OUR ONLY EARTH: AN INDIAN PERSPECTIVE

Simon Coleman

1-bluemarble_west

Image source: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/1-bluemarble_west.jpg

 

I recently came by chance upon a booklet of lectures by Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India in the 1960s and 1970s (her career continued into the 1980s).  I was particularly struck by her embracing of the earth as one community, with an outlook on humanity that was not merely international, but was in some sense ‘universal’.  The excerpts below from a 1972 lecture contain a powerful ecological message but Gandhi still welcomes technological advance to improve living standards, especially in poorer nations.  She wants to see technology and protection of Nature progress together, but for this to happen a higher level of thinking is required.  She also touches on Indian spirituality, emphasizing the rationality within that tradition rather than its more mystical elements that have often attracted western spiritual seekers.

 

Of course, we have to remember that this was delivered in 1972 when many of these ideas were relatively new.  But imagine a western leader ever delivering a lecture like this!  I’m posting it because I feel that the values and hopes it expresses are close to those found in some of Richard Jefferies’ humanistic and ecologically aware writings.

 

“I have the good fortune of growing up with a sense of kinship with Nature in all its manifestations.  Birds, plants and stones were companions and, sleeping under the star-strewn sky, I became familiar with the names and movements of the constellations.  But my deep interest in this our only earth was not for itself but as a fit home for man.

 

One cannot be truly human and civilized unless one looks upon not only all fellow men but all creation with the eyes of a friend.  Throughout India, edicts carved on rocks and pillars are reminders that twenty-two centuries ago the Emperor Asoka defined a king’s duty as not merely to protect citizens and punish wrong-doers but also to preserve animal life and forest trees…

 

Along with the rest of mankind, we in India – in spite of Asoka – have been guilty of wanton disregard for the sources of our sustenance.  We share your concern at the rapid deterioration of flora and fauna.  Some of our own wild life has been wiped out.  Vast areas of forest with beautiful old trees, mute witnesses of history, have been destroyed…

 

It is sad that in country after country, progress should become synonymous with an assault on Nature.  We, who are a part of Nature, and dependent on her for every need, speak constantly about exploiting Nature.  When the highest mountain in the world was climbed in 1953, Jawarharlal Nehru objected to the phrase ‘conquest of Everest’ which he thought was arrogant.  Is it surprising that this lack of consideration and the constant need to prove one’s superiority should be projected onto our treatment of our fellow men?…

 

Must there be conflict between technology and a truly better world or between enlightenment of the spirit and a higher standard of living?  Foreigners sometimes ask what to us seems a very strange question, whether progress in India would not mean a diminishing of her spirituality or her values.  Is spiritual quality so superficial as to be dependent upon the lack of material comfort?  As a country we are no more or less spiritual than any other but traditionally our people have respected the spirit of detachment and renunciation.  Historically, our great spiritual discoveries were made during periods of comparative affluence.  The doctrines of detachment from possessions were developed not as rationalization of deprivation but to prevent comfort and ease from dulling the senses.  Spirituality means the enrichment of the spirit, the strengthening of one’s inner resources and the stretching of one’s range of experience.  It is the ability to be still in the midst of activity and vibrantly alive in moments of calm; to separate the essence from circumstances; to accept joy and sorrow with some equanimity.  Perception and compassion are the marks of true spirituality…

 

The feeling is growing that we should reorder our priorities and move away from the single-dimensional model which has viewed growth from certain limited angles, which seems to have given a higher place to things rather than persons and which has increased our wants rather than our enjoyment.  We should have a more comprehensive approach to life, centred on man not as a statistic but as an individual with many sides to his personality…

 

Thus the higher standard of living must be achieved without alienating people from their heritage and without despoiling Nature of its beauty, freshness and purity so essential to our lives…

 

We want new directions in the wiser use of the knowledge and tools with which science has equipped us.  And this cannot be just one upsurge but a continuous search into cause and effect, an unending effort to match technology with higher levels of thinking.  We must concern ourselves not only with the kind of world we want but also with what kind of man should inhabit it.  We want thinking people, capable of spontaneous, self-directed activity…who are imbued with compassion and concern for others…

 

It has been my experience that people who are at cross purposes with Nature are cynical about mankind and ill at ease with themselves.  Modern man must re-establish an unbroken link with Nature and with life.  He must again learn to invoke the energy of growing things and to recognise, as did the ancients in India centuries ago, that one can take from the earth and the atmosphere only so much as one puts back into them.  In their Hymn to Earth, the sages of the Atharva Veda chanted:

 

                “What of thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over,

            Let me not hit thy vitals, or the heart.”

