A Thing of Joy

Her little feet trod the dusty road
Eager to explore the neighbourhood
And she led me down the street,
Her gentle fingers clasped in mine.

Everything she found fascinating
The cows that dined from the garbage cans
The homeless dogs that ran hither and tither
The crows that flew in from nowhere and sat
On the electric poles, making the ugliest noises.

Instantly she took to the hawker
Who was selling bangles of glass,
Her attention captured by their jingle.
She kneeled down to take
A closer look at a black beetle
That stood out in the dirt.

I was getting rather bored
And my mind started wandering
Away from the dull grey buildings
Which made the city a concrete jungle.

Then it was my mind sprouted wings
And flew away to my distant home
Where squirrels chattered merrily on mango trees
Butterflies flitted among the flower laden shrubs
Grasshoppers jumped from one blade to the next
And lilies weaved a stocking for the goosberry tree.

She would have all these friends for herself
As in a fairy tale she would roam forever
Picking up flowers at will.
She would listen to the nightingale’s song
Her eyes wide with wonder.
She’d have the time of her life
Baking little round cakes of mud.

What was she even doing here,
Walking down this road bustling with traffic,
And flanked by stinking drains?
Her soft feet deserve a carpet of roses
And not an unforgiving layer of urban dirt.

I had lost myself in thoughts such as these,
When I felt a tug on my fingers.
And I saw her point up through the twilight
To the luminous silver disc hanging in the sky
And exclaimed to me with glittering eyes,
“The Moon! Look at the Moon!”

I looked at the moon,
But again back at her face,
That was filled with joy and wonder.
And I couldn’t help but feel
Haunted by a strange irony-

Here was something which was the same
Whether she was walking down a dirt road
Or a meadow in full bloom.
Once again I looked at her,
Her face glued towards the moon.
Then took her hand and started walking back.

Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times”– an ancient Chinese curse.

Undoubtedly, we are living in interesting times. Of course, you may say. After all, we live in an age in which we can communicate with a person on the other side of the globe at the speed of light, travel around the world in a day, we have machines to do all the “dirty” work for us, tourists are venturing into space, we carry gadgets around in our pockets, that people a century ago would have considered magic, we are splitting atoms to produce the energy equivalent to burning thousands of tons of coal- in short- an age in which anything is possible.

Sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the sense in which I said “interesting times”. Perhaps, half a decade ago, I would have revelled in such thoughts- when I still hadn’t begun to see through the general belief that the only relevant world view is that held by the mainstream society. Yes, there was a time when I used to be excited by technology(As a student of technology currently, I’m definitely interested in it, but excited is perhaps far too intense a word). When I used to eagerly observe new models of cars on the roads, when I was fascinated by the things you could do with a computer, when I used to read about astronauts while holding my breath and wonder whether one day I would like to travel into outer space as well.

This popular fascination with technology is not because people truly appreciate technology-in fact, very few people understand it- but is a testimony to the ways in which technical gadgets and increased means of mass production which technology made possible, have supposedly “improved” our lives and rescued us from the alleged misery and filth which our predecessors endured in centuries past.

To come back to my original point, that is not the sense in which I said “interesting times”. I’m referring to the fact that exhaust fumes from our vehicles are heating up the earth and disturbing the climate system, the fact that more than a hundred species are becoming extinct everyday- more than any other time since the dinosaurs, the fact that we are six billion today and our population is still exploding, the fact that a significant portion of us go to bed hungry, the fact that water is becoming undrinkable and air unbreathable. I’m referring to the ecological, cultural and social crisis that we are facing today.

What is there about it that is so “interesting”? Fair question. After all, the crisis I mentioned is not something new to us. In fact, some of these problems have been with us for centuries. Only it has almost never been perceived as a crisis. There has always been an explanation for why these problems persisted in our society. It is the price of civilization and technological advancement. True, we face serious problems, but we have come so far, haven’t we? Surely, we are smart enough to conjure solutions to all of them, sooner rather than later. Surely, technology will help us solve our problems. We can clean up the atmosphere of excess greenhouse gases, and that will be the end of global warming, using genetic engineering and biotechnology we can grow a ton of wheat in a square foot, we can desalinate sea water and use it for drinking… the list is virtually endless.

