No equity, if sustainability threatened

By Suresh Nautiyal

TRANSLATING grave environmental issues into ecological democracy movement is an enormous task before us all in the era of forced globalisation and chosen globalised warming. In fact, the subject is already dried out recipe of modern technologising world even as we wish to move forward in search of ecological sustainability that has been the object of fierce debate in the midst of emblematic North seeing nature as an indiscriminately exploitable resource for their consumption. On top of that, their institutions -- which have the responsibility to produce right thinking planners and decision-makers -- are busy in reinforcing the elite Northern self-centredness.

The result is that the problems related to the ecological sustainability are neither limited to the specific areas not related to the specific local issues. They have huge dimensions spreading out to large parts of the world in different forms and with differing levels of gravity. MK Gandhi visualised such a scenario decades ago and eminent naturalist writer-philosopher, Henry David Thoreau -- who had moved from 1845 to 1847 to a hut on the edge of Walden Pond, a small glacial lake near Concord, guided by the maxim <"Simplify, simplify"> -- had foreseen the grim scenario even long back.

Now, like Thoreau and Gandhi, ecologists too are expressing alarm regarding the survival of the Planet Earth. But the reality is different. No rich nation has any regards for exercising ecological austerity. The other day, I read in a Hindi newspaper, <Jansatta>, that Japan, the host of the Kyoto Protocol, was unable to cut emission of its greenhouse gases as promised under the Kyoto Protocol. And, the US brazenly did not even bother for the Protocol. The concept of carbon crediting has already shown that it ultimately served the designs of North and was only adding to the environmental woes.


It is estimated that each year European nations alone dump more than 700,000 tons of mercury, nitrogen, phosphorous, cadmium, lead, zinc, etc., into the North Sea. Have they ever thought what right do they have to cause such agonising death to thousands of seals and damage marine ecosystem as a whole?

Actually, there is inbuilt violence in the very manner of North's progress and also in the manner in which it has been paid for by the developing world. The Third World continues to be a dumping ground for toxic wastes of the technologised world. They would even agree to the argument of ecological debt of South. Yet, none knows who is going to own the responsibility of causing irreparable damages to the South and Mother Earth as a whole, particularly, after the Industrial Revolution in late eighteenth century. The revolution gave major shift to technological, socio-economic, and cultural conditions first in some western countries and later in the rest of the world. And as for the enormity of this, the least cost of damages that can be done is to give up the path dominated by high (destructive!) technology that most of the times generates only non-degradable and hazardous junk including nuclear waste. I think, in the face of such a threat Gandhi would have warned against following the destructive technological path. His firm belief was that if India were to attain real freedom, the people had no way but to live in villages and simple houses made of the cheap natural materials available locally, and not in urban enclaves strewn around a palace of authority and a palace and opulence. This principle applies to the whole humanity.

And, we, perhaps, can realise this goal by not surrendering to meaningless greed. Instead, by leading simple life with dignity. Several communities in forest and rural areas of the developing countries like the indigenous or Adivasi people, subsistence farmers, fisher communities, artisans or local service providers already exist in South and certainly or may be a few in North. In all humility are content with simple, dignified and natural life-styles. The richness of life has also inculcated in them the sense of belonging to Nature without disturbing the local ecology. The Muslim indigenous Gujjars, mostly vegetarians, in the Central Himalaya are just one example. They with their cattle live in the forest areas and do not disturb the ecology. Instead, they conserve and strengthen it in their own way. So, Gandhi was right in saying, “...the nature has enough for every human’s need but not for somebody’s greed...”

Had we followed Gandhi, simple and stress-free life could have been our natural motto in our respective places or maybe this could have made the world more beautiful, peaceful and ecologically more democratic, diverse and sound. But sadly, we are find ourselves stranded at crossroads if we look at the damages we have done to the Mother Earth – the damages that have been done carelessly, recklessly and indiscriminately since we think more about our greed, do not mind unthoughtful consumption and hardly think about protecting the scarce and non-renewable natural resources that selflessly provide us everything. We seem to have forgotten that the natural resources are not infinite. Most of them are depleting or disappearing very fast, like once perennial glaciers. Gandhi had warned against destruction and violence. He also spoke against technology without a human face as he saw modern technology merely as a tool for increasing bodily comforts and consequently decreasing attention to the inner being and the conscience and soul of man.

A lot of enlightened people in the North are also concerned about saving their environment or the ecology of the world as a whole, but can they do it without doing away with too much of possessiveness and not sharing with others? Could they listen to what Thoreau had to convey to the people finding the contemporary life irresistible?

Thoreau's goal was actually to simplify his life by living simply. He did that by facing the world with bare essentials of life, by strictly limiting his expenditures, his possessions, and his contact with the outside world. Even a century later, in 1954, EB White wrote about the relevance of Thoreau’s philosophy in the Yale Review: "Thoreau, very likely without quite knowing what he was up to, took man's relation to nature and man's dilemma in society and man's capacity for elevating his spirit and he beat all these matters together, in a wild free interval of self-justification and delight, and produced an original omelette from which people can draw nourishment in a hungry day."

