The problem

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LET us begin with three contemporary ‘parables’. The first parable: In 2008 the Living Planet Report (of the London Zoological Society and WWF) announced that 29% of the wild species in rivers, oceans and land were close to extinction. According to the 2015 report, the number of such species facing extinction had risen to 52%. If the trend continues we may be crossing the threshold into the 75% species loss seen in the five major extinctions in the last 500 million years. The second parable: While the growth rate of all economies is declining, the growth rate of the rich has been accelerating in defiance of recessions and market slumps. The richest 1% own well over 50% of the total wealth of the world. The third parable: For the price of a fancy designer Gucci bag, over US$ 3000, in season, you can get 12,000 kilograms of mangoes in rural India.

How do we read these graphic revelations? The living planet is certainly out of kilter. Inequality of wealth is bounding to preposterous levels. The economic value system as seen in the last parable is an exclamation. The monopoly of the rich has never been so acute. Consumption has never been so high and it is taking out the natural world – our only survival resource. Can we go on living like this?

It seems clear that since the industrial revolution our worldview has got skewed to become too human centric. Now it is getting even more myopic – greedily acquisitive and consumption centric, insensitive and negligent of our survival resource – the living planet.

Looking for answers, for a start, we can begin with the evolution of life on the planet. Evolution must be doing something right if it has sustained life for three billion years. All life is based on the metabolic principle that maintains a steady state for living organisms. Regardless of where we are, from the North Pole to the Sahara desert, our internal (or body) temperature and pressure and blood profile must hold steady for life to sustain or we will be sick. The steady state is about keeping the balance. We do not have a complete explanation for this but we have a name for it – homeostasis. It’s the same for a flea or a whale or a plant or a tree and the planet itself. Likewise, small changes in the planet’s atmosphere or waters – away from the steady state – can be devastating, as we are discovering now.

We are not in balance – witness numerous runaways – mega consumption, mega waste, mega species loss, mega cities and compound this with global warming and a population explosion. Yet, there is a belief that with science and technology we can beat the problem. Lest one forgets, ‘our’ technology created a problem by dumping waste on the planet and by making waste of the planet. As a sobering reminder, the largest production system in the world is nature, which does not leave any waste.

Nothing can go beyond limits. If one consumes too much, one gets fatter and fatter till the scourge of diabetes and heart disease hits. In nature, growth means evolution – gradual evolution into a series of balanced steady states.

The book I wrote, Naturally Tread Softly on the Planet, addresses these issues; it is about evolution of life – the only life we know. It is also about human conduct, especially over the last 200 years. It is about science and the technology it has spawned. It is about the ethos of the living planet. It is about being at a critical crossroad in the present times. Finally, the book addresses our values and the ideology for an enduring living scheme. We briefly point to some of the problems and solutions highlighted in the book to open an unorthodox debate on the present predicament.

The species network is what maintains the steady state on the planet. Each species is a link in the chain that makes perennial natural cycles that recycle, so that there is no waste. And that is how all planetary living resource is preserved. How do we deal with evolutionary resource like rivers, aquifers, forests, seeds, and oceans that took millions of years to make and cannot be recreated by human engineering? The loss of such resource is irreversible. Human interventions on the living planet must be non-invasive and follow a ‘conserve and use’ principle.

For example, organic (mineral) water and seed biodiversity are of the essence, as our metabolism and digestive tract works symbiotically with such natural resources which are integrated into our evolution as a species. Our food can be revolutionary but our digestive system will remain evolutionary. So we have to preserve our evolutionary resource – ‘conserve and use’, not just ‘use’ such living natural resource. To safeguard our living natural resource we need to recognize nature’s rights. This opens up a range of ingenious and symbiotic solutions for our needs – new, non-invasive technology. Two perennial non-invasive ground level solutions concern city waters – bulk water for cities from the river flood plains (recently implemented in Delhi by the government) and mineral water for drinking from forest tracts around the city. Both come with great health and economic benefits.

Climate change is about disturbing the steady state of the planet’s atmosphere. The excess of greenhouse gas we have lofted into the air has brought in extreme weather events, the Arctic melt, and an acidic ocean; we are yet to see the main course. But, clearly, much of climate change is due to the loss of living natural resource – forests, rivers, lakes, among others, and not the other way round. Climate change due to greenhouse emissions is indeed serious but can be reversed. On the other hand, the loss of evolutionary resource is not reversible – cause and effect are often glossed over in the ubiquitous climate talks.

