In the public interest
IN these times of noise and din over climate change, it is useful to sit back and reflect on how we have come to such a horrible and disastrous pass. Clearly we have injured the planet earth to such an extent that it has run down its reserves and is unable to maintain its atmosphere in a healthy, steady state. Like the human body, all living beings including plants and all ecosystems spanning forests and mountains, seas and oceans, rivers and lakes, sands and deserts, plains and valleys can live healthily only by maintaining the critical parameters like temperature and humidity in a steady state. Any deviation results in sickness and when perturbations go out of scale, there is irreparable damage resulting in deformation, death and annihilation.
This is how species are driven to extinction. According to the Living Planet Report, the percentage of species facing extinction has risen from 29% in 2008 to 52% in 2015. If this trend continues, the planet may be at the threshold of 75% species loss. Such a critical limit has occurred only five prior times, each marking major extinctions in the past 500 million years of history – a stark reminder of the gravity and severity of the situation.
What has led us to such a dire state? The obvious answer is injurious human intervention on the ways of nature and our planet. Until the advent of modern science, our capacity of intervention was limited. Science was perhaps the greatest liberating force in human history that heralded an era of enlightenment leading to an enormously improved understanding of the universe and nature – how it all began in a hot big-bang, how it cooled as it expanded giving rise to structures like galaxies, clusters and stars with planets going around them. In the process of evolution, conditions necessary for the sustenance of life got created in some very special circumstances on a planet like earth which is just at a right distance from an energy source like the sun. Over time, through an infinite chain, life came into existence and subsequently evolved through various stages, the process culminating in the human being who can think, wonder and understand.
Science is the most reliable method of truth and knowledge seeking through new discoveries. It also gives rise to technology – machines that in turn produce things, both of need and pleasure. Machines can work continuously without getting fatigued and thereby free men and women from hard labour. The industrial revolution thus became a pathway to human happiness and well-being. Machines produced much more than what could be locally consumed, in turn awakening human greed and an innate desire for profit making and accumulation of wealth. So began the search for markets in parts of the world that had till then remained relatively untouched by technology and industry. The world thus got divided into two: developed colonizers and undeveloped colonized.
Nature is the greatest production house which leaves no waste behind – it is the only true example of the zero sum paradigm. In early times, earth had a carbon dioxide atmosphere; plants were introduced to produce oxygen; then came creatures like us who breathe oxygen, and so the cycle goes on, ultimately closing on itself leaving behind nothing. In nature, the excreta of one is food of another; everything is recycled and degradable. This is an ideal production system. We must learn and adapt from nature to maintain a steady state for a healthy and long life, and try to design a production system that leaves no imprint behind in terms of waste. All our troubles originate from the production of non-degradable and non-recyclable waste. All our industrial waste piles up and injures and pollutes our air, water, soil and, in turn, all life including us. Refrigerators and air-conditioners spew out CFC gases that damage the ozone shield provided by nature to save us from harmful cosmic radiation. It is our invasive intervention on nature that has landed us here, and that is what we need to check and control.
Science has equipped us with an enormous capability – hills can be flattened, rivers joined from one end of a country to another, astounding feats in genetic engineering, and so on. Of course, like everything else, science also comes with a mixed bag of the desirable and benign, as well as the undesirable and harmful. We have to discover ways to contain undesirable effects and check and reverse damage caused to the earth’s ecosystem. It is again to science – the most powerful and effective method – that we should resort to. In so doing, we have to bank upon all the lessons we have learnt from nature. Drawing upon that wisdom and sagacity, we should employ science with care and compassion for betterment of the planet as a whole. Our well-being is intimately rooted in the earth’s well-being as a life giver and sustainer.
The first and foremost principle we should adopt as a new moral value is that nothing which is invasive should be done– ahimsa – non-violence of planetary sense and intent. This straightaway indicates a development paradigm shift, one for which Medha Patkar has fought for many decades. It was the fight against the mega Sardar Sarovar dam which brought to the fore the question of developmental ethics and morality. The earth’s resources are not enough to provide a standard of living for the entire developing world on par with the western world. If we let things continue unchanged, we will have to live with an inequitous distribution of the earth’s resources, the developing world forever developing while the developed merrily goes on squandering the planet’s resources with impunity. If we are all to have an equal and fair share of the resources, we must put a stop to the wasteful and energy intensive development mode adopted by the western world.
