What do we actually do?


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WHAT do we do when the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a train hurtling at us? Inside a club lounge, over a round of drinks, the response of the thinking person is likely to be: it depends. And that would be followed by a round of thinking person witticisms. The response inside the tunnel can be expected to be different. The person may in fact be immobilized.

I had two meetings with Vikram Soni in the recent past, mainly around the content of his book Naturally. The discussion was predictably stimulating, but the course the discussions took was not unpredictable. It has been so with several other authors of equally important and highly readable books. The discussion follows a sequence of ideas on roughly the following lines.

We recognize the fact that there are several others doing significant work in the field that can broadly be called sustainable development, or simply sustainability. There are both individual and institutional contributions. There are pockets of excellence all around us. Yet, when we step back, we see that they are but little islands in an unaffected ocean. We cannot help acknowledging that the contributors have impeccable credentials, outstanding track record of work, significant perspectives to sustainability, generating a wealth of knowledge and insights.

We also see that the islands are isolated. There is a noticeable absence of convergence and, from that, an absence of the needed concerted effort. Why does convergence not take place? Here we see a tragicomedy playing out. Each individual recognizes the need for convergence and collaborative effort, professing the value of collaboration, but each sees the other as being individualistic and against collaboration.

We all recognize the reality of environment degradation. We see that the problem is sufficiently well understood, its causes well known over decades. There is not much more to know. The real need is action, and the critical step before the actions: agreement on solutions.

We also recognize that the problem is multifaceted, manifest in a wide range of issues such as food security, air and water pollution, global warming, extinction of species, human-animal conflicts, peak oil, energy crises, and many more issues. The facets are of course intimately interconnected.

We further recognize, directly or indirectly and, perhaps, reluctantly that there is one central factor determining all the facets and the manifestations – human consumption patterns. Reprise: The real need is action, and the needed action is change in consumption behaviour in the human species.

At about this time there is a change in tone and a change in mood. We begin to sense a shroud of despair hanging above us. We admit that there is gloom. We wonder about the impact of the pockets of excellence beyond conference venues. We see that they are pitted against the combined strength of a small clutch of powerful global business interests, who also call the shots in technology development and the directions in global economic development – the generally unsustainable directions.

At this point I cannot help asking the question: What is the bottom line? At the end of the day, when we go to bed, in those moments when the brain seeks closure on the day’s experiences, what do we feel about the future of our endeavours in this mission of sustainability? Is the future optimistic? Pessimistic? Is there hope? Is it hopeless? What do we really, honestly feel?


The response is rather typical. And, again, predictable. We say there is hope. More correctly, we find ourselves saying there must be hope. Does that mean we are optimistic? Do we go to sleep on a note of optimism? Is it real, honest optimism? Or is it, perhaps, a conditioned response? Are we not brought up to believe in optimism? Have we not been reared on a diet of tales of valour in which a small number, small in stature, defied Goliath forces and turned the tide?

What do we really, honestly feel about sustainability? Is there the possibility of light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel? Or is the light really a train hurtling towards us?

Hope hangs on eternal in the human breast. We cannot help recalling the line from Alexander Pope, slightly recast, to highlight his observation on the dogged nature of human optimism.


On the realization that the light at the end of the tunnel is either an illusion or, worse, a hallucination, I have come to accept that first and last there will always be ways to address issues of sustainability that are distinctly human, i.e. peculiar to the human species. While many life forms have evolved strategies of survival through special features of deception, it is only in the human species that we see a highly developed facility for self-deception. We even create complex information systems to believe what we want to believe.

Not too long ago the American Psychological Foundation honoured the legendary Robert Rosenthal with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his profound work on the essentially human nature of the scientific process. The bottom line? Research and related scientific activity by humans has an inbuilt high probability of proving what one sets out to believe. A hundred years of experimental work in phenomenological psychology has always known this, but has stopped short of a damning conclusion – perhaps the researchers themselves were deeply committed to a belief in the essential noble character of human nature. It is the greatest paradox. The most intelligent species in nature behaves in the most stupid manner in deceiving itself. It happens all the time. It happens in ‘research’ funded by lobbies. It happens in ‘evidence’ presented at the UN Security Council to justify an armed assault. It happens in fads and fashions of diet and exercise and things environmental. It happens in denial – there is no global warming.

Concepts of ‘good science’ and ‘bad science’ operate at the super-ordinate level of a paradigm in our cognitive organization. In other words, a paradigm is a belief system that determines what other belief systems we may hold. Consider the following two contrasting paradigms in history: (i) The Ptolemaic model of an earth-centric universe; and (ii) The Copernican model of a heliocentric universe.

