Friday, April 30, 2010

Is Gulf Oil spill even bigger than they're admitting?

As if the staggering ecological catastrophe happening now on the Gulf Coast isn't bad enough, this report from NRDC questions whether the spill isn't a whole lot larger than what is being reported:

Close to 5,000 barrels of oil a day are pouring into the Gulf of Mexico following the destruction of an offshore oil platform last week, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Operator BP originally argued that the amount was far less (only 1,000 barrels or so), but today it concurred with the government's numbers.

Too bad they're both wrong, according to a group of independent analysts who are watching the spill via satellite and aerial data from their offices in West Virginia. They say the spill is far worse than either the company or the government has acknowledged so far.

Five thousand barrels a day is "a bare-bones limit," says John Amos, the president and founder of the nonprofit firm SkyTruth, which specializes in gathering and analyzing satellite and aerial data to promote environmental conservation.

Amos estimates that the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf is more like 20,000 barrels a day -- four times the Coast Guard estimate, and 20 times what BP originally claimed. That would add up to about 6 million gallons of oil so far. With oil still flowing, this spill threatens to be worse than the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez, which dumped 11 million gallons into Alaska's Prince William Sound -- one of the nation's worst environmental disasters. (NRDC is calling for a temporary halt to plans for new offshore drilling in light of the Gulf explosion. See update below on President Obama's response.)

Amos previously worked as a consulting geologist, "using satellite imagery as a global geologic tool," in his words, to locate natural resources for major oil and mining corporations. Now he assists advocacy organizations, government agencies, and academic researchers with data collection and analysis.

SkyTruth receives a bit of foundation funding, and it also partners with green groups in the United States and overseas on specific projects. Last year, when a Montara oil rig exploded in the Timor Sea off the northern coast of western Australia, SkyTruth tracked and documented the spill for a coalition of groups advocating for protected marine reserves in the area. That spill lasted for 10 weeks.

"On this Gulf spill, we're not officially partnered with anyone," Amos says. "We are doing what we think is the best thing we can do right now, hoping at some point groups will work with us to make it sustainable over the long haul." He's assisted by a technical volunteer and consultations with professional cohorts.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, about 130 miles southeast of New Orleans, exploded and caught fire on April 20 and sank a week ago today. There were 126 people on board; 11 are missing and likely dead. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency today because of the spreading oil slick -- which is expected to reach the state's coast late tonight -- and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called it a spill of "national significance."

SkyTruth has access to much of (but not all) the same data that the government and BP are using. It's publicly available from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the agency's Aqua satellite, as well as other sources, including aerial flights.

Based on a map released from a flyover on Wednesday and compared to "the last good satellite image that we got, from the afternoon of April 27," Amos believes that the slick covers about 2,300 square miles. Official estimates to date have put the slick at about 2,200 square miles.

So how did Amos calculate the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf?

"We saw a published statement by a BP executive that about 3 percent of the slick was about 100 microns thick, and that the rest was about one or two molecules thick," he says. "We took him at his word on the microns, but not on the rest," because to see an observable sheen of oil at sea, the petro-goo needs to be at least 1 micron thick, explains Amos.

"A molecule's thickness is measured in billionths of a meter. For a micron, we're talking millionths of a meter," he says. And over thousands of square miles of ocean surface, even millionths of a meter add up.

Using BP's estimate that 3 percent of the slick's area is 100 microns thick, with an area of 2,200-2,300 square miles, Amos calculated that this part of the spill contains about 4.5 million gallons of oil.

Allowing for the remaining 97 percent of the slick to be 1 micron thick (the minimum necessary for that visible shimmer), Amos estimates another 1.5 million gallons of oil.

Total: 6 million gallons of slick, give or take a couple hundred thousand, and more oil pouring into the ocean every day.

To make even a rough estimate, Amos used BP's higher-end figure of 100 microns. But the oil is actually much thicker in some parts of the visible spill, he says. Aerial imagery is showing "thick ropy strands of oil, oil that's much thicker than 1 micron," according to Amos. "That's floating froth of oil mixed with water and probably bacteria ... the sloppy thick end of an oil spill where it could be anywhere from a millimeter thick to centimeters thick."

Amos says he doesn't question the Coast Guard's sincerity -- just its data analysis. "They are swamped by the magnitude of this spill and their effort to control it, and stop it from doing worse damage," he says. "I don't blame them for not questioning the numbers they've been provided by others, or spending their precious resources just trying to come up with better number."