The true measure of development should not be per capita energy consumption, but rather how much one needs to live a healthy and comfortable life which lets one achieve and develop one’s innate capability and talent. Instead of a mindless consumption and acquisition of things, following Gandhi, the new social value should be of frugality and self-control and discipline. Then, with a fair distribution of the planet’s resources, it would be possible to have a healthy, peaceful and compassionate world.
For lasting peace and harmony there is no alternative to an equitable sharing of resources by the developed with the developing world. For this, it is imperative that the latter does not go the way of the developed countries but rather, with wisdom and concern, opt for a path of non-consumerism – save and conserve. Both we, the rational thinking and concerned inhabitants and the planet itself are at the crossroads. At stake is both our well-being as well as that of the planet. The crisis is, therefore, of planetary proportions and calls for all the wisdom and sagacity that we have accumulated ever since humans became conscious of things – began thinking and wondering. Our choice at this critical point will determine the path life and the earth’s ecosystem would take.
Of course, there are some among us who believe that there is nothing to worry about as, inevitably, science will come up with a breakthrough to help salvage the situation. First, science does not always oblige with what one wants at one’s will and pleasure. Second, even if it does, should we mindlessly go on exploiting the planet’s resources and consuming to no end? We should not forget that some years back one of our most eminent scientists came up with a bizarre pronouncement that it would not matter if we end up exhausting the earth’s resources as we could move to Mars. He had estimated that in 30 years it would be technologically possible to reach Mars. It was as if the planet that reared us for thousands of years was simply reduced to a can of fruit juice to be tossed away when empty and a new one picked up. This is perhaps an extreme view, yet many scientists-technologists do seriously believe that breakthroughs will occur and, therefore, there is no reason for panic.
At any rate, we do not seem to be in a happy space. It is akin to carrying on with an unhealthy lifestyle because there will always be medicines to take care of us. We have to first recognize that this mode of development cannot offer a healthy and peaceful society simply because it perpetuates and enhances inequality and poverty. Even America, the most developed and richest country of all, cannot provide safety, peace and serenity for all its people. Unfortunately, the irony is that everyone else is following (or rather forced to) America.
As observed in the book, Naturally, the time has come to use science, and technology that follows from it, with wisdom and much care and concern for the planet as a whole. The new guiding principle for development should be one where all activities are non-invasive and waste free. In practical terms, we should aim at waste to be recyclable and reusable, and minimize undegradable waste. Energy is undoubtedly the most important factor because of its omni use, and thus we should focus on its clean and sustainable production. Expectedly, there is a focus on alternative renewable forms like solar, wind, ocean and so on. However, though the sources are clean and non-invasive, the equipment is not as storage batteries are made of lithium, lead, mercury, nickel and cadmium which unfortunately are highly reactive and toxic and could pollute rivers and underground water. Clearly we desperately need a benign breakthrough in terms of organic and biodegradable batteries.
The guiding principle is that any resource, like the most crucial water, must not be consumed unmindfully but conserved and used. Science can measure for us the amount of water a region gets through rain, which should be conserved and used in such a way that it gets replenished in the next rains. In Rajasthan, where ground water is generally not potable, rain water is stored in kunds for use over the rest of the year. Similarly, river flood plains charge underground aquifers which could be tapped to provide clean mineral water to a city of around two million people, and be replenished in the next monsoon. Currently, such a project is being implemented in the Yamuna flood plain in Delhi on the advice and supervision of Vikram Soni. We must conserve and use, and use only amounts that can be replenished.
It is asking us for a new societal and planetary consciousness for adopting a way of life which is based on conserve, use, and reuse, and not simply consume mindlessly. Frugality should become the order of the day, to be recognized and admired.
Science is a method and hence should be employed for seeking solutions to people’s problems at large. There is, therefore, a good case for science in the public interest to become a regular formal course in our education system. A course on Science in the Public Interest: Non-invasive Solutions for the Planet, was offered by Vikram Soni at Jamia Millia in 2011. It drew a great response from students of Delhi University who came all the way to Jamia to attend it. Such a course is sorely needed in our institutions, the bureaucracy, the corporate sector and our politicians to inform them of the new non-invasive solutions which come with great economic benefits. Such courses are essential to make people and young students aware of the fact that science could be gainfully and effectively used to solve problems in the larger public interest. This should be a part of the regular teaching programme of schools, colleges and universities. Such a course would go a long way not only in promoting and perpetuating a new way of life but also be relevant for managing and planning our natural resources, cities and so on.
