Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is Our Optimism Threatening Our Very Survival?

I happened to come across a recent blog post of a Director of a known environmental organisation. Writing on the current environmental situation and resulting crisis that we are facing the Director lets out that she is an ‘Optimist’. What struck me in the article was the endearing human quality of drawing a silver lining in the dark of the smog that now envelopes us.

Psychologists have told us that optimists are happy people. They are able to cope with adversity because they see the glass as half full. Instead of crying over the many lemons that life gifts them they use it to make lemonade, not to ‘drown their sorrows’. This ability to rummage through the rubble to find something salvageable has stood us in good stead in dealing with our personal problems.

But is it something that will ensure the survival of the human species?

The Predicament
According to recent reports, plastics have been found in the stomachs of the creatures living in the deepest bowels of the ocean. Finding this synthetic fibre in beings that live 11 kms deep in the sea is a consequence of the 8.5 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s. Scientists have found plastic in 83% of global tap water samples. The World Health Organisation has announced a review on the potential risks of plastics in drinking water after recent studies determined that 90% of sampled popular bottled water contained plastic.

As 2017 came to an end, there were reports indicating that it would be the hottest year on record. In January 2017, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated that 2016 was the warmest year. It wont be surprising if we are told at the fag end of 2018 that it was the hottest year on record. According to the NOAA, the US is still assessing the cost of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, but till Oct 6 2017 there have been “15 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States.” Right now the 'Beast from the East' has a large chunk of the world in its jaws. 

Data shows that there has been a 50% increase in flooding and rains worldwide in the last decade. While we are at it lets not discuss the threat of ‘biodiversity oblivion’ in Europe as the Guardian so eloquently put it.

The Lancet Countdown is an international research collaboration “dedicated to tracking the world's response to climate change, and the health benefits that emerge from this transition”. The report for 2017 arrives at three (3)conclusions :-

· The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible`
· The delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardised human life and livelihoods.
· The past 5 years have seen an accelerated response, and in 2017 momentum is building across a number of sectors; the direction of travel is set, with clear and unprecedented opportunities for public health.
Combined with this is the news that we are in the middle of a ‘great insect die off’. Over the last few months, the Guardian has been reporting on species dying because of “habitat destruction, over-hunting, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change.” The biomass of flying insects in Germany has dropped by 3/4ths since 1989. Insects are pollinators, keep the soil fertile, are fed on and feed off each other. This is a disaster that not many speak of.
Cause for Optimism?
In such circumstances, being an optimist puts to shade the fable of the ‘Ant and the Grasshopper’.
Sure we have ‘accelerated our response to climate change’ but that is just one theatre of war. We have launched an unprecedented attack on ourselves, and therefore the planet, on various fronts at a scale that is jaw dropping.
However, we scour through all this for that silver lining.
I would hazard a guess that the current levels of optimism are a mix of the ‘superman effect’ -  a potent mix of righteousness, vanity, high levels of self belief in ones abilities and the work one is doing mixed with the inability and even unwillingness to see the ‘whole picture’. As a race we are keen to juggle many balls or multi-task but are we really equipped to handle and solve these many problems all at once?
Given the Augean stables that we have constructed for ourselves and now live in, what can the answer be?  
In such a situation the optimism that many feel is a rose tinted lens that prevents an honest view of the true value and impact of the work vis-a-vis the gargantuan problem. The belief in the effectiveness of the work is akin to that of the pre-iceberg Titanic, therefore opportunity for course corrections are limited or don’t exist. It goes without saying that each NGO does what it is best at according to its vision and philosophy. Collectively they are like fish bowls placed side-by-side each with a single fish in each of them.
Based on the work being done in our current circumstances one has to question the credibility of this optimism. Is this positivity for the future blindsiding us to the real extent of the threat and the viability of our endeavours to contain it?  How different is it from the belief the French had on their Maginot Line? Optimism is about making the best of a bad situation. It is not about misreading a situation. Are we misinterpreting what optimism stands for and the efficacy of our work? Is this therefore threatening our survival?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Environment Identity Conundrum

We are currently in the throes of a new iteration of how individuals, societies and countries view and portray their identity . There was a time when the urge was to find commonality between identities while also celebrating uniqueness. This ‘Brotherhood/Sisterhood’ resulted in the formation of the United Nations and its many organisations and also NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The world has moved from Woodstock, about which Joni Mitchell said, Woodstock was a spark of beauty where half-a-million kids saw that they were part of a greater organism.’ to Live Aid where the world came together to help the people of Ethiopia and now to Glastonbury and Coachella which provide platforms for the audience to celebrate their uniqueness while enjoying music.

There are national, religious, social identities that one recognises, preserves and respects or is compelled to do so. However, in the case of lesser known ethnic identities this has not been the case.They have been pummeled by big business, efforts at social cohesion and concepts of environmental protection.    

Environment-Identity Conflicts
One of the first instances of ethnic identity coming head to head with environmental protection was the attempts by environmental organisations to prevent the commercial slaughter of Seal pups for their fur. The resulting ban impacted the Inuit communities and their way of life.    

In the above instance, protecting the environment resulted in the indigenous communities becoming collateral damage. There have been instances where indigenous communities have used their ethnic identity to resist the takeover of their land by corporations and governments. In the process of this resistance they have protected the environment  for the larger community.

