Nature’s intelligence and development options
THE most recent attempt to open ‘an unorthodox debate on the present predicament’ facing the planet’s natural environment has been by Vikram Soni.1 His concern is the unprecedented disruption of the earth’s ecosystems, reflected in serious species losses, by the present dominant industrial model of organizing societies, and the severe penalties this model has already demanded as a price for its allegiance. He suggests we substitute predatory technology with a ‘non-invasive’ variant, imitate nature in terms of how she ensures ‘zero-waste’, and consider looking at philosophies and teachings like Buddhism for a holistic perspective that could get us out of the present ecological crisis.
At almost the same time, from Ahmedabad, comes a collection of writings by a Jain monk, Atul Shah (prior to his initiation) or Hitruchi Vijayji (post initiation). In The True India: Crushed Under the Modern Development Model, Atul Shah writes about the same problems that bother Soni.2 However, his engaging perspective is rooted in the Jaina consciousness where non-invasive action is promoted as a way of life, and not a desirable virtue.
From time to time, modern science comes close to the older philosophies that promote balance and equilibrium, which is the natural state of both the planet and living organisms. When a Jain monk and an eminent physicist both argue for almost the same thing, using two different approaches and methodologies, we can forecast a new constellation in the making.
Like the active, ever colonizing, modern science tradition of our time (of which Prof. Soni is an exponent), Jainism is also a living tradition, with a large number of devoted adherents. There are indications that a strong revival of the tradition’s components is underway, mostly due to the actions of Hitruchi Vijayji and other monks. Likewise Buddhism, which Soni also discusses, has probably more adherents today than ever before.
The number of theoretical physicists who write on environmental issues, in addition to their physics, is dismayingly small. Of these, the numbers who actively involve themselves in issues like ecosystem conservation and repair is even smaller. Conventionally, it is assumed that it is the brainy guys who get to be physicists and mathematicians. How inspite of that scheme of things, these well endowed human beings as a class have not seriously attempted to understand the environmental predicament, or forecast it in any manner, or involved themselves in identifying the distress signals emanating from it, is something we ordinary mortals are unable to understand. Note that Stephen Hawking has spent more time pontificating on the existence or non-existence of the Christian god than on the environmental issues this planet faces.
Theoretical scientists have tended to operate in a universe that deals more with matter than with life, or matter bereft of or unrelated to life; hence the inability, at inception, or even a disinclination, to look at living or biological systems in their own right and their state of illness or health. For these reasons perhaps, the solutions they propose look more like the corrective epicycles often used to salvage problematic paradigms. So while it is easier for an entomologist or a biologist, or even an illiterate or a child to think ecologically, the challenge for theoretical physicists to begin thinking in categories from which they have insulated themselves their entire lives – on the pretext that they were doing work at the pinnacle of human intelligence – must surely be as difficult and challenging as having to formulate a new unification theory.
The publication of Naturally is therefore a god-given opportunity, for this author at least, to throw some much needed mud (or ‘earth’) on the elaborate structure of problem-solving that the scientific mode of discourse tries to offer for ‘the predicament’ – when it finally deigns to look in that direction.
In the book, Soni reproduces a piece he wrote of an accidental visit to a wind sail fabricated by C.V. Seshadri (CVS), invented on the basis that natural principles mattered.3 The wind sail, he observes, was a perfect example of building into the natural cycle, not irrespective of or contrary to it. The work done by the windmill exploited small gradients at ambient temperatures. CVS was a great physicist, but his most elaborate work and thinking resulted from enmeshing himself in the real world of food producers – in this case, mostly village women, who put nutrition on his table – learning how they coped and how he might be able to help them to cope. He figured out that this was perhaps the only way available to him to be of any use to the community of human beings in which he had been placed. It is perhaps for this reason of immersion that contemporary physicists do not remember him! They have always resisted location, roots, and relevance.
