We have been coaxed from an early age to drink milk to become healthy and strong and we have been taught that milk is the “perfect food”. It has now fallen from its pedestal as milk and milk products are being blamed for being a contributing factor in several health problems.
In India, the land of Krishna, the cowherd-God, milk is sacred. Milk is used for worship in temples and as offering at prayer time in homes. Milk is equally venerated in other countries – notably the US and Holland, where the per capita consumption is the highest in the world.
We have been coaxed from an early age to drink milk to become healthy and strong and we have been taught that milk is the “perfect food”, providing us so many essential nutrients. So when I first came across an e-mail forward which listed all the ways in which milk was terrible, I went into denial. Just another crank message like so many others in cyber space, I thought.
But gradually we found milk falling from its pedestal. Milk and milk products were blamed for being a contributing factor in several human health problems by many prominent medical professionals and scientists - experts not employed by the Dairy Industry, I must say- whose credentials are difficult to dispute. Here are the names of two of them who’s websites can be looked up for a fund of information on milk:
Dr. Frank Oski, M.D., author of ‘Don’t Drink Your Milk!’, is the Director of the Department of Pediatrics of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of several medical textbooks. In the first chapter of his book, Dr. Oski states that the drinking of cow milk is very strongly linked to the origins of atherosclerosis and heart attacks; also to iron-deficiency anemia and colic in infants, arthritis, headaches, muscle cramps and multiple forms of allergy.
Dr. William Ellis, a retired osteopathic physician and surgeon in Arlington, Texas, who has researched the effects of dairy products for 42 years. Dr. Ellis says dairy products are “simply no good for humans... There is overwhelming evidence that milk and milk products are a major factor in obesity”. He also says that he has conducted 25,000 blood tests on his patients during his long practice, and the tests showed conclusively that adults who used milk products did not absorb nutrients as well as those who did not consume milk. The poor absorbption in turn meant chronic fatigue.
What about Calcium?
For most of us, milk is calcium. How will your child’s bones grow? How can you avoid osteoporosis without milk? But like the belief that tobacco was good, this seems to be another myth which is being shattered. It is true that milk has calcium – but not in a form that is easily absorbed by the body.
One of the most serious problems caused by a calcium deficiency is osteoporosis, a condition characterized by the loss of 50 to 75 percent of the person’s original bone material. In the U.S., 25 percent of 65-year-old women suffer from osteoporosis. If milk provides calcium, it is strange that the US which has the highest per capita dairy products’ consumption also has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis.
It has also been found that those prone to muscle spasms and cramps (explained by low levels of blood calcium) were milk drinkers.
How to increase calcium levels?
If we do not drink milk, where do we get our calcium from is a question many anxious mothers would ask. To which the counter question is “Where do cows get their calcium from?”
Cows get calcium from green plants and grains and so can we. All green leafy vegetables, fruits and nuts contain calcium. Raw sesame seeds are said to contain more calcium than any other food on earth and leafy greens, dates, figs and prunes are almost as good. So, if we eat fruits and vegetables daily and raw nuts, seeds and dry fruits often, we cannot possibly have calcium deficiency.
Why don’t our doctors tell us that? Also, many leading medical researchers agree that the best way for most people to increase their calcium level and strengthen their bones is to reduce their protein intake- not increase calcium intake- and specifically to reduce consumption of animal products. The reason is that animal products and other sources of high protein are very acidic, and the blood stream must balance this acidic condition by absorbing alkaline minerals such as calcium from the bone structure.
Why is milk difficult to digest?
Lactase and Renin are two enzymes required to digest lactose and protein in milk. But according to Dr. Oski, between the age of one and a half and four years, most individuals lose these enzymes. Milk also contains Casein along with its protein – and there is 300 times more casein in cow milk than in human milk. Casein is meant to help in the development of big bones of the calf. Casein coagulates in the stomach and forms a dense difficult-to-digest mass which adheres to the walls of the intestines and makes it difficult for nutrients to be absorbed. The result is lethargy and fatigue.
Our bodies stop producing the enzymes to digest milk in what appears to be a normal process that accompanies maturation. It reflects the fact that nature never intended milk to be consumed after the normal weaning period. This accounts for the majority of the world’s adult population being “lactose intolerant,” meaning they cannot digest lactose, the sugar in milk.
Humans, like all mammals, nourish their infants during infancy with milk from the mother. Part of the very definition of a mammal is that the female of the species has milk-producing glands in her breasts. But, normally, all species get weaned - humans are the only species that never get weaned!
The milk of each species appears to have been specifically designed to suit and protect the young of that species. Cross-feeding does not work. Heating, sterilization, or modification of the milk in any way destroys its value further.
This article was first published in Eternal Bhoomi Magazine, VOLUME 1, ISSUE - 2, APR - JUN, 2010
Modern civilization celebrates the production of huge amounts of machine made things. Produced alongside are huge amounts of waste of every kind – plastics, paper, hazardous and poisonous waste which often end up polluting our waters and degrading our lands. We need to go back to valuing our crafts, which does not thrash our planet, if we wish to live sustainably on earth.
There is an old story about a girl and her red shoes which illustrates well our modern civilisation’s struggles with a machine-dominated world.
A poor, young orphaned girl who lived with her oft disgruntled aunt, once made herself a pair of red shoes with pieces of cloth and thread and leather and her own enthusiastic hands. It wasn’t the prettiest pair but the shoes had their charm - she loved them and she danced with them and they served her well. One fine day, a lady arrived at her village in a dazzling chariot and asked her if she would come along to live in her big house. She went with the lady and soon she was scrubbed and cleaned and taken to a shop to buy beautiful clothes and the most shiny, fancy pair of red shoes in the world. It was a whole new life - oh, how she loved to wear those shoes and dance to her heart’s content!
To get out of the watchful and restrictive eyes of her new foster mother she walked to the nearby woods, one day, and ran and skipped and danced away. Late in the evening, she was tired and afraid in the dark forest; she tried to remove her smart red shoes to rest – but could not. She just lay down exhausted and slept. The next day, as soon as she woke up, her red shoes seemed to make her dance by themselves… and she danced on and on, but wanted to stop and eat and rest. She came to a village and danced to a cobblers shop and asked him to remove her shoes. The kind man gave her some food but could not remove her shoes – they seemed to have stuck to her feet. Afraid to go back home, she wandered around – or rather kept dancing around trying every now and then to remove her shoes.
Absolutely tired and helpless, she went back to the cobbler - he tried hard with all his tools, but could not wrest them off her feet; she finally managed to stop dancing – by getting her feet cut off.
It’s not a pleasant story – and neither is the story of our modern civilization which continues to celebrate the production of huge amounts of machine made things at every level and in every sphere. Over the last two centuries of industrialization especially, our addiction to stuff has become suicidal. Produced alongside are huge amounts of waste of every kind – plastics, paper, household food waste and hazardous and poisonous waste which often end up polluting our waters and degrading our lands.
We need to go back to valuing our crafts if we wish to live sustainably on earth. As much as oil and capitalism with unending growth are part of the problem, craft and organic agriculture can be part of the solution. The usual question now would be – are we to go back to the jungles? We cannot stop development, can we? The answer is not ‘no development’, but development that does not trash the planet or exploit the 80% of “less developed” people or 100% of future generations.
