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Monday, April 29, 2013

Earth Day: How We Continue to Insult Our Existence

Winning an Earth Day Competition – My Contribution to What Exactly?

Way back in April of 1990, I vividly remember being assigned to do a project of some kind, back in the 4th Grade. It was something about how we thought the World was with all its problems like pollution and deforestation, and what we could do about it. We were all given individual sheets of poster paper to create our pieces of art on, with the only exceptions being that we not copy anyone else's idea, and that we each have something to show when deadline for this assignment rolled around. I remember looking down at my big rectangular sheet of poster paper, thinking about how I wanted to depict a “what is” scene on the left, and a “what could so easily be” on the right. We had time in class and when we went back to our dorms to finish this, so I thought I'd let it percolate a little bit, this idea that I'd had, and see what developed a little while later. The following day, I had, on the left-hand side of my poster, drawn up a hideous image of factories spewing their gunk into rivers, and all but one tree remaining standing, while being in the process of being chopped down itself, not to mention thick, black smoke billowing out of the factories to choke the skies. In contrast, on the right of the poster, was a similar image, except instead of things going horribly awry, they seemed to be coming together quite nicely, with animals and birds living together with people. It wasn't much, and certainly not with my limited artistry (“limited” by my overall lack of artistic ability, and not just by my age at that time, mind you), but it was what I perceived in my mind to be the state of “the World” as it was, or at least as I had been being told that it was, and what I believed it could be. So, how surprised was I when during the all-school assembly for Earth Day, they called out my name to give me the award for “Best Poster”, a recognition that came with the prize money of twenty rupees, which was a huge deal to a little boy of nine back then. I don't know if I considered it then, or if the thought seemed to work its way into my life naturally as the years progressed, but it certainly was my first 'environmental crusade' of sorts, and I knew that in some way, I'd make a concerted effort to get to the bottom of this whole “problem”, as it were. However, the more each day becomes another yesterday, the more I find that, for all the awareness that has been raised about the “state of our World”, we have done nothing that will even begin to counter them in any effective way yet. The problems that I depicted in my little poster back in the 4th Grade aren't just “still with us”. They're much worse!

Saving the Earth – A Fantastic Cause

The first time I watched The Lorax and heard The Giving Tree, I remember crying my little eyes out. The stories were, to me, in and of themselves so sadly avoidable, yet somehow inexorably fated to end the way they did, because any other way would mean the lesson being not learned. It saddened me then, and still does today, to think that this is what we are heading towards, a certain doom that we believe we are powerless to avoid. But that was a long time ago, and as more and more information is made freely available, there is a “hew hope” arising that seems to have found a way out of the main “system”, and into the periphery where greed and lust for wealth and power do not determine the quality or drive for “life”. More specifically, I think that for all the noise made about “saving the Environment”, we have all been tricked into putting our energies into processes that will only further the deterioration of the Environment that we are trying to save. Plainly and simply, “civilized living” has been known to generate a severe imbalance when it comes to being in harmony with Nature, but that hasn't stopped us from searching for the ultimately, perfect way to enjoy touch-of-a-button, technology-driven lifestyles while keeping the Environment intact. But that's a little like hoping for a different result by adopting a similar procedure, isn't it? I mean, if the development of technology has led to all this “garbage” in the first place, then how are we uncertain that newer technologies will not generate newer, potentially equally difficult to dispose of wastes? Shouldn't we have been considering the Environment all along, so that from the outset, our mantra for any technology should have been something like, “To utilize the advantages of simple mechanics and advanced technology, produced, run and maintained sustainably and with a view towards being completely Environmentally-friendly”? So, while it's great to go pick up trash one weekend in a year, or to plant trees and water them until someone else takes over for you, the real, lasting impact that I would like to make on the Environment is by reviewing my own lifestyle to see where I can do better to reduce my footprint on the Planet, one which has given me life, and everything I need in it. And, don't even get me started on the “helplessness” of the Planet Earth, because it was here long before any of us showed up, and it will be here a long time after we all disappear, unphased and untouched by our frail “humanness” as it flits by through the history of the Universe. The first thing that people need to stop doing, is to start getting together in groups and marching up and down places. You want to “organize”? Get your neighbors and friends on board first. Get started implementing programs where you can collectively compost and grow and share vegetables and fruits, as well share other benefits that will naturally come out of such an arrangement.Let's stop doing things and celebrating specific days when we collectively pool our ADD/ADHD-afflicted brains together to engage in random acts of environmentalism, like Earth Day.