Almost similar remarks might be made of the contributions of Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose and his monumental, imaginative experiments with plants and their feelings, which the modern scientific community has scrupulously avoided discussing or taking forward till this day despite having known about them for decades.
In my estimation, Soni, likewise breaches those self-imposed boundaries precisely because of his involvement with difficult day-to-day issues dealing with water, riverbeds and forests which took him outside the university into the realm of nature and her living processes. For that matter, Atul Shah’s involvement in deep ecology is similar. As a Jain monk, he need not have done more than study the scriptures and lecture to the hundreds that come to him for guidance. However, despite being a monk, he has involved himself in using his enormous prestige to support a wide range of industries that normally pass off under the rubric ‘indigenous’ and which protect livelihoods.
Involvement in real life issues invariably leaves theoretical science in tatters. Nature is not universal. It is everywhere unique. Science looks for universals. These universals, by their very nature, take on an abstract character that considers even marginal involvement with the real world a matter of undesirable contamination. (This is taken to extreme limits in formal mathematics, where the attempt is to ensure complete disassociation from the empirical, an insight I picked up after hours of discussion with C.K. Raju, the eminent physicist and mathematician.)
The language that Soni uses in his book is not to be found in present day physics nor does it follow from it. In fact, as CVS showed thirty years ago, the ‘Second Law of Thermodynamics’ was used to underwrite the legitimacy of a specific mode of industrialization. In his extraordinary monograph, ‘Development and Thermodynamics’, CVS went on to show how the Second Law was, in fact, interpreted by the American Physical Society to endorse and favour the industrial model of production based on high temperatures.4 CVS wrote: ‘We start with a statement sponsored by the American Physical Society (APS) on energy-quality: "From the perspective of the second law, organised coherent motion is most precious, very high (and very low) temperature is next most precious, and heat at a temperature near ambient (lukewarm, cool) is degraded energy"; and again: "The reference is to work (rather than heat) because work is the highest ‘quality’ form of energy – equivalent to heat at infinite temperature."’
‘We notice several things about these statements: (a) that mechanistic definitions are still very much a part of our subject, (b) that since entropy changes are inversely proportional to temperature for a given amount of heat transfer, the higher the temperature, the lesser the entropy production and therefore the more "useful" work produced, and (c) that ambient temperature processes are degraded-energy processes. Such descriptions are unfortunate to say the least. For instance, consider the following examples: (i) the monsoon over Asia and Africa carries billions of tons of water across the continents, performing countless gigawatts of work, but the definition makes this work of low quality because it is done across small gradients at ambient temperatures; (ii) all living creatures work at and live at ambient conditions, but all that energy is "degraded".’
It need not be pointed out that the environmental consequences of promoting activity at high temperatures – achieved through the burning of fossil fuels, or even an awareness of them – were never part of the deal. Till I read CVS, I had never thought there could be ethnocentrism (he calls it anthropomorphism) even in physics. But we are all fallible beings. Prejudices, biases, assumptions are likely to be found lurking in the best and most cultivated of human beings. Societies, and the intellectuals that lead them, are not exempt either.
The terms Soni uses could only arise as a result of a more direct encounter with the way in which the living or biological world functions and for which black holes and galaxies hold little wisdom or, for all practical purposes, little significance or meaning. Almost the most fundamental aspect that Soni discovers, and then describes, is the elaborate manner in which nature looks after its affairs. When contrasted with the actions of human beings, natural processes, for instance, do not result in what we categorize as waste. There is actually no such concept or category of ‘waste’ in nature. Nature is well endowed with an intelligence that is over three billion years: so-called waste from one species is invariably food for another. In contrast, after 200 years of the industrial mode of production – still the darling of most corporations, modern bureaucrats and states – the living planet has been simply jammed with waste mountains of a phenomenally horrendous and mindboggling kind from which it appears to be unable to get any relief.
