Since January 2021, I am writing on Environment and Science in the 'Chatusutra' weekly column of Loksatta, a Marathi language newspaper. This weekly series contains four different themes being written by four different authors in a four-week cycle. My first article was published on the second Wednesday of the year, and thereafter my articles are coming every four weeks. One of the request from the readers has been to provide English translations for those who are not able to read Marathi. Meera Rotti took on the task to do this, and therefore I am launching this monthly mini-series. Every month, I will post the English translation of one article in the same chronological order that the Marathi articles have been published in Loksatta.
01. Is Human A Virus?
The original Marathi article published on 13 Jan 2021 can be found HERE.
The year 2020 compelled the urban upper middleclass Indians take cognizance of two invisible forces driving their lives. One is the urban labour force. Most of the urban Indians realized during the lockdown that this is the key driver of their