Back to the future
COVID-19 appears to be the answer to the fervent prayers of non-human species to make human beings halt, contemplate, and replace their parasitic ways of living with more symbiotic ones which are not only in harmony with all living beings but also reverential towards Mother Earth, says Rishi Rathod
The visitation of COVID-19 has shaken up the whole world in an unprecedented way. If one can read the signs, it is a wake-up call for humanity to step down from the conveyor belt of mindless living and consuming. By living on autopilot and going through life without putting in much thought, we have violently trespassed spaces that rightfully belong to other species.
From the way animals, birds, and aquatic beings have come close to the edge of human habitat—after we went into enforced collective hiding—it can be surmised that Mother Nature is asking us to retreat so that other species could reclaim what is rightfully theirs. It is making a clarion call to make our lifestyles symbiotic with itself and not parasitic if we want to continue to survive on Planet Earth.
Humankind appears to have been forced into quarantine to contemplate if the business of living, operating, thinking, and relating to the world can be done differently from the way we have been doing it all along.
Now that we have arrived at a critical point in history, we can no longer afford to ignore the manner in which we create, use, and dispose of consumables and the processes involved in providing ourselves with essentials such as food, water, travel, clothing, and shelter. For unless we change our attitude towards these things, we cannot re-imagine and recreate a new habitable world for all, where there is no clash of interests between man and Nature.
Thankfully, we already have a significant body of work by eminent people who point towards a better, non-violent, symbiotic, and spiritual way of going about the business of living. All that we have to do is embrace their advice.
How we grow food
Our agriculture is governed by seed, soil, water, and fertiliser. All of these are living organisms which, sadly, we (as a community) have failed to recognise. This failure is due to our obsession with earning profits, which makes us consider them as commodities to be exploited for personal gains. Had we been reverential towards them, we would have nurtured and replenished them instead of milking them for profits or higher yields. Diversity is one of the main features of Nature and is the very basis of ecological stability. Diverse ecosystems give rise to diverse life forms and cultures, which sustain themselves holistically and symbiotically on the basis of their natural surroundings and available resources. Communities all over the globe have derived their livelihoods from Nature’s diversity. However, it was during the time of the green revolution (between the 1950s and 1960s) that traditional methods of crop cultivation were discarded in favour of a high-yielding variety of wheat and rice. Although this helped in feeding a large number of people, it also expanded monoculture and endangered our ancient crops of millets and pseudo-cereals. In 1996, GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds were introduced by agricultural scientists, which were genetically modified to make them disease- and drought-resistant and increase their shelf life.
GMO’s curse: However, genetically modified seeds not only impact the environment negatively but also the human body. Due to heavy reliance on GMO, 70-80 per cent of local corn varieties have disappeared in Mexico. Bt cotton seeds tested on animals such as cows, mice, goats, and pigs disturb their biology and they die early. It has been found that GMO crops increase infertility and cause poor growth in the offspring of both humans and animals. They also build antibiotic resistance in the human body, apart from depleting the soil of its nutrients.
Our ancient Vedas and Upanishads considered the soil as sacred—the Mother— supporting and nourishing all of life on earth. A healthy soil supports plant growth, has the ability to purify air and water, and safeguards animal and human health. After oceans, soil is the second-largest carbon sink on the planet. Soil plays a key role in retaining carbon, which increases soil fertility. It stores and filters water, and improves human resilience to different climatic changes like floods and droughts. Plants draw carbon from the environment, and soil helps conserve the carbon content if it is not tilled too much. This, in turn, helps reverse the effect of climate change as micro-organisms present in the soil do not let the carbon escape into the atmosphere and become a part of the greenhouse gases. But our relentless treatment of the soil with chemical fertilisers for more than three decades has destroyed its ecosystem completely. We are producing our food on dead soil. How can it nourish us? The state of Punjab has this infamous train called ‘The cancer train’ that ferries cancer-stricken farmers from Punjab to a charitable hospital in Rajasthan. This shocking condition in Punjab is being linked to the unbridled use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers by a PGIMER (Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research) study. At 380 kg per hectare, fertiliser use in Punjab is the highest in India, almost three times the national average of 131 kg/ha, as per the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research. Their pesticide use too is 923 gm/ha, which is way above the national average of 570 gm/ha. Apart from cancer, there are scary reports of a reproductive health crisis, ranging from spontaneous abortions to premature deliveries, reduced sperm counts, and neural canal birth defects in infants. This is the cost the farmers are paying for taking on the burden of feeding the nation through the green revolution.