The picture of the leaf – used as a backdrop for the cover of ‘Naturally’ – says it all: the leaf functions as a natural production unit for photosynthesis; after its term, it dislodges and falls. Once on the earth’s floor, it becomes food for earthworms, termites and soil bacteria. Their secretions, in turn, generate food for the plants and the cycle is complete.
In the industrial world that the West created and which we, uncritically despite Gandhi, have adopted, waste has become an intimate component of the production process itself, a necessary nuisance. The generation of waste is inevitable as the process of invention simply lacks evolutionary character. We have a word for ‘production’, but no corresponding word for what happens so elegantly to the leaf in real life, its ‘disintegration’ or ‘de-production’. This lesson is starkly learnt if one places a non-biodegradable plastic bag alongside a leaf and observes their condition over a few days. In such contexts, human intelligence appears hopelessly incompetent, perhaps even stupid.
In a very elaborate way, C.K. Raju has demonstrated how the assumptions of present-day mathematics and physics are invariably shrouded in principles and aspirations that owe much to Christian theology and its peculiar, even barmy, anxieties.5 The obsession with production (without ‘de-production’ for lack of a better term) is mainly a modern day phenomenon: it decides almost all aspects of modern day living. Everything is to be compared with it and either found worthy or wanting. But there is also, likewise, an obsession with ‘creation’, one of the central obsessions of Christianity. This is based on the assumption that for something to come out of the void, there must be first an act of creation, a singularity. This logic is postulated because of the Christian need for a prime agent responsible for the act of creation. But the search ends there. So if we do not have a word that is the opposite of production, likewise we do not have a word that will express the contrary of creation: reduction to nought. So even in the religious sphere, we have strapped ourselves with the idea that there is no need to close the cycle.
At one point, Soni suggests that science must combine its ‘wisdom’ to reform technology so that the latter can become ‘non-invasive’. This, he says, can only happen by a return to the natural principles of homeostasis, where growth is replaced by steady state production.
The distinction made between a science that is wise and a technology that needs to be reformed ends up absolving science of any culpability for the present state of affairs and also avoids acknowledging the cultural, frankly religious, framework of its origins. Further, what if we find that the central feature of modern science itself is to be ‘invasive’? What if science cannot operate except in invasive terms? Has it not done so till now and can this not be documented historically since the commencement of the so-called scientific revolution? Look at the way genetically modified organisms invade natural systems and contaminate them with proprietorship. Has not science encouraged us to dump all other ways of looking at nature as ‘pre-scientific’ or ‘primitive’ or frankly, ‘unscientific’ and ‘metaphysical’? Isn’t science now the new orthodoxy? What happens when an anti-ecological or an a-ecological orthodoxy takes over the thinking of every institution on the planet?
To illustrate this issue a wee bit better, I would like to advert to the problems caused by shoes, yes, shoes. Historically – and still in large parts of the world today – people still walk barefoot. The foot is designed by nature to be used bare, without shoes. The bare foot responds differently to motion (like running) when compared with a shoed foot. Invariably, while running barefoot, one will land on the sole, while shoes will compel the runner to land on the heel. In the barefoot exercise, the arch has an overwhelmingly critical role, as it distributes the force of landing on a surface, hard or soft, across the full web of bones that make the entire foot. The toes of a bare foot enable one to climb without slipping, as they feel every object, curling around some. Barefoot walking is also mindful, since one knows that the foot is unprotected and, therefore, it is important to scrutinize the ground on which one walks.
This sensitivity to the natural environment is completely lost on shoes. Equipped with shoes, one need never look down on what one treads, whether grass or stone or insect. The function of the natural arch is rendered useless in those shoes that come equipped with an arch of their own. In real life, no arch is ever supported from below, as multinational shoe manufacturers sought to do with their products. This meant that shocks between body and earth would get deflected upward to the knees: researchers have confirmed that the gradually upward moving graph plotting knee damage across the developed world is closely paralleled with the introduction and popularity of shoes that came with artificial arches.6 Of course, everyone also concedes that climbing slippery or gravelly slopes with shoes is dangerous, since shoe-grip is fairly absent when compared with the grasping power of barefoot toes. Therefore, when one skids and falls, one falls hard.
