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Are we irritating nature too much?

November 02, 2004 20:39 IST
The dichotomy between nature and man is an idea of recent vintage, and in particular it is a Western vanity; perhaps it is related to another duality, that between good and evil. Indic and other Eastern civilisations typically do not suffer from either of these conceits, and from their point of view, the distinction is absurd; man and nature are interlinked, purusha and prakrti, yin and yang, two sides of the same coin.

One might argue that to oppose man's manifest destiny of dominance over nature -- again a concept from Western religion -- would be futile. The forces of 'development' and 'progress' and 'modernity' do lead us down a certain path towards conspicuous consumption.

Anyone opposing this may come across as a hopeless Luddite. Perhaps that is truly the way the world works: maybe there is something akin to the relentlessly increasing entropy of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, something that guarantees that we are 'condemned to the modernized' in the words of Octavio Paz.

But with greater globalisation, greater industrialisation, more gadgets and gizmos, are we truly better off than our grandparents were? Has man's increasing dominance of nature come at some substantial cost to us? This is a hard question to answer purely objectively.

I don't know exactly how my own grandparents lived, but in their Kerala village, they did not have electricity, or piped water, or television. But they did have education, a pond where they bathed and where they caught fish in the summer, and all-night performances of classical theatre. They also had unpolluted land and air, fields where young rice grew in that unbelievably beautiful unnamed shade of green. Am I, with my computers and cars and my MTV, really better off than them? I really wonder.

What I do know is the deterioration of two lovely cities that I have lived in: San Francisco and Bangalore, India. The smog that settles as a grimy brown layer over the San Francisco Bay, the long lines of cars stuck in traffic jams where not long ago were apricot farms. This is mirrored in Bangalore, once a pensioner's paradise and a garden city, with pleasant weather because of its elevation. Now it is choked with exhaust fumes, the trees are disappearing, and the temperature has shot up.

And I do know of drought in the former rainforests of Cherrapunji, perhaps the rainiest place on earth. 'Modernisation' and religious conversion convinced the locals to cut down sacred groves they had maintained as untouched virgin forest. Result? Ecological catastrophe. Deforestation. Erosion. Denudation. Now they have to cart drinking water up to the hills from the plains below. This is progress?

And I do know about the over-exploitation of the seas. A recent report said that we have eliminated up to 90% of the populations of many fish species in a hundred years. I know this personally because in the seas off my home, the catch, once plentiful, of shrimp, tuna and anchovies, has diminished drastically in my own lifetime.

And I do know about SARS, AIDS, BSE and other diseases, which one might argue are the result of man monkeying with nature; literally in the case of AIDS, where the virus may have been transmitted to humans from the African green monkey or the smoky magabey.

And I know of the apocalyptic prediction of Silicon Valley wizard Bill Joy, who wrote a long essay warning us about the possible dangers from biological computers. He worries about what might happen if these 'devices', which are capable of self-reproduction, start getting ideas. In the worst case, you would have a nightmare world like that of the Matrix films.

Having said all this, I must confess I am not a radical Green. I do enjoy the freedom technological progress has given me. I like the fact that the Internet allows me to access a very large virtual library. I like the fact that I can simultaneously inhabit and enjoy two cultures, Californian and Southern Indian, because travel and telecommunications are not so expensive anymore.

Nevertheless I am worried about the limits to growth, to recall the Club of Rome's headline. I wonder if there is a positive feedback loop somewhere out there that's slowly gathering momentum. We might not suspect anything is amiss; for we may be ignoring the small storm warnings. And then, one day, the full force of what we have wrought hits us. Can nature turn on us with her full fury?

Take, for instance, global warming. It is true that scientists have not reached a consensus on its consequences. Nevertheless, it is instructive to look at the unsteady weather of the recent past: unprecedented high summer temperatures, massive floods in some places, droughts elsewhere.

If there is even a small chance that this is attributable to hydrocarbon-derived pollution, would it not be wise to discourage the use of fossil fuels? And energy usage is not going to go down. Therefore, sustainable energy sources are necessary.

From the point of view of less developed nations (often tropical), there is an almost limitless source of energy: the sun. India, for instance, is rich in sunshine, and would love to turn this into electricity cost-effectively.

This question is relevant in a broader sense: much geo-politics is based on a quest for hydrocarbons. Remove them from the picture and the world would be a lot more peaceful.

But the main reason for cutting down on fossil fuels is the damage to nature. We are not the first human civilisation to overexploit nature and then suffer the consequences. The Great Indian Desert was a thickly forested area where a major civilisation flourished as long ago as 5000 BCE. Deforestation, depletion of the soil through overuse, and a disastrous tectonic movement that caused a major river to dry up: result, the civilisation disappeared, and the land turned into desert.

I am also reminded of the Stanislav Lem novel Solaris with its sentient planet. Maybe the Gaia hypothesis isn't that far-fetched: for beyond a certain amount of abuse, Nature may retaliate. Are we asking the wrong question? It may well be 'Does nature need man?' and the answer may be, "No, she doesn't!", and if so man may well find himself outmaneuvered through evolution; discarded as an unfortunate mistake.

