Ecology is a way of looking at the world, in a subjective and emotional manner, not just as an objective and rational one. It involves seeing the world with wonder, awe, and humility — as something to feel part of, rather than to exploit. To cull an example. The tropical rain forest is mankind's lungs. Though the Earth cannot live without the rain forest — nature's ‘automaton’ that turns carbon dioxide into oxygen — one alarming fact is apparent. About 50,000 hectares of rain forest are destroyed each day by burning to make way for beef farmers and fields for arable agriculturists; and, by felling to obtain wood as raw material, or fuel, and to smelt ore, construct roads, and dams. In its totality, this ‘devil-may-care’ destruction alone amounts to a phenomenal loss of 200,000 square kilometres annually — enough to "suffocate" Mother Earth.
To pick another exemplar — the depletion of amphibious species across the world. Amphibians, ‘the monitors of our environment,’ are vulnerable to a host of influences — primarily because they are not protected by scales as fish are. Besides this, habitat destruction, massive logging operations, agriculture, widespread industrialisation, automobile pollution, acid rain, pesticides, and chemical abuse, are also unmitigated causes for their dwindling population. Yet another common analogy is: no trees, no tree frogs. Yes, of the 3,000-odd known species of amphibians in the world, just a few may be doing well. The inference is clear: the frog is an ecological touchstone. A lament to its existence could possibly set a good number of poorly understood dominoes tumbling. Furthermore, we have to contend with other problems. Of whaling and a host of scientific experiments, in Antarctica and elsewhere. Which brings us, inevitably, to the two faces of science. One of advance, prosperity, and happiness; the other, destruction and gloom.
It is understandable that ecological deterioration — the heavy price man has to pay for savouring the fruits of scientific temper — has, indeed, been a definitive outcome of a compelling misconception about the natural world. That it exists in a steady state, under normal circumstances; its sense of balance is disturbed only when people infringe upon its working order. The big question — is man any wiser with scientific knowledge and advance? Not really. Take for instance, ecological inspiration. It has been proposed and rightly so that many an enlightened idea could be drawn from the sublime principles of ancient civilisations — most notably, the Vedic concept of Indian thought. What's more, the knowledge so derived may also be sought from the traditional, vernacular man whose old commitment, eternal in every sense, could help us to maintain that delicate, harmonious order so essential to preserve earth in a hospitable, generous, and habitable state.
To paraphrase the legendary ecologist Edward Goldsmith, "The idea was probably entertained, explicitly and implicitly, by all vernacular societies..." Adds Goldsmith, "Ecology is a way of looking at the world, in a subjective and emotional way — not just as an objective and rational one. It involves seeing the world with wonder, awe, and humility — as something to feel part of, rather than to exploit."
As may be analysed, Goldsmith's basic block of the traditional man is confined to logic: of benefits based on appropriate climate, and a copious supply of the source of life, water. "If you respect the biosphere, you can also evolve a system, a behavioural pattern that enabled the traditional man to preserve the critical order of the biosphere." Goldsmith’s line of thought is practical, related in spirit and essence to nature's own biological laws.
Observes Goldsmith, "The present world-view, I am afraid, serves to rationalise and legitimise today's policies. Its most basic tenet is the tenet of progress, and the idea that science, technology, and industry, are going to create a paradise." He adds, "This is the world-view of modernism which believes that all benefits are man-made… The benefits are measured in terms of man-made goods that you acquire or possess. It does not take into account the non-man-made benefits: a favourable climate, fertile soil, and water. The view that legitimises a sustainable policy towards a sustainable and fulfilling society was the traditional world-view." Reflects Goldsmith, "I don't think there is anything to invest. I think the solutions are already there. The people who lived in the valleys of India for 2,000 years are likely to know how to farm the land. The idea of an American graduate coming and teaching them is preposterous and fanciful... I studied irrigation and found that the traditional ways were fine."