The shoe is an extremely good example of an ‘invading’ mindset. Shoe wearers literally invade areas which barefoot walkers will not necessarily venture into. But this is because the wearer of shoes need not respect the natural environment in which he wants to walk. He can override nature. He can attempt to go wherever he wishes without much thinking and without any fear of getting hurt, since he has protection. However, most of these qualities are illusory, as we have recounted above. On certain terrain, they are in fact at a disadvantage. Finally, the design of the shoe may create problems of a chronic nature which may eventually require surgery or even knee replacement.
The reader will have recognized by now that the shoe is a metaphor or symbol for the ‘wisdom’ of science and technology. One can function very well without shoes, but they are now a must in certain circles which go to the extent of seeing shoeless people as ‘backward’ or uncivilized in some manner. Despite the huge technological research into shoes (propelled by a powerful sports industry), the world’s fastest runners – the Taramuhara tribe of Mexico – till today run barefoot or with a thin pad made from rubber held under the foot by strands of rope, and have outrun sports runners equipped with the most up to date running equipment, with ease.In fact, they can run continuously for two days, exceeding the equivalent of 16 marathons or over 400 km!
Almost similar developments have unfolded in many other areas infected with the virus of modern science and technology. Equally, they show little wisdom because they disregard natural intelligence. One gets an extraordinary illustration of the invading mindset of modern science in the manner in which we grow our food. Modern science and technology based agriculture has ended up with a basket of chronic problems that are absolutely missing on farms which raise food naturally. Like shoes, chemical fertilizers are actually redundant since they seek to substitute for actions that nature will take care of anyway and probably with far better efficiency and absolutely no waste or ill-effects.
In nature, for instance, plants and trees take 97% of their nutrition from the atmosphere, and less than 3% from the soil (the latter supplied by soil microbes). This is excellently demonstrated in forestry systems like the Amazon forest, for instance. One hectare of Amazon forest vegetation contains one tonne of nitrogen, 800 kg of potassium, 600 kg of phosphorous, 500 kg of magnesium, etc. This nutrient is not stored in the soil, where it will easily leach, but in the leaves.7
However, in modern agricultural practice, these natural processes are substituted with products made by machines through processes in which high energy inputs are routine. The plant is fed its nutrients through chemicals. The irrigation water is only incidentally needed for the plant’s thirst: it is required predominantly to transport the dissolved (chemical) salts to the plant’s root zone. Since the plant is engineered to generate its food through photosynthesis, it will continue to rely upon those processes. For this reason, much of the chemical fertilizer – in some areas, more than 60% of it – leaches away as waste, generating huge imbalances in the environment wherever it reaches. Waste is therefore inbuilt in modern agriculture. No reform is possible here. The system should be discarded as soon as possible since organic farms – with all inputs generated at ambient temperatures – are now able to raise as much production as farms addicted to chemicals.
The education of children is another great example of how an entirely natural process – in which all children are proficient – can be mindlessly turned into a very difficult exercise in the form of factory schooling. It is well known that children below the age of six in Indian environments can pick up at least four languages to speak with ease. However, the same children are then unable to learn any new language when put in school. This is largely because the methods of learning a language in school are entirely the opposite of learning a language in a natural environment. While natural learning takes place through the association of sound and kinetic movements, in school, language teaching begins with alphabets, grammar and syntax. Such efforts are bound to produce trivial results, not because the children cannot learn a language, but because they are learning languages in violation of natural principles under which such learning takes place.