 

So can man himself be vital and of good heart and conscious of his responsibility.”

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In the Face of Climate Change: can Natural Beauty Help?

Rebecca Welshman

dewy harebell

I’ve been reading and thinking more of late about the very real problems which we face as a species. The degradation of our planet as a result of human-induced climate change is no longer simply an issue but a reality. It is something that I think about most days – it is an ever present shadow behind the beauty of the natural world, which more and more of us are becoming conscious of. We notice altered weather patterns, the greasy films over watercourses which once ran clear, loss of habitats, the falling populations of birds, animals, amphibians, flowers, plants. The list is too long.

Among climate scientists ‘gloom has set in’ (http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/) as research repeatedly proves that the situation is worse than we thought. For activists, political groups, and individuals who wish to make a difference it is dispiriting to know that the climate initiatives are deliberately being sabotaged by political and corporate powers that seek to forge ahead with reliance on fossil fuels.As Glaciologist Jason Box has expressed:

“let’s get real, fossil fuels are the dominant industry on earth, and you can’t expect meaningful political change with them in control. There’s a growing consensus that there must be a shock to the system.”

We are already experiencing some of the environmental and social problems associated with climate change. Yet the ways in which the majority of us live do not encourage us to embrace climate change as a reality – we live in denial. Jeffrey Kiehl, senior scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, gained a degree in psychology so to research the psychology of climate change denial. He concluded that:

“consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, [that] we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes. Worse, accepting the facts threatens us with a loss of faith in the fundamental order of the universe.” (http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/)

I was lying awake thinking about these things last night as our young baby slept beside, and I could envisage no ways in which these powers could be dissuaded from their agenda. There was one thought I had which perhaps offered some hope – that future generations, our children today, will be educated in climate science and climate crisis and will be better equipped to bring about change. One day fossil fuels will be a thing of the past – antiquated as they already seem in the face of other advanced renewable technologies. One day – though maybe only once renewable sources finally attract the sustained attention of the financial markets.

Many of our blog posts have shown the ways in which Jefferies appreciated and engaged with the world around him – in the country and the city, and in varied moods and times of day. He encouraged minds and hearts to open together, even when political and social systems seemed to be working to close them. He perceived then, in the 1880s that once connected with the world around us we need to act to make it a better place, in order for future generations to enjoy it:

“How pleasant it would be each day to think, To-day I have done something that will tend to render future generations more happy.” (The Story of My Heart)

His futuristic novel After London (1885), which depicts an England submerged by floods, and a regressive social and political system that is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, seems increasingly prophetic. The protagonist, Felix, embarks on a lonely sea voyage to begin a new social system. He discovers, amongst the poisonous swamps which cover submerged London, a large pile of gold coins, worthless and corroded by the toxic emanations of the lost city. Felix hopes to develop a more spiritual caring race, not driven by what Jefferies termed ‘the detestable creed that time is money’.

In the face of climate change we have very little time. We need natural beauty to keep us grounded, balanced, and healed. I can easily picture a future when beautiful natural images can only be found in books or on old hard drives – or exist as cuttings taken from old newspapers and magazines. They might be pinned to stone walls, which have been cobbled together from ruined upland dwellings, at a time when weaker modern homes have long since gone or been washed away. In the face of such scenarios I ask: can natural beauty help us now?

For Jefferies, nature’s timeless and ageless beauty expressed a better, more complete version of ourselves – a shared heart of mankind to connect with as a reality – “Does this reverie of flowers and waterfall and song form an ideal, a human ideal in the mind?”. As the rain falls down on this August Sunday I keep this ideal in mind.