The arctic vortex is bearing down upon us once again here in the North. It is the penance we paid for our control of fire. This control has taken humankind to unnaturally cold quarters where we live imprisoned albeit comfortably by an invisible cage of winter weather. Despite the snow, chickadees are beginning to riot optimistically in the treetops. And as a disciple of the Chickadee, I too will proclaim an early spring, both physically and metaphorically.
Technology may have sentenced some of us to the near-polar regions of the earth, but it has often liberated us from our deepest dilemmas. Our inventors, much more than our politicians, have been able to solve the gravest problems we face. Twitter and Facebook, banal as they are here in the US, allowed communication during the Arab Spring and it gave voice to the disenfranchised. Technology also allows me to follow what happens in Bangladesh, and subjects you to these write-ups.
In the piles of snow and icy conditions that we inhabitants of the North are damned to suffer, I can find a joy, a savage beauty in this season. The snow blankets everything, it is both awe-inspiring and treacherous. It hides patches of ice, it weighs down and collapses roofs, but we soldier on.
In Bangladesh, you have a political season which is very much like a treacherous winter. There have been days, glorious days within the last year when it seemed like the thaw was imminent, but it never came. Shovelling snow is a political act. We need to decide which streets to clear, which walkways to make accessible. The deeper the snow, the fewer avenues we have to travel. Your own political parties know this well. One side created a blizzard by rewriting the Constitution in a manner that they knew would lead to chaos, and in that chaos, that political blizzard, they alone would control the snowploughs. The other side unleashed a blizzard that closed down the country.
Whatever party is in power, it seems, all the ploughed roads lead to a cliff, and like lemmings in the northern climate, the political faithful keep driving off the edge.
And here I sit, once more, trying to make sense of what’s going on a world away. We all know that, with the exception of some great visionary like Nelson Mandela, politicians are dysfunctional the world over, and are taken seriously at the great peril of any given nation.
The way into problems is through politics, and the way out is through invention. So why talk so much about politics? With them, it’s so easy to predict the future: It will be the same old Same Old. If we want to be happy, let’s imitate those chickadees in the storm and sing of a warmer spring coming. In other word, let’s talk about inventors.
Here, Bangladesh has good reason to be hopeful.
In-country and among its expatriate community, the innovation and solutions of your native sons and daughters are changing not only Bangladesh, but the whole world. In some sense, it may be a good thing to place a nation’s least talented (and most privileged) people in politics, so those with real gifts can concentrate on using creativity to build a better world, while the most mediocre take shots at each other, wag their finger, solicit bribery or celebrate their several birthdays. Invention does not care whose daughter you are. It is not advanced one iota by burning a neighbourhood. It is indifferent to how you gain advantage in an election. Here in New Jersey, invention does not care if you can close down a bridge or resort to bullying tactics to punish your opponents.
Very quietly, far from the headlines, in fact hidden in those scholarly articles no one reads, in places like Australia, Bangladeshis are making life better for people back home. And, like the chickadee, my job is to sit on the topmost branch and promise that, through these true agents of change, the spring thaw will come.
Who, for instance, will clear the pollution in the streams and rivers caused by the synthetic dyes that can kill both fish and humans? I come from a region of the United States that suffers from an epidemic of childhood brain cancer brought about by the processing of such dyes, which leached into the drinking water in the 1980’s. The industry was banned, lawsuits were settled, and the industry was swept under the carpet (into the developing world) where it continues to poison and maim. A possible solution to this problem comes from Bangladesh. Dr. Saniyat Islam, a Bangladeshi inventor working in Australia, has dedicated his industry and intelligence to problem-solving. By combining two of Bangladesh’s largest industry, prawns and fabrics, he has devised a unique solution to a global problem. His research has shown that with the use of chitosan, derived from the shell of crustaceans, the fastness of natural dyes can be improved to the point where these natural dyes might become a feasible replacement for highly toxic chemicals.
Dr. Islam’s applications for chitosan do not stop there. Combined with wool, cotton, or even bamboo, his chitosan product can create an odor-absorbing antibacterial textile that could have important practical medical applications, be used to create odor-absorbing athletic wear, or could create environmentally sound improvements to car interiors.
Best of all, I had the privilege to interview Dr. Islam via email and learn a little about how his ideas will translate into the benefit of people (and the rest of the environment) worldwide.
First off, you will literally be able to sleep better knowing that Dr. Islam is applying his genius to textile research. See, according to Dr. Islam, the ravages of age, including a drop in the production of the hormone Melatonin, impede our ability to sleep, causing us to spend more hours in bed to get the same amount of rest. Dr. Islam proposes improving the immediate sleeping environment, in other words, the mattress itself. Dr. Islam says, “The aim is to develop textiles and finishes for better moisture management and thermal regulation. This project will be completed at the end of this year and already there have been considerable innovations through this project that will benefit sleep deprived people.” Perhaps this innovation alone will lead to less grumpiness among world leaders. Specifically, we can expect advances in this technology by the end of 2014.
These are the real changes in the world, and we who report to you need to focus on these visionaries to give you a glimpse of springtime, the life underneath the frosty blanket of politics.
I also asked Dr. Islam about life abroad, and of course he misses his friends and family, and the food of Bangladesh. He also told me (all this is via email) that “I miss the vibrant and strong socio-cultural atmosphere in Dhaka”.
It is this vibrant and strong socio-cultural atmosphere that is the petri dish of Bangladesh’s particular genius. Combined with a liberal philosophy in education, I believe it could continue to propel Bangladesh to new heights in fostering what has to be your greatest export- human capital; pure and simple brain power. I asked Dr. Islam, as a parent, what aspects of his own upbringing in Dhaka would he recommend to parents in Bangladesh to help assure that their children have the environment necessary to become inventive, innovative and productive? Here is his answer:
“Traditional classroom based lecturing and learning in my opinion should be slowly withdrawn and I think education system must change to benefit the young guns to explore more outside the classroom. For example, the Montessori approach can be employed for early learning which fosters children’s love of learning and encourages independence by providing an environment of activities and materials which children use at their own pace. This builds self-confidence, inner discipline, a sense of self-worth and instils positive social behaviour. The approach forms the basis for lifelong learning.” I could not agree more.
As I write, the snow continues to fall, and I know that soon I will have to grab a shovel and clear a path in order to get to the outside world. From my doorstep, I will clear a way for me and my family to get to where we need to go. And if those in charge of the ploughs fail to do their job, then together with my neighbours we will have to plough our own way.
It is heartening to know that under the blanket of cold, deep under the ice, new life is beginning to form. Where others may see a tundra of white, uninterrupted and bleak, I’d prefer to take my lessons from the chickadees and have faith that no matter what rains down from the skies, either literally or figuratively, neither clouds nor politicians can stop us from carving, shovelful by shovelful, our own paths to a better future.
Full disclosue: Though Dr. Islam never mentioned prawns specifically, chitosan can be derived from them. The prawn comment is basically the sort of literary nonsense that we writers engage in, (to tie these industries together). Still, it was a pretty good guess on my part. There is some scholarship to suggest that “the molecular weight of the chitosan derived from prawn shells is higher than that obtained from crab shell”, whatever that means. If Dr. Islam reads this, this constitutes a public apology for jumping to conclusions. I’ll leave it there. All this talk is making me hungry.
Frank Domenico Cipriani is a writer and a friend of Bangladesh. He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity in the USA.