In fact, schooling ensures imposition of set information, data and world view and thereby displaces innate abilities, information, expertise and knowledge (including in most cases, ability to speak in indigenous languages). Some dignify it with the term ‘structured learning’ but it is more equivalent to brainwashing and replacing the children’s natural experience and expertise with entirely artificial and textbook saturated concepts with marginal connection to their day to day lives.
Modern science has maintained a schizophrenic attitude towards nature, natural processes and natural intelligence. Soni, in contrast to many of his colleagues, celebrates natural intelligence. But he is one of few exceptions. Seen from one perspective, modern science never claims to discover anything more than ‘natural laws’, or how nature operates. But from another view of the matter, it often appears that a ‘scientific’ approach to a problem is most often presented as a superior option to a ‘natural’ approach to a problem. This is an anomaly. Science cannot go against nature. Neither can science go beyond nature, since its entire effort is to try and understand nature and how it works. Thus, if someone disregards the intelligence associated with modern science (as we know it) and prefers a naturalistic method of learning, or raising food, the latter cannot be termed ‘unscientific’ or ‘pre-scientific’, as is often sought to be done.
Organic farming, which closely follows the principles that forest systems use to produce biomass and survive, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called ‘unscientific’ or by any other pejorative label. Today, all organic farmers routinely discredit and discard chemical inputs and all the other paraphernalia invented by modern science for raising food. That must mean something. It must upset some apple carts. Organic farmers consider their methods purely non-invasive, in the most ideal sense of the term. Their success is a question to those who continue to claim we need chemicals to feed rising global populations. In fact, the use of chemicals has already reached a point of diminishing returns.
It may be useful, therefore, to go a little deeper into what may be a truly non-invasive method of dealing with the natural environment from which we gain our sustenance. A good example is from modern Jainism. In his book, Atul Shah refers to the ‘consciousness of natural things.’ He writes:
‘What are known to modern economists and environmentalists as "natural resources" – the natural elements like water, earth, fire, air, plants and their derivatives – are respected as living beings by the belief system of the Indian world view. Based on this philosophy, the Indian way of life was created in a way that people utilized these resources with mindfulness and only in quantities that were necessary so as not to dishonour the living consciousness in them… The philosophy isn’t limited to a concern of: What will happen to us? How will we survive? – if we exploit and deplete forests, the soil, animal species and water.’8
Another example of the non-invasive approach is the story about the Setu bridge across India to the fabled land of Sri Lanka. In one Ramayan account, Lord Ram arrives at the tip of the Indian continent and finds the vast ocean separating him from the island of Sri Lanka. How will he get across? One of his advisers whispers to him that he should call up the ocean god who would, upon direction, draw back the waters, permitting Lord Ram and his entourage to walk across the ocean bed into Sri Lanka.
Lord Ram thinks this is a good suggestion. He calls up the ocean god who is soon present before him. Lord Ram asks him whether the ocean can be withdrawn so he can walk across dry land to the island. The ocean god replies that he is duty bound to obey an order issued to him by the master of the universe. He will do so, if directed. However, he draws attention to the fact that withdrawing the waters would mean sacrificing the lives of innumerable fisherfolk on boats lost and would also involve large-scale destruction of fish life. The ocean god said these would not be on his conscience, but would be the responsibility of Lord Ram alone.
We know how the story ends: Lord Ram says no to the sea god’s option and instead his associates (the army of monkeys) proceed to create a temporary bridge that eventually enables the party to cross over to Sri Lanka.
These accounts of non-invasive action, associated with either Lord Ram in traditional literature, or as described by Atul Shah, are unappreciated by the general community of scientists which, as CVS pointed out, was unable to escape its mechanical view of the world. Soni himself discusses creative examples of non-invasive approaches to meeting modern needs today. These may be attractive to planners, but they do not match the rigour of the old standard established in the stories just related.