In fact, this cheerful and blind optimism has brought us to the edge of peril, almost to a point of no return. The biosphere is a web interconnected in unimaginably myriad and complex ways, and not a pyramid with humans at the very top. We have been alienated from the natural world ever since the beginning of large scale agriculture. But driven by the unprecedented power and control which the industrial revolution made possible, we have been meddling with and tweaking the delicate web of life, tuning it to our advantage, in a massive scale that was previously impossible. And we have been unbelievably successful for a while. But the biosphere is not designed for domination by a single species. It thrives on diversity and competition, the very things we are wiping out so successfully, undermining its very ability to support life. No wonder it is starting to show signs of distress, threatening our existence, and that of other higher plants and animals. Hence the use of the word, “crisis”.

“But you still haven’t answered my question!”, I can almost hear you grumbling.”Why is it interesting? All you have succeeded is to paint a picture of gloom and doom in my mind.”

True. I still haven’t come to the interesting part. I’m taking you through the journey that I reluctantly set out on as a sixteen year old, when I first began to feel that there was something wrong with the world. Doom and gloom were the feelings that came to my mind when I used to think about the state of the world and where it was heading. Throw in helplessness, when I realized that this was the world which I was about to step into, and you have the complete set!

Now I come to the interesting part- it doesn’t have to be this way. I mean, there is nothing about human nature which dictates that we live this way, that we alienate ourselves from the natural world. We are brought up to believe that agriculture, civilization, division of labour and advanced technology are inevitable expressions of the human urge to evolve, and represent progress. There is very little evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, advances in anthropology and paleontology in the last few decades positively refute this claim. Science has played an important role in changing the way we think about the world. This, I think, is the true significance of science, and not the utilitarian pseudo-blessing as it is usually perceived.

Human beings have been roaming the earth for a few million years now. According to our beliefs, it was a long, dark, uneventful and stagnant chapter in human history. We were “just another animal”, until we had the brainwave to take matters into our own hands. It was a “difficult”, “savage”, “brutal” life. Having been brought up with this myth, I’m not surprised that until half a century ago, it was unthinkable that technology was anything but beneficial.

But now we know that most of what we generally believe about the lives of our ancient predecessors is nothing more than a myth, we have to embark on the difficult and seemingly impossible task of educating and convincing as many people as we can. For people who are thoughtful, free and flexible enough to accept and acknowledge such a radical change in perspective, are a tiny minority, though encouragingly a growing one(that an ordinary boy like me, brought up in reasonable comfort and good care, can perceive that something is wrong and mostly work it out for himself gives me hope!). A vast majority are blindfolded and trapped in the exploitative global economy of today, dependent on it for their livelihood. Its seeming infallibility is reason for despair, but we know that “seemingly infallible” need not mean infallible(look at communist Russia).

What we are doing today, continuing with buisiness as usual, doesn’t offer much room for hope. But a collapse of this mega-structure in the near future, is definitely a possibility, given its stark dependence on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. In fact, there is enough reason to believe that we are approaching, and maybe even past, peak oil. Who knows, the current global financial crisis could be something more than just another recession. Such a collapse would be painful, yes- there will be increase in mortality. But it would be just a transition to a better and more sustainable future. I don’t believe even for a second that our planet can sustain billions of us indefinitely. The number has to decrease drastically, it’s got to happen and it will happen when we’ve reached the tipping point. But it’s not for us to decide what would be the ideal number. Natural processes will see to that. Perhaps it need not be a mass die-off as in a calamity. Perhaps it would happen through a lower life expectancy, and we might hardly notice it. We don’t know, really.

Meanwhile, we need to find out as much as we can about how our lives were, before agriculture, before the Great Forgetting, so that we can intelligently choose a sustainable way of living and begin the transition instead of waiting with folded hands for catastrophe to strike. Some people say that there is no “going back to nature” for us. We can’t go “back to being a hunter-gatherer”. This is probably true. We know a lot, and we have developed wonderful disciplines like literature, art, science which have probably become an important part of who we are, but how much of it survives the millenia will be probably decided by how much of it is sustainable and in accord with the laws of the biosphere.

