s Dr. No and other, similar, cats-owning villains.
Obviously, these are all fearsome scenarios and risks (especially Dr.No). However, there’s another “global threat” that is looming above us, even though we probably wouldn’t think of calling it that way. Such a threat is climate change.
Last Tuesday, the Office of the Director of US National Intelligence published its yearly Worldwide Threat Assessment, a hearing of the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has occurred since 2006.
In the report, the US intelligence community lists a series of “global threats” that humanity is currently facing. Amidst transnational organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions, and online operations to interfere with political elections, we find also — grouped in the section relating to “human security” — the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.”
In particular, the assessment highlights how the increased magnitude of these phenomena is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
Three are the main critical points raised by the report. First off, the intelligence community is concerned by extreme weather events and particularly by how they will affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.
Secondly, they link the increasing water and food insecurity around the world with the “changes in the frequency and variability” of heat waves, droughts, and floods.
And, finally, the report zooms in on the issue of diminishing Arctic sea ice, highlighting how this problem paves the way for increased competition with Russia and China over access to sea routes and natural resources.
En passant, the intelligence report reminds its readers that Arctic ice is shrinking constantly. “In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010,” the report warns.
As environmental media outlet Inside Climate News reminds us, The Worldwide Threat Assessment included “climate change” as a global threat to human security also in the past years, so there’s “nothing new under the sun”: the ice is still melting.
However, while other global threats like terrorism are treated as such in the media, climate change is still too often debated not as an imminent threat but as something that, if at all, will strike far in the future. At the opposite, as the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment denounces once again, climate changes' effects are already underway.
A year ago, the UK government asked economist Frances Cairncross to conduct an independent review of the challenges high-quality journalism is facing in the country.
Last Tuesday, the Cairncross Review was published, highlighting nine recommendations that the government and regulators ought to follow to help secure the sustainability of journalism in the future.
The recommendations range from investigating the workings of online advertising (aka the Google-Facebook duopoly) to developing a media literacy strategy.
However, the recommendation that attracted my attention the most, given my particular interest in the charitable sector, was number nine.
It reads: “New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.”
Cairncross is hinting at two tax changes here. The first one is the extension of zero-rating VAT to digital subscriptions and micropayments for online news (currently, the exemption is enjoyed just by print newspapers and periodicals) and the second is granting charitable status to particular types of high-quality, public-interest journalism.
Last June, Cairncross issued a ‘call for evidence’ to gather material for the report and the review reveals that granting charitable status to select news outlets was one of the most frequently raised proposals.
As known, charities benefit from several tax breaks in the United Kingdom so it would be much easier for a news organization with charitable status to attract philanthropic donations that could provide a much-needed additional revenue stream.
However, this is easier said than done. As the report notes, UK’s current charity law is probably incompatible with the role of news organizations since it forbids charities “to undertake certain political activities such as securing or opposing a change in law, policy or decisions affecting the country”.
A solution could then be to add public-interest journalism to the list of charitable causes the 2011 Charities Act set out to advance. But, again, this might take time and be deemed legally too complicated. That’s why the Cairncross report also highlights a “second-best option”: building a journalistic equivalent of the Creative Sector Tax Relief that grants support to creative industries ranging from video-games to film production.
Legal feasibility aside, the indication expressed by Craincross is part of a larger trend that is taking hold in the news industry: non-profit journalism.
Facing shrinking revenue opportunities, several news media startups across the world decide to opt for business models that rely solely on donations, from private individuals or larger foundations.
One of the most notable examples is certainly ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning newsroom established in New York in 2007 to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.
But media organizations that adopt mixed business models are also considering the idea of attracting philanthropic money to fund in-depth reporting with increasing interest.
Just to give a number, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism found that 12 percent of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream in 2019.
Obviously, “philanthrojournalism” is not immune to criticism. How can we make sure that the money comes with no strings attached? And even if we can guarantee that the media outlet retains total editorial control - as in the examples I mentioned above - how could we envision a system where the funding doesn’t necessarily reflect the funder’s interest areas?
These are complex challenges that require bold and imaginative solutions.
Maybe we should think beyond large foundations. In a recent article for The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones contemplates a sort of democratized public subsidy for the whole media industry. His idea, firstly proposed by US media scholar Robert McChesney, consists of the state giving every citizen a yearly allowance of $200 to donate to one or more publications. In Jones’s hypothesis, the allowance would be funded by an annual tax on the advertising industry.
The idea lends itself to an array of criticism. There’s the evident risk, for example, that the funding will just mirror the electorate’s political preferences of the moment resulting in a pro-government press with more money than its competitors.
Regardless, the idea has the merit of being radical and out-of-the-box and that’s the kind of thinking we need in this ongoing brainstorming on the future of journalism.
There are many reasons why people decide to cut animal products from their diet, but the negative health effects of excessive meat and dairy consumption and the enormous environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are popular ones.
However, the suffering of billions of animals each year in factory farming, referred to in a 2015 Guardian article as one of the “worst crimes in history”, is the most powerful motivation for many, including myself.
Refraining from something that causes so much harm and suffering is laudable, but there’s one argument occasionally used in vegan and animal rights campaigns that warrants closer attention – the idea that consuming other creatures is morally wrong in its own right.
Opposing meat eating on ontological grounds – meaning, simply because animals are sentient beings, we shouldn’t eat them – separates humans from nature and prevents truly ethical relationships between humans, animals and the natural world. The late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood coined “ontological veganism” to describe this absolute opposition.
Ontological veganism asserts that beings that count as ethical subjects should not be eaten, in the same way that there’s a widespread taboo about eating humans. While this thinking erects another unhelpful boundary between animals and other life forms, it’s also ironic that the rationale underlying taboos against eating humans is the desire to radically separate humans from other animals.
By framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong, ontological veganism also risks demonising predation. In order to avoid this, a common approach is to “excuse” animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of “nature” while humans, as cultural beings, should be exempt.
Some of us – especially those living in wealthy countries – can indeed choose to opt for vegan products, but this argument reproduces another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. Life is entanglement, with no clear boundaries between “humans” and other species, or between “nature” and “society”.
"Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food. They are with you, not for you."
This quote is from the late utopian author Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Always Coming Home. Her idea is akin to Plumwood’s theory of ecological animalism, which seeks to replace human supremacy over nature with mutual and respectful use between humans and other species.
Ontological veganism would frame using or consuming animals itself as inherently exploitative. But consider forms of mutual use seen in symbiotic relationships, such as those between pollinating insects and plants. In such scenarios, use isn’t oppressive or exploitative. It’s the form of use seen within industrial capitalism, where humans and non-humans alike are treated only as a means to an end, that prevents ethical relationships.
Ecosystems and all living beings depend upon mutual use and consumption. Orcas consume fish and other marine mammals, we must consume living vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms, nourishing them in turn.
If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, then like them, we are food. To deny this is to deny that humans are embedded within the ecosystems they originate from and are sustained by.
The horrific cruelty involved in industrial factory farming reduces living beings to mere profitable commodities. This is why I am a vegan, and it is here where calls for eradicating or at least reforming animal agriculture find firmer ground.
The ways in which animals are currently treated in agriculture represent the exact opposite of respect and mutuality. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed in his poignant ecotopian work, Island, that
"For animals… Satan, quite obviously, is Homo sapiens."
Ecological animalism offers a powerful basis for truly ethical and egalitarian ways of relating to other species. We are all food, and crucially, so much more. We are with and not for one another, and we are all worthy of respect. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved, lest we reproduce the same harmful dualisms we want to dismantle.