The first model, operating as a paradigm, determined what was good science and what was bad science at that point of time, and had great institutional backing, putting Galileo in a spot. However, the second paradigm did ultimately succeed in replacing the first.

In the like manner, it is possible that we have two widely contrasting paradigms to explain the difference between the science-technology world view of ‘civilized’ peoples and the art-science world view of ‘indigenous’ peoples: the earth belongs to man and man belongs to the earth.


It has been my privilege to be associated with an international programme in the area of indigenous knowledge systems. The programme works in several countries in Latin America, Africa and South Asia, documenting the empirical knowledge base of indigenous peoples in such fields as sustainable agriculture, community health, medical practice, building technologies, nutrition, water management, and so on. The ‘science’ underlying the practices is often profound, although the communities themselves do not call it science. It might as well be the ‘art’ of soil conservation or the ‘art’ of herbal preparation. Indeed the concept of science as we know it does not exist in many communities. There is only one unifying consciousness of the sacredness of nature, and being one with nature. Clearly a paradigm itself.

In getting the Establishment to change from a Ptolemaic paradigm was difficult, but not impossible. The change needed in the belief system did not require change in everyday behaviour of setting up households, raising families and enjoying the good life. Changing the belief system that the earth belongs to man – this is in another league altogether. It has consequences in a wide range of individual, social and societal behaviour.


The most commonly offered proposition has a hallowed status because it is deeply rooted in a value system that upholds the superiority of individual will. It is at the heart of many a community level initiative: change the individual first, the rest will follow. It is, of course, a romanticized view and not helpful for the scale of the task on hand, not merely within a nation state, but at the global system. It certainly does not appear to have the status of a paradigm regarding sustainability. ‘Be the change’ can apply to waste segregation or kitchen gardening or giving up beef, without necessarily ‘saving the planet’.

Changing social behaviour (meaning the behaviour of others) has many challenges, of which two need mention here:

1. We simply do not know enough about change in large social systems. ‘Change the individual first’ is one of several popular ‘models’ of behaviour change in which the underlying assumption is that several individual changes add up to an aggregate social change. Nothing could be more simplistic. The street community, the city and, indeed, the nation are quite different systems, and the laws of behaviour change in these systems are increasingly imperfect as we go upwards in complexity.

2. We cannot ignore the ethical challenges in ‘social engineering’, conceiving and inducing behaviour changes in others. It may, perhaps, be conceivable in a totalitarian state, certainly not in a pluralistic, democratic one. When a person comes to me for counsel, I have a mandate to counsel and, in effect, to influence behaviour outcomes. Who has given me a mandate to change human consumption and social behaviour, although I see it connected directly to the current problems of non-sustainability?

As much as the realization hurts, being in the behavioural change business professionally for several decades, I have to accept that there is precious little I can do to change social behaviour for sustainability. And yet, hope springs eternal. It never dries up. And I seek yet another tack to address the challenges of sustainability, even if it is abundantly clear that I cannot hope to see any impact in my lifetime.


I turned to the theatre more deliberately to explore sustainability issues quite late – in the early part of the new millennium. I had had my due share of systems thinking and Gaia and entropy and the energy problematique since the early seventies, devouring the works of the most exciting writers of the time. The connection to the stage came much later. It came almost certainly because of the philosopher of science, D.G. Garan, first from reading his profound trilogy, then from extended correspondence with him. The culmination of his trilogy is titled Against Ourselves. As one might guess, it is about human nature being against itself.

Garan introduced the idea of ‘deep cycling’ in human stimulus seeking behaviours and their inevitable depressive aftermaths. It means that the need for a higher order of stimulation is very special to the human species. It is the only animal species in which the arousal-satiation cycle does not conform to the natural law of homeostasis. The threshold for satiation keeps rising. What gives us pleasure today is boring tomorrow. Every high is sure to be followed by a low, a kind of exhaustion and depression. That’s what makes us go for a bigger high. Then comes a bigger low. And so on, and the amplitude increases over time. When we grasp what this does to the earth’s resources within the prevailing paradigm of mankind owning the earth, we can see the connection to David Attenborough’s famous quip about chasing infinite growth in a world of finite resources.


The frightening question arose: Could it be that the human species was a mistake? Nature’s first and last mistake? In over 3.5 billion years of the co-evolution of life forms on the planet, within Nature’s grand design of ecological balance, the human species is the only one that takes far more from its environment than it gives back. Out of this holding idea came the play Footprints, written between 2001 and early 2002. It premiered in the USA in 2003. Coincidentally, less than a year later in 2004, WWF published its Living Planet report and subtitled it ‘Ecological Footprints’! The report arrived at a conclusion that echoed the main idea in the play: the rate of consumption of natural resources by the human species was far greater than the capacity of the species to regenerate the resources. In other words, it was too late.