The alternative: Ramanjaneyulu G V, who promotes mindful farming and runs the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, says, “99 per cent of the sprayed pesticide goes into water and soil and comes back into our food. Only one per cent goes into killing the insects.” Ramanjaneyulu and others like him are making monumental efforts to establish how a mindful approach towards agriculture can heal the earth and human life. He adopted a village called Kulukula in Andhra Pradesh, which was using pesticides worth Rs 60 lakhs annually and now has become pesticide-free with his methods.
From being third in the country to now 20th in terms of pesticides used per acre, he has managed to reduce the use of pesticides by 50 per cent in the entire state of Andhra Pradesh. Not only that, cultivable land has gone upto 35 lakh acres from 2025 acres in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh because of his efforts. To achieve zero-pesticide farming, he advocates the use of homemade concoctions made from neem, garlic, chillies, plants, herbal extracts, cow dung, cow urine, and local resources along with various traps for pest control.
With the help of the above ingredients, he creates a type of manure which rejuvenates the soil with the required microbes. This manure also develops humus in the soil which leads to a natural increase in its water-holding capacity. This measure enables the growth of disease-free crops which are rich in nutrition.
Ramanjaneyulu advises against monoculture and suggests planting other plants and vegetables around the main crop. This action builds biodiversity and reduces the food scarcity issue. All this is accomplished through a proper training programme devised by him and his team.
Vandana Shiva is another champion of sustainability, who advocates mindful cultivation to save our biodiversity as well as indigenous seed varieties from vanishing. She suggests, “Grow locally and consume locally. Grow mixed crops to ensure that people get complete nutrition needed for the nourishment of the human body. This helps control food inflation as a diverse variety of foods are being produced. Besides, locally produced and consumed crops will minimise the huge cost of transportation and storage.”
Her NGO, Navdanya, has so far trained over 5,00,000 men and women farmers, students, government officials, and representatives of national as well as international NGOs and voluntary organisations on biodiversity conservation and organic farming. Navdanya has also trained several large groups like Yuvacharya of the Art of Living Foundation led by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The group is presently working in about 5000 villages of India.
Navdanya has collected, saved, and conserved more than 4000 varieties of rice in the last 30 years. Forgotten food crops such as millets, pseudo-cereals, and pulses too have been conserved and promoted, which were earlier pushed out by the green revolution and expanding monocultures. According to Vandana, farmer suicide can go down to a great extent if we went back to indigenous ways of farming and growing food instead of getting multinationals like Monsanto (manufacturer of GMO) involved in it.
Water misuse and crisis
Water—one of the most basic resources for humanity’s survival—is highly undervalued and abused by us. Out of all the water available on earth, only 2.5 per cent fresh water is fit for human consumption. Out of this 2.5 per cent, only a third is available for agriculture and drinking. The rest is stored in Antarctica in the form of snow. Yet we show a great deal of apathy in the way we use this precious resource.
We keep the tap water running while we brush or shave, and let the shower run for longer than we need. As per the National Water Academy portal, most people use about 50 litres of water for a bath, i.e., two buckets of water approximately. While a low-flow shower-head (normally used at homes across India) enables 35 litres for a 10-minute shower, a standard shower-head enables 50 litres of water for 10 minutes. Having said that, we can either use one bucket of water or shower for five-six minutes. This way, we can save 750 litres of water a month and 9,125 litres of water per person each year. Just by turning off the tap while we brush our teeth in the morning and before bedtime, we can save up to 30 litres of water! That adds up to more than 750 litres a month!