Going organic and engaging in a craft or buying handloom, handicrafts and other local hand made products, are a few of the many ways in which we can live more responsibly on our planet – and at the same time live with beauty and support the craftspeople. It is one way in which we can celebrate the hand made shoes that make us dance happily and stop the frenzied ‘dance’ of a machine dominated life. It can make life more beautiful and deeply satisfying.
This article was first published in Eternal Bhoomi Magazine, VOLUME 4, ISSUE - 1, JAN - MAR, 2013
Parents are worried about their children’s studies, or complain about the quality of schools. We also read in the papers about 70% of engineers being unemployable.Insufficient and ineffective teacher training and the humongous stress that children go through. The education system is not at all in good shape today.
It goes without saying that a majority of parents are worried about their children’s studies. Or complain about the quality of schools, the high cost of education, the fear of rebellious children and above all, the marks they get in their exams. We also read in the papers about 70% of engineers being unemployable, increasing use of drugs and alcohol by students, insufficient and ineffective teacher training in the country and the humongous stress that children go through. We need to see the writing on the wall — that the education system is not at all in good shape today.
Clearly many things have changed in the world and education and life is not what it used to be, say 4 or 5 decades ago, when the crises were not evident. Today, children need confidence, not just marks; they need to face unexpected situations, not just the ‘expected questions’ from the syllabus; they will need a stronger philosophical and spiritual grounding since they will face greater complexities and stresses of everyday life; they will need to learn to co-create communities and conserve nature since environment and communities, the two great fosterers of wellbeing are being decimated everywhere. To deal with the new situations in life, we certainly need new perspectives and action in education. Around the world today, amongst the cracks in the concrete, we have alternatives sprouting and one trend is that of holistic education.
A broader take
Students, who have passed out of school, and their parents largely aspire for the Science stream to get seats in Engineering and Medical colleges. while ignoring Humanities, Arts and Crafts and vocational training. Yet today, it is well known that these streams do add to the happiness of an individual. Education tends to address the child ‘neck up’ and leaves out the rest of the child, resulting in an overdose of textbooks and a neglect of experiential learning. This fragmentation erodes not only the wellbeing of the youngsters but of society as a whole as well. This is nothing new — many renowned Indians like Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Jiddu Krishnamurti and others have talked of the importance of addressing the ‘whole child’.
The world today celebrates the conveniences and luxuries brought in by science and technology — the cars and planes, the gadgets and gizmos, not to forget the cosmetics, fast foods and more. We have now woken up to the fact that our consumerism and lifestyle are directly connected to global warming and climate change. But do we realise that they are also connected to the kind of science that our modern civilisation has believed in?
Thinkers on sustainability now acknowledge that reductionist science is the major cause of multiple crises the world faces today. A science that studies and supports the use of the part and does not see or care about its effect on the whole. During the Renaissance in Europe, Rene Descartes is credited with his very powerful statements that led to a great split — between matters of the spirit which were to be dealt with by religion and physical matter to be dealt with by science. So, today we have ‘value free’ science, which can usher in chemicals that cause cancer, weapons that can cause mass destruction and a socio-economic system that fosters growth at the cost of our very survival.
The foundations of our education system seems to be the reductionist science and technology that has dragged in major environmental and spiritual crises. Isn’t it time to begin thinking about holistic science and holistic education?
New responses — how?
So where does one start? How do we bring in new responses to our current situation? There are no easy answers to be sure. But what is certain is that solutions may not come from the huge centralised education systems we have. Bottom-up solutions are tough since the education we have been subjected to has minimised our ability for critical thinking, to see the real, whole picture and the pioneering zeal to revamp the system. Top-down solutions are difficult since the powerful will not give up their power that will get eroded if the centralised systems are dismantled.
So, around the world today we have a range of small schools and colleges that are sprouting up like lilies after the rain. Some are formal institutions, some are smaller centres and there are many online learning opportunities as well. Around the country, many civil society organisations and intentional communities are creating their own learning and unlearning spaces.
The efforts of the few do seem miniscule compared with the huge impact of mainstream education. But let us remember Gandhiji’s words, “If we are going to bring about peace in the world, we have to start with the children.” We can substitute peace with ‘wholeness’.
We are continuously being bombarded with different messages and ideas on food and health, which have contributed to our being so confused about taking charge of our health and wellness
At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind.
Most newspapers regularly carry conflicting or confusing news items on food and health: one day, a snippet announces, ‘Green & Red Veggies great for your heart!” while the next day –“New Drug for Heart disease”. Sometimes, reports say coffee has antioxidants that will boost your cell growth, another time there is research that shows that caffeine promotes anxiety and sleeplessness.
Foods wrapped in bright packaging claim ‘fortified with vitamins’, the ingredients listed in small print with numbers like E-251. Sensuous TV ads leap from our screens, while grandma’s wisdom (and dozens of opinions all around) often clash with each other. Put them all together and try to make sense of food and health – you can truly and fully, get all mixed-up.
No wonder we fall back on what we find tasty and what is available easily when it comes to food and depend on experts to maintain our health.
More Developed & More Sick
In his book ‘In Defence of Food’, Michael Pollan reports an experiment in which ten Australian aborigines participated. Kerin O’Dea, a nutrition researcher, designed the experiment for these aborigines, who were middleaged, over-weight and diabetic, living on a typical western diet in a settlement. During the course of the experiment, they had to return to their traditional homeland, an isolated region quite distant from the nearest town, without any access to city- style food and beverages. They stayed in the bush, surviving on plant foods, fish, birds, bush honey, the larvae of a local insect and other traditional aborigine fare.
After seven weeks in the bush, O ‘Dea found they had lost weight - an average of about 18 pounds (about 8.2 kgs), their blood pressure had dropped, and all the metabolic abnormalities of Type 2 Diabetes had improved or normalized.
The value of the experiment, says Pollan, lies in the fact that O’Dea avoided ‘the scientific labyrinth of nutritionism’ i.e. instead of picking out some aspect of their diet for the experiment, O’Dea looked at a whole ‘food system’. The scientific reductionism in studying effects of one nutrient or the other, has obviously led to a great amount of confusion even amongst scientists and Government Policy makers, not only the general public.
What this story tells us, quite powerfully, is that food and health of a ‘developed’ country can be much poorer than that of the so-called less developed ‘natives’. How did this happen? How has modernity brought in more sickness? Has our species become too smart for its own good?
Human beings seem to have a natural vulnerability to go in for quick fixes and conveniences, and sweet, fatty, tasty foods. So, there is a surfeit of such things in supermarkets, restaurants and others shops today. Add to this the compulsions for power and war or for grandeur through possessing more – including more market share of products, all of which are involved in global trade – we have a recipe for confusion about our whole food system.
While merely understanding the genesis of a problem might not help resolve our doubts, it could be a starting point of a journey in search of better clarity, better science and more wellness.
Let us look at some of the ideas that came along with modern development, which have contributed to our being so confused about taking charge of our health and wellness:
Foundations: Cell Health & Germ Theory
Louis Pasteur, the famous 18th century French scientist, is credited with the theory that germs cause diseases – the predominant modern medical system today has been built on this foundation.
