All life on earth is involved in an intricate dance of cause and effect, creation and destruction, and the more we align with it, the greater the chances of ensuring our survival and well-being, says Vinod Sreedhar
The warm morning sun felt wonderful as we sauntered through the winding village lanes, on a cold June morning. Bending down quickly, Namgyal ji—our spritely 75-year-old homestay host in Ladakh, who is a farmer and retired schoolteacher—picked up some dried cow dung lying on the path and placed it inside a niche on the wall. Responding to our curious looks, he said with a laugh, “Isko hum sardiyon mein jalate hain ji. (We burn these in the winters.) Our forefathers created these niches in the walls for this very reason. We don’t have any wood, you see. You have forests and oil; we have only cow fuel."
For our group members who were on their first visit to Ladakh, this was their introduction to the practical and sensible sustainability of rural India. Namgyal ji’s action was an interesting demonstration of how people living in a challenging terrain have found simple and innovative ways to not just meet their daily needs in ways that are in harmony with nature, but to also make it a part of their everyday culture. Everybody in the village follows this practice.
The interconnectedness of life
One of my favourite stories is of an acquaintance who moved out of the city to grow strawberries. As a new farmer, he was keen on selling as many strawberries as he could. When his first crop was harvest-ready, he observed cats on his farm scratching at the fruit and damaging some. Outraged, he shot and killed the cats. His problem seemed to be over. The next day, he went back to his farm, only to see a large number of birds feasting on the fruit. His anger rising again, he poisoned some of the birds to set an example to any others that might want to eat there. This time he was convinced he would no longer lose any fruit. But he was in for a rude shock. On his next visit, he saw that a whole host of worms had started to make his fruit their meal of the day. That's when he came to a realisation—a lesson—that was deeply simple, and yet vitally important: Everything in nature is interconnected. The cats had kept the birds in check, which, in turn, had kept the worms at bay. And now, because of his myopic actions, keeping all of them away from the strawberries became his job! The cats, birds, worms, and strawberries had, over time, co-evolved a symbiotic relationship. They had found not a perfect balance, but a dynamic one—one that would adapt as required by the overall system in which they cohabited. As a new participant in this ancient system, he realised he had to dance with them as well. His realisation was that he had to let some of his fruit go to nature and enjoy the rest. Otherwise, he would go crazy trying to manage everything on his own.
The loss of biodiversity
In the last 40–50 years, the world has faced a massive loss of species. The Holocene extinction, or the sixth great extinction, is happening now. The five earlier great extinctions that the world has experienced were all caused by various factors, including rapid climate breakdown. The only difference is that all of them occurred naturally, while scientists claim that the ongoing mass ecocide is a direct result of how humans have chosen to live. As George Monbiot (a British writer known for his environmental and political activism) says, “When a species is obliterated by people, we use the term 'extinction.' It conveys no sense of our role in the extermination and mixes up this eradication with the natural turnover of species. It’s like calling murder 'expiration'."
Our increasing population is leading to a slew of changes. We’re seeing a large-scale destruction of natural habitats to create space for people to live in or for agricultural production. Climate breakdown and all its resultant impacts are widespread today. Our lifestyle is clearing the earth of its most valuable characteristic—its biodiversity.
There are three key reasons why this is a very bad idea:
• Moral: Completely taking over a planet that we share with millions of other species, for our own consumption, is quite unacceptable. Earth is not our property; instead, we belong to the planet.
• Practical: We are creating unnecessary work and expense for ourselves and for the generations to come—work that is being done for free by nature and which will cost us billions of dollars to replicate.
• Survival: This is the most important reason. We cannot survive in the absence of this biodiversity.
Take bees for example. They pollinate the bulk of the plants that we eat. And they do this unintentionally while feeding themselves. If their population declines, we will lose all these plants due to the absence of these key pollinators. In turn, the entire food chain—including us—is in danger of being affected.
Now for the worrying part. The global bee population is seeing a significant reduction, almost conclusively as a result of our actions. Industrial agriculture, climate breakdown, destruction of habitat, and the rampant use of pesticides are all contributing to this loss and are all caused by human choices. The outcome is very clear—when the bee population collapses, humanity will collapse as well.