S. Vishwanath writes in his report on the news portal of The Hindu that experience has shown that high-income households tend to consume 250 litres (per head and above) and sometimes as high as 600 litres. Many homes, on the other hand, make do with as little as 40 litres per person per day.
Wasting water is one thing and polluting it with industrial effluents and sewage discharge is another. Up until the lockdown, our rivers—from the Ganga to the Yamuna to hundreds of lakes—were all dangerously contaminated. Unfortunately, they will go back to the same state if we continue with our old ways after the lockdown ends. According to the government, up to 70 per cent of India’s water supply is contaminated with iron, arsenic, and uranium. Moreover, the relentless boring of groundwater for daily use has dried up this precious resource in the urban milieu. Almost all the cities have reached an alarmingly low level of groundwater reserves. As per the government prediction, at least 21 cities will face severe water crisis by 2021. Delhi, Chennai, and Bengaluru have already started feeling the pinch. From 400 feet, the water has reached 1000 feet in the last five years in Bengaluru alone. Apart from this, arsenic and other contaminants cause two lakh deaths every year.
Dr Rajendra Singh, the water man of India, says, “Since everybody needs water, each one of us would have to come together to save it. We don’t value water because it is almost free—four rupees for 1000 litres. The value of water is not in money but in how many lives it saves and nourishes. Every drop is precious; every drop holds life.”
“Since everybody needs water, each one of us would have to come together to save it. We don’t value water because it is almost free—four rupees for 1000 litres. The value of water is not in money but in how many lives it saves and nourishes. Every drop is precious; every drop holds life.”
The solution: Dr Singh has used indigenous methods to revive 15 rivers in the dry region of Rajasthan. He has eliminated water problems in about 1500 villages of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. His methods, rooted in traditional Indian wisdom, have almost been forgotten. They involve building waterbodies around fractures on the land mass, which will hold water, penetrating slowly to recharge the fractured ground underneath. “Wherever there are steep slopes, build convex dams, and where you see natural depression in landmass and lines, build concave dams. When we align the crop pattern with the rain pattern, everything falls into place—less water is used for cultivation and there is no soil erosion,” says Dr Singh.
There are many water warriors who are assiduously trying to save this precious resource from drying up. One of them is Professor Vikram Soni, who has been doing research and observing the water crisis in Delhi. He has found that the floodplains of numerous rivers could provide solutions which haven’t been tried anywhere else in the world. These floodplains, with an average of a 100-metre depth in the sand, run into thousands of kilometres. Looking closely, he discovered that more than a third of this entire volume is water—water that is clean and can be consumed with little filtration. With the help of this technique, over a million people are getting clean water from the Yamuna river floodplains today.
Professor Soni says, “I am confident that this clean water can last forever. This non-invasive method of extraction of clean water can be implemented in many countries facing a severe water crisis.”
Sustainable housing development
According to WEO 2018 (World Energy Outlook), an international energy agency, in 2017, the emissions from steel, cement, and buildings (7.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide) outpaced that from cars and trucks (5.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide). The current housing development progress is geared and motivated only by gains, without any consideration for its ecological impact.
Anupama Kundoo, renowned architect and author, says in an interview, “People are building without thinking, and that is really scary.”
India is set to urbanise rapidly in the next few decades. But we are building our cities in a manner that is unsustainable and rooted in outdated and obsolete ideas, which will result in severe resource and energy shortages in the country.
To minimise the negative environmental impact of construction, engineers and construction firms have come up with two types of solutions: one works with design and the other, with construction materials. These modern design firms are creating building designs that allow the efficient use of energy, water, and other resources, reducing waste pollution and environmental degradation, thereby safeguarding the ecology and the occupant’s health.
Also, new innovative construction materials have been developed in the past few years to help us build sustainable future projects. These materials are being engineered to be smarter, stronger, self-sustaining, sleeker, and easier on the environment.
These are a few of them:
Translucent wood: Translucent wood is one of the innovative construction materials that hold the potential to lift the construction sector to a whole new level. Not only is it environmentally friendly but also a great alternative to plastic and glass. It is produced by treating and compressing wood strips. In the production process, lignin is replaced by polymers to make the wood translucent. Finally, translucent wood could be utilised in home construction to bring more light into the house, consequently reducing the need for artificial lighting which can consume a lot of power. The other benefits are that it is biodegradable and environmentally friendly as regular wood. It has all the strength of opaque lumber and is lighter in weight.
