Capitalism has gifted us with a comfortable, modern lifestyle, replete with technological advancements. The same market forces have killed the ecosystems all around, rendering the planet gasping for respite from this onslaught. We are facing a tipping point. Punya Srivastava highlights the need to re-evaluate our lifestyles and our concepts of growth and development
“The earth is a living system just like us.” This was no revelation to the primitive and indigenous people who gently walked this earth for tens and hundred thousands of years before civilised man appeared on the scene. The Red Indians, the Pygmies, the Yanomamo, the Eskimo, the Adivasi, and innumerable other indigenous cultures, all the way back to hunter-gatherers, derisively called primitive, always perceived every part of the earth as a single, living whole. The rivers, the clouds, the wind, the rain, the soil, and even the rocks and mountains were all limbs and organisms of one living entity—mother earth. And that is why they treated it with humility, reverence, and a sense of gratefulness. This, in turn, preserved the earth for so long in its awesome grandeur and beauty—the original and true Garden of Eden.
Then came along a totally different kind of culture called civilisation. This culture was diametrically opposite to all the others before it. With its peculiar worldview of ownership, civilisation, starting with agriculture (last 10,000 years) and then the building of the Modern Industrial Civilisation (last 150 years), has efficiently destroyed much of the living planet in an ecological blink of the eye. It treated the earth as a one-time, exploitable, and disposable source of goodies that is needed to run our financial system, meaning to make money grow.
The above excerpt is from former filmmaker Mansoor Khan’s revolutionary book, The Third Curve: The End of Growth as we know it. Published in the year 2013 after a lot of dedicated and thorough research that he started in 2001, the book talks about the faulty expectation of exponential growth on a planet with finite resources and the hard-hitting reality of our era—the 'peak oil.'
The world has changed a lot since the advent of civilisation. The present modern industrial age is hailed as the epitome of human brilliance. Evolution has reached its peak with the launch of the world’s first AI robot, Sophia. Or has it? One can never say. Evolution is the law of nature. But after so many decades of rampant growth and development, the repercussions of this last leg of rushed evolution are being felt all across the planet. From soil degradation to climate change, each and every environmental degradation has its roots in mindless encroachment of our natural resources.
“Apart from burning fossil fuel, the growth of modern agriculture has usurped 40 per cent of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity by converting numerous ecosystems into farmland. This has seriously debilitated the ecological systems that are crucial for climate stability and has brought about the heightened extinction of non-human species,” states Khan in his aforementioned book. In March last year, the global scientific community announced the death of huge sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, stretching across hundreds of miles of its most pristine northern sector, due to overheated seawater. “We didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years,” Terry P Hughes, director of a government-funded centre for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Australia, was quoted saying in a news report published in The New York Times last year. As we ponder over these questions, huge patches of forest cover that are home to tribal population and traditional wisdom are being hacked away in our backyard.
The planet is getting burnt out under the gigantic load of unending human greed. The more our attention moves from within to without, the more we seek happiness outside. This blatant hankering for more comfortable and easier lives has had us bulldoze through the heart of the earth, increasingly so in the last two centuries. We have been pilfering nature’s bounty to fill our kitties, without any consideration for other species that inhabit this planet with us. Our only home in this ever-expanding universe has been marinating in our collective apathy since long.
Why? Well, there are reasons galore! Our sense of entitlement over the whole planet, our apathy for other life forms that coexist with us, the perpetual greed for more and more, and the faulty belief that there can be exponential growth on a planet with finite resources—all these come together to form a dangerous cocktail of total ecological collapse.
Coexistence: civilisation and nature
I won’t go into the whole trope of whining and finding faults with human actions over the centuries. Innovation has been the underlying current of change at every turn of evolution; and humans, blessed with an intellect, have emerged to be at the helm of affairs. We have had quite a long journey from being a single-cell organism to a three-dimensional homo sapiens who is, today, exploring dimensions beyond himself. This is quite some journey, fuelled by our innate nature to explore and innovate. The credit for our current state goes to our unmatchable capacity to discern and use our intellect to grow. But so does the blame. From creating fire by rubbing two stones together, to creating nuclear missiles by splitting atoms, we have come a long way. We have used the God-given gifts of head, heart, and hands to create things of comfort and beauty.
But in our reckless enthusiasm to create more and mass-produce these things, we have inadvertently made a damaging dent in our ecosystem. We forgot that however brilliant our inventions and innovations may have been, we were still on the path to realisation(and probably will be for many years to come). Riding high on our arrogance, we started playing God. Satan or asatya (non-truth) manifested as capitalism.
We created for ourselves a life of comfort and luxury by exploiting the natural resources without thinking about the consequences. We have consumed 50 per cent of the total available fossil fuel (crude oil and natural gas reserves) in the last 150 years, which took 150 million years to form! That natural reserve of crude oil was a million years of the sun’s energy preserved in large pockets in the bosom of the earth. We, in India, too, recklessly joined the white man’s race for exponential growth. Yes, we needed to keep pace with the world. Yes, we needed education, infrastructure, and other aspects of modernisation to switch lanes from being a ‘developing’ to ‘developed’ country because we couldn’t afford to not join the race. With a population exploding at the seams, did we have any other choice? But could we have done things differently? Maybe.
