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
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