Are we beginning to irritate nature too much? What are the consequences of large-scale modifications of the natural world, such as the straightening and draining work in the Florida Everglades, the proposed linking of India's rivers, and the attempts by Pakistanis to make Himalayan glaciers melt faster by covering them with charcoal dust? In many cases, for example in the damming of the Nile at Aswan, and the diversion of Amu Darya waters from the Aral Sea, large-scale human intervention has been disastrous.

Is there an alternative? How can man and nature coexist peacefully? The answer lies in reducing demand, in particular the demand for energy and for food. Man and nature are at loggerheads because of exploding populations, combined with stratospheric expectations about lifestyle. People need to be convinced that consuming less is a virtue.

Consume less of what? Energy and food, primarily. Amazingly, the large-scale conspicuous consumption by Americans does not make them particularly healthy, wealthy or wise. In contrast, writer Bill McKibben wrote some time ago about Kerala, especially the quality of life, despite the lack of material possessions.

McKibben concluded that the average citizen of Kerala has more or less the same quality of life as an American in the things that matter: health, education, and community. What startled him was the fact that people in Kerala manage this on a per capita income one-seventieth that of the United States: about $400/year compared to $30,000.

On many measures, Kerala is close to the US: life expectancy (the average woman lives as long as white women in the US); level of literacy (over 90%); birth rates (roughly the same, about 12 per thousand); newspaper readership and general awareness of the world (high, perhaps more aware of the world than the average American).

So if people in the West could live at the same level as those in Kerala, their impact on nature would be drastically reduced. Of course, this is a tall order. But it is not the case, either, that Kerala is a benighted, poverty-stricken Third-World backwater. It is a tropical paradise. Maybe that makes it easier to live frugally.

Perhaps out of necessity, people in Kerala seem to live in harmony with nature. At least, this has been the case for centuries. There are few structures that are taller than the surrounding palm trees. When the government proposed to build a hydroelectric dam in a virgin forest (the Silent Valley), mass protests forced them to abandon the idea. A people's plan has created a hydrological map of the state to consider how best to maintain its water resources, husbanded in ponds and waterways.

The most idealistic way, then, to avoid the dichotomy between nature and man is to reduce expectations and consumption. Clearly this is not going to be popular. But money talks, and the proper incentives produce the desired behaviour. In Chennai, there is compulsory rain-water harvesting; if you do not build an underground storage tank, you will be disconnected from the municipal water supply. Result? Widespread rain-water harvesting.

Similarly, one could raise the cost of profligate energy use to the point where people would prefer to take public transport. Whether this is practical is a different matter, but it certainly has the potential to reduce automobile-based pollution, acid rain, and global warming.

Another difficult and extremely unpopular act may be to make the consumption of animals and fish prohibitively expensive. It is well-known that a vegetarian diet is far more efficient in utilising resources: a pound of meat uses up a hundred times as much energy and water as a pound of vegetable matter. Given the other general benefits of vegetarianism, such as reduced health care costs, this is not a bad idea. Imagine how this will reduce deep-sea trawling or the conversion of tropical rainforest into grazing land for cattle to supply hamburger outlets.

In fact, it might well be the case that the best hope for the survival of the species would be to evolve into grass-eaters. Or, to put on a science-fiction hat, it would be great if we could get our energy by plugging ourselves into an electricity outlet. There is the remarkable case of a yogi who claims he has survived for years on nothing but energy from the sun.

But then I run into a cruel paradox. I, who would rather let nature be, can only do so by making radical changes to the natural makeup of man. Therefore, I conclude that nature and man are so intimately tied together that they are the same. Does man need nature? As much as he needs himself, for man is inseparable from nature.

Postscript

Rajiv Malhotra has once again written an interesting essay, 'Dialog on Whiteness Studies' on sulekha.com, at http://www.sulekha.com/expressions/column.asp?cid=305959. He also mentioned a seminar on Oct 15th conducted by Amritjit Singh of Rhode Island College, titled, 'I know I ain't black, but would please you let me be white: Whiteness and new immigrants.'

Whiteness Studies is the academic discipline that looks at white people as anthropological specimens, much as they have tended to look upon non-whites. Apparently this discipline has startled a number of white people, although it shouldn't, unless they believe in the 'manifest destiny' of the white race to lord it over others.

There has always been a tendency among whites to set themselves up as the norm, and others as, in effect, aberrations. This vanity is behind the very term 'people of colour' which I find quite distasteful. Non-whites are not a homogeneous mass, so whites should be polite enough to differentiate between 'blacks' and 'browns' and 'yellows' and all other shades of skin colour.

The term 'people of colour' is offensive, for it explicitly assumes a dichotomy between whites and all others lumped together: Us and Them; In-group and Other. To be flippant, 'whites' are also 'people of colour': they should properly be called 'pinks' based on their skin colour. Especially as economic power shifts inexorably away from white nations, and indeed they themselves become multiracial, this assumed 'normalcy' for whites and 'abnormalcy' for others is simply laughable.

Comments welcome at rajeev.srinivasan@gmail.com; responses to reader comments are at http://rajeev2004.rediffblogs.com

My general blog is at http://rajeev2004.blogspot.com

Rajeev Srinivasan