It is estimated that out of seven billion people, only two billion people would be able to live in a world without fossil fuel. “The last 100 years of industrial reality have conditioned us to look at the world in a particular way. We expect things to become faster, cheaper, and more convenient. And we assume this will happen forever. We look at life through this lens and therefore do not recognise the world events for what they really represent. For instance, the world is certainly aware that something economically painful is happening all over,” writes Khan.
We have lost sight of the finishing line. We don’t know how much is enough; we don’t know when to stop. We didn’t pause to think that when replicated on a global scale for even one-third of the seven billion individuals presently inhabiting this planet, this kind of lifestyle will create an undue and unfair pressure on the earth. We are a politically, ethnically, economically, and religiously divided race with an unequally distributed ratio of the supposedly ‘developed’ amongst ourselves. We take pride in our innovations and creation while choosing to overlook the various cuts, bruises, and deep wounds we have left on our planet due to our never-ending consumption cycle. “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell,” said Edward Abbey, noted American writer known for his advocacy on environmental issues.
However, what has been done, has been done. The first step forward from here is to bring the discussion on the reality of our times into every aspect of our lives. We have reached a point where talking about environment preservation is just not enough. We can’t simply be contented with planting saplings, recycling plastic bags, or saving water. These are the basic exercises that we have to practice anyhow. The need of the hour is to wake up to the fact that one day, the natural reservoirs of crude oil will ultimately exhaust and that day is fast approaching. According to a report published in the year 2013 by oil giant British Petroleum, as of the end of 2013, the earth has nearly 1.688 trillion barrels of crude oil, which will last 53.3 years at the current rate of extraction. No doubt, we will find new reserves of fossil fuels but the rate of their finding is much, much slower than the present rate of their consumption.
What will we do then, because our current lifestyle is heavily based on oil? Almost 99 per cent of the things/ technology that we use in our daily lives are either run/ made directly from crude oil or are made from its byproducts.
The question is: “What can we do now?” The time has come for each of us to pause and re-evaluate our concepts of growth because the planet is already on the verge of total collapse. Our collective march towards development and growth has invariably pushed the earth into a critical condition. Now is the time to step back and start all over again with a new definition of development and growth. That which takes into account the fact that we live on a planet with finite resources. This need for re-evaluation has gone beyond morality, justice, and environmental consciousness; it is not simply about right vs wrong but about what we will ‘not be able to do’ after a few decades. “It is about the limits set by the universe,” rounds off Khan.
Another important reality of our times is that all the alternative options that are available to us today—solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, biofuels, and oil shale—have their basis in oil. That is, we need oil to bring these alternatives in operation. Alternative energy is not an alternative per se; it can play a supporting role but can never replace oil. “The world runs on oil and the world is built with oil. This cannot be said about any other source of energy. Oil is irreplaceable in the way we have built our modern industrial world,” writes Khan, adding, “It is only when we perceive the earth as a single living organism that we get a new insight into the stresses we are putting on the earth’s body by our habits and insistences. And this perspective automatically defines ‘limits’—something that modern economics does not believe in.”
Each individual breathing on this planet today is a product of this civilisation. We were born in this civilisation and however hard we try, however strongly we want to, we cannot completely remove ourselves from the reality of the world that we currently inhabit. Not all of us can leave our jobs to go and live amidst nature like indigenous people. We are living in the age of technology and economy. The only thing we can do collectively is to reduce our carbon footprint; to change our consumption pattern and to reduce our demands. When a considerable number of people join this march towards minimalism, it is bound to generate a ripple of consciousness which will, in time, turn into a wave and be felt across the world. This is certainly going to plug the hole in the sinking ship that we are currently in.
But how do we do that? By looking within and taking cognizance of our lifestyle; by differentiating between our needs and wants; by re-evaluating our ideologies and our choices. We need to understand that we all are part of a symbiotic system called earth in which every little action of ours creates an impact on our immediate environment. Hence, we need to take up the responsibility of every action of ours. We have to own up to every puff of cigarette we exhale, every piece of trash we generate and send to landfills, every piece of plastic we produce, every morsel of food we waste, every drop of petrol/oil we use, every ounce of electricity we consume, every drop of clean water we flush down the toilet, every patch of fertile soil we corrupt, every patch of forest cover we clear to meet our greed, every encroachment we make upon other species’ habitat, and so on. We need to examine every demand that we make on this suffering planet.
Drop the blanket of comfort
What are the practical steps to tread lightly on this planet? To downsize our wants disguised as needs, to embrace minimalism, and to bid adieu to blatant consumerism. We really need to drop the blanket of comfort that our generation has been warming itself with since birth. I know it is not easy. I also know that it is quite hypocritical of me to suggest dropping comforts while I write this article on a desktop, sitting on a desk in an office cabin—all of them being sourced through crude oil. That is the biggest contradiction of our lives on this planet in this day and age. And this is the journey before us—to untangle ourselves from this cosy mesh of barbed reality. It will take time, maybe a few generations down the line, before a significant reversal could be felt in the various ecosystems across the world. But the first step has to be taken by us as individuals, and it has to be taken now!