From the Coast Guard's perspective, Amos say, "It's just a heck of a lot of oil."

The Coast Guard has not responded to requests for comment.

As for how BP arrived at its initial, much lower estimate of 1,000 barrels per day, Amos says: "I hope it was based on some real thoughtful analysis. But I haven't seen any justification."

UPDATE 4/30/2010: In response to calls from NRDC and others for a halt to drilling expansion in light of the latest disaster, the White House said today that no new offshore oil drilling will take place until a full investigation into the Deepwater Horizon explosion is completed. ~ Emily Gertz April 29, 2010 on

If you are against offshore drilling, please consider signing this petition sponsored by

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Obama, Say NO to Commercial Whaling!

It has been horrifying, to say the least, to read the recent news reports indicating that the United States is actually going to be proposing a deal that would suspend a ban on commercial whaling! What??!! It's true...But there is no justification for commercial whaling. None. Nada. Nil. There should be no discussion on this. Greenpeace has a petition that I urge you all to sign. You can find the petition here.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare also has a petition campaign here.

This is what Greenpeace says about it:

If you’re a whale (and, we’re guessing that you’re not) public enemy number one to you right now is President Obama. It’s hard to believe, but unfortunately very true. The Obama Administration is proposing a deal that would re-open commercial whaling for the first time in over two decades.

President Obama has been backing away from his promise to save the whales and instead moving towards a deal that would benefit corrupt Japanese business ventures.

Tell President Obama that this is outrageous! Commercial whaling is cruel and unacceptable. We WILL NOT stand by and watch commercial whaling paint our oceans red with the blood of whales.

On Earth Day Philip Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA was in Washington, D.C. and wrote this on the Huffington Post about meeting up with the President:

"Look, I love whales," said the President with a smile as he shook my hand.

Yesterday, on Earth Day, I thought I would be calling on the President to push legislation that would actually solve the climate crisis. No such luck. Instead, I found myself on the national mall leading a march on the White House to stop the President from his back room attempts to undo the 35 year moratorium on whaling.

Later that afternoon, I was invited to the White House to meet with the President. I asked my team what I should ask the President. The funniest suggestion was to give him a fist bump and say "drill, baby drill." As much as I wanted that on film, I decided to ask him about the reversal of his written campaign promise to Greenpeace to end commercial whaling.

He walked person to person, saying hello, as advocate after advocate threw him softball questions. I shook the President's hand, and said:

"Mr. President, I am Phil Radford from Greenpeace. We are concerned that your administration is overturning the ban on whaling."

"I know" he replied. "I've seen your ads in the papers."

"Great," I replied. "What is your plan to change your administration's position?

"Look," said the president, sounding like his Saturday Night Live doppelganger, "I love whales. I will do what I can to protect them."

"Will you reverse your administration's position?" I asked.

The President responded "Oh come on, don't lobby me here right now..."

I'd made our point. There was no point in lobbying the President more. After all, Earth Day should remind us that lobbying played a minor role in securing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and ban on commercial whaling. People taking action made the difference. The 200 million people in the streets on the first Earth Day are who brought about the change. We'll be in the streets again until President Obama lives up to his written promise to end commercial whaling.~ Philip Radford

Here's the press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council last week on this:

Proposal to Legalize Commercial Whale Hunting Released
U.S.-Led Deal Would Suspend 25-Year-Old Ban on Whaling

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 22, 2010) -- Today the International Whaling Commission announced a draft proposal that would legalize commercial whaling for the first time in a generation. In 1986, after two centuries of whaling pushed whales to near extinction, the whaling commission banned commercial whaling worldwide. The draft proposal will be voted on in June.

The Natural Resources Defense Council believes the 1986 whaling moratorium to be one of the 20th century’s most iconic conservation victories. Unfortunately, the United States has voiced support for the dangerous new proposal to overturn the international moratorium, claiming it will rein in Japan, Iceland and Norway’s annual killings currently in defiance of international law. The Obama Administration must formally decide whether to support the proposal at the IWC meeting in Agadir, Morocco in June.

Following is a statement from Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of NRDC’s marine mammal protection program:

“Whales are among the most magnificent creatures ever to inhabit the Earth. This deal would legalize their slaughter, and there is no ethical, moral, political or economic justification for it. Obama Administration officials portray the United States as leading an effort that would be a “step forward” for the whales, but this deal isn’t a step forward at all. It is a step backward, to a time when it was acceptable to kill whales for profit.”