As we have recorded, all living organisms from the smallest ant to the living planet self-organize to maintain a steady state. This is a fundamental principle of life. A city falls at an intermediate scale between living organisms (like us) and the planet; so perhaps, we should have such self-organizing natural cities. We have worked out a blueprint for natural cities that will be self-sustaining in water, vegetable produce and milk, with an architecture of natural climate and temperature control. This will make them non-invasive and energy lean. Amaravati, the future capital of Andhra Pradesh, offers a great opportunity to have a self-sustaining natural city. Such a vision has been presented in the monograph, ‘Amaravati Natural City’.

A feature of such cities is that we have to reside within their carrying capacities or they cease to remain self-sustaining. This is being violated in the present scenario of mass and unbound urbanization. Carrying capacity is an obvious non-invasive principle that applies to consumption, populations and cities.

Science is about discovery and the technology, which flows from it, is about invention. Somewhere, in our intoxication with new tech, we forgot about the fallout on the living planet. Now we are busy sorting out the mess. We need science to combine with natural wisdom, to reform our technology to be non-invasive. This is science in the larger (public) interest and it must be integrated into education.

So far, the renewable energy debate only talks about renewable source and not whether the apparatus that delivers the energy is renewable or recyclable. An energy solution is truly renewable only if its apparatus too is renewable. An example is battery storage for solar energy. Batteries are made with lithium, lead and mercury, nickel and cadmium which are all highly reactive and toxic and when discarded have the potential (likely) to terminally pollute rivers and groundwater. Organic (biodegradable) batteries are a necessity for a truly renewable solar energy solution. In the euphoria following the industrial revolution, we have been fixated by technology inventions, which are generally not holistic. Natural cycle technology that recycles its waste is the way ahead. Nature has already done it. Why haven’t we?

Global identities in evolution like the air, act as a safety net. If there is a forest fire, the toxic air that would have poisoned the trees and fauna, gets dispersed to minuscule proportions, so that the forest and the fauna can revive – unlike the global market economy that works simply on profit and lacks a safety net but leads to inflating consumption. Present day economics believes in growth and growing consumption and not in a healthy steady state. Growth can be replaced by building more and more efficient and holistic networks that continually evolve into steady states with more self-organization.

Finally, let us now look at democracy and the three identities that provide the framework for a scheme of living. The first is the personal, which demands more freedoms and rights but is generally serviced by greed and acquisition. Then there is the larger identity, the social or the society. No matter how equal we start in material and social terms, we soon get a huge spike in inequality. Our third identity is even larger, our habitat – the planet – and the spike in consumption is consuming the living planet.

The global market economy is based on profits, but there are no profits without sales and more sales come with more products and thus technology becomes captive to the market and this preys on the planet. As pointed out earlier, the global market economy has no safety net. Laws cannot work here – new technologies always have a head start on laws; the time constants to assess the impacts are such that the damage is done before the laws come into force. We thus need an ethical value system based on natural wisdom to accomplish what is needed.

All our schemes of living and ideology are from a bygone era where the scale of our intervention was manageable. Now the scale of our intervention is exceeding the scale of the planet – a new horizon. The time for economic formulations like the global market economy based on profit is over. The same holds true for Marxism which aspired to the ideal of social justice, but instead centralized state power and lost imagination and incentive. Neither of the two included the planet in their fold. It is time for extending our imagination to a more holistic ideology. At a philosophical level, we have to transform our worldview from being individually human-centric to a holistic one which is not injurious to the planet and the society.

The three identities mentioned above – the personal, the social and the planetary – must be non-invasive if we are to have an enduring scheme of living. At present they are not. A workable and democratic solution is possible only if we start respecting all three practices – working towards a healthy earth, an equitable society and for people to be true to themselves.

Curiously, there is a precedent. When there was no such dilemma, 2500 years back, the Buddha had already embraced the three identities. The sangha, the society and free debate or democracy, the dharma which set out the ethical responsibility and a value system that goes with the freedom to decide, to avoid inequity, and ahimsa, the philosophy of non-violence towards all living beings – read planet.