Relations of dominance among human beings have caused enormous distress. When the same attitude of dominance was directed towards nature, this resulted in large-scale ecological ruin. The tendency of looking upon nature as something to be dominated and conquered has been extremely counter-productive: it has inflicted huge destruction on environment and has greatly diminished the possibilities of humanity to benefit from the bounty of nature in sustainable ways.
Of course human beings have to meet their various needs, obtain food, clothing and shelter, and in the process they have to make certain demands on nature, they have to obtain water from rivers and food from land. It is certainly possible to do so while maintaining an attitude of respect and co-existence towards nature, preserving the clean and beautiful flow of rivers and protecting the fertility of land. There is evidence that in some ancient cultures there was an attitude of reverence towards nature, an attitude which survived till much later times among many indigenous groups.
A summary of Mayan ethics in New Internationalist Journal tells us, “According to the Guatemalan Mayan vision of the cosmos, every form of life emerges from the same origin or seed. Some seeds become trees, others flowers, others water, others human beings. Thus each creature is inextricably linked to all others and what one does to a tree affects not only the tree but oneself and other creatures. This inter-relatedness calls for profound respect between people and their Creator, between people and nature, and among people themselves. The aim of the Maya is to keep their relationships with the world around them, and also the inner life of each person, in perfect balance according to the rhythms of the cosmos.” This journal goes on to say that Mayan ideas have much in common with those of other indigenous cultures of the Americas, especially in their holism and respect for the environment.
In 1855, the Indian Chief of Seattle responding to pressures from the United States President to sell the land of what in now Washington State, had this to say, “How can we buy or sell the sky or the warmth of the land? Such thoughts to us are inconceivable. We are not in possession of the freshness of the air, or the water-bubbles. Every corner of this land is holy to my people – They remain holy in the memory of my people – from the sparkling pine leaves, the sandy beaches and the mist of dark brooding forests, to the songs of insects… We know that white men do not understand our way of life. Land to him is not a brother but an enemy. After conquering a piece he proceeds to the next… Our God is the same God that you worship. His compassion extends equally to white men and Indians. This land is precious to Him and harming it, therefore, would be an insult to our Creator.”
However these views of nature increasingly came in conflict with the tendency which existed even in ancient times, of making excessive demands on nature, inflicting grave damage on land and water sources, and thereby sooner or late also bringing disaster on human beings. As environment historian John Bellamy Foster writes, “The history of pre-capitalist and preindustrial societies is full of examples of social collapse brought on by environmental depredations.” Thus while attitude of reverence towards nature certainly existed in ancient and indigenous traditions, these certainly did not exist to all societies and times and tendencies of excessive expansion and exploitation appeared sooner or later in many places.
In the conflict of these views – one based on uninhibited exploitation of nature and the other emphasizing caring co-existence with nature – the former attitude started asserting itself more and more with the passage of time. The progress of science should have opened our eyes to the dangers of making excessive demands on nature but in reality something entirely different happened. The unraveling of the mysteries of nature appears to have decreased the awe of it, and encouraged the view that as we know its secrets we can conquer and dominate it. Philosopher of science and one-time Lord-Chancellor of England Sir Francis Bacon observed that the conquest of nature constitutes, “the real business and fortune of the human race.” He said nature must be “bound into service” and made a “slave.”
Such a viewpoint cleared the way for and provided the justification for very large-scale disruption of environment in the last few centuries and most of all in the last few decades. However as rivers were turned into sewer-lines, the rain became acidic, and even the life-giving sunshine was made hazardous by the depletion of the ozone layer, now there is also growing realization of the need for harmonious co-existence with nature instead of striving to dominate it. Domination brings destruction while a protective attitude towards nature also protects the life and livelihood of people.
Engels wrote, “The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forest the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture. When on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy season… Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.”
Unfortunately this oft repeated lesson of history has been ignored even more frequently, one of its most unjust manifestation has been to usurp more to more of the resources of the planet for human beings leaving less and less for other forms of life. According to J.B. Foster, writing in ‘The Vulnerable Planet’ “Human beings now use (take or transform) an estimated 25 percent of the net photosynthetic product (NPP)-i.e., the plant mass fixed by photosynthesis – over the entire earth (land and sea), and 40 per cent on land.” As human beings take more of the primary productivity of the earth for themselves, less is left over for other species. According to Meadows and Randers, the authors of a path breaking study titled ‘Beyond the Limits’ : “Somewhere along the path of NPP usurpation, there lie limits. Long before the ultimate limits are reached, the human race becomes economically, scientifically, aesthetically, and morally impoverished.”
The situation has come to a stage when a range of environmental problems together add up to a fill-blown survival crisis on earth and so many urgent measures are being considered and adopted, including efforts to meet time-bound targets of reducing GHG emissions. However unless there is a very basic change of attitude towards nature from one of conquest and domination to understanding and care, we will not be able to make much progress. This change in attitude, which should be well incorporated into educational efforts at all levels, should be reflected in all future actions and plans.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and Man over Machine.