Mansoor Khan, after getting to know about the reality of ‘peak oil,’ decided to lead a simpler life. He went back to his land in Coonoor and started Wild Acres farm, to live a simpler and minimalist life with his family. “When I started the farm stay, people asked me why only three cottages, why not 25 and why not different tariffs for foreigners. I was not running the farm stay for more and more turnover. Even our cheese is like that; we only make as much cheese as is possible from cows that can live healthily on our land. These changes towards living within limits have to come over several generations,” Khan had said in a previous conversation with Life Positive. There are many people like Khan who are questioning their choices and embracing a simpler life.
The first thing to do in this direction is to question our lifestyle, our choices, and our habits. Why do I need different types of food processors in my kitchen? Won’t one suffice? No? Then, is my desire for different consistencies for different chutneys greater than my regard for this planet that I call home?
Is my desire for Jamaican coffee/ California almonds/ Chinese kiwi fruit greater than my concern for the amount of natural resources being combusted in bringing me this product, all the way from its source country?
Is my desire for yet another jewellery piece/car/expensive mobile phone/home decor greater than my regard for the environment?
We all want beauty and novelty in our lives, but they can be found in minimalism too. That too in equal amounts. We simply have to change our perspective. Can I lessen the use of energy and time guzzlers like televisions, iPads, home theatre systems, PlayStations, and other gizmos? Can I opt for simpler alternatives like human interaction or finding stimulation in nature? These questions gradually make us ponder over how we can drop the constant need for always being at the top, always being one step ahead of others.
The task before us, today, is to simply switch from a highly consumerist lifestyle to a simpler, lighter lifestyle. For example, instead of replacing wheat flour with store-bought gluten-free flour, one can switch to local grains like different types of millets. We only have to do one thing—stop seeking comfort all the time. Stop wanting instant gratification of our desires. And this can be implemented in all the spheres of our lives because in this universe—whether macro or micro—everything is interconnected.
Commit to an environmentally friendly lifestyle
Another significant point to remember, if and when we start this journey, is to not be deterred by the misplaced concern for our well-being by the people around us. On this journey, we will be swimming against the tide to build for ourselves a lifestyle contrary to many—a lifestyle for which we have to drop many small comforts and work a lot physically.
Sadly, in today’s world, an unnecessarily overflowing lifestyle is considered the acme of prosperity. Our definition of prosperity and abundance has to shift from the number of things we possess to feeling so abundant from within, that we need to have fewer material things. Bangalore based Durgesh Nandhini is a homemaker with two kids. Her whole family has been living a zero waste lifestyle since 2015. Durgesh had been exploring alternative lifestyles long before she decided to go zero waste and has been blogging about her journey on her blog www.durgeshnandhini.com.
Durgesh found it easier to access knowledge about a zero waste lifestyle in India since zero waste practices were the default in our culture a generation back. “Though the initial inspiration came from zero waste westerners, I went back to the knowledge and practices of my grandmother to become fully zero waste. A small act of mine has brought in a lot of learning for us as a family, about the environment, material science, radical consumption, slow fashion, agriculture, food safety, and much more,” she said in an interview.
We have to go out of our way on many occasions to stay aligned to the higher purpose we have dedicated our lives to. Living a minimalist lifestyle is a sadhana—manifested in the physical aspect of our existence. And we owe it to our mother earth to take up this sadhana for her sake, for all the boons she has offered us abundantly and selflessly. Let us honour this mother as we honour our birth mothers.
Box item - Practical guide
Here are a few steps to kick-start a minimalist lifestyle:
Write it down: Make a list of all the reasons why you want to live simply. These will be your ‘go-to’, motivational guide when the going gets tough.
Do not hoard: Let us address our tendency to hoard things. We do not use multiple sets of crockery at the same time, nor do we carry multiple handbags to office every day. The most environment-honouring practice is to buy fewer things of each kind and use them till they last.
Create a clutter-free zone: Create a clutter-free zone in one corner of your home and use it to motivate yourself to gradually expand this concept into other areas of your life.
Travel light: Travelling light helps us realise that we can live a light and simple life, without the unnecessary comforts cluttering our lives.
Dress with less: Most of our shopping sprees are related to clothes, shoes, accessories, and make-up. We use only a few of them on a regular basis, and most of them lie idle in our cupboards and almirah. It is a good idea to buy not more than necessary and donate what is surplus. When you work on improving your self-worth internally, you need less of external accessories to feel beautiful.
Eat healthy: The most basic yet the most significant aspect of our lives is to keep ourselves nourished. Hence, honouring food as a life-sustaining gift from nature and not considering it merely as a medium for indulgence goes a long way in aligning to the higher purpose of our lives.
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