Claude Bernard, another contemporary of Pasteur, claimed that bacteria and viruses thrive only in an acidic condition and that keeping the body alkaline is key to preventing infectious diseases. Hence, the most important requirement to avoid disease and maintain wellness is to eat more alkalizing micronutrients (contained in fresh fruits, vegetables), exercise etc., that help us avoid ‘acidosis’.
(Claude Bernard built on the work of another scientist, Antoine Béchamp, who maintained that bacteria essentially change form and are not the cause of, but the result of disease arising from tissues rather than from a germ of constant form.)
This has also been called the cellular disease theory; but the role of cell health in disease did not have mass audience appeal like that of Pasteur’s germ theory of disease. More importantly, Pasteur is said to have had friends in high places who could also see the potential in the business of making and selling drugs – and so the ball of medical destiny was set rolling - and there was no stopping it.
Today, the Germ Theory seems indisputable at one level, since we have plenty of examples of antibiotics killing bacteria and curing people of various diseases like cholera, typhoid, etc.
Yet, the fact is that not everyone exposed to bacteria actually gets the disease. For example, most Indians are said to have the tuberculosis bacteria, but only some fall prey to the disease. Similarly, all people exposed to the flu virus may not get the flu. The Germ theory is also questioned on the grounds that it has bought about a culture of killing. Antibiotics are used indiscriminately – for instance they are prescribed for flu patients although they are ineffective against the flu virus, as a precautionary measure in case it leads to bacterial infection.
The bigger problem of antibiotics is that antibiotics are routinely fed to farm animals – which accounts for 90% of antibiotics produced in the world. Meat eaters are ingesting antibiotic residues regularly, leading to antibiotic residues building up in their bodies, leading to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
This foundational theory that germs are primarily responsible for disease and not cell health has led to major illusions related to food and health. When doctors and scientists think in terms of the germ theory of disease, they fight disease with antibiotics, vaccination and pasteurization. All of these come with very serious problems that are only now beginning to be understood. The average citizen today has developed dependence on external medication rather than on learning self-regulation, being in touch with the intelligence of the body and making wise choices of food and lifestyle.
No doubt, medical science has been miraculous in the way it has fought epidemics and other communicative diseases. But the ‘germ theory’ of diseases and a paradigm of linear thinking as a foundation of our medical system is certainly responsible for us getting mixed up. It has led to a situation where medical colleges do not focus at all on prevention or on cell health. Amongst the public and the Governments, this reality is largely ignored: that to avoid ill health, we need to understand the importance of eating and living right, and that a modern medical establishment is not the only answer.
Focussing exclusively on the germ theory of diseases and ignoring the cellular disease theory has led to a situation where medical colleges do not focus at all on fostering cell health or prevention of ill health.
Macro & Micro nutrients
Another source of our confusion is the way a partial truth - of the importance of macronutrients - has become a superstructure of our social, economic and political priorities.
Justus von Leibig, a German chemist, claimed that there were three major chemicals that plants needed for their growth – Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK). Soon, he was considered the father of the chemical fertilizer industry. Leibig also claimed that there were only three major nutrients that humans needed to consume – Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats. Ever since, these became the big three in the food and nutrition industry – and these are the main foods available in the supermarkets today.
While the importance of micronutrients for the soil and human body is now well known, the Governments have not gotten over their exclusive focus on macronutrients. The focus in Government policies is almost entirely on cereals, pulses and oils as far as food goes, while in agriculture, the focus is on chemical fertilisers with NPK leading the way. Foods with macro nutrients can be stored and power exerted through its supply and pricing, since cereals and pulses are essential for survival.
It is a fact that our bodies need from fifty to hundred different chemical compounds to maintain health and Nature meant us to get these micronutrients from a variety of leaves, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
Today, governments offer no subsidies or support for organic produce such as vegetables and fruits which have higher levels of micronutrients; only fertilizer and pesticide-doused vegetables, cereals, pulses etc., are available. Marion Nestle in her book ‘Food Politics’, shows how the US governments has for decades offered subsidies only for corn, meat and soya etc., (ie. Macronutrients) and ignored the fresh fruit and vegetable (micronutrient) growers, because they had no powerful lobbies. This led to a situation where an excess of macronutrients and insufficient micronutrients were supplied to the country. (The US eats 93% processed foods and less than 7% fresh foods). She indicts the policy makers for the large scale incidence of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the US. The situation is no different in India. C. Gopalakrishnan of the Nutrition Foundation of India pointed out that, in India, the similar skewed policy of subsidies for macronutrients only, would lead to malnourishment.
When people get habituated to eating largely macro-nutrient based foods, they tend to eat less of the micro-nutrients. Children go in for dosas, burgers and cakes and even rice with dal more than vegetable sabzis, salads and fruits. Most doctors would advice vitamin pills (which often do not work) rather than plant foods for micronutrients – which are much more complex than isolated vitamins.
Processed foods are cheaper and are made tasty with additives, while the media blitz of food ads lure us and especially our children. A recent survey of school children in Gujarat found that about 40% of children aged 10 to 15 showed early signs of heart disease: junk food and sedentary habits through excessive TV viewing and electronic games were held responsible. It is important to remember: Macronutrients are tasty and fill our stomachs but in the long run, deprivation of micronutrients can make us obese and sick.
Capitalism and Modern ‘Development’
Today, at least among most city dwellers and the educated elite, capitalism and globalization are celebrated with unabashed enthusiasm. In fact, no alternative or modification of these manmade systems are seen as possible – they would be perceived as setting the clock back. Yet, an increasing number of political and economic analysts consider that neoliberal globalization, industrialization, climate change, imperialism, war, racism, poverty, mindless consumerism and the destruction of community are the by-products of capitalism.
With its promotion of endless growth, capitalism has spawned a huge competition in the manufacturing and marketing of processed foods. These processed foods only contain cereals, fats and proteins with chemicals for preserving them and making them tasty and attractive. The media promotes them as nutritious – tetrapacked fruit juices are called ‘real’, even if that is impossible since fruits lose most of their nutrients within an hour of cutting them. Breakfast cereals say they have ‘added vitamins’, while many vitamins need a complex of other micronutrients to be absorbed.
Even otherwise discerning adults can get fooled into believing that processed foods are harmless. Children get addicted to them and end up disliking healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Instead of making efforts to change our daily habits, we end up reducing our immunity and falling prey to lifestyle diseases because of lack of micronutrients.
At a macro level, development today requires constant increase in GDP, and only industrialized foods and the medical system help increase the GDP. Global trade in foods add to the GDP but also to carbon emissions.
In the rural areas, monocultures, high cost of seeds and the use of chemicals needed for crops grown with these seeds have confused priorities –leading to impoverishment of the farmer and a situation where 40% of farmers want to opt out of farming. The habit of eating polished grains and insufficient micronutrients has invaded rural areas as well, amongst those who can afford food. A system that does not focus on equitable distribution has led to millions suffering from hunger.
To understand food, health and wellness today, we need to consider the paradigm of development today and the myths it has generated.
While we cannot conveniently blame any one person for our getting deluded through education, Descartes is considered the one who made a fuss of the split between mind and matter. He asserted that matters of the mind should be the domain of the religious leadership and matters of, well, matter, should be the work of scientists. This was a convenient split to ensure that religious bigotry did not harass scientists as was the case in Galileo’s time. This has created a legacy of various kinds of splits, including in education, where the focus is on mental learning – while the physical, emotional and spiritual worlds are not considered important.