In realistic terms, Goldsmith's concept of ecology is based on the Vedic principle of rika, the behavioural form aimed at maintaining the decisive order of the cosmos: of the religion of the earth as found in the Vedas, and in early Greek scriptures. In his words, "Science is superstition and [a very] pernicious one at that. It has no foundations. There is no epistemological justification for modern science. It is like sitting in the air… Things like neo-Darwinism are simply a farce… It is evident that the climate operates on the basis of self-regulatory processes. If it depends on our conscious effort through technology, there's little hope… Man is a bloody idiot; he's no sapien. Fortunately, god or whoever created the evolutionary processes knew it. Hence, the functioning of our body or metabolism is well insulated against human follies."
If population explosion is itself a consequence of economic progress, Goldsmith explains, "I have also realised that the only answer to our problems is to return to the traditional type of society as Mahatma Gandhi understood it… What we are trying to do is impossible. So, I opt for the difficult." Isn't this a perfect summary on the etymologies of how we have, with technological advance, reduced the human brain into a tool, a gadget? Man sure lives in nature and culture at the same time, but to say that nature is culture would be grossly incorrect and untenable.
For the sake of argument, let us dwell on the dominant school of thought: that "technology conserves, not destroys the environment." Over to Norman Borlaugh, ‘the father of the Green Revolution:’ "Environmentalists today seek a simple solution to complex problems. The pollution of the environment, for instance, is the result of every human activity as well as whims of nature. It is a tragic error to believe that agricultural chemicals are the prime factors in the deterioration of our environment." Yes, the agrochemical industry has, for long, been the whipping boy of ecologists. A few years ago, agricultural specialists had this to say, "Some of the worst environmental abuse is occurring under traditional, not intensive, agriculture." They argued, "The spread of the Sahara and soil erosion, and flooding, in Asia, partially due to overgrazing and deforestation, are evidence of the heavy price often paid when traditional agriculture is asked to attempt to sustain increasing numbers of people."
Also, consider energy — a sine qua non — to make the world a better place to live in. Warns David Pimentel, a biologist and energy specialist, "While one may doubt the sincerity of the US efforts to share its agricultural technology so that the rest of the world can eat and live as it does, one must be realistic about the resources available to accomplish this mission. In the US, we are using an equivalent of 80 gallons of gasoline to produce an acre of corn. With fuel shortages and high prices to come, we wonder if many developing countries will be able to afford the technology of US agriculture."
Next, water — the elixir of life. The five continents receive more than 110,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water, every year, in the form of precipitation. Of this, 75,000 cubic kilometres are lost to evaporation, each year, leaving a net influx of 45,000 cubic kilometres of water on ground, annually. Twenty years ago, about 4,000 cubic kilometres were used for all human needs; and, about 1,500 were lost to pollution. The situation today is grim. According to research, all the available [fresh] water in use today won't last for too long, if the present usage trends worldwide continue. Informs a scientist, "Some parts of the world are already severely short of water, and are drawing from underground pools at a faster rate than the water can be replenished."
What about food, and the most effective way of increasing its production? Two major schools of thought emerge, again: one, which places faith on modern technology; and, the alternative stream, which argues that high-tech agriculture is not sustainable even in a country like the US. The latter's riposte, "Only organic agricultural methods will be sustainable in the long run; these methods can efficiently produce all the food needed to end hunger."
To look at history. About 30 years ago, the total recorded food production worldwide was around 4,000 million metric tonnes. Of them, half by weight was grain — an unimaginable amount of food. Grain alone would have been sufficient to fill a one-foot-diameter tube that encircled the living planet nearly 800 times. And, yet, what did we have then, as we have now — the sombre spectacle of starvation?
Is there a way out of this formidable imbroglio? May be, yes — albeit there is no solution that could be termed perfect. The best way, if at all there is any, is to aim at restoring balance in life and environment — one that would depend on how inequitable power structures become more equitable. Of a transfer of power from the rich to the poor, and from the powerful to the powerless. Of changing social and economic structures that would contribute much in solving problems. Are we asking for just too much? Not really, albeit one fact remains. The universe may not be self-sufficient or self-important to a Vedantin — one who knows the Vedas. It would also mean a lot to us — whether or not we are familiar with the Vedas. Because, the environment for each one of us, whatever our belief, perception or ideology, is by itself the Vedantic foundation of truth — a simple reality and also possibility for all reasons and seasons.
Its raison d'être? Truth is eternal; so also is belief.