“The moratorium has done more to save whales than the revival of commercial whaling ever could. We will do everything we can to stop it – and to persuade the Obama Administration that it should too.”


Japan, Iceland and Norway have killed roughly 30,000 whales since the moratorium was introduced in 1986. In Japan’s case, the killings have been justified under the guise of “scientific research.” Under the deal being considered by the whaling commission, hunting would be legally sanctioned. Prior to the 1986 whaling moratorium, roughly 38,000 whales were killed annually between 1945 and 1986, compared with an average of 1,240 whales killed per year after the moratorium (1987 onwards).

The deal would suspend the moratorium on commercial whaling for 10 years and reward Japan, Norway and Iceland for years of defying international law. It could also open the door to whaling by other countries; Korea has already stated its interest in resuming whaling.

In addition, the deal does not base catch limits on science, gives no guarantees that the whaling nations won’t continue to whale under legal loopholes, and breathes life into an otherwise dying industry. The deal also acknowledges that countries could not reach a compromise that would prevent whaling nations from trading in whale meat or products. Under the deal, hunters will be permitted to kill humpback, minke, fin, sperm, sei and Bryde’s, whale species.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Venice Beach California

I’d heard about the street performers, roller skaters and bodybuilders on the boardwalk at Venice Beach, but nothing prepared me for the carnival-like atmosphere – even on a quiet Friday morning. As I settled into my seat at a table on the terrace of the Sidewalk Café, a band set up to serenade the lunch crowd playing 70’s rock songs that drew in a host of impromptu dancers: a man with a red and white bandana pranced around with a long stem of bamboo; a bicyclist rode up and joined him, grabbing the bamboo and the unlikely duo twirled around in circles; a bodybuilder walked by holding two sleeping pit bull puppies by their underbellies…until the police drew up in an SUV and started searching for who knows what on the grass behind where the band was set up.

But everywhere, everywhere – amidst the vendors tables set up with trinkets to be sold, amidst the band playing and the prancing and dancing around, amidst it all was the overwhelming number of homeless. And I can’t help but wonder at the incongruousness of a country that spends trillions of wasted dollars on unnecessary wars, expensive space programs, billions wasted on extravagant, archaic election procedures….then there’s all the money stolen by Wall Street casino crime bosses. And yet here, on the beach, in the parks, are the ones who pay the price for misguided priorities – who are the end result of a neglectful, wasteful society. Living on the beach, wrapped in dirty blankets, stealing a nap in the manicured Santa Monica parks in midday, pushing grocery carts of tattered belongings from block to block, rustling through garbage cans for scraps of food and bottles to collect for deposit money.

America. Land of the free and neglected.

For more on America’s misguided priorities, please read Arianna Huffington’s article Guns Vs. Butter 2010.
For more on L.A.’s issue with raising money for the poor please read Mark Lacter’s article What Gives in LA Mag.
In Portland, I support Portland Rescue Mission, who provide emergency services and recovery programs for the homeless.
In Toronto, I supported and volunteered for Sistering, an excellent women’s agency serving the homeless.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Edwidge Danticat: Remembering and Moving Forward

Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat was in Portland last night. She was presented by Literary Arts with a portion of the proceeds of the event supporting Mercy Corp’s efforts in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. Danticat’s highly acclaimed books include Breath, Eyes,Memory; Krik? Krak!; The Farming of Bones and Brother, I’m Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography.

Danticat began her speech by saying that the phrase that Haitians are saying to each other after the earthquake is “remembering as we move forward.” She devoted much of the evening to speaking about Haiti before and after the earthquake, and Haitian literature and culture. She noted that Haitians have a lot of proverbs and stories about God and the Angel of Death. “When we have tragedies, we look for meaning,” she said. Danticat relayed one of these stories about God and the Angel of Death, which is also told in her latest book Brother, I’m Dying:

God and the Angel of Death went out knocking on doors to see who would give them water. They stopped at one house and the woman who answered gave water to the Angel of Death. God asked the woman, “But I’m God, why wouldn’t you give me the water?” And the woman answered, “Because the Angel of Death is more democratic. The Angel of Death doesn’t play favorites and affects everyone. You, God, give water to some, wealth to some, poverty to some.” Danticat said that now in Haiti, everyone got some. Everyone was affected by the earthquake, regardless of whether you were rich or poor, had a good house or not.

Danticat spoke of her cousin Maxo who died in the earthquake along with one of his children. Fortunately, his wife and other four children were rescued from the rubble of their house. Danticat, who now lives in Miami, visited Haiti less than a month after the earthquake and visited the grave where Maxo was buried. Danticat wrote about Maxo after his death in a column in the New Yorker.