This split also made the field of science value-free in order to be “true”. Science without values led to over 90% of scientists working on war weapons during World War II and very likely a very huge number of scientists today working on chemicals for food and drugs and several dangerous projects.
Again, reductionist science has been fostered by our education system. An example of such ‘bad’ science is the assumption of nutritionists that food is the sum of its nutrient parts rather than a whole complex system – leading to a complicated set of ideas, which on the whole has been unable to deal with noncommunicable diseases and made health worse, not better, during the last few decades.
Ten to fifteen years spent in schools and colleges, holding the Experts and Western Science in high regard – and disowning one’s own experience and culture – means that we tend to discard Grandma’s wisdom of say, drinking kashaya as well as various other systems of indigenous knowledge.
Education without importance given to feelings and ethics has also made us follow the pied piper of development without discrimination.
So what is the silver lining?
Mythlogy is replete with Rakshasas and dragons of varying hues tormenting the people, when the hero is called upon to vanquish them and bring peace, security and prosperity to the land. When every great mountain had been climbed and most things you dreamt of have been invented or discovered – it seemed as if there is little work for new age heroes.
But we now have a huge range of demons, often insidious - and young (and old) heroes and leaders are needed to embark into new adventures to deal with them. Along with ecological sanity, we can begin re-designing our political system (the process has begun in many parts of the Middle-Eastern world), as well as our economic, medical and education systems; and yes, we can look forward to new ways of finding fulfillment and joy – perhaps through growing food, a simpler low-stress lifestyle and community togetherness.
This article was first published in Eternal Bhoomi Magazine, VOLUME 2, ISSUE - 3, JUL - SEP, 2011
Educational Planners design content for various courses - but do we take into account the power of what children learn unconsciously?
While we human beings think, plan and act, we end up facing a host of unintended consequences. The rise and fall of civilizations is largely the story of the human propensity to get carried away by short-term success and suffer long term failure; the consequences of some aspects of the world-view and living processes of these civilizations were not foreseen. As Toynbee famously said, as far as civilizations go, "nothing fails like success”.
There are dangers in reinforcing what seems to be success but is actually a recipe for collapse; in systems theory this process is called a positive feedback loop; positive feedback, when a system is away from equilibrium, can lead to a spiraling and ultimately destructive effect – for example, the increasing destructive need for alcohol in an alcoholic. Natural systems rely on negative or 'corrective' feedback to bring systems back to equilibrium when the deviations are small. The signs of ‘success’ of our civilization, such as literacy rates, military power, GDP growth and rates of consumption seem to be on a spiral of positive feedback, needing correction.
To most of us, Education has been some kind of holy cow. But we now need to question how it is contributing to a civilization showing signs of decline. The positive side is that perhaps ours is the only civilization capable of a remarkable understanding and wide communication of these emergent realities. Therefore, hopefully, we can also search for ways in which Education can stem the tide. Many educational thinkers believe this is needed and possible, since it is not education itself which is the problem, but the ends it is used for.
As the industrial age unfolded, the education system began to be increasingly focused on ‘shaping’ students to meet industrial needs; by and large everyone began to cooperate – not just for the needs of the industry and the economic system but because the prevalent notions of success and a good life required such education in places where the long and multiple arms of development reached. Among the consequences is our ecological crisis.
In this scenario, what are children learning? What signifiers of success are being reinforced and rewarded and what meanings do children make of the world they live in?
Our world-view and self-concept are rarely deliberated on, if ever, in school or college. Yet an entire foundation of the way we live is laid through the kind of attitudes we develop towards the world and the way we hold our own role in it. This foundation of our world-view is mostly unintended, unconscious learning. Many educators teach with the best of intentions, but the underlying paradigms of living and learning have a more powerful impact on individuals and our civilization, and a flawed paradigm is thus perpetuated.
Most students – and most of us - hold some or all these notions and beliefs subconsciously as a kind of template for the way we live life:
These are a few of the meta frameworks for our living today - there must be more - and they have their "inner" and "outer" ecological consequences. Taken together they can keep us deadlocked in illusions and conditioning that makes it easy for us to go into denial or withdraw into ‘business as usual’ when confronted with huge and complex crises like climate change. Perhaps understanding them will help us awaken to the importance of adding new dimensions to education – especially of fostering the ecological self within and engaging in ecologically wise ways without.
A narrow definition of success
For ten to fifteen years in school and college, life revolves around tests, exams and marks. Marks determine success in school and money determines success in later life. This narrow definition of success is an essential part of the prevalent development paradigm – but it has led to an impoverishment in many other spheres: those of artistic sensibility, holistic thinking and spiritual search. It has effectively blinded us to the potential long-term failure of our civilization.
Most importantly, following the Western model determined by Macaulay, Descartes, Newton and Bacon, this narrow definition of success has made us completely undervalue the ecological wisdom of our culture, which could have provided a model not only for education but also for sustainability.
Selfishness is legitimate
Throughout the years of formal education, a student is used to bothering mostly about his books, his assignments, his tests, etc. Never before in any age have children and youth been so thoroughly groomed to be consumeristic and immersed in self-interest. Without opportunities to ‘learn’ co-operation, since it is not required for school tasks – children get the implicit message that selfishness is fine as a way of life. As Einstein said, “This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism - our whole educational system suffers from this evil: an exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.”
Means are not as important as ends
Parents and teachers encourage rote-learning and tuitions as the means to score high marks in exams without understanding of, or interest in, what is learnt: a student may opt for a medical seat if she can’t get into engineering without worrying about whether she is interested in healing or caring for other’s health; the lucrative career – the end – is all that matters.
An extension of valuing ends above means is that ethical means can be sacrificed for ‘progress’. Thousands can die of cancer while Thorium is mined for Nuclear energy -- it does not matter as long as I get my electricity; two lakh farmers may commit suicide because of a draconian agricultural system – it does not matter as long as I get my food. Innumerable examples exist of unethical behaviour; they may have co-evolved with our factories, governments and malls, but aren’t they fostered by education?
A good life is a life of high consumption and minimum physical work
At school, children spend almost all their time on book-related learning. In mainstream schools, doing physical work as a part of learning is unheard of. Very little time is allocated for experiential learning or even for games and sports. Children in many homes in cities today are rarely required to do any physical work in the house – either because domestic help is available or because parents want the child to focus on studies and ‘spare’ the child such distractions. The hangover of our caste system perhaps plays a part as well in looking down on physical work.
The TV and movies show celebrities promoting a high-consumption life style, subtly encouraging everyone of us to consume as much as we can. Children pick up dreams of ‘a good life’ which makes it difficult for them to comprehend the need to think in fresh and natural ways, to critique the system and create new visions for sustainability.
Think within a boundary – not of the whole
Wear blinkers. Follow instructions. Do not question. Be a good soldier – don’t think for yourself. See connections only selectively – do not see long-term connections or connections that are many links away. These are the messages that children pick up unconsciously in school when they have to focus without a choice on the given syllabus and lessons for the day, day after day, for anywhere between 10 and 18 years of their life.
Schools and colleges have designed syllabi, which are content heavy. The unintended consequence is that there is no focus on critical thinking and taking initiative for a larger cause even if a few try to see the larger picture; most of us have forgotten to respond to real lifeissues all around us. Wearing blinkers also means that we do not think for the whole school, the whole community or the whole earth – often not even for the whole family.