A Brief History of “Earth Day” and other “Global Initiatives”

Originally planned to coincide with the vernal equinox on 21st March, Earth Day was was moved to the 22nd of April to help keep focus on the central issue of “the environment”, and to ensure a time when children were most likely to be in school so that awareness-building and participation initiatives would be most effective. Even before I get into what happens next, or how the Earth Day Network is now charged with coordinating Earth Day celebrations across more than 190 countries, it is almost glaringly apparent that the real focus, “the environment” is immediately playing second fiddle to the crusade of “spreading the message” of sustainable living. But no one realizes that you only need to do this to people who are not living sustainably, right? Or, to put it another way, wouldn't it be better if, instead of talking about the problems and wondering how bad it will get, whether An Inconvenient Truth or not, we should be seeking out and celebrating examples of people who are doing this already (and doing this quite successfully too, I'd like to add)? But no. Year after year, schools, colleges and universities put thousands of hours into make that year's Earth Day more memorable and meaningful in some way, thinking of the best way to display and exhibit in more garish ways the ills that have plagued the Earth for many years already. If you want to see a human beings living in harmony with nature, just look at any of the indigenous tribes of the World who have been doing it in style since we “people” first appeared on the scene. What we see as “crude” and “barbaric” have worked like a charm for eons, and really, it's all the “sophistication” and “convenience” that has led us to this unholy mess of global proportions, if anything. But “Earth Day” is just one of the initiatives we have come to rely on as a sign of “progress” in the fight to restore balance in the Environment. The other, is a body of activity that involves “high-level officials” and “delegates from member nations” from various global/regional associations, treaties and conferences, who, at an appointed time and place will come together to discuss the “fate of our Planet”, as it were.

Ever since the first “United Nations Conference on the Human Environment” back in 1972, leaders of the World's nations, large and small, have gathered periodically to discuss a way forward in terms of working collectively to eradicate global “epidemics” like pollution. The obvious reality, which we again saw most recently during the “UN Climate Change Conference” at Doha (Link-01, Link-02) and the “decisions” that came out of it, is that it was more in-fighting among nations along the age-old developed-vs-developing nations divide. If you look at most of the “decisions” taken at most conferences of this nature, the new plans are always contingent on the old plans being carried out, with little or no thought going in to “enforcing” the completion of any of these plans because that would somehow make it “political”. But really, all this posturing and maneuvering doesn't achieve anything, except a certainly ignominious end to the very systems that seem to be too paralyzed to change by the critical mass of humanity. Whether you look at UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 or India's own little moment in the “Environmental” spotlight recently, the COP-11 Convention of Biological Diversity where the city of Hyderabad suddenly awoke from years of pending civil works slumber to shoddily beautify the city along the main areas that the foreign delegates would be visiting or traveling through to the tune of about INR 273 crore (USD 50 million, approximately). The irony remains, that men would rather go to war to settle petty differences of ideology, or simply to pillage another kingdom for precious resources, than to exercise and enforce a level of accountability and responsibility when it comes to promising to do something to help in the recovery of the Environment that affects all the nations of the Earth. In fact, it's quite saddening to have to admit that the great and fiery Indira Gandhi, India's Prime Minister during much of the 1970's –- who had the distinction of being the one to deliver a great and powerful speech at the Plenary Session of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm on the 14th of June, 1972 where she famously ended with, “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 recognize, 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.” –- is from a country that has seemed to cross over from “developing” to “developed”, only to have to deal with a whole host of environmental woes, like losing the magnificent tiger altogether.

A Return to Harmony

This is an ultimate dream of mine, I guess it's safe to say, to be able close my eyes at the end of this existence called “life” after having witnessed “humanity” return to its natural place in the web of life. Of course, it would be na├»ve to think about this happening in any absolute sense, mostly because “absolute” is a myth of existence, at best a temporary state of being in Nature. But, for the most part, once we understand that we have continued to err in the face of all the evidence about the unsustainability of civilization that has been staring us in the face for thousands of generations, I believe the search, discovery and ultimate existence of of a “harmonious” lifestyle will be key. We know something's wrong, and different people have attempted to do different things about it. There is no one right way for any of this, but as long as we attempt to be conscious about how the way we live impacts the environment and other living things around us, essentially, unless we get off the “high horse” of we being at the center of all creation, or somehow the culmination of all evolution, we will always believe ourselves to be removed from the realities of the world.

There is a scenario that I tell people about sometimes, nothing fancy. I ask them to imagine that they're in the shower, and that they're enjoying a nice hot, or cold, shower like they normally do. Then, they reach for their favorite shampoo and start to work it into their scalp and hair to get some of that “lather” action really going. Things are going really nicely, until a little bit of it gets into their eyes. That sharp, stinging pain forces them to reach out and cup a little water to splash over their eyes, except, just as they get their hands together to begin gathering the falling water so beautifully cascading down from the showerhead, the water stop. Nonplussed but still functional, they try turning the tap off and on, on and off. Then the other. Then, they start yanking on the little shower-faucet lever to one side and the other, starting to get a little frantic as the burning in the eyes continues to get worse. In a fit of desperation, they call out to a roommate or spouse, inquiring, “What happened to the water?” Or, if they live alone, they decide to fight through the pain and carry on opening their eyes so that they can go about clearing the biting lather in their eyes. Once they've half worked themselves out of this predicament, but are still very much in mid-shower, they discover, to their horror, that there is no more water. Not in the pipes that run through their home. Not in the overhead tank. Not at the local water depot that supplies their house. It will be “too late” at that point, but still they they will wonder about how it's possible for things to come to this, having ignored all the warnings along the way.