Probably, there is no “going back to nature”. But I firmly believe that we will go “forward to nature”, because that is where we came from, and where we ultimately belong. We will find another way of living, unimaginably more beautiful, and in harmony with nature. This dream is what drives me on, and dispels my despair. This is why I feel that we live in “interesting times”. There is no going back to the drudgery of the inhuman machinery that is the global economy. I have to find my path in the undergrowth. A path that leads me back to the glorious road which our ancient ancestors followed for millions of years, until we lost our way and ended up at a dead end- on the edge of a cliff.

The Sparrow’s Resting Place

What’s this thing I sit upon
As I wait for my sweetheart Ron?
Surely, I tell you, not a tree-
For leaf nor twig nor bloom I see.

Tall and rigid a mast underneath,
With wires black taut on either side.
Dozens I see in a row such poles,
Linked to the next by wires tied.

Tears flood my eyes as I recall
That chilly tragic night last fall,
When poor old Stevie sat on one-
Little did he know the wire breathed fire.

So he sat there watching the moon
And as he flapped his wings to keep warm
Alas! He touched those perilous wires…
A flash there was and there he was
Charred and dead- was poor old Stevie.

The very same peril over me hangs- I know-
But I’ve got to sit someplace Ron’ll see.
And all I find that’s high enough
Are these poles, while I wait for her.

No leaves to cover me from the hot Sun,
No yummy worms in woody wood,
Not a swing on a branch in the wind,
Just a pole of hard grey stone, and
Wires of fire taut on either side.

Ah! There in the distance I see my love
Flying to me- she’s graceful as ever.
Face full of fear is hers, but why?
On seeing me atop this pole.

“Careful, darling- don’t you know?
These are wires that breathe fireballs.
On a tree you could have sat,
And I’d find you just as well.”

“Yes, I am careful, dear Ron.
I know the peril that over me hangs.
But look around, my dearest Ron-
Tree or hedge or bush you find?”

“Gone are the trees indeed, but where?”

“Cut, of course, by man- to log.”

“Then let’s go find where there are
Trees in plenty that shelter us.”

And we flew away and away
With the golden Sun on our wings.

I wrote this poem back when I was in the Twelfth standard, inspired by the sight of a bird sitting on an electric pole. I recently found an abandoned written copy of it when I was searching for something and thought I’d post it here. The choice of names seems strange and inexplicable, but anyway I don’t think it matters!

Note: The phrase “golden Sun on our wings” is borrowed from the song Raindrops and Roses (“wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings”) in the movie The Sound of Music. I was simply captivated by the beauty of that phrase, and felt that it was a fitting end to the poem.

“What is Education for?”

We are accustomed to thinking of learning as good in and of itself. But as environmental educator David Orr reminds us, our education up till now has in some ways created a monster… If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 100 species, and no one knows whether the number is 40 or 100. Today the human population will increase by 250,000. And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare… It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs…

— from What is Education for, by David Orr

Like the author says, one of the most common myths associated with education is that ignorance is a solvable problem. “Ignorance is not a solvable problem, but rather an inescapable part of the human condition. The advance of knowledge always carries with it the advance of some form of ignorance. In 1930, after Thomas Midgely Jr. discovered CFCs, what had previously been a piece of trivial ignorance became a critical, life-threatening gap in the human understanding of the biosphere. No one thought to ask “what does this substance do to what?” until the early 1970s, and by 1990 CFCs had created a general thinning of the ozone layer worldwide. With the discovery of CFCs knowledge increased; but like the circumference of an expanding circle, ignorance grew as well.”

Another myth is that “knowledge is increasing and by implication human goodness. There is an information explosion going on, by which I mean a rapid increase of data, words, and paper. But this explosion should not be taken for an increase in knowledge and wisdom, which cannot so easily by measured. What can be said truthfully is that some knowledge is increasing while other kinds of knowledge are being lost. David Ehrenfeld has pointed out that biology departments no longer hire faculty in such areas as systematics, taxonomy, or ornithology. In other words, important knowledge is being lost because of the recent overemphasis on molecular biology and genetic engineering, which are more lucrative, but not more important, areas of inquiry. We still lack the the science of land health that Aldo Leopold called for half a century ago.”