Put up with a split inner world
The school system and parents want all children to learn the same subjects in the same way without considering the child’s interests and innate talents. From years of tolerating work which we do not value or like, we learn to live with an unresolved lack of alignment in our thought, feeling and action. This split spills over into many things in life. I may have no interest or enthusiasm for my work, but will persist in it without looking for alternatives. I may understand my child's love for music, but may push her into more science tuition instead and deny her music classes. This ‘ability’ to live with a split inner world – the pathology within - is reflected in the world outside that we have created.
Unquestioning acceptance of authority
The class seating system seems designed to hand over power to the authority figure and to make children submit to the system. When the school system is almost universally accepted, its fundamentals are not questioned. Why should rural schools and city schools have the same syllabus? Why should agriculture not be included as a subject for farmers’ children? Why not more practical classes on basics like food, water and health or simple skills?
Our centralized authoritarian system may possibly wish good education for all, but it simply kills initiative and the ability to question – and hence we look for top-down solutions to all problems.
It is widely understood today that all things are connected. The climate crisis, poverty, pollution, the aspirations, wants and needs of people, the economic, education, and political systems are all connected – just as all things are connected in Nature.
Fritjof Capra talks of the importance of eco-literacy, which includes a deep understanding of the principles of ecology – such as inter-dependence, cooperation, partnership, diversity, cyclical flow of energy/resources and flexibility. All these are patterns of organization, which help the eco-system maximize sustainability, survive disturbances and adapt to changing conditions.
To move away from the grip of unintended consequences and nurture a sustainable way of life, education too, needs to move closer to nature, in structure and process. Here are some lessons from nature that need to be applied to schools:
To move beyond a self-seeking outlook, can we have more school work that requires more cooperation than competition, as is the norm in nature?
Can schools emphasize Nature’s principle that resources / energy flow in a cyclical way rather than in the linear flow of a consumeristic ‘good life’? Not just as a piece of knowledge but experientially, by working on a zero-waste school, by connecting with the surrounding communities, with sources of food and other resources used by the school and by fostering the ability to share and empathise?
Can we foster ecological consciousness that we are a strand in the web of life, that success for the whole is necessary for individual success in the long run?
Schools today are excessively focused on book-based learning suited for careers in a flawed development-paradigm. Can we move to more experiential, holistic learning, which would include more physical, artistic, ecological and other activities that foster many connections?
The education system, most importantly, needs to recognize diversity among children, various geographical regions, communities and livelihood options. This would require more decentralized management, more humanscale systems which would help in building a more ethical outlook, and the freedom to design for the whole school or whole community and reduce the inner splits that are a result of choicelessness.
The 86 million tonnes of carbon released everyday are almost entirely the work of educated people. Hence, along with the politicians, economists and industrialists, isn’t the world of education also contributing to endangering the survival of our civilization? The world of education needs to engage in soul-searching to answer this question.
This article was first published in Eternal Bhoomi Magazine, VOLUME 1, ISSUE - 4, OCT - DEC, 2010
We cannot change the education system overnight, and neither will most people decide to do without it, the gap year at least provides valuable time to explore and discover one’s true calling - a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to learn from experience.
I took a year off after my graduation because I could not find a suitable postgraduate course. I happened to find work as the manager of a small printing press, which gave me enough free time to read, and discover new friends and places to visit. I also travelled periodically to the nearest big city, Chennai, to buy a bunch of second hand books at Moore Market. My parents did not worry. No one made a big fuss, nor did anyone wonder if this one year was useful or a waste of time. I simply needed time to decide what I wanted to do next, and that’s what I got. No one called it a gap year or anything else.
That was more than 40 years ago.
Times have changed, and today, professional education and landing a great career are big. So most youngsters do not dare to think of a gap year. But there are a few students and parents who are seeing the gap year as valuable time to explore and discover one’s true calling or at least find the most appropriate path to take.
In the US, students taking a gap year has become so common that many universities offer short gap-year courses. Many professors find that after a gap year, students are more serious about their coursework because they have taken time to choose what was right for them. Quite often, students take time off to travel and there are many websites that advise students on how to plan for everything — their travel, learning goals, money etc.
In India, it seems that we are at an early stage of the gap year culture setting in. Here, most of the youngsters taking a gap year seem to be the ones whose parents are actively encouraging them to look beyond mainstream careers. Also, many perceive it as expensive, as it cuts short one year of earning. And students at this age become sensitive to living off their parents, so they often combine some part time jobs with the various experiences and explorations they seek in a gap year.
Learn from experience
So much of education seems to be about sitting in a classroom studying books and preparing for the exams. Tunnel vision is accepted as normal and legitimate. A major issue we need to realise is that mainstream education distances you from real life. But if we cannot change the education system overnight, and neither will most people decide to do without it, the gap year at least provides a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to learn from experience.
Meeting interesting people, some travel and ‘wasting time’ can be a good dose of real life! Our youngsters need to throw away blinkers, and follow their hearts, or noses, to taste a bit of the wider world they are often protected from. The big achievement is to decide to take a gap year and get the support you need to take off. Then there are many focus areas that can help you decide what you want to do.
Check out a career idea
A gap year can be a good time to check out a vague dream or career idea. If you are wondering if you should go into, say, event management, before you plunge headlong into a course you can try getting an internship or even volunteer with an event management firm. Even if you are sure of a particular field, sometimes it may help explore other possibilities by informally meeting people or doing short courses.
Deal with confusions
Before a child reaches Class 10 and even much earlier, she is expected to know exactly what she wants to do in life. While many children meekly accept such straight-jacketing, there are many who are confused as to what to do next. Actually if you are confused in this way, because the world wants to push you in some direction and your inner voices have doubts about it, then call it a very positive confusion! It means you wish to think for yourself, rather than be programmed by others.
A gap year may be just the right thing to deal with your confusions in your own way. If you let your intuition guide you, you may find people who can be formal or informal mentors, who can be friend-philosopher-guides. Also an interest in reading, or in today’s times, meaningful internet searching or video watching can open up new directions.
There are also many who travel around alone, get into rock climbing or water sports or just exploring the Himalayas, remote villages or forests — but this surely needs some savings or funding support. While such adventures do add an undefinable something to the person, such travel as education is not so common in India as it is in the West. But more safe and secure possibilities exist through trekking and travel organisers who are mushrooming everywhere.
If you cannot get excited about a standard corporate job and are the kind who needs to have a deep belief in what you do, you can check out the world of alternative careers. Be it sustainable living or organic farming, wildlife photography or alternative education, there are many institutions that offer short and long term courses and internships. Most of these offer hands on and experiential learning and can connect you with a network of people and organisations that can help you figure out what you want to do and what life with an alternative career would be like.
Instead of alternative courses, you can attempt to volunteer or look for an internship in a civil society organisation. If you have a strong interest in a particular area, you can search for the kind of organisation that you find inspiring and you never know how much it might fire your passion.
See the hidden world
Most of us have an innate tendency to look for familiar places to visit or learn from. But trying to look for experiences you have never had might be a great way of making a gap year meaningful. I have heard of youngsters going to remote desert villages to help with solar electrification, joining in wildlife surveys, helping make eco-friendly buildings in the Himalayas, volunteering with tribal projects and so on. Moving away from one’s comfort zone, roughing it out and making friends with strangers can be an education in itself.