Hydroceramic bricks: Hydroceramic is a new material that is made of clay and hydrogel to bring about a cooling effect to the building interiors, which reduces the indoor temperature by six degree Celsius. Hydrogel absorbs up to 500 times its volume in water, which reduces the temperature during summer.
Modern developers are using this on the outer side of the building as a cooling system that helps to reduce the air conditioning bills by 28 per cent and the carbon footprint too as a consequence.
Breathe bricks or air cleaning bricks: Breathe bricks can gulp the contaminated particles in the air and filter the incoming air. This brick is designed to be a part of the building’s ventilation system. It has a two-layered façade that has bricks on the outside and installation on the inside. Breathe bricks can filter 30 per cent of the fine particles and 100 per cent of the dust particles, and is becoming popular as a building material to ensure a better quality of life for the occupants.
Illuminating cement: This cement has minuscule glass balls which trap the light from the sun during the day and releases it in the night, creating a glowing surface that will illuminate roads, parks, and building complexes in the coming years. Illuminating cement is more durable than conventional cement and lasts longer— more than 30 years. It can also be used in swimming pools and parking lots due to its ability to absorb and irradiate light.
From materials that generate their own energy to those that provide greater structural protection, the future of construction is evolving. All the innovations in the building materials are geared to safeguard or at least minimise the harm to the environment and the occupants. The process has already begun, and the development of such alternatives is promising.
Energy consumption and conservation
There is a close connection between the energy we consume and Mother Earth’s climate. People use energy for heating, transportation, lighting, manufacturing, communicating, and for growing, harvesting, and cooking food.
The most common way to produce and consume energy today is to burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning them releases energy and also waste gases into the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone which are called greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap heat rather than letting it escape into the outer space, thus causing global warming.
Urban areas across the world use almost two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 per cent of all greenhouse gases. Greenhouse emissions raise the overall temperature of the planet. This causes the ice sheets and glaciers floating in the seas to melt, which increases the volume of the world’s oceans. In the coming three decades, many Indian cities are projected to face annual floods due to the rise in sea level, especially those of West Bengal and coastal Odisha, currently home to some 36 million people. As per NASA, the past five years have been the warmest in the modern record.
Issues such as extreme heat and heavy rainfall too are a result of this global warming. In addition to direct health impacts like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, conditions like asthma and cardiovascular diseases, particularly amongst the elderly, too will increase because of it.
Because surfaces like streets and buildings absorb the sun’s heat more readily than trees and grasses, cities typically become ‘urban heat islands.’ It is estimated that this phenomenon can increase the overnight temperatures in the cities by as much as 22°F. More than 70 per cent of the planet’s surface is water, and as the world warms, more water evaporates from oceans, lakes, and soils. Every 1°F rise in the temperature allows the atmosphere to hold four per cent more water vapour. This causes extreme downpours which have devastated communities around the world. In the past, three-four states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Assam, and even cities like Chennai and Mumbai were inundated with floodwaters. We have lost infrastructure and crops worth crores, not to mention the loss of lives.
The forces accelerating the issue emerge from a consumerist lifestyle that 20 per cent of the world population has and 80 per cent wants. This lifestyle is prevalent mostly in developed countries, but if they continue with it, then the future is bleak. One way to tackle this issue is to re-think and contemplate over the need for excessive consumption in the pursuit of temporary highs. We can, instead, ask a very simple spiritual question to ourselves as to what really constitutes a good life and how we can achieve it in a more simple way.
Renewable energy solutions: Environmental scientists recommend moving towards a zero-carbon-emission economy to save the planet and its inhabitants from imminent danger. They advocate generating renewable energy and increasing our dependence on it. Often referred to as clean energy, renewable energy comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished, e.g., the sun or the wind, which keep shining and blowing respectively, even though their availability depends on time and the weather. Increasingly, more and more countries are using wind and solar energy to fulfil their power needs. The expansion of these renewable energies is also happening on large and small scales, from rooftop solar panels on homes to smaller manufacturing units. Some rural communities rely solely on renewable energy for heating and lighting.
