Tribute to Sunderlal Bahuguna

Annapurna range
Photo: Annapurna range (Giacomo Berardi, Unsplash)

I confess to be an inveterate obituary hawk. The ‘vet’ bit in inveterate is telling as my compulsion comes with the territory of the latter half of life.

I don’t scour obituary columns for names I know or like or love, or even for people whose behavior I despise, for (the bell) “it tolls for thee”. Obituaries pack the history of a whole life into a tiny capsule and occasionally one captures my attention so vividly I hunger to know more and feel sad to miss the subject’s acquaintance.

I never met Sunderlal Bahuguna and didn’t even know his name until he died from covid-19 on May 21, 2021, at the age of 94. What drew me to his story by Hridayesh Joshi, a Mongabay journalist who knew him, was the transparent goodness of a life dedicated to caring for an environment that his people in the Himalayan foothills loved and needed to thrive.

As a bright and educated Indian, he gave up a potential career in parliamentary politics to serve his home district. As an early environmentalist he had a great impact nationally, even internationally, yet acclaim didn’t go to his head. He remained modest and credited much of his achievement to his wife.

As a young man he became a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, which says much about his character and lifestyle. He went on long marches, fasted to make public protest, fought against ‘untouchability’, and practiced non-violent activism against political and commercial oppressors of his people and the forest.

For many years he led the Chipko movement against logging companies whose depredations threatened fragile ecosystems around local communities. He organized protests against the Tehri Dam project (largest in India) for displacing of thousands of people from homes and affecting a watershed feeding the sacred Ganges.

The Chipko movement began in the 1970s in the hills of Uttarakhand, a famous destination for Hindu pilgrims and site of the 1968 Beatles Ashram. It started when local women opposed loggers by literally hugging trees (Chipko=hugging). The expression tree-hugger is often pejorative in the West, but only ignorance of its solemn history covers that shame.

Three centuries ago, hundreds of Bishnoi people, most of them women, obstinately resisted the felling of trees in their district to clear land for a new palace. They were massacred. In the end, the maharaja relented and canceled the project. The martyrs helped to inspire a modern movement of forest guardians that wins more sympathy by the year.

In his later years, Bahuguna-ji looked like a brown Santa Claus, a genial figure of gentle temperament. He practiced what he preached by living simply and sustainably, even giving up a rice diet because paddy fields use a lot of water.

We may wonder how a modest exterior with little worldly ambition can make a difference today, though he didn’t achieve all his goals (the Tehri Dam). But he had a facility for mingling care for human welfare with respect for what science knows, driven by a great fire of determination in his heart.

A life for rich pickings by an obituary hawk.

Next Post: American Goldfinch

Phosphatemia—How Green is your Water?

Phosphate in drinking water
Colorimetric phosphate test

My swimming pool has a thin green carpet. The fish and frog pond is choked with weed and slime. Even sugar water in the hummingbird feeder turned cloudy in 24 hours. What’s going on?

Now I’ve lit my pipe let’s start the inquiry, Dr. Watson.  Does the water have a common source? Is it polluted?

Yes and no, Holmes. The water originated from our faucet, but we didn’t spread fertilizer in the garden.

Hmm. Tell me, then, what can make stuff grow quickly in water?  

My dear Holmes, I’m reminded of rapidly growing dead zones in the Bay during summer, though the tides were ‘red’ with algae, never green. But if I have the same problem at home the answer must be phosphate.

Congratulations on your deduction and commiseration with the slimy state of your water. Now give it a test.


A combination of colorimetric and laboratory tests confirmed high levels of phosphate in samples from all three sources, but even higher straight out of the tap people drink from. In excess of 4,000 parts per billion, exceeding the sanitation capacity of free chlorine in the pool. How so, when only <100 ppb from the garden well and rainwater barrel?

Remember Flint, Michigan, in 2014? The city managers (that’s what they call them) switched the water supply to save money. Instead of the Detroit river where phosphate was added they drew from the Flint river which has only a low natural level.

Phosphate is added to domestic water supplies around this country, Britain and others included, to avoid poisoning children in homes that still have lead plumbing. It reduces lead in drinking water by coating pipes. Few people seem to know or ask what’s in their water. Phosphate isn’t mentioned in the James City County Water Quality Report, although plenty about bacteria.

Like other living organisms, bacteria need phosphorus to grow, and some kinds are able to liberate more from insoluble mineral. The municipal answer to lead provides more food (PO4) for bacteria and algae to grow, and that consequence is fixed by pumping more chlorine in our water.

Holmes didn’t seem worried about drinking our local water (or that in Baker’s Street, London). He is glad of a generous helping of phosphate in his diet to top up his hydroxyapatite and ATP reserves, but spurns colas supercharged with phosphoric acid for the sake of his brain.

Still Drinking a Cup of Joy

Coffee - a cup of joy

How often does science news make you feel guilty of environmental harm?  The list of ways we contribute to greenhouse gases that are warming the planet is endless. Carbon-dioxide is the cost of being alive and a consumer, produced from birth until cremation and now exceeding the ability of plants and the oceans to buffer the atmosphere. The news can turn us green to blue, looking for something we love that is innocuous.

What is more innocent than the cup of coffee that gives cheer and brings us together? But that’s on the list, too—starting where the beans are grown (often in land cleared of tropical forest) all the way to my hand and beyond, until the plastic lid is tipped into a landfill or floats to the ocean.

Wait a minute. How much consumption can we surrender for the sake of posterity? We fall into the trap of an overwhelming list that because we can’t do everything we do nothing. It is a dilemma for people who care about human ecology and biodiversity. I think the answer is to do something I can manage because if everyone did a bit the additive impact would make a significant difference. For one person it might be more vegetarian, for another drive/ fly less and others buy consumer products more carefully. We can’t wait for politicians to stop dragging feet, generally old feet habituated to their ways. Even companies are getting into the act, wanting to flaunt greenness to discerning customers.  

That brings me back to coffee where there’s something in a cup to lift spirits.

As forests are cleared and fragmented in Columbia the habitat of jaguars and other charismatic wildlife is depleted. But in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Columbia some poor farmers have signed up to a program for shade-grown coffee with the Jaguar Friendly label that sells at a premium price. To be certified, they protect high quality forest equal in area to the crop they cultivate.

Coffee produces as much waste as the crop itself, dumping 10 m tons of biomass every year. In an experimental trial in Costa Rica the waste was spread on deforested land where it had a regenerative effect, creating 80% canopy from young trees in two years, four-fold taller than in a control area where there was only 20% cover of the (mostly non-native) grasses. As coffee gives us a buzz, its pulp helps forests to grow faster.

At the other end of the chain, Starbucks sells 4 bn cups per year. Customers at branches in Seattle are now being offered reusable cups (remember them?). This is a challenge when customers want a cup on the go, but let’s wish the ‘borrow’ program success and no guilty feelings to spoil our cup of joy.