The play was a success not because of any environment ‘message’, but because it was first and foremost a good dramatic tale. However, the tale rested on a platform that had solid, scientifically valid facts. I looked for others with similar perspectives in writing for the stage. ‘Science theatre’ had already carved a niche for itself, viz. the work of Carl Djerassi. However, there was hardly anything in the specialized concern with sustainability. It was then a slow and steady move towards the field of Theatre- in-Education, with a special interest in environment-sustainability education.


I have been associated with Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT) since its inception in 1960. Around the time of BLT’s golden jubilee the group restructured itself and created a second major division of work and called it the Academy of Theatre Arts. The mission of the newly created academy is theatre education, meant to scale up the long-standing commitment to education extension.

Among the first thrusts in the mission was Theatre-in-Education (TIE), i.e. the application of theatre methodology for enhancing classroom learning. The very first major programme within TIE was on environment-sustainability education. This gave us the opportunity to experiment with both content and method in influencing high school students to think sustainability.

The team attempted a strategic planning exercise at the start of the programme. The emphasis in the planning exercise soon shifted from the conventional environment scanning and business plan agenda to clarifying and articulating the values that must guide the team’s work – the premises on which the programme must be built. Here is the position we took:

Theatre for and with children may be viewed as a form of development intervention. This applies even more to Theatre-in-Education. In conventional TIE, we regard the children’s audience as receivers of information about social issues as conceived by us; in the field of Development Education there is ample evidence to show that children are capable of far higher levels of comprehension and abstraction than we care to recognize. The TIE trainer-facilitator must confront a particularly relevant – and difficult – conflict: Who are we to teach children sustainability when it is our generation that has done irreparable damage to the environment? It is a serious problem of credibility; the first requirement is admission. We must accept our current social conduct as resulting in an unfortunate legacy we leave for the future of today’s young people; we can go further and view today’s young people as stakeholders in tomorrow’s environment. If so, the next logical step is to view them as change agents for shaping tomorrow’s environment. Further, we must find ways to empower today’s young people to actually influence our attitudes and behaviours – a radically alternative approach to education!


The first opportunity to put the premises into practice was in a major theatre production called Our Iceberg is Melting. The play was a dramatization-adaptation of the book by John Kotter by the same title. It is actually a ‘management parable’ about planning and executing change. Kotter is an emeritus professor in Harvard Business School, who is an internationally acclaimed authority on the subject.

The ‘parable’ is situated in a colony of penguins in Antarctica! It is about the younger generation noticing signs of climate change and then getting the older penguins to do something about it. They do this by applying John Kotter’s eight principles of planning and implementing change!

There were 16 shows of the play, with block bookings for schools in morning shows. The students attending the play with their teachers were given handouts that suggested simple back-home ‘change management’ projects that they could take up in small teams – applying Kotter’s eight change principles. They were fun projects, but very real. Most important, the hope was that the students would change the behaviour of grown-ups.


There have been other opportunities provided by the TIE programme. We may only share capsule descriptions of some of them here:

Using the ‘chalk circle’ story of two mothers claiming the same baby as a metaphor for competing forces in conflicting claims – at the risk of killing the baby! This can be a powerful TIE exercise to initiate systems thinking, appreciating multiple stakeholders in issues and ‘field force analysis’. A ‘stimulus play’ in which two survivors of the human race are banking on the last inhabitable space on the planet, an Antarctic glacier, but find it shrinking in area before their eyes. The students must then put their heads together for as comprehensive an analysis as possible, to understand the multifaceted cause of global warming. The analysis cannot ignore the behaviour of their own schools and families; A play set in the year 2024 in which the human race is increasingly dependent on more and more intelligent robots, and a group of maverick robots has to reinterpret its brief to educate the humans of their lifestyle follies.

What is common to all our explorations in TIE is the deliberate effort to get participants to see ‘wholes’ over the parts – a systems perspective, recognizing multiple stakeholders, field force analyses, the sociological, economic and political complexities, and so on. I would be happy to provide more detailed descriptions of the explorations above to anybody interested. The scripts can also be made freely available. They are already being used by others, both in India and abroad.

Can the theatre save the planet? It is sure to be seen as too far-fetched. The only positive perspective may be that the planet could yet be saved – even if the human species cannot be. Why equate the two?