She recounted a couple of striking images that she encountered: the airport run by U.S. military, her husband’s uncle who now wears a helmet everywhere in case of falling debris, the tent cities and “sheet” cities – people who only have a sheet, and the overwhelming number of people living outside. She spoke of seeing the ruins of a nursing training school and piled up outside were body parts that looked like people had been embracing.

Danticat said that Haiti is “slippery ground.” It is not a steady ground, physically or politically. However, she noted the richness in culture of Haitian people and their motto: In Unity, There is Strength. She ended with a few proverbs: “We have stumbled but we have not fallen,”
“We remember but we move forward.”

To support Mercy Corps efforts in Haiti, please go to this link.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

Happy Earth Day...Video courtesy of Greenpeace.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


It's at times like this when I think to myself, you know, maybe we should just be slowing down...all this travel, hyper-activity, constant motion....This volcano eruption in Iceland is a reminder of just how much we depend on a benign planetary environment to "do our lives." Well, Eyjafjallajokull is no benign force, and the Guardian says it could be days before air travel can resume in the U.K. and Europe. The eruption could go on for weeks! So thousands of people are forced to slow right down. Between the multiple severe earthquakes, volcanoes, the worst drought in the Caribbean ever, it seems the earth intends to remain the big story right now. That said, I'm flying to L.A. tomorrow where the buzz this week was a scare about predictions of a big one to hit SoCal by Friday. Turns out it was just the Quake Quack. Still, the USGS maps show lots of shaking down by the border every day after that 7.2 one down in Baja California on April 4.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Negril Beach Erosion: Will We Lose Jamaica's Most Iconic Beach?

The Inter Press News Agency published this article today by Kathy Barrett titled "CARIBBEAN: Final Throes for Jamaica's 'Hippie Paradise'?" The article highlights the results and warnings from a study of the Negril ecosystem by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Division of Early Warning and Assessment. Sad to say, but the truth is that there is a very serious risk that we may end up losing what is Jamaica's most iconic stretch of beach. See full article below:

NEGRIL, Jamaica, Apr 9, 2010 (Tierramérica) - For centuries, Negril, a seven-mile stretch of white sand beach on the western tip of Jamaica, was cut off from the rest of the island by bad roads and a large swamp.

It remained relatively unknown to the world until the 1960s and 1970s, when U.S. "hippies," students and Vietnam veterans gravitated towards this laid-back village.

The U.S. travellers arrived in ever-increasing numbers and, towards the end of the 1970s, Negril blossomed as a tourist destination. But with the growing population and improved infrastructure, the natural beauty of Jamaica's third largest tourism centre has suffered visible deterioration.

"When I first visited Negril from Kingston in 1960, just after the first road to the coast was built, there were no buildings the entire length of the beach. The waters were crystal clear," wrote Thomas J. Goreau, president of the non-governmental U.S.-based Global Coral Reef Alliance, in a paper published in 1992.

"Now that it is Jamaica's fastest growing resort area, all the tall coconut trees are gone, the beaches are crowded with people and buildings," states the text.

Eighteen years later, the demise of the Negril environment has again been brought into sharp focus, this time by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Division of Early Warning and Assessment.

Expert Pascal Peduzzi, who heads the Early Warning Unit, predicted in March that several beaches on the western end of Jamaica could be totally wiped out in the next five to 10 years if local authorities and residents do not act now.

His prediction is based on data coming out of a UNEP study on the role of the ecosystem in disaster risk reduction.

"The data has found that beaches in Negril are receding between half and one metre per year," said Peduzzi.

The scientific evidence shows that over the past 40 years Negril's beaches have undergone severe and irreversible shoreline erosion and retreat, according to the study entitled "Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Methodology Development Project (RiVAMP): The Case of Jamaica."

"The highest erosion rates have occurred after 1991, when beach recovery after storms has been slower, and these trends are likely to continue," Peduzzi said.

The UNEP report says bad environmental and building practices and illegal dumping of pollutants in the sea were killing sea grass and coral reefs, thus reducing their effectiveness in protecting the beaches from erosion.

In the opinion of Maxine Hamilton, executive director of the Negril Environmental Protection Trust, the UNEP study will help determine the way forward in finding solutions for an already fragile environment.

"It will help us to structure our programme to ensure that we conserve the environment and to increase the resilience of the vulnerable communities in our area to natural disasters... It gives us ammunition to move ahead to take the appropriate action," she said.

