Nature - Tread Lightly on the Earth
by Aparna Jacob
I roamed the valleys of the mountains that were her breasts, heard the rumble of her rage thundering above. When the heavens opened, my face was wet with her tears. The breezes were her sighs and the heaving oceans her emotions. Under the stars that were her thousand eyes I stood awed, a little afraid of this mother, so grand, wise and patient. She gathered me to her rich bosom and I slept knowing this was where I came from and to this I shall return.
Eco-ConnectDr Michael J. Cohen, who directs several university programmers in Applied Eco-psychology, integrates both the scientific and spiritual approaches by creating ways in which effective environmental
What you can doElectricity
• Replace your lights with longer lasting compact fluorescents to save electricity and money in the long run.
• Don’t use electrical appliances for things you can manage
"The Environment is not a Spectator Sport. Get Involved."Bittu Sahgal, conservationist and editor of Sanctuary and Cub gave an interview to Abhishek Thakore. Excerpts.
What is the solution to our energy crisis?
India has actually
Gaia, the `deep-breasted`, the primordial Greek Earth Mother, the first being to emerge from Chaos. Who was regarded as the creator of the universe, the humankind as well as all other creatures of the natural world. The entire range of living matter on Earth, from viruses to whales, from algae to oaks, plus the air, oceans, and the land surface-all appear to be part of a giant system able to regulate the temperature and composition of the whole so as to ensure the survival of life, postulates the Gaia hypothesis popularised by James Lovelock, scientist, environmentalist and author of The Ages of Gaia.
In his book The Next One Hundred Years, Shaping The Fate Of Our Living Earth, Pulitzer prize-winning author and scientist Jonathan Weiner illustrates that the human species is only one among millions of species interwoven into Gaia`s vast living system, but one given to selfish, isolated behaviour or what scientist Gregory Bateson termed as the `Skin Encapsulated Ego` syndrome. An abusive species like humanity could be destroyed by Gaia`s interconnected self-regulating forces as a last resort to save the biosphere if we don`t change our ways that threaten the existence of the whole ecosystem.
According to Dr Kailash Vajpeyi, Hindi poet and scholar, most eastern religions such as Vedic Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism include within nature not only all forms of life but also that which is inanimate and invisible. Vedic texts uphold the concept of Madhu Vidya: We are creatures of our planet and the planet is us. For the Vedic philosophers, the Earth was to be venerated and the notion of subjugating or exploiting the Earth was akin to violating your mother`s body.
Anekantavada, the Jain concept that professes multiple views of reality, pronounces that unmindful endeavors of mankind would have damning consequences. The bacterial organism as understood in modern science comprises the nigodiya life in Jainism. And ahimsa or non-violence, fundamental to Jain philosophy, teaches not harming even the most basic forms of life.
Not that religion, which itself has been reduced to more rituals and less spirituality, contributes to saving the environment. Blind following of rituals is in fact harming the ecology. In places like Varanasi, half-burnt bodies are disposed of in the river in the name of rituals. This, when the Brahma Purana forbids defecation, throwing floral offerings, swimming and performing ablutions in the Ganga, and `conserve ecology or perish` is a message of the Gita. Even the Vedas advise one to revere earth, water, air, fire and ether-the panchabhutas. These truisms now lie ignored as we walk the progressive path of forgetfulness that has left us dangerously disconnected from our planet.
The Industrial Revolution was the beginning of this amnesia. The western concept of dualism, which sets humanity apart from nature and legitimizes the exploitation of nature as humanity`s right is largely responsible. Our collective obsession with isolated evolution and comfort as the purpose of human society is again symptomatic of this disconnection from the spiritual bond we share with nature.
Economic, industrial and agricultural developments of the recent centuries have left the Earth reeling from deforestation, pollution, mining, ozone depletion, impact of agricultural monocultures, depletion of species and the threat of nuclear dumping.
Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary magazine, naturalist and conservationist, ominously adds to the list: "While ushering in `development`, scores of mines, dams, thermal plants, smelters, tourism projects and other similar destructive activities are racing closer and closer to the heart of wild India." Sahgal says: "We also have industries in downstream areas including tea, coffee and cardamom plantations that release endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as organochlorines." He adds: "Other threats include the many World Bank-sponsored state forestry projects that are currently converting natural ecosystems to commercial plantations." Sahgal continues: "Added to this crisis of habitat destruction and toxic contamination, both of which seriously affect the breeding of wild species, is the ever-present threat from poaching. There is a revolving door between the drug trade, arms trade and wildlife trade."
Large-scale development activity in the form of dams, roads, bridges, power projects and heavy industry is underway in third world countries such as India, when the first world is already facing tremendous costs to repair the harm done. Taking a cue from this grim scenario, developing nations have to formulate ways to combine their economic development and environmental protection, not as a luxury, but as a sheer necessity for sustainable economic growth.
Raj Chengappa, executive editor of India Today and environment watcher, speaks of the deadlock between development and environment: "It is believed that once development or health, water and education happen, the poor won`t feel the need to harm the environment or depend on it for their livelihood." However, these facilities remain mired in bureaucracy and red-tape and respite for the rural section is almost entirely dependent on the forests, water and nature for their very survival.
Since the sustainability of the rural economy is immediately linked to the natural resource base, it makes much better ecological sense not to lock up your forests but use them sustainably, avers Anumita Roychoudhary of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi. This is also the sentiment echoed by the Chipko movement that began in the hills north of Uttar Pradesh and the Appiko movement in Uttara Kannada, where women hug trees and tie them rakhis to signify the bond of kinship between them and the trees, which are their means of livelihood.
Thus there can be no sustainability without equality and the first step towards this is to transfer the allocation of our limited ecological resources from the wasteful wants of society`s over-consumers to the irreducible needs of society`s marginals, as is argued by Albert Gore, former Vice President of the US in his book Earth in Balance. Continuing efforts to accelerate economic growth by expansion will only hasten the destruction of the ecological system`s regenerative capacities, on which human survival depends.
"The top-down approach to management of resources must be changed and brought down to village and the rural community level," proposes Anumita. She cites the successful case of Sukhomajri, a village in Haryana. A typical Gujjar village with a single crop depending on the rainfall received, all attempts of aforestation were unsuccessful here. The forest department created check-dams or micro watersheds to provide a perennial source of water and some enlightened officials struck a bargain with the villagers allowing them to use the water provided they helped protect the forests. A village council was created where every resident of the village was a member and democratically they reached the unanimous decision of entering the forest in a disciplined manner and procuring only one headload of firewood per sickle. The villagers undertook the economic management of forest products like the bhubber grass and khair trees, the proceeds of which were used to create community assets such as schools and roads. Today the village flourishes and so do the surrounding forests.
Similarly, Anna Hazare`s remarkable environmental and social uplift programme in Maharashtra has provided effective water management to one of the most drought-stricken areas of the Deccan Plateau. His schemes and belief that `rainwater should be trapped where it falls` are in line with traditional Indian methods of raising water-table levels. Under his guidance six nalla bandhs (stream embankments) were constructed in the poor Ralegan Siddhi village. Today the groundwater level is considerably higher there and four lakh trees have been planted. The village today exports food and schools and hostels have been built.
Need and greed
In agreement is Delhi-based ecologist Ashok Khosla and his NGO, Development Alternatives. He believes that the solution doesn`t lie in saying no to development projects, but in creating jobs and empowering people. Khosla`s is a three-pronged approach: to ensure financial, social and environmental sustainability. Over the years Khosla has evolved 15 such environmentally sound and commercially viable technologies such as check-dams that recharge degraded land and decentralized power units that villages could set up using agro-waste and wild weeds as gassifiers to drive the generators. These have generated more than three lakh jobs across India. His success lies in his ability to franchise technology in rural areas, by taking ecological precepts and translating them into reality at the grassroots.