If you need more intellectual stimulation of an academic kind, you can try to track down people to meet and interview. You can combine this with reading up, looking for or creating your own writing or videographing assignments.
A range of organisations exist to support you in your search. These institutions offer short and long courses which can open up new avenues. There is so much that can add vibrancy and meaningfulness to your life if you have the faith that the world is there for you to discover. We need to rename the Gap year as ‘Search Year’.
Every now and then in the midst of the gloom and doom environmental scenario we are faced with, we are sometimes fortunate to experience a lovely high. The "Poromboke Paadal" has been a delightful and deeply moving song that gave me such a high last month.
Every now and then one gets a great high in the midst of the gloom and doom environmental scenario that we are faced with. Recently I came across the song titled 'Poromboke Paadal' by T.M. Krishna. In a fusion of chaste Carnatic music and language of the common man, including a couple of English words, it is a treat to soothe the environmentalist and at the same time ask some big questions. And subtly, elegantly say,"To hell with elitism!"
Poromboke originally meant 'the commons', property that belonged to everybody - land for use by everybody like grazing land, rivers and spaces not sold to people or appropriated by the Government. It was land that did not yield revenue, hence not assessed for tax. So over time it became a word that meant wasteland. From there it was a short step to being used as a pejorative for a person who is considered a no-gooder, a 'waste'!
The video has the Ennore creek as the backdrop. Ennore provides Chennai with Energy, with electricity and petrol, but is itself treated as a wasteland. The visuals are as heart rending as the song. Truly, if music can awaken, this song can begin the process of people beginning to do something about their sacred rivers, their commons. Along with the Jallikattu movement, it gives hope.
Kaber Vasuki has penned the words of the song - and we realise what a powerful medium is music to bring attention to some aspects of the crises of perception we are caught up in. The song based video that was launched in mid January has been viewed by almost a lakh people, and the Carnatic music community is all agog with new possibilities, although it requires an activist's heart to actually launch such music.
T.M.Krishna has been an activist who moved away from the elitist haunts of the Carnatic musician and sang for fishermen and the common person who could never go to the big and famous auditoria. He won the Magsaysay award last year for his amazing creative work in Srilanka to heal the war torn land and its people with music.
For me, personally, it has been sheer delight to see the video and listen to this Poromboke song. Because for a long, long time I have been hoping to meet a composer, singer and dancer who can bring alive the story of Gaia, of the Earth as a living being. For the Indian context it would be Bhoomi Devi, but more than just a goddess. Can there be a fusion of Science, the story of the Earth over 4 1/2 billion years and the belief that the Earth sacred again?
If anyone out there wants to work with a Bhoomi song... we are waiting!
The Bhoomi Award 2017 is being conferred on Piyush Manush on the 7th April this year. Here is an article about him and his unique eco spiritual approach to ecological restoration.
For more about the Bhoomi Award click here.
Piyush Manush from the city of Salem in the heart of Tamil Nadu, does not just talk or write about eco-spirituality, but has demonstrated that it can mobilise support for amazing ecological work.
In a world where we constantly hear of ecological destruction as well as an increasing poverty of wellbeing, we also have innumerable organisations, groups, leaders and ideas emerging to provide solutions to help reverse the trend. One such solution is that of ecospirituality. It is not at all a new theme - all religions and spiritual traditions have to a greater or lesser extent talked of reverence for Nature, and how human beings need to live in harmony with Nature.
But today, in a world dominated by the rationalising ruthless exploitation of Nature brought in by mindless science, technology and materialistic economic growth, we have several thinkers who have begun writing about the importance of valuing Nature as sacred, about sacred economics, deep ecology and more. While we surely need renewable energy, new approaches to deal with consumerism, waste, pollution etc, we cannot deny that the crises of ecology and the crises of the spirit are connected. And hence the revival of a belief in eco-spirituality as a way out of the mess we are in makes enormous sense, no matter what religion or spiritual tradition we connect with. Especially in a matter what religion or spiritual tradition we connect with. Especially in a country like India where a great diversity of such traditions are still alive.
Piyush Manush from the city of Salem in the heart of Tamil Nadu does not just talk or write about eco-spirituality, but has demonstrated that amazing heartwarming work can be done to awaken not just a city but perhaps the whole state by evoking the sacred beliefs of people. He has spearheaded a movement to clean up and revive several lakes in Salem and the idea has caught on in other cities like Dharmapuri, Madurai and Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu. Maariamman – the Goddess of Rain and Water The central idea that Piyush brought in was that Maariamman, the most popular Goddess in Tamil Nadu, in whose name thousands of temples exist in the state, was actually the Goddess of rain. ‘Maari’ meant ‘rain’, and by extension, water – but this historical truth had largely been forgotten in Tamil Nadu. During the rainy season, or even in the dry scorching summer without rain, many diseases emerged, including the small pox. The people prayed to Maariamman for relief from their suffering, and gradually Maariamman’s meaning as one who brings rain was eroded from cultural memory.
Bringing back the significance of ‘Maari’ as rain and water was all that Piyush banked on to beckon to hundreds of people to revive the Mookaneri lake in Salem and most importantly to maintain it as a sacred space. And he could do what governments could not do, perhaps because he deeply and unwaveringly believes that Nature is sacred and everything that Nature has given us is sacred. He also leads from the front – he was there to remove the muck from the lake, and over 500 people gradually joined him.
This lake had became a stinking land fill of sorts with sewage water and effluents from factories flowing into it. The deadening effect of the hectic modern life we are caught in merely made people hold their noses and rush past the roads around the lake. When Piyush began the clean up process with a small group, over 150 people joined out 7 months for this mammoth task.
Along with a group he formed the Salem Citizens’ Forum in 2010. The collector of Salem gave formal approval to this forum to adopt the 58 acre Mookineri lake, which completed the task of desilting the lake with earth moving machines, forming about 45 islands. They then planted several species of trees on the islands as well as around the lake, formed a walking path around it and made it the beautiful and serene space that it has become today.
The Salem Citizens’ Forum then took up the task of reviving the 36 acre Ammapettai Lake and other lakes and ponds in the city all of which had become stinking landfills. All these lakes were called “Maari Sthalam” – meaning Maari’s sacred space. Many of these lakes are already looking like bird sanctuaries and people have begun taking walks or resting near these spaces. In other cities too citizens loved this model and revived lakes – and they have renamed their lakes “Maari Agam” (Maari’s Home) etc.
Spirituality and Afforestation
In 2009, Piyush bought a 1.5 acres of dry, degraded land in the neighbouring Dharmapuri, the driest district in the state. Determined to demonstrate that afforestation can become a livelihood, he planted over one lakh bamboo as well as many other species of fruits, timber and medicinal trees. He then decided to make bamboo furniture for a living – and his inventiveness can be seen in his house where almost all the furniture is made of bamboo. He persuaded many of his friends to join him, created a cooperative forest called Coop Forest which now has afforested about 300 acres. Central to this work is the creation of about 20 water bodies which still hold water inspite of five years of minimal rains.
