All of us are dependent on nature for our sustenance ~ food, shelter as well as recreation or amusement. Certain needs are natural and biological, and some are socially acquired and artificial. The phenomenal advancement of science and technology has fulfilled a large measure of human needs; it has also generated new needs and improved ways to satisfy them.
Not only has human longevity been extended, but the quality of life has also improved to a great extent. Indeed, our hunger for more and more comfort and pleasure has created a new horizon in terms of needs… far beyond basic satisfaction.
Mahatma Gandhi had once remarked that the flip side of development is the mindless destruction of nature. Thoreau, the great American thinker (who influenced Gandhi’s philosophy) started living in a forest to realize ‘the essentials of life’. It is an irony of fate that he had to leave the forest in order to make room for the construction of a rail road.
A revaluation of the demands of modern life is imperative. The emerging ecological problems, rooted in the mindless desecration of nature in the name of development, are being faced both by environmental scientists and thinkers. Admittedly, there have been attempts to minimise such desecration. Hundreds of projects and programmes at the national and international levels are trying to minimize the negative impact of development projects. But unfortunately there has hardly been any drastic change in terms of environmental pollution, either in the governmental level or popular perception. More so in India not only because it is poor and densely populated, but because there is hardly any empathy for others.
The powerful lobby here at both governmental and corporate levels cannot effectively bring about any formidable change to to save nature. One glaring example is the Narmada project in Madhya Pradesh which despite prolonged protest at different levels could not be stopped despite its dangerous impact on the people who have lived there for ages. Similarly, thel hydro-electric projects in the Uttarakhand region, apart from destroying the natural flow of rivers, have flooded villages, destroyed crops and human settlements. Fossil fuel also requires immediate control, but there is as yet no restriction on mining and other related matters.
Control or restriction on the unnecessary luxury of cars is almost inconceivable. Sharing a car or using non-motorized vehicles can save precious fuel but again it is a question of flaunting a status symbol. People in Europe and many Asian countries are travelling by cycle, which is a pollution-free mode of transport. But in India it is looked down upon as a mode of transport for the poor people.
The wetlands of East Kolkata is a unique example of natural conservation. It can counter the pollution caused by drainage. It has attained the international status of a Ramsar site which should be protected as such with no change. Recently the Mayor of Kolkata has proposed that if a portion of the wetlands is used for constructing a bridge for easing the movement of traffic, it would cause no harm. So insensitive a policy is one example of an attitude that is causing irreparable damage to our environment.
If the obsession with ‘development’ means desecration of nature at any cost, we cannot stop the imminent danger of environmental degradation. Our ‘greed’ ought not to surpass our needs. But most development projects are basically transgressions .
Modernity has given us many things unheard of before, but at the same time it has denuded attitudes and values which were more rational than the present ‘scientific’ outlook. Earlier there were some norms in terms of time and place for interfering with the course of nature. According to conventional wisdom, one must not pluck flowers and fruit at night when the plants are supposed to ‘sleep’. In Kautilya’s Arthashastra, even the amount of the natural products that are gathered, including wood, should be justified by citing the reason. Similarly agricultural land was given some respite after every crop so that it could have some ‘rest’. Cows were not milked for some time so that the newborn calf could have plenty for its nourishment. Digging a water-body or planting of trees were regarded as pious acts.
These traditions run counter to present-day commercial farming and dairy operations where the land and animal farms do not follow such traditions of empathy for non-humans. Notwithstanding any ‘scientific’ ground, these customs helped conservation in a natural and easy way. The concept of ‘sacred groves’ or trees, formations or caves was rejected as a superstition without replacing it with a reasonable alternative for conservation. When we speak of development, there is usually a latent message of improved condition and better living. Indeed, at present there are more people enjoying the fruits of easy living conditions and technological inventions.
Plastic is the new menace (the international theme this year) that is replacing many eco-friendly material like leaves, earthen pots and natural material for daily life that sustained people for ages and are cheap, eco-friendly and easily available. The great danger of plastic and other materials polluting the natural world, even destroying sea-life and the atmosphere is menacing. If we consider the large population outside the narrow domain of the so-called middle class, the picture is not very different except for scattered instances of modern amenities reaching the populace most of whom are first generation school-goers or not even that.
Lack of good education and viable means of achieving a good life led many to adopt undesirable means to achieve the desired goal. Drastic change in the technological achievement led to a fast life for many and frustration for others who could not attain it by any means, good or bad. The obsession with ‘development’ means desecration of nature at any cost , the ‘Doomsday’ is imminent. In Gandhian parlance, our ‘greed’ should not surpass our needs. But most development projects are transgressing our basic needs.By and large, destruction of nature is caused by the ways these are used for human needs. All living beings require some amount of food and shelter from nature. But usually animals, in general, have a place in the food chain, and take only a particular kind and in a particular amount unless socialized and taught by humans to do otherwise.
But humans being at the top of the food chain have cultivated various tastes and the varied options, which are not necessary and only culturally acquired as argued earlier. Natural needs for some food and drink for sustenance is similar for all living beings, but craze for a particular kind is cultivated by social mores and market forces. Even plants need some nourishment which is natural like all living beings including humans for sustenance. Minimum interference and maximum diversity (of culture, religion, language, race, etc.) can make the norms for a civil society. To achieve that goal, a certain degree of tolerance and simple principles are required both in an individual and society.
The writer is UGC Emeritus Fellow and formerly of Calcutta University