This is a serious issue that the author addresses in his article. Our education and the presumptions on which it is based, are fundamentally flawed. And today, when we are on the verge of destroying our planet, our only home, we have to think critically about the education that’s supposed to prepare us for living a wholesome life on this planet, but has actually “fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines, that after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad integrated sense of the unity of things.”

Us vs Them

The last couple of years has witnessed an alarming increase in the amount of violence rising from the take over of rural land and resources for industry. From Singur and Nandigram, to the proposed POSCO iron ore mine and steel plant in Orissa and a dozen hydroelectric power projects… the list is long. Have we made an effort to understand the root of the conflicts? As Sunita Narain writes in her editorial in the current issue of Down to Earth, it’s not about “poltically motivated people stirred up by outsiders and competitors to obstruct development.”

“These were poor villagers who knew they did not have the skills to survive in the modern world. They had seen their neighbours displaced, promised jobs and money that never came. They knew they were poor. But they also knew that modern development would make them poorer… They did not want to drive the trucks of the miners. They wanted to till their lands… This is the environment movement of the very poor. Here, there are no quick-fix techno solutions in which the real problems can be fobbed off for later… there is only one answer: changing the way we do business, with them and with their environment…”

Do we, city dwellers who have grown up “seeing how man has conquered and reshaped nature to fit his petty needs”, understand the real needs of the villagers who live in close association with Nature?

Liberation of Environment Knowledge Repository

The Centre for Science and Environment, in association with the National Knowledge Commission, has set up a National Portal on Environment. Read more here

I became a keen reader of CSE’s Down to Earth magazine, while I was at IUAC. It’s very informative and covers stories of development and environment from a rural perspective- many things which never appear in the mainstream media. It is great to know that the Environment Portal will make the whole Down to Earth archive freely available.

“We are really subsidising the OPEC”

Crude oil costs $135/barrel globally, but Indian prices of petroleum products have long been linked to barely $60/barrel. This has meant under-recoveries — explicit and implicit subsidies to consumers — of a whopping Rs 2,45,000 crore … Yet, political parties have launched agitations in protest. Politicians cynically pretend that high oil prices are the fault of the government, not Opec or global trends …

… Back in 1974, when Opec first sent oil prices skyrocketing, India had no giant consumer subsidies or agitations against oil prices. The price of petrol doubled overnight, inflicting much pain. India was very poor then. Today, it is much richer, and better able to pay the full world price. Yet, that prosperity has also brought the capacity to subsidise on an unprecedented scale …

Ideally, India should pass on the full cost to consumers, as it did in 1974. But for politicians who view high subsidies as electoral necessities, here is a proposal. First, abolish all implicit and explicit subsidies on oil. Use the money saved to cut excise duties on other items of common consumption and provide cash to poor families. Overall inflation and government revenue will be unchanged. Yet, the poor will benefit, and high oil prices will encourage energy-efficiency …

Read the full article here.

Recently we had a hartal in Kerala protesting against the increase in the price of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. As is the culture in Kerala, everyone happily accepted the holiday. But how many of us think of the foolishness of such protests? Are we not aware of what’s happening in the world? It’s easy for opposing parties to protest whenever there’s a price hike. It’s the curse of today’s politics.

Like the author says, it’s a big big mistake to subsidise oil. Today we might enjoy lower prices, but how far can the government subsidise? One day everyone will have to suffer, no doubt. And the other side is that high prices would force the people to consume less energy, and breed a healthy habit of being energy efficient. What’s happening today is that the government is subsidising the destruction of our environment.

“The Story of Stuff”

The Story of Stuff is a short movie about where all the stuff we use come from, where it goes after we throw them away, and how it affects our environment. I came across the link on Sasi Kumar sir’s blog. It provides an invaluable insight into the problems of our produce-consume-develop economy, and what we could do to help save our planet. Like Annie Leonard says, most people would say that it is very unrealistic to expect a drastic change from the trend of consumerism, but actually they are the ones who are unrealistic – to expect that we can afford keep on exploiting the limited resources on our planet forever.