Perhaps one of the major reasons behind the mindless exploitation of resources is the population bomb. Human population is increasing at a phenomenal rate and is conservatively estimated to double to 12 billion within 40 years. Man, thanks to medical science, has learned to negate the usual controls present in nature. Nature`s primary form of control, disease, no longer kills enough humans to maintain a balance. Left unchecked, we will soon run out of our finite resources, fresh water, arable land, even actual space and strip the planet of life. Perhaps it is in a bid to correct this imbalance that nature is already checking humanity`s growth with newer forms of ailments and mutating viruses such as HIV. One can`t help but wonder if diseases plaguing the modern civilization, like cardiovascular disorders, cancer, allergies, asthma, mental illness, depression, drugs and high crime rate perhaps spell some sort of natural retribution.
Our numbers are driving one species of life form to extinction every hour, a rate one thousand times the pace of nature. The current rate of tropical forest destruction will lead to its virtual elimination within 10 years, and the subsequent extinction of an estimated seven lakh species.
Bittu Sahgal observes: "Normally when one species vanishes, another gradually takes its place. The domino effect of mass-extinctions could affect the biological viability of the planet. Though extinction has been a part of nature`s scheme from time immemorial, man has rendered the globe`s self-defense mechanisms against extinction impotent by speeding up the process of extinction." In such a scenario, strict population control seems to be the only answer.
To counter the effect of this large-scale extinction, Vandana Shiva, physicist and social activist, is endeavoring to restore biodiversity by setting up seed banks for traditional seeds and spreading organic farming practices. "My favorite lesson in high school was a lesson about the Earth family, the democracy of all life," she says. "How the Earth family is all the little beings and the big ones with no hierarchy at all. Because you have no idea ecologically how things fit in the web of life with enough prey to feed the predators, and enough predators to keep the prey within balance."
Wildlife filmmaker Naresh Bedi supports this: "Statistics show that the number of vultures, important scavengers, has gone down. When driving through Rajasthan recently, I saw a number of carcasses rotting on the road. If snakes become extinct, the rodent population will rocket." Bedi continues: "Tigers probably keep the number of spotted deer and other herbivores in check. An increase in the latter`s numbers will result in the disappearance of our grasslands. Every creature has its place in the environment, with a role to play."
Endangered or extinct species can`t be brushed off with the `survival of the fittest` adage. "Extinction can affect us in a way we could never predict," warns Anumita. "When one gene becomes vulnerable to a new disease, the gene that can help might perhaps be sourced from a species that is endangered or extinct. The genetic-diversity is what will ensure our long-term survival, thus preserving our bio-diversity is crucial."
Avers Sahgal: "Diversity and equilibrium, within and between species, are keys to the survival of the Earth as we know it. When diversity is eroded, their survival is at risk."
Genuinely respecting the intrinsic rights of diverse species to exist, limits our actions, writes Shiva. There are ethical dos and don`ts. "Limitlessness in terms of time, which is what sustainability should be-to go on and on and on-is built upon putting limits on our actions, our exploitation, on everything that we do."
The Good Earth
Being endowed with spirit and intelligence, man regards himself as the lord and crown of creation. While his power and influence are enormous, so are his obligations towards the vital space, his environment and biosphere, noblesse oblige.His actions are free only as long as he obeys the laws of nature to which he is subject. The Gita insists that we become responsible custodians and trustees of our planet. Ambition has led civilization to see nature as subordinate, naively forgetting that it is in her superiority that nature serves man.In the act of destroying nature, the human being forgets the true meaning of humanity. The re-structuring of the relationship of humanity with nature is at the centre of the change necessary for the continuation of life on Earth.
"As one who is constantly battling to defend nature from the human race, the one quality that I find most lacking in homo sapiens is humility," laments Sahgal.Sahgal continues: "Look around you. Everything fits. The sea controls climate, the rains provide sustenance to the land and the land returns nutrients to the sea in an ever-lasting cycle of energy and life that is so magical, so complicated as to be out of reach of human imagination."He continues: "Yet, filled with flawed wisdom and drunk with imagined power we set about our daily existences making holes in Earth`s protective ozone umbrella, poisoning the very water our children drink and ruining the soils that feed us."