Today, the simple philosophy of Thoreau and Gandhi is most relevant as human’s symbiotic relation with nature is extremely threatened. And if the symbiotic relationship is strained, ecological sustainability would not be guaranteed as these two terms 'symbiotic relationship' and 'ecological sustainability' are synonymous to each other. And unfortunately, we have conveniently forgot Thoreau as well as Gandhi. We do not need ecological sustainability, perhaps.

The issue of over consumption is also very serious – be it North or South. This also won't lead to the path of sustainability.  

The largest population of the Third World is not the biggest threat to the environment and that it is the level of consumption that threatens the environment and not the number of people or animals, it is true that the Third World is following no better examples by following North. Everybody knows that much smaller population of several countries of North have much higher rates of consumption; thus they have to think about ecological austerity and ecological sustainability.

The prevalent consumption pattern has impacted the ecology in North in particular. The governments there are on the forefront to destroy some of the last fragments of ancient forests. Is not it happening only to meet over consumption of paper, timber and heating wood? No doubt that some conscientious organisations there are campaigning for the protection of the depleting old-natural forests but the question is why they have not been able to stop their governments from exporting timber to other countries?

It is a matter of concern that the new technologies for destroying nature, and consuming natural resources, are being adopted increasingly while the efforts and technology for protecting and regenerating nature are not so focused. Much of this ecological irrationality is inherent in an inequitable social system, where only a privileged few can enjoy the benefits of destroying nature, while most others face only the consequences. Why the US is allowed to consume devastatingly? Most of the petroleum products are consumed in that country and emission of hazardous gases is at the highest levels there. And, there are no signs of re-thinking on the issue. This re-thinking has to come from the US society, if not from the government there.

Besides, we need to reverse the development model and economic system that have added fuel to the fire. The present patterns of development and economic system have only encouraged consumerism and the resultant waste of natural resources. Strange but true, only the economic aspect has mostly dominated the discussion on sustainability. Mainstream thinking is that economic growth is the first step so that people can come out of poverty and thereafter take care of the environmental sustainability also. The environment has been considered primarily as fine-tuning of industrial processes so that the adverse impact could be lightened. For most of us environmental activists like us, this is not satisfying as the contemporary global economy is causing irreversible damages to the nature that should not just be acceptable.

Neglect towards sustainable cultures of Adivasis or indigenous people inhabiting forests or remote areas is a matter of shame for the so-called civilised world. Could we all – from South to North – come together to join a comprehensive and common dialogue on these issues and collectively bring in a paradigm shift?

Here it would be appropriate to quote Shekhar Singh, an eminent Indian environmental academician, who is of the view that the enlightened and progressive societies must develop a broad social consensus on the environment, especially on what needs to be conserved, where, and how, as natural environment in the world is under severe and increasing threat due to the large-scale destruction of forests, pollution, and overuse patterns. According to him, the society must also develop a systemic, institutional and individual capacity, and the political and administrative will, to carry forward an agenda vis-a-vis environment. Besides, a social consensus on the environment must be based on a realistic appreciation of the status of the environment and a proper understanding of the implications of environmental degradation.

What Gandhi or Thoreau had said about ecological austerity can be found in a Central Himalayan hamlet: Some thirty-five years back in my small village in the Central Himalaya or the new Indian state of Uttarakhand, everybody would fell trees in the community forest in violation of the traditional practices. Practically, there was no check on anybody and as a consequence, the oak and rhododendron trees started disappearing fast. Also, the moisture regime lost its sheen and vegetation including small bushes, herbal and medicinal plants, wild fruit trees, berries, grass etc., started disappearing. The concerned village elders had to decide to apply brakes on the new trend of felling trees indiscriminately. Today, the same forest is again dense and has turned out to be a good habitat for the wildlife. Nobody has the courage to enter the forest all alone, where we used to roam around freely and play hide-and-seek some three to four decades back. Besides, the water bodies down below have enough water unlike most of the villages in the area. My village, called Onchar, is continuing to supply water to several other villages. This example also gives a picture of what happens when society or people participate in taking responsibility of preserving forestlands.

Similarly, <deva vana> – forests devoted to the Goddess Nature or the local deities – by village folks of India are other examples. Such forests assiduously protect forestlands consisting of rare trees, herbs, and medicinal plants and are spread all over India. <Ayurveda> or the organic, non-chemical Indian life science tradition has undoubtedly developed due to herbs and medicinal plants found in such forestlands.

In a nutshell, the key to social justice is the equitable harnessing of natural resources, both locally and globally. Equitable distribution automatically strengthens the symbiotic relationship between human and nature and contributes towards the ecological democracy by reinvigorating environment that has the ingredients to ensure better dignity to humans. To say the least, no real democracy can take place as long as there is threat to the ecological sustainability.

Written in the year 2007.