Just to put things in perspective, the five earlier extinctions caused 75–95 per cent of all species on earth to die out. And if the current mass ecocide continues unabated, how will the planet function with more than three quarters of its species gone?
In the unhurried silence of nature, one can see many natural cycles at play. The melting glaciers in the high Himalayas enriching the floodplains with fertile alluvial soil; the annual flooding of the Brahmaputra river that we see as ‘bad' without realising that it carries much-needed silt from higher regions to the forest and riverine ecosystems in Assam; the mangroves that protect our coastlines from erosion and flooding; the albedo effect of the polar ice caps and the glaciers in deflecting the sun’s rays away from Earth, thus helping maintain a cooler average temperature.
These ancient processes are changing rapidly, raising the possibility of devastating consequences. And we have only ourselves to hold accountable for this.
What can we do?
The challenge before us is immense. Before we proceed though, we need to look at another key framework that deserves more importance than it has received— ‘Ecology before Economy.’
We prioritise economic growth even when it negatively impacts this beautiful planet and our own selves. The spiritual value in sitting quietly by a serene river or in walking through a magnificent forest has long been forgotten; we have now turned them into resources—our resources, as if they exist only to serve us.
But there is one fact we cannot argue over: without nature’s abundance, our economies simply would not exist. Making economy a subset of ecology, therefore, would be the intelligent choice as it is nature’s bountifulness that allows us to build our cities and live the lifestyles that we follow today.
This brings us to a key question. Can we humans minimise our impact on this planet so that we can leave behind, for our children, what our ancestors left for us —an abundant planet?
In order to do this, there are two levels at which we must influence change:
• The global: At the global level, we need to work on two frameworks: ‘Everything in nature is interconnected’ and ‘Ecology before economy’. When these frameworks become our primary lenses, we change the way we look at the world and how we operate within it. Our lifestyle choices now emerge from a space of being able to see the big picture along with a deep sense of mindfulness about the impact of our actions. Imagine what our world would look like if governments made policies based on these ideas!
• The local: Here, we need to redesign and alter our daily practices to reflect these new frameworks so that our lifestyle choices are now more earth-friendly, more inclusive, and cause as little waste as possible. The basic premise: make incremental changes in our habits that add up to big impacts over time, as opposed to making ambitious changes that demand a lot of time, energy, and effort and don’t last very long.
Let us take a look at some other cultures that have found ways to be earth-friendly.
The Ladakhi way
In the same Ladakhi village that we talked about earlier, it's common to see houses clustered on the hills around. When asked, our host Namgyal ji says, “Our ancestors wanted to keep the fertile plains free for farming.” In this craggy landscape where flatlands are valuable, this makes life so much easier for the villagers as they don’t have to resort to terrace farming which is extremely difficult to set up. Such amazing foresight from unschooled villagers, while we build over ancient holding ponds and lakes in our unending quest for ‘development’! Another fantastic innovation found here is the amazing water-powered grinding mill. It is powered by the swiftly flowing streams that are a focal point of every village in Ladakh. In the autumn months, the villagers gather here with their freshly harvested grain and process it into different varieties of flour over a few days. Everyone sits around trading stories and drinking hot tea and potent chhang (barley beer), while the water-powered mills do their work. All this without any electricity!
Also, in Ladakh, local dry compost toilets are still commonly found across the countryside. Designed keeping in mind the scarcity of water and high aridity, these toilets are really simple in design and equally simple to use. A room at the ground level operates as the collection chamber; the room above this chamber is the actual toilet. A hole in the ground serves as a squatting toilet through which one answers the call of nature. Everything is collected in the bottom chamber and stays there a whole year until it turns into manure. Once this manure is free of pathogens and has broken down, it is safe to use in the fields as fertilizer. This closed-loop system demonstrates, once again, how nature works as an intricately interconnected system. What’s waste for us, is food for the plants!