In his book The Forest and the Sea, Marston Bates observes: "Sustainable growth and economic development seem impossible, unless we control our limitless needs and greed and make judicious use of life support systems and biotic resources. Man cannot progress at the cost of hurting and destroying nature.
"What is needed is wisdom as well as knowledge-the wisdom to see that humankind is a part of nature, not its master.Bates has put it well: "In defying nature, in destroying nature, in building an arrogantly selfish, man-centred, artificial world, I do not see how man can gain peace or freedom or joy. I have faith in man`s future, faith in the possibilities latent in the human experiment, but it is faith in man as a part of nature, working with the forces that govern the forests and seas; faith in man sharing life, not destroying it."
The oldest `healers` in the world knew no other way to heal than to work in the context of the environment.Gaia, a dramatic example of ecological interdependence, reveals how the deepest self is a part of the deeper ecology. The ancient writings spoke from this perspective, that in seeking to heal the soul you must heal the Earth of which the soul is an integral part.By ignoring this connection, the Earth and the human species could be careening to a crisis. The Hopi, for instance, prophecy ultimate destruction if humans fail to affirm the importance of the lost vital connection.Only in his ignorance is man destroying the environment, which he would himself inherit by rebirth. With a belief in only one life on Earth, each man is inclined to think lightly of the injury he was doing himself by his abuse of nature.
Perhaps a new understanding of the ancients can lead to an awareness of an eco-spirituality where each level of being is linked to another with woods and stone teaching what one can never learn from any master. Then the violent changes in nature could be seen against a larger context, an over-arching cycle of cycles. Nature seems to experience periodic incarnation, death and resurrection, mirroring the rise and fall of human civilizations
So if humanity now destroys its wonderful heritage of the natural world, it would be nothing new for the Earth. But man is the first purposeful creature on this planet aware of the lessons in history as well as intelligence and foresight. We had among us thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi who saw clearly that man must tread lightly on the Earth. We may then stop artifacts from overwhelming our existence and learn to establish more equitable relationships among ourselves, so that some parts of the world are not forced to deteriorate to nurture others.Or as Swami Vivekananda urged, strive for the `solidarity of the whole universe`.
Working out concrete solutions is important. "We can`t combat deforestation with ineffectual monoculture plantations like eucalyptus. The wood is useless, the trees do not support any undergrowth, are unfit for animal inhabitation and they consume ground water. They are ineffective as well as expensive," points out Bedi.
Chengappa emphasizes the need for stringent law enforcement: "Any sort of legislation is always a deterrent. But the disconnection between the policy and its implementation should be mended." Chengappa continues: "Costs too can be a deterrent. Our resources are precious and people should be asked to pay for what they use. Since we get power and water cheap, we don`t value or think of conserving these."
As for respecting other life forms: "When it`s a toss-up between man and environment, the decisions weigh heavily in favour of man. Everyone has rights, the birds and the trees. But man, by virtue of being in control, exploits these, claiming it as his right," observes Bedi.Our busy lives breed the apathy prophesied by William Henry Davies. We don`t have the time to stand, stare or care.Accuses Chengappa: "There is apathy, on all fronts-people, government, NGOs, institutions across the board. As a result even the progress made is relegated to a few secluded islands with no cohesive development plan or the combination of the efforts of NGOs, specialists and bureaucrats."
Making a Difference
Consider this painful fact: Our homes are the biggest producers of greenhouse gases and use about half the energy of the world. Based on the total world population and the overall use of energy of all kinds (for industry, heating, cooking, travel and so on), experts estimate that we generate about 12.6 tonnes of CO2 annually per family unit. Given this, environmental writer and activist Marjorie Lamb highlights the importance of individual action in addressing the environmental crisis. Her book Two Minutes A Day For A Greener Planet offers quick and simple ways through which everyone can help preserve Earth`s integrity. Her numerous suggestions include turning off the tap to save two gallons of water while brushing teeth, walking or using public transport to work at least once a week instead of the car, saving energy by keeping lights and fans off when not needed, saving paper by reusing and recycling, avoiding chemical fertilizers, non-toxic cleaning, buying only eco-friendly products, keeping the environment clean by correcting the disposing habits and networking in the local community to create awareness. Helping our environment is after all plain common sense and Lamb points out that these tips will cost you less than two minutes a day.