The reason I used to describe this scenario to people, more than just trying to do my bit as a sort of forlorn, doomsday prophet, is because it centered around a disturbing bit of info I came across during my senior year in high school. The school I went to was a boarding school, located in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu's Western Ghats, and due to an interesting mix of altitude and terrain, not to mention a steadily growing local human population, water shortages were quite common during the summer. Now, I happened to go to an International School, so as part of the “package” that comes from paying some of the highest fees in the country at the time, although we used to be warned about the shortage during assemblies, we never really experienced one. In fact, most students used to blatantly continue their extravagant 15-minute, sauna-like showers that used up all the hot water, like it never happened, or that for whatever inexplicable reason, the school administration chose to use the same warning that never even came close to becoming a reality. So, imagine my horror, when the mother of a friend of mine, a family that happened to live far away from our water-shortage-free campus of ceaseless wonders, mentioned to me that they had not been receiving any water for more than two weeks, and were being forced to make long treks to a neighboring compound to draw water from their well, which thankfully had enough water to spare. It made me jump up and realize that the only thing preventing people from taking the imminent threat of a water supply shortage coming to pass was the fact that they had no idea of the difficulties that “normal people” have to suffer through for things that they take for granted. Even scarier was the fact for such a thing to happen, it wouldn't mean a sign of things to come, but rather, a sign that it was too late, and that this was finally it. If the only way the students like me in school were ever going to respect the gravity of the warnings, it would mean that they would have to live through a water shortage. But, if such a situation came to pass now, it would be so severe that it would quite possibly disrupt life in the small, hilly township of Kodaikanal.

How Little We Care, How Much We Lay Bare

One of the greatest myths of the civilized world is that of “caring”. It leads its adherents to believe that they are better off being part of the fabric of a civilized world that turns everything around it into consumable resources meant to be enjoyed by the world. After all, is that not the purpose of our “human existence” taste the fruits of the Earth, as it were? But the reality of the situation is that civilization is only a poor mimic of some of the most awesome forces known anywhere in the Universe, the forces of Life, as manifested in their carbon-based forms here on Earth. So, it is with startlingly convenient ease that anything that seems to be a threat to “people” in general is very forcefully done away with, whether it's ann insect or animal pest, or another group of people like you who happen to not meet the qualifying criteria of “person” as set out by “you”, obviously. That's all it takes, for example, to label a bunch of people “illegal occupants” of lands that they have occupied for centuries, giving the enforcers of this slanderous label every “right” to do “their duty” and round them up. It happens in India with the Maoists, as it does with any insurgency movement around the globe that is only trying to hold on to and sovereignly administer their native territories. It even happens on things like insurance policies, where a single word can end up putting you on the opposite side of being the recipient of an “assured” sum of money, or so they led you to believe. All the “small print”, the “conditions apply” warnings, the “Subject to risk” ratings are just manifestations of “the system” not caring, a reality that it seeks to cover, enticing people to join its slavish fold and spend their lives in servitude to a useless cause, all with the alluring promise of “It could be you at the top.” We only claim to care, but pit two people against each other in a life or death struggle, and they will fight it out. Worse? Incentivize the one to kill the other, and it will happen much faster.

It used to piss me off every time I passed by a long row of “marble mechants” who sold large and small grantie and marble slabs to people who could choose to use them in their homes, mostly in the kitchens and bathrooms. I used to think about how we were literall carving out hillsides to decorate our latrines to reflect our lavishly excessive lifestyles in some strange way. It also used to piss me off to hear about people mistreating animals, not even abusing them, just neglecting them and their needs, no matter how lovingly the dogs or cats, or “pets” looked up into their masters' dead, uncaring eyes. I even knew of one gentleman who had subjected his dog to a lifetime of eating one single meal a day, just because he couldn't be bothered to take it for a walk more than once a day himself. To give you an example of how much something like this used to get my goat, I hope this gentleman is dead now because not only did he make the dog suffer, but in his drunken excess he ended up moving to an apartment building that didn't allow pets, turning the dog loose almost instantly, as if she were some stray that he had just made friends with on the street. Mind you, he claimed to have had this dog for more than eight years, which only makes me wonder about what other nonsense the poor thing had to endure. Sure, there are millions of people who really do care and would never let something like this happen, but the fact remains that for every person who cares, there are about ten who don't even begin to. It's quite depressing to consider that the more some of us save, the more some others out there negate the effect of the savings by wasting far more, whatever the article or resource in question may be. Essentially, the larger our numbers and the more removed we are from the natural aspects of life, like sustainable living that minimizes the use of non-renewable energy sources in favor of renewable ones, the more likely that the apocalypse that has been predicted since the earliest days of civilization is on its way to us at lightning speed.

We just don't know it yet, but several generations of a NIMBY lifestyle have not only ensured an avalanche of “issues” that we need to resolve immediately, as we're seeing nowadays, but it has effectively blotted out the future of the “children” I used to hear about way back when I was a child myself. That was a long time ago, I'm afraid, and nothing's really what hope have we got now, if it looked so bleak back then?

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