In April 2000, the Negril Chamber of Commerce invited professor Edward Maltby, who headed the Commission on Ecosystem Management of the World Conservation Union, to visit Negril and assist in guiding the community on the way forward.

Maltby was adamant that the Negril Great Morass, a wetland covering 2,289 hectares, must be revitalised. The Great Morass constitutes one-fifth of Jamaica's wetland area.

The Great Morass once completely surrounded the Negril beach, preventing access to the coast. The area has been subjected to extensive man-made changes that have influenced its hydrological function as well as its role as a wildlife habitat.

"Greed is what functions now. They have built hotels on the last forest swamp which had mangroves and was where the crabs and fish spawned," ecologist and hotel owner Sylvie Grizzle told Tierramérica. She moved here from her native France in 1981.

The red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) in the area grows toward the sea, holding the sands in place. "That gave us a bit more land every year, so of course that's gone, that's finished," she said.

"I was probably the only person who protested. I said, 'please, you can have your hotel anywhere else, just not in that area because that is the last little bit of coastal forest that we have'."

"One of these days we won't even have a beach if nothing is done," lamented Grizzle, who owns the Charela Inn and is a pioneer in the country's environmental movement.

She says there has been no planning in Negril or in the rest of Jamaica. "We are destroying our coastlines everywhere. Jamaica is a small island and Jamaicans are being pushed out and that is terrible," Grizzle said.

One of the problems, she says, is the violation of rules and regulations. "For those who put their hotels on the sea, let them pay a terrible tax for the rest of their days for breaking the law" or tear down their buildings.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.) (END)
Update to this post Oct 14, 2010:
From the Jamaica Observer, October 6, 2010:
JET concerned about Negril shoreline, Says Ecosystem Shows Signs of Dying
A massive pile up of dead seagrass along the Negril coastline in Westmoreland has prompted the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) to call for a relook at the area’s ecosystem.

“It (the death of the seagrass) would suggest to me that the seagrass ecosystem is unhealthy. Something is very wrong and it needs some study,” McCaulay told the Observer.
Meanwhile, the JET boss pointed to the continued development of the western resort town’s coastline as a potential source of the problem.

“It is being caused by badly planned and executed coastal development,” she said.

Negril, once famous for its pristine seven-mile white sand beaches with crystal blue water, is fast losing its unique beauty because of the degradation of the coastal environment, McCaulay insisted.

“The Negril marine ecosystem has long been in trouble and it is only going to get worse. It is partly due to land-based pollution from bad agricultural practices and tourism developments, which has disrupted the functions of the morass and (caused the) removal of mangroves and seagrass,” she noted.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Jamaica Water Crisis - Hermitage Dam Video

This video, taken just a few days ago, examines the state of Hermitage Dam, source of Kingston and St. Andrew's water supply, which is in dire straits due to the severe drought that is affecting the country. An impassioned plea for action from Jamaica's citizens to stand up and take this crisis seriously, and for the government and opposition to act responsibly.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pico Iyer and the Coming of the Fourth World

One of my favorite writers, the brilliant essayist and travel writer, Pico Iyer, was in Portland last night. He spoke to an appreciative crowd at the University of Portland, covering topics ranging from his travels across the world, his insights from 30 years of covering the Dalai Lama, and his time in contemplative silence - what he calls his “drug of choice” – stillness.

My first introduction to Pico Iyer was when I read his remarkable essay Ethiopia: Prayers in the Wilderness which is published in Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions. His writing immediately transported me into the spirituality and the heartbreak of that iconic landscape and people:

“We drove out of Addis…and within minutes, we found ourselves in an utterly different world: a Stone Age world, almost, of antique figures and shawled old crones and donkeys who seemed to have walked in from the Book of Kings. . . .I had only to look at the ancient Phoenician script on my visa, with its air of old parchment and sacred Coptic texts, to realize that I was traveling into antiquity. . . . Lalibela, like all the truly sacred places in the world, is distinguished, in fact, by all the things you cannot see: most of all, the silence, the sense of spun calm as luminous and clear as glass polished by forty generations and more of worship. You sit in the cool darkness of a church, light streaming through the cross-shaped windows, the sound of murmured prayers all around you, and you leave the world you know. And enter one you had forgotten you inhabited.”