Start by resolving to buy only organic produce. Organic farming is the safer option to the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides that leave carcinogenic substances as residue in the eco-cycle.
Not long ago, the practice of agriculture was deeply influenced by the sacred vision of interconnection. According to Vandana Shiva`s book, The Seed keeper, new seeds were first worshipped before being planted and new crop was worshipped before being consumed. For the farmer, the field is the mother, and worshipping the field is a sign of gratitude towards the Earth who, as a mother, feeds the millions of life forms who are her children.
In place of chemical manures and pesticides, the traditional farmer used nature`s own checks and balances to nurture fertility and keep pests at bay. A typical rice field supported and in some areas continues to do so, 800 species of friendly insects-spiders, wasps, ants and pathogens that controlled 95 per cent of insect pests.
These practices are still prevalent among India`s tribal societies. For instance, the Warli, a community near Mumbai, worship nature as Hirva (green) and consider all produce to be gifts of Hirva rather than the fruits of their own labour. Conservation of plants and animals is an innate aspect of their culture, illustrated in the concept of sacred groves: mangroves, marshlands and other tracts of land supposedly inhabited by spirits, where killing of plants or animals is taboo. The Bishnois of Rajasthan, too, would rather die than let a single tree be felled or a buck be killed.
Festivals, supposed to be occasions of joy for us, spell nightmare for the environment, invariably involving wastage and pollution. Christmas entails indiscriminate cutting of trees. Thoughtless use of firecrackers results in a notorious smog. Muharram and several Hindu festivals involve large-scale dumping in water-bodies. Illumination and loud blaring music, considered an inseparable part of all celebrations, means noise pollution and high consumption of electricity.
"Religion is a sensitive issue and if government officials intervene they`ll meet with stiff opposition. At local levels, if people are sensitized on their own, it definitely would work better," suggests Anumita.
To reunite devotion and nature, organizations like Maharashtra Rajya Prarthamik Siksha Samiti and Andhabiswas Nirmulan Samiti (ANS) in Kolhapur have convinced people not to immerse the Ganesh idols in waterbodies during Ganesh Chaturthi.They informed people of the ill-effects of immersion and people performed a ritualistic immersion in a tumbler filled with water after which the idols were donated to the ANS to be buried at an alternative site.
A similar instance was seen during Durga Puja this year when people desisted from using the harmful chemical dyes on the statues. Last Holi, Delhiites opted for natural or eco-friendly colours against the usual chemical variety harmful for eyes and skin.
When a problem immediately affects people, they tend to sit up and take notice, points out Anumita. "The majority of Delhiites who are reacting to the pollution problem are those who have been directly affected. Public health fires up the public imagination and people seek awareness. But taking that initiative, deciding for instance that I will not take my car out and pollute, is lacking."
But inspiring examples abound. The NGO Vatavaran manages garbage through an eco-friendly, scientific, employment generating and resident friendly Cleaning Brigade Scheme, which manages solid waste for at least 2.5 million Delhi residents. This is done through anaerobic composting or worm composting. The garbage is collected from door to door, at a nominal charge of Rs 30 per month per house. The waste collected is segregated. Biodegradable are composted on a patch of wasteland in the area. The recyclables are sold. The money collected by the scheme is distributed back to the workers in the form of pay. Institutions like CSE practice what they preach and employ water harvesting, solar roofing and use CNG fuel in their vehicles.
"The more clearly we can focus on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction," says Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, the classic that first challenged the widely accepted notion that man was destined to control nature. In a way Carson sounded the first clarion call to stir our ecological consciousness. To go beyond the myopia of micro-economic growth, to revere our bountiful planet who we have for so long regarded with greed and fear, and befriend her.
More importantly, as Khosla says: "Never do to the environment what you would not do to your mother."
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