He discusses at length two examples of what he calls, ‘conserve and use’ approaches in respect of the needs of New Delhi. Taking the case of the Delhi Ridge forest, he estimates that a sustainable recharge of 1.5 billion litres of mineral water per year could be harvested from the vast storage area, provided the forest on it is maintained. This could convert into an annual income of some $1 billion from a non-invasive use of a natural resource like the forest. In fact, the proposal would ensure the forest is protected, even though technically used.
Similarly, he calculates that the Yamuna flood plains (about 1,000 sq km. of area and an average 40-40 metres deep) today hold 1.5 billion cubic metres of water underground. This would decline if the flood plains were handed over to development of real estate. In both cases, Soni insists that these resources of ridge and flood plains can only be saved if they are shown to be capable of producing revenue from resources (like water) which will command an economic value that rivals or outbids the value offered for the same areas by real estate.
While the ‘conserve and use’ argument is attractive, especially during a period when the monolithic development model says that development cannot be halted for reasons of welfare, it does not exactly fall within the class of ‘non-invasive’ examples discussed in the book unless there is a prohibition that the withdrawal of water will never exceed the replenishment rate. Even today, despite all the alarm calls about climate change, economies rich and poor remain completely immune to the idea that development activity should be subjected to limits of any kind.
So what would be the ecological consequence, the impact on the floral regime of the ridge, if 1.5 billion litres of water are removed from under that forest, mostly likely during the summer months as well, leading to a drop in the water table? How soon would sustainable extraction of the water be replaced by mining of the same resource? Why is this society unable to leave some things as they are? Why should every aspect of nature be seen as a resource to be diverted exclusively to the needs of human beings?
In the economic literature, there is a discussion of two kinds of sustainability: weak and strong. Under strong sustainability, the assumption is that some critical forms of natural capital can never be exchanged for cash because they can never be replaced. Under a weak sustainability regime, however, there is no such bar and everything is exchangeable for something of an equivalent value. In the end, it all boils down to an economic value. Economic values, however, are governed by market sentiment and rarely reflect even common sense.
Further, we really have no methods available to evaluate the price of a three-tiered canopy forest or a ground water aquifer established over millions of years. I remember even now a study that we did of the Narmada dam proposals which was published in the 1980s. From documents, my colleague (Ramesh Billorey) and I established that the cost of the trauma caused to the tribals from the submergence zone was evaluated by those who did the cost-benefit analysis, at a total of two years of daily wages!
In his attack on genetically modified crops, Soni draws pointed attention to the fact that ‘nature has networked all the right bacteria inside us for the digestion of natural food… if we introduce an alien element like a genetically modified food – we have changed the food, it is no longer evolutionary, but "revolutionary". But we have not changed our digestive tract. So, whereas natural food goes down right, modified food does not.’9
The simple truth is that the knowledge we labour with under the rubric of modern science – just 200 years old – is also bereft of the benefits from the same evolutionary testing that once made life in general safe for all for centuries. The answers to the ecological predicament cannot therefore come from modern science. All that we should expect from science is a reasonable record of the continuous damages we have inflicted on the environment when we departed from the study of natural intelligence and natural wisdom, which in fact has been the hallmark of societies outside the western imperium. So to go further, we will have to look elsewhere. Naturally.
1. Vikram Soni, Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet. HarperCollins India, 2015.
2. Atul Shah (Muni Shri Hitruchi Vijayji), The True India: Crushed Under the Modern Development Model. Shrutratnakar, Ahmedabad, 2015.
3. Vikram Soni, op. cit., p.183.
4. C.V. Seshadri, Development and Thermodynamics: A Search for New Energy-Quality Markers. Vol. 11, MCRC, 1982, p. 8.
5. C.K. Raju, blog at ckraju.net
6. Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Knopf, 2009.
7. Claude Bourguignon, Regenerating the Soil: From Agronomy to Agrology. Other India Press, Mapusa, 2005, p. 115.
8. Atul Shah (Muni Shri Hitruchi Vijayji), op. cit., p. 65.
9. Vikram Soni, op. cit., p.189.