The question to ask is “Can 100 per cent of a city’s electricity come from renewable energy?”
The answer is yes; it is possible to do so. In fact, some cities in the developed countries have already started experimenting successfully. According to the world economic forum portal, Vancouver (Canada) gets 98 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources. Similarly, Auckland is sourcing 80 per cent. More than 80 UK towns and cities have now committed to switching to 100 per cent clean energy by 2050. This is a hugely important trend given that cities are responsible for 70 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
India, too, is moving fast in this direction. We have already built Cochin International Airport that is the first fully solar-powered airport in the world. The plant which was set up in 2015 under the green power project started by CIAL (Cochin International Airport Limited) will not result in any carbon dioxide emissions over the next 25 years. It will produce a clean source of energy equivalent to the energy produced by coal-fired power plants burning more than three lakh metric tonnes of coal. . Not only that it also provides a carbon offset equivalent to planting 30 lakh trees.
There are simple yet effective ways to reduce the impact of global warming:
• Adding vegetation in cities can help lessen the ‘heat island’ effect. Researchers estimate that shaded surfaces can be 20-45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials, which means lower air-conditioning costs and relief for those working in the heat.
• Water can be economised while washing, bathing, doing laundry, and gardening, and efforts made to reduce its industrial contamination.
• Energy can be used more efficiently for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, and running appliances. Private motor vehicles can be replaced by public transport, bicycles, or walking whenever possible to reduce carbon emissions and fuel consumption.
• Food offers many choices: Choose organically and locally grown vegetarian food full of nutrition over fast food, meat, and pesticide-, hormone-, and antibiotic-laden genetically modified foods.
• Clothing can be made of natural fibres, with possible agricultural impacts, rather than synthetic fibres that are persistent and made from non-renewable petrochemicals.
• In our role as consumers, we can choose to purchase from socially responsible manufacturers, change styles, or use things until they wear out, instead of making choices based on brand names and fashion.
• Housing can be looked at from the angles of location, materials, health impact, and energy efficiency.
As we move forward, for the next stage in the advancement of our societies, we, the people, as well as the leaders, need to re-examine our attitudes and assumptions regarding social and economic development. We will have to rethink how we utilise resources and form relevant and practical policies to safeguard the environment. This unprecedented economic crisis clubbed with the lockdown has helped human beings reflect upon the fundamental error in perceiving human nature itself. In the face of world events, our concerns are tiny, limited only to the self and family. We have to realise that unless we, as a society, find a purpose beyond material development and shift into the spiritual dimension of life, we will keep making the same mistakes again and again. The spiritual dimension demands that we question the nature of the Self, our relationships with each other, the Earth, and the beyond as well as our ways of life and our beliefs.
Our false belief that there is no limit to Nature’s capacity to fulfil any demand made by human beings stands exposed. A society, civilisation, or culture that promotes and attaches absolute value to expansion, acquisition, and the fulfilment of people’s desires is being compelled to see that such goals are neither sustainable nor realistic.
We’ll have to change our concepts of prosperity and well-being to include our impact on each other and the planet. This will help us in reducing our consumption of valuable resources and prevent further degradation of the environment. A life that is more aware of the impact of human actions on the rest of the world, and treads lightly upon Mother Earth, would definitely be more fulfilling than a life focussed on consuming more and more.
The Shrimad Bhagavatam says the Lord visits difficulties on those he loves the most so that they become disenchanted by the mundane world and seek the source of all truth, consciousness, and bliss existing within their spiritual hearts. The Lord has been called Vishnu, the one who permeates all existence, the Jagat Pita or the Father of the world, who nourishes the lords as well as the locusts. May this crisis make us honour the all-pervading one by honouring all creatures that live on Bhoodevi or Mother Earth, Vishnu’s spouse.
It is our hearts that will guide us.
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