Today's Editorial

11 June 2017

Rational ecology~II


Source: By Mahasweta Chaudhury: The Statesman


The future is dismal if nature is exploited excessively. This was indeed Mahatma's foresight. There was no modern technology or large development projects in his time. The two basic principles of rational ecology ~ minimum interference and maximum diversity ~ are now universally recognised. Indeed both in Arthashastra and the Dharma Shastras there were clear instructions on when and how much can be taken from nature.

These instructions along with the punitive measures helped conservation and protection of diversity. Indeed, nature does not need us, but we need nature for the nourishment of the body and mind. An early environmentalist Radha Kamal Mukherjee once very aptly remarked that 'whatever is good for our nourishment or pleasurewe conserve them and whatever is not good for us we call weeds and destroy them'. He said it was remarkable that all other animals have a definite place in the natural food-chain except human beings who can potentially destroy every kind. Maximum diversity again keeps harmony and balance in the natural world.

Many environmentalists think that too much interference with nature for development projects is gradually destroying that balance and natural calamities are happening to forewarn us about a possible doomsday in future. Rational Ecology recognizes all traditions equally by respecting social mores and the inherent recognition of the rights of nature. Like all ancient texts, our Shastras often refer to ecological responsibility as a sacred duty; both animate and inanimate natures are objects of protection. Gandhi tried to reconcile the divine and the mundane by resorting to the notion of ahimsa (non-violence), not merely as a code of conduct for individuals and social institutions for perpetuation of life and tolerance.

This form of life or ahimsa can be extended to both the animate and inanimate world. Rational Ecology discourages extreme ecological engineering and encourages maximum eco-diversity by minimum interference. This is very important because nature does not require human beings, but we need nature for the fulfilment of our needs and also for our physical and mental well-being. Most traditional cultures have shown ecological rationality through various social practices, even in agriculture. Tolerance and respect for nature is a precondition for rational ecology.

The contemporary environmental policies should conform to this requirement to avert natural calamities and further disaster. The concept of non-violence is a necessary prerequisite for rational ecology which requires minimum interference and maximum diversity as guiding principles. Any custom or law of a civil society also requires to follows these two principles of maximum diversity (of culture, religion, language, race etc., among its members) and minimum interference (with their choices or preference so long as it does not hurt another person's similar choice or personal freedom).

The significance of Gandhi's principle of non-violence in the context of nature is the basis of his empathy with the nonhuman area of nature .This is in tune with the post-Gandhian notion of rights. From human rights, it is first extended to animal rights. This point is elegantly projected by Attenborough in his film Gandhi when Nehru met the Mahatma to discuss Swaraj; but found Gandhi treating the ailing goat with mittika lep. We should abide by the principle of not harming the sensuous world so long as it does not harm us; we must not destroy the inanimate world so long as these are not harmful to us. The legal case of the mountain Mineral King in a wild valley and Walt Disney is a pertinent example.

It deals with proposed destruction of the wild valley for an amusement park to be put in place by Walt Disney. It was legally contested by an entity called Sierra Club. Although the latter lost by one vote, the case raised an important moral question, specifically that whether a natural object like Mineral King can be denied a right if a corporation like Walt Disney can have a similar right. The principle of non-violence can only justify such intrusion of a powerful institution to destroy as wrong by conferring a right to natural formations. If it is argued that right implies some duty and a natural object do not fulfil that condition, it may be counter-argued that children or the mentally challenged also have certain rights although they cannot perform any duty. Related to the issue of conservation is the question of fulfilling human needs.

Even animals also require a certain amount of food and shelter from nature. But there is a difference between these two. Usually animals have a particular place in the food-chain, and take only a particular kind and in a particular amount unless forced by humans to do otherwise. But human’s beings at the top of the food-chain have cultivated various tastes and the largest number of options. Indeed all living things require food and drink. These needs are natural. Water is a necessity for sustenance, so is food. These may be called natural needs. Human beings need these and so do all other animals. We can procure the needful from nature like other animals as a natural process.

But there are other kinds of needs which are cultivated by social or cultural mores, but not essential for our sustenance. For example, food of a certain kind or drink of a certain flavour is only socially imposed. These are artificial needs culturally cultivated and really not essential for our primary needs. One example from Gandhi's own life may clarify the point. When he was a student in London, the bland vegetarian food there was supplemented by pickles sent by his mother from India.

That was a long and difficult process in those days. After some time, he forbade his mother to send it any more for he realised that pickles are not essential for his sustenance, it caters only a cultivated taste and he can do well without it. Artificial needs are imposed upon us by social and commercial forces. When Gandhi talked about minimising our needs (particularly in a poor country under foreign rule) he had this in mind. The principle of non-violence does not become irrelevant with the concept of competition or free-market, that actually enslave buyers to the apparently lucrative commodities which are neither appropriate nor essential for India.