Living root bridges
In the verdant landscapes of Meghalaya, a creative mind in the past came up with a highly useful idea: living root bridges that enable the locals to cross the swollen rivers during the long monsoons. Located in deep valleys with no road access, these amazing bridges are not built but grown from the roots of local trees. Each bridge takes anywhere between 30–40 years to grow fully, nurtured through this time by members of the community. And believe it or not, these bridges do not use nails, cement, or anything from the outside world. They are created by guiding the tree roots through hollow bamboo pieces from both riverbanks, then letting them grow into each other, all the while getting deeply enmeshed with each other. In comparison, our city bridges start deteriorating the moment we’re done building them; these living bridges grow stronger over time as the roots spread widely.
On analysis, it’s apparent that the people who dreamed up these solutions did so because of two reasons: First, they had to be creative with the available resources around them. Second, the culture they were born into helped them understand the basic reality of nature—that everything is affected by something else and in turn is a cause to something else. Their solutions, then, naturally emerged from this holistic lens of seeing nature as an unbroken whole, as opposed to discrete parts.
Learning from these amazing innovators, our quest at Journeys With Meaning has been twofold:
To reconnect urban Indians with nature and the life lessons it can teach through our learning journeys.
To gradually adopt earth-friendly habits in our own lives, no matter how small they are at first. In the last few years, we have made several small changes in the way we purchase and consume food, travel, and make use of material goods.
Small changes go a long way
The small changes we’ve made are all fairly easy to do. We compost most of our wet waste at home. Much of this turns into compost over five–six weeks in our Daily Dump composter, with limited attention from us. Our dry waste is kept at a minimum by buying fewer packaged foods and by carrying cloth bags for our shopping. In our tiny balconies, we grow herbs and other plants that can easily make their home in a pot. One of our balconies has been taken over by an ajwain plant, apart from the tulsi, coriander, and tomatoes that have also taken root. While showering, I let the water run for less than three minutes overall. And no one’s complained about my hygiene though it’s been over a year since I’ve been doing this. We’ve also recycled most of our furniture from older pieces by making space for the carpenter to get creative. And I’m learning woodworking now so that I can build my own furniture from recycled wood in the future. My first attempt—a coffee table—has been quite well-received at home.
For our transportation, we do own a car but we’ve opted for a CNG vehicle instead of a petrol-fuelled one as it’s considered a cleaner fuel which pollutes less. For our intercity travel, we try and take trains wherever possible. We also own bicycles that can be used for local travel within the suburb where we stay.
Do it yourself
One of the most effective ways of making these changes is to track our usage of things we consume. Last year, I used an app called JouleBug for a few months to track how much water I was saving daily from my quick showers or the amount of waste I had avoided generating by carrying cloth shopping bags. The app gamifies the process of keeping track of various daily habits and allows you to be part of a community of people who are all trying to practice sustainable habits. Knowing your current status and competing with your friends to reduce your consumption are great ways to figure out creative ways in which you can improve your sustainability score. Another useful resource is a Carbon Calculator which tells you how many planets we would require if everyone lived like you do. My aim is to live in a way that keeps my personal carbon score below 1, i.e., if everyone lived the way I do, one planet—this beautiful living planet we’re a part of—would be more than enough to support all life-forms.
It’s easy, at the end of the day, to say that change will happen only when governments bring in the right policies. That is correct to some extent. But change can also happen when people, who are able to see further up the road to the future, start making small personal changes to the way they live. And when their actions start inspiring others around them to also adopt these simple sustainable habits, these tiny actions can quickly snowball into something very potent and that has immense positive impact on the well-being of the planet.
It’s not easy making our voice heard by our governments today, given the incessant lobbying by influential vested interests. But, based on my own experiments, I can promise you this: understanding the interconnectedness of all life is a deeply important first step towards making a powerful personal commitment to sustainability. When you can zoom out and get a bird’s eye view of how nature really works, it’s easier to zoom in and make the necessary adjustments, as required, at the local level.
In conclusion, I will leave you with a quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead that has inspired me over the last two decades to keep making incremental personal shifts and sharing these with family and friends: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Thankfully, so has the spirit and creativity of the myriad innovators who have discovered and created inspiring sustainable solutions that reduce or eliminate many of the dangers threatening earth.
~ Vinod Sreedhar, January 29, 2018
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