His latest project is again to leverage spirituality for an ecological cause. He is in the process of creating ‘Ayyappan Vanam’ in Coop forest in Dharmapuri. The temple of Ayyappan located in the middle of the Sabarimala forest in Kerala is considered the biggest pilgrimage centre in the world, attracting an estimated 100 million pilgrims every year. Ayyappan pilgrims go on a fast and minimalistic living for more than a month and travel long distances to reach the temple in the midst of a dense forest; most of them trek barefoot through rough terrain with limited support systems.
Several million pilgrims traveling from Tamil Nadu to Kerala stop over at various places and temples en route. Piyush is creating a camping ground for about 150 pilgrims per day at ‘Ayyappa Vanam (forest)’. He plans to get pilgrims to plant trees and value forests much as the legendary Ayyappan did. “I hope many other Ayyappan pilgrim camps will pick up the idea of worshipping Ayyappan in a live way through planting and preserving trees” says Piyush. “We need to go beyond symbolism and tokenism to the living reality of water and forests on the ground to be worshipped along with the dieties”.
The Story of the Activist
Piyush began his work soon after college as an activist cleaning up plastics and taking up various local and social causes. Friends and his own initiative helped him see larger issues, particularly of huge factories that polluted water. In Mettur, a small city in Salem District, he realized that it was possibly the most polluted district in the state. Factories such as Chemplast, Jindal and Vedanta let their effluents into the Cauvery River. Apart from Ethylene dicholoride, Mercury and Cyanide, he found that more than 20 toxic substances were in the river and much of the ground water was polluted with them too.
“Almost all women in this town have had a miscarriage or suffer from some gynecological problems”, says Piyush. The helplessness of people who could not oppose these corporates because many of them were their employees was typical of our civilizational crises.
Salem is surrounded by the Sheveroy and other hills and has several minerals that makes it a prime candidate for pollution. Piyush got involved in movements against mining and also fought against encroachments by the land mafia. These and other issues earned him many enemies; for legitimately protesting against high handedness and coruuptionhe has been arrested by the authorities in collusion with politicians and corporates. In July 2016 his arrest and torture for protesting against an illegal bridge that a builder was attempting, brought forth a huge amount of support from citizens around the country. His torture, he says almost destroyed his spirit – but he has snappedback, determined to use this popularity to mobilise support for more projects.
Given that income generation is essential, he invites others to create private forests to engage in various activities that can make it economically viable for people. He has set up a factory to make bamboo products and buildings, equipment to make biochar and also works at processing fruits and products of the forest. He continues to work with the Coop forest and AyyappanVan and to encourage and support others who want to take up similar work.
This article was first published in Eternal Bhoomi Magazine, VOLUME 8, ISSUE - 1, JAN - MAR, 2017
In the entire universe, the presence of life and a planet that supports life is so rare that we are literally living on an incredibly complex and mysterious miracle. Or rather, we are part of the miracle.
Life is not only rare – life is fussy and demanding. The temperature, amount of oxygen, the alkalinity, the formation of clouds and salinity of oceans, have all to be regulated within a narrow range on earth, so that life on it can be supported. A mind-boggling balancing act indeed which we take for granted in our daily lives.
Gaia is the idea of the earth as a self-regulating, single, unified, cooperating and living system – a super organism that regulates its physical conditions to make the world a place where life has continued to be possible over three billion years. Many cultures have understood Gaia, intuitively, perhaps with more than a dash of reason. Also many are the civilizations which have overlooked Gaia’s unstated demands and paid a price with their very survival.
According to Ayurveda, everything in the universe, every cell, object and creature is composed in an infinite variety of ways, of the Panchamahabhutas – Akash (Space), Vayu (Air), Jal (Water), Agni (Fire) and Prithvi (Earth). Constantly changing and interacting with each other, they create a situation of dynamic flux that keeps the world going – another way of looking at Gaia.
The Red-Indian Chief Seattle in his famous letter to the white man said, “We do not own the web of life, we are merely a strand in it...”
Perhaps it would have been a ‘better’ world if human ‘progress’ could have been governed by such an intuitive understanding of Gaia and through living harmoniously with all the zillions of other elements and creatures of Gaia. But from where we are today, living in an age of reason as we do, a scientific view is essential, in addition to a poetic or spiritual understanding of Gaia, which by themselves just won’t do.
Such a scientific view is what James Lovelock provides in his book ‘Gaia’ written originally in 1979 – and since then the idea of Gaia has become a great way to express one’s wonder and caring for the incredible complexities and ‘being’ of our planet earth.
Gaia became one of the most hotly-debated topics within the scientific community – which is understandable, since Lovelock goes far beyond reductionist science – you need your chemistry, physics, geology, oceanography, geography, history and much more to get a deeper understanding of Gaia.
In Lovelock’s words, "The entire range of living matter on Earth from whales to viruses and from oaks to algae could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of maintaining the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts...” Gaia can be defined as a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, which includes the atmosphere, oceans, and soil including all life and all its inter-relationships, forming a self regulating or cybernetic system, which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. Evolution, therefore is the result much more of cooperative rather than competitive processes.
What does this optimal physical and chemical environment and self-regulation really mean?
Cybernetics and Holistic Science
Lovelock writes of the need to go beyond reductionist science and linear thinking. While he rues the then scientific establishment’s dismissal of his work as fiction and myth, he emphasizes the need to use science to make the argument for the Gaia hypothesis more compelling.
He explains the way Gaia creates an optimal environment for life using holistic thinking and the circular logic of cybernetics – the branch of science concerned with self-regulating systems of communication and control in living systems and machines. One of the many examples he gives to illustrate cybernetics is the simple thermostat – which controls the heat exceeding a set level, when the electric current is cut off; and when the temperature is cooler than the set level, the current is switched on to make the heat increase again. But such a thermostat is not an external intervention – it is in-built in Gaia as it is in the human body.
Several micro-organisms as well as gases in the atmosphere, chemicals in the soil and ocean, etc. are in a perpetual cybernetic dance to ensure that critical variables of oxygen, temperature, alkalinity, etc., which are essential to sustain life are maintained.
Amazingly, or perhaps quite naturally, there are significant similarities between optimal physical and chemical environment for the earth and for our own bodies (and other organisms as well). We are Gaia, not only in the sense of being part of Gaia, but also in being similar to Gaia.
Let us look at some of the similarities – in self-regulation of temperature, oxygen, acid - alkaline balance, the salinity of its oceans and balance of iodine.
Our bodies maintain a certain temperature – usually around 98.4°Fahrenheit. When the temperature outside is very high, the body sweats and brings down the temperature. Where the temperature outside is low, the shivering that ensues increases muscular activity to generate more heat by burning more body fuels. This self-regulating property of the body is called homeostasis.
Similarly, the Gaia hypothesis sees life regulating the surface temperature of Earth, using a far more complex process of homeostasis.
The earth began its existence 4.5 billion years ago and life on earth began about 3.5 billion years ago. After organic life began, the earth’s temperature has been maintained between a narrow range of 10 and 20°C, even when the sun’s heat has increased by 25 degrees over the last 3.5 billion years. 3 billion years ago, a mere 2 degree decrease in temperature would have been enough to establish an Ice age and wipe out most of life.
And this regulation of temperature has taken place for over three billion years – else life could not have evolved at temperatures lower or higher than this range. How did this happen? Unlike a planet like Mars where there is great variation in temperature, the earth’s average surface temperature is kept constant in multiple ways including by varying the amount of carbon dioxide and methane – now made notorious through the climate change crisis. And these gases were cycled through the atmosphere by the ceaseless activity of life – of predators and prey and of diverse food chains.