Nature is a storehouse for diversity of all kinds and forms. It demonstrates the fact that in the absence of external intervention, any system will invariably evolve as diverse. Homogeneity and oneness is a construct, not a natural occurrence. Imagine if the earth had a plain flat terrain with limited species – could life have evolved and survived for so long? It is diversity that provides the resistive strength to withstand external perturbations. That is why we should pay heed to preservation and sustenance of biodiversity, rather diversity in all its forms.
Plurality is the projection of diversity in the human sphere. One of the greatest strengths of our society is that it is quintessentially plural in all kinds of ways – in language, faith and religion, social norm, custom, geography and physical environment, and so on. This has come about as a result of 5000 years of interaction with all sorts of people from far and wide through trade and commerce as well as invasions and campaigns. This interaction was facilitated by the monsoon winds that change direction six monthly. Plurality provides the great strength and safety net for absorption of the toxic and invasive external perturbations.
On a conceptual and philosophical canvas, it envisages coexistence of multiple truths at the same time. For a healthy and harmonious society, mere coexistence and tolerance is not enough; an engaged dialogue leading to mutual respect and understanding must be sought. I believe it also reflects in our overall view of nature and the universe – shristi as a whole, an integral living system. In our philosophical perception, not only rivers, mountains and forests but stone and sand too share existential space equally with humans and living beings. This is an quintessential holistic view. We must universalize it further to include planet earth as well. Perhaps not only that, it should be the central point of all holistic deliberations and concerns.
Thus diversity and plurality must be sought after, valued and preserved. As we campaign for saving tigers and preserving and sustaining biodiversity, we must have much stronger and widespread campaigns for preserving and enhancing plurality. In the present times, this question attains extraordinary relevance and significance as we have come down to campaigning for the bare minimum – tolerance. Plurality is a great gift and asset, it should not be squandered away at any cost. On this count we are among the richest people, and should be proud and aware of this richness.
The key to plurality is respect and acceptance of a multiplicity of truths and a recognition that all truths are equally valid and hence equal. The social reflection of this concept is democracy as a system, not only of governance but a way of life. We thus have diversity, plurality and democracy as the three pillars on which human civilization rests. They must, therefore, not only be preserved with utmost care but constantly enhanced and enriched.
As Soni evocatively describes in the last chapter of his book, Naturally, about 2500 years back, the Buddha attempted to synthesize it all in his three identities: sangha – collegeality, debate, freedom, democracy; dharma – social ethical path, moral values, one’s responsibility to everything else living as well as non-living; and ahimsa – non-invasive and non-violent way of life. In more recent times, we have also heard Gandhi echoing Buddha. It is perhaps time to invoke both Buddha and Gandhi in our living, as well as in perspective for the planet – shristi.
For a moment, as set out in ‘the problem’ of this issue of Seminar, let’s reflect on the following facts. In the year 2000, 37% of the planet’s wealth was owned by 1% people, and it has now risen to 50%. The trendy designer Gucci bag costs over $3000 which is the price of 12000 kilos of mangoes in the countryside. There could perhaps not be a much starker and vulgar demonstration of abject inequity in sharing the planet’s resources. This extreme degree of inequity is not only injurious to people but also to the planet, simply because this kind of wealth cannot be accumulated without stealing from the other’s share and exploiting natural resources invasively and violently. This has to stop.
To keep such wealth secure, one has to expend a lot of effort both in money and in violent methods with guns, deception and corruption. Yet, the rich are not secure. Jeffrey Sachs forcefully argues in his book that abject poverty could be removed if the developed world were to contribute 15% of their annual profits. This would provide it greater security than what it otherwise obtains by spending over 30% in violent ways. Leaving aside welfare and the novel idea of sharing a bit of one’s wealth, it makes perfect economic sense to join in the campaign against poverty to make the world more peaceful and harmonious.
Over time we have heard some sane voices pleading for the health of the planet and thereby of everything that exists on it. The latest addition in this chain of planetary wisdom and concern is the book, ‘Naturally’. Vikram Soni has persuasively, as well as firmly, articulated a fascinating perspective knitting together science and social and planetary concerns. What all this adds up to is a call for a new ethical and moral code of conduct, wonderfully summed up by Buddha in his abiding value of ahimsa. One should measure all one’s actions in the scale of ahimsa to see that it is non-invasive and non-violent to people as well as the planet. This is the crying earth’s call to our wisdom and compassion. It is for us to see what gets the better of us – the planet or our greed and indulgence.
Or should we say Buddham sharanam gachhami!