Iyer, when not traveling, divides his time between living in Japan and resides part of the year in a monastery in California. Last night he began his talk by speaking about his interest in movement and stillness. He said “only when you step out of your life, can you figure out what to do with your life.” He noted that 20 years ago we were desperate for more knowledge. Now, it is as if there is too much and something in the human spirit craves stillness. We need time to “unplug ourselves.” We need to find who we are “beneath the clutter – to find the voice in the stillness.” He said that he feels that the time he spends in silence is somehow his “real life.” He acknowledged that it is possible to be clear on top of the mountain, however, how do we bring that clarity of stillness back into the world and down into the streets? He said that there is one person he has met who he sees has that ability to bring the stillness into the world of movement: the Dalai Lama.

Iyer has spent time with the Dalai Lama over the past 30 years and in 2008, published his book The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Iyer said last night that the first thing that struck him about the Dalai Lama is that “he is not a dreamer – he is a hyper-realist – a rare political being always looking at the present moment.”

Iyer told a humorous anecdote of the time when the Dalai Lama said to him that he “had an addiction.” Iyer said he was taken aback – “the Dalai Lama had an addiction?” The Dalai Lama said yes, it was true – he was addicted to the BBC World Service! Each day he does 4 hours of meditation but makes time to listen in to the BBC news so that he can keep track of events happening in the world.

Iyer said that the Dalai Lama travels almost as an “anti-missionary.” Wherever he travels, the Dalai Lama tells people to “remain in their own tradition.” Iyer said that one of the things that has most impressed him about the Dalai Lama is that when he fled Tibet in 1959, arriving in India suffering from dysentery, the first thing he said was “now we are free.” Iyer noted that the Dalai Lama did not focus on the loss – he focused on the opportunity that he saw for the Tibetan people. Iyer said that in exile, the Dalai Lama has been able to bring Tibetans into the modern world in a way that would have been impossible had he stayed in Tibet. He has even made up a constitution that would allow them to impeach the Dalai Lama!

Iyer said it was a powerful lesson – to not mourn what you have lost, but to focus on the opportunity that change brings. Iyer read to us a poignant essay he wrote on the personal loss of his family home in Santa Barbara to wildfire. Iyer lost manuscripts of books that he had yet to publish and many personal family items. Asked by an audience member, what opportunity he had gained in that experience, Iyer pointed out that the fire had forced him to become a better writer – to delve into the world of being a novelist – something he had been too timid to do prior to losing the manuscripts. The fire had destroyed a manuscript and all of his notes for a book that he had written on Cuba. He said that he had been the type of writer that relied too much on his notes. Without the manuscript, he realized that he had to approach the writing from a different perspective and hence came his novel: Cuba and the Night.

A writer for Time Magazine for 27 years, Iyer was born in England of Indian parents who moved to California when he was a young boy. His parents left him in boarding school in England to complete his studies and so began his life of constant travel. Iyer says that he considers himself a “citizen of the future.” Not because of any more knowledge that he has, but because of the strong sense he has of his own multicultural being. He says that young people today are much more multicultural than his own generation. He noted that this is the age of the refugee and that home is portable. In this he says that he sees a “fourth world coming to life.” That home is a metaphysical place, that “home is no longer a piece of soil, but rather, a piece of your own soul.”

Iyer spoke of the importance of being “citizen ambassadors” to places that we travel to. He said that writers can perform “citizen diplomacy” and can “dream themselves into the other.” He also noted that as the world becomes more internationalized, so too is the rise of nationalism real, making the need for being an ambassador even more compelling so that we can “humanize abstractions.”

In an essay titled Why We Travel, on the website, Iyer says:

“Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology. And in the process, we also get saved from abstraction ourselves, and come to see how much we can bring to the places we visit, and how much we can become a kind of carrier pigeon -- an anti-Federal Express, if you like -- in transporting back and forth what every culture needs. I find that I always take Michael Jordan posters to Kyoto, and bring woven ikebana baskets back to California; I invariably travel to Cuba with a suitcase piled high with bottles of Tylenol and bars of soap, and come back with one piled high with salsa tapes, and hopes, and letters to long-lost brothers.

"But more significantly, we carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go, and in many parts of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers, the only channels that can take people out of the censored limits of their homelands. In closed or impoverished places, like Pagan or Lhasa or Havana, we are the eyes and ears of the people we meet, their only contact with the world outside and, very often, the closest, quite literally, they will ever come to Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton. Not the least of the challenges of travel, therefore, is learning how to import -- and export -- dreams with tenderness.”

See Pico Iyer's article "Radar of Compassion" on the Dalai Lama in the May 2010 edition of Shambhala Sun magazine.