Another form of temperature control is through dimethyl sulphide (DMS). A group of microscopic algae called coccolithophorids that thrive in warm seas, release DMS into the air, which become nuclei for cloud condensation. These nuclei help to produce thicker clouds, blocking more of the sun, and cooling the oceans. This in turn reduces the coccolithophorids, which reduces the DMS released. We then have fewer clouds blocking the sun, and the temperature rises. How little do we know of microscopic organisms that keep the earth a liveable place for us!
An all important and ceaseless regulation required by Gaia is of oxygen. Oxygen in the atmosphere has to be high enough to keep oxygen-breathing animals alive. But instead of around 21%, if the atmosphere had about 25% oxygen, life on earth would be wiped out because with such a level of oxygen even green leaves would burn and all forests would soon go up in flames.
The atmospheres of our two nearest neighbours, Venus and Mars, contain 0.00 percent and 0.13 percent respectively, of free Gaia oxygen. On Earth, however, Dr Lovelock suggests that Gaia is at work to keep the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere within a narrow range. Through the Oxygen cycle, photosynthesis and innumerable yet to be understood processes, the oxygen in the atmosphere is maintained to support life.
3. Acid – Alkali Balance
The troposphere i.e. the denser layers of the atmosphere near the surface of the earth are “a curious mixture of reactive gases forever in flux and chemical disarray, yet never losing their balance”. Hydrogen, oxygen, ozone, water vapour, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, ammonia and much more are constantly in movement or transformation, between themselves and with the biosphere. A simple example known to a school child is of plants absorbing carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen which is then absorbed by other organisms.
The biosphere produces a great deal of ammonia, which seems to be just sufficient to sustain a rainfall pH of 8, i.e. ammonia helps the biosphere be alkaline enough for life. Without ammonia, the pH of rain will be close to 3 – creating highly acidic rain which can kill life.
Gaia’s cybernetic control system keeps the ammonia production and acids in balance – but this balance is beginning to be disturbed in parts of the world such as North America. As fossil fuel-burning releases sulphur into the atmosphere, it is brought down as sulphuric acid; the rains, known as ‘acid rain’ deters the growth of life.
4. Oceanic Salinity
Natural geological weathering releases salts washed off from the lands into the oceans too fast for life to adapt at the same rate. At the same time, geological evidence indicates that the oceans have remained at a constant salinity of less than 3.4% saturation for millions of years. Salt flats, which are hosts to dense patches of bacteria, may be removing the salt from the oceans. The bacteria, surviving in water too salty for any other life, trap salts and other minerals to form a sheath within which the bacterial colonies live. As for own bodies, like Gaia we too need just the right amount of salt – not too much and not too little.
The Mystery of Life
It seems almost as if our galaxy were a giant warehouse containing the spare parts needed for life… If we can imagine a planet made of nothing but the component parts of watches, we may reasonably assume that in the fullness of time – perhaps 1000 million years – gravitational forces and the restless motion of the wind would assemble at least one working watch. Life was thus an utterly improbable event with almost infinite opportunities of happening.
Lovelock goes on to liken life to a sandcastle built on the beach and says that if Gaia’s “partners in life were not there, continually repairing and recreating, as children build fresh castles in the beach, all Gaia’s traces would soon vanish.” Life then can be called a distribution of molecules, which is sufficiently different from the background state to be recognizable as an entity.
But now that life has been established, another affirmation of Gaia is that life would be very difficult to end! The partial or complete removal of the ozone layer, or the simultaneous explosion of all the nuclear weapons on earth, may destroy the larger animals and plants. But it is doubtful if unicellular organisms which are the most essential parts of life would even notice such an event.
In fact Lovelock’s passion and eloquence about microorganisms will change the way you look at life forever. He takes digs at various human propensities – for instance, at many being revolted by the violence of hunting but with no concern for the death and dispossession wrought by the bulldozer or the plough in destroying habitats of our partners in Gaia.
About 70% of the Earth’s surface is water. The oceans and the myriad self-regulatory chemical reactions in them play a major part in keeping the Earth habitable for life. The drama of the sulphur cycle, the iodine cycle, the role of other elements important for life such as selenium and phosphorus all require the great oceans with various algae and other life forms. Also, the oceans have more to them than the dazzling variety of life forms that they hold – about half of all living matter. The oceans are a reservoir of dissolved gases which help regulate the air we breathe.
Gathering information about the seas, their chemistry, physics and biology and their interacting mechanisms should come right on top of mankind’s priorities.
About Gaia Theory
“Gaia is related to the Earth’s biosphere as a person is related to her body”
The idea of Gaia presented a new and radically different model of our planet. In contrast to conventional belief that non-living matter is merely a backdrop for life, Gaia theory argues that the rocks, the air, and the oceans are part of Gaia just as the shell is part of a snail. Gaia has continuity with the past back to the origins of life, and extends into the future as long as life persists. Gaia, as a total planetary being, has properties that are not necessarily discernible by just knowing individual species or populations of organisms living together. Lovelock says elegantly, differentiating between Gaia and the biosphere: Gaia is related to the earth’s biosphere as a person is related to her body.
While ‘Gaia’ is considered a classic work, certain of his statements do not seem very credible. He exonerates multinational companies of any major role in the fast degradation of our world, and holds tropical agriculture more culpable. Lovelock believed that industrial pollution was no great problem – it only needed to be put to good use. Prohibiting pollution to him was as idiotic as legislating against the emission of dung from cows.
He certainly does not mention any understanding of the political-corporate nexus or how the compulsions for profit making and expanding markets seem to lead corporations to completely sweep aside ethical considerations, and pollute the earth with impunity. Only a Gaian perspective of long-term life seemed to matter for him.
What is most unacceptable to thinkers and environmentalists is his enthusiastic and unambiguous encouragement of nuclear power. While he recognized the problems of fossil fuel burning and climate change, he saw no need to change humankind’s present development path.
Overall, there are many messages for us. An important lesson for the world of education and economics is that Gaia theory poses an argument against Darwinian hypotheses of survival of the fittest and competition. If we look at all the self-regulative processes of Gaia, evolution is primarily a result of cooperative not competitive processes.
According to the Gaia theory, humankind is the most powerful species in this web and is also its biggest threat. We need to establish a right relationship with the planet as a living entity in which we are embedded – and to which, in the final analysis, we are all accountable. We are persuaded to drop the western belief that only the good of mankind mattered…he says, “I began to see us all, as part of the community of living things that unconsciously keep the Earth a comfortable home, and that we humans have no special rights, only obligations to the community of Gaia.”
The book inspires the reader to connect with a profound sense of the value of the Earth, and to discover what it means to live as harmoniously as possible as sentient creatures of planetary proportions. We need to love and respect the Earth with the same intensity that we give to our families and our tribes.
To quote The New Scientist, Lovelock “is to science what Gandhi was to politics. And his central notion that the planet behaves as a living organism is as radical, profound, and far reaching in its impact as any of Gandhi's ideas.”
This article was first published in Eternal Bhoomi Magazine, VOLUME 2, ISSUE - 2, APRIL - JUNE, 2011