The example of the ongoing battle of the Dongria Kondh (a tribe in India) to protect the Niyamgiri hill range provides an example of how identity is linked to protecting the environment. The Dongria Kondh believe that the Niyamgiri Hill is ‘our God, our Lord, our Goddess, our father, our mother, our life, our death, our flesh, our blood, our bones.’, as a Dongria tribal woman put it. This deep link is based on the fact that the hill provides for their livelihood. This dependence is acknowledged by the fact that the word ‘Dongria’ means hill. The efforts of Vedanta, a multinational company, to mine these hills for Bauxite is being blocked by the Dongria Kondh because their survival depends on the munificence of Niyamgiri.  By fighting to protect their way of life and identity the Dongria Kondh are also protecting the environment.  In the US, Native Americans are protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline which passes through their Sacred Grounds. In their fight to protect what they hold sacred, Native Americans are also preventing water resources, accessed by all Americans, from being contaminated.

Cultural identity has proved to be a potent force to argue against environment protection. International environmental organisations have been unable to prevent the Japanese from killing whales. The whaling industry in Japan began in the 1600s and is now subsidised by the Japanese government. The Japanese demand for whale meat also drives the commercial whaling industry of Iceland and Norway where whale meat consumption is minuscule.  

Also in Japan, the residents of the town of Taiji capture Dolphins for food and for sale to marine parks. Though it is said that this feature began in 1969 and therefore cannot be afforded the argument of being part of a culture or tradition especially when modern methods are used. The inhabitants of Faroe islands cull whales in an annual ritual called grindadráp. The whale meat is consumed locally.

An article in the Japanese Times suggests that the reason Japan continues to whale is to show it ‘isn’t cowed by gaiatsu (outside pressure)’. Another article suggests that Japanese recalcitrance to bow to international pressure on this instance is because of their fear that it can open the floodgates to other similar demands on other aspects of Japanese way of life. This just goes to show how a cultural and dietary habit can grow into a form of nationalism.

Many cultural and ethnic identities are in a unique situation of being threatened by environmental destruction and protection. The environment which has been providing our species with life and therefore sustaining identities is now catalysing the formation of new social groups with identities of their own. The challenge set before humans is not whether the old and the new can live together but how can they co-exist.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Over the last week I was bombarded with a thesaurus of festive wishes - these include ‘Happy Holidays’, ‘Seasons Greetings’, ‘Merry X’mas’ and ‘Merry Christmas’. Along with these rainbow of felicitations are messages denouncing some of these greetings as not kosher given that they seem to ignore the religious aspect of the festival. You could say that this once again shines a spotlight on how divisive religions and their practice can be. It may also suggest that the interpretation, practice and celebration of religions must expand to embrace the evolving human mind.

This Battle-for-the-Correct-Christmas-Greeting had its most famous proponent in Donald Trump. During his 2016 election campaign he had promised to bring back the usage of ‘Merry Christmas’. On Trumps election, his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said  “You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas’ because Donald Trump is now the president”. Trump in a recent speech said ‘We are going to be celebrating Merry Christmas Again’, he also tweeted the following on the 30th of November ‘Today is a day that I’ve been looking very much forward to ALL YEAR LONG. It is one that you have heard me speak about many times before. Now, as President of the United States, it is my tremendous honor to finally wish America and the world, a very MERRY CHRISTMAS!’.

Given Trumps track record it was par for the course for this leader of the freeworld, who has made his billions through capitalism and with his fathers money, to play to the blinkered evangelist gallery with this Christmas thingamabob. Capitalism is what has made Christmas so secular. Adam Smiths invisible hand of Laissez Faire directs this evangelisation of Christmas. It could also be argued that because Christmas celebrations, like other similar religious occasions, are socio-religious it provides space for everyone to partake in its festivities.

Sure people have forgotten that alcohol was earlier used as a preservative and to keep warm and not to bring in Christmas cheer. And that the ‘Christmas Spirit’ is not the name of some potent seasonal alcohol but the joy and gratitude which when shared is magnified manifold, something milked by marketeers today. So it comes as no surprise that malls have Christmas Trees and Santas at this time of the year and big named hotels organise the so called ‘traditional mixing of Christmas Cake’. But that has not prevented people from finding ways to keep this candle lit by coming together in homes to get their hands dirty with cake mix or from reaching for their wallets or from decorating Christmas Trees and constructing the Nativity Scene irrespective of religion.

Many fear that the reason for the secularisation is the watering down of the religiosity of this festival. There may be some truth in this dilution, but even so the cart is being put in front of the horse. This fear is an ill-informed trend in Christianity if not in other religions too. It has also percolated to how we practise our politics. The truth is that people are drawn to the person and not what s/he stood for. It is simpler to worship a person and celebrate the birth, sacrifice, victory or their return than to live by the ideals preached and practised.

Does one need to be of a certain persuasion to aspire and work towards being a Maryada Purush?

The words of the greetings for this season should not distract us from the life of the first Che’ Guevara born over 2000 years ago. It should not blind us to the fact that we don’t know the date of Christs birth and this celebration is more about the principles he stood for and is an opportunity to put into practice those which are acceptable to us.

The Spirit of Christmas cannot be bottled or sold. There is no one way to share the joy of what this birth and life stood for. By debating the form of greeting an opportunity is lost to share a moment of joy or do an act of kindness. Isn’t finding occasions to give back, to show gratitude and thankfulness part of what makes life worth living ? And if it is so shouldn’t the Spirit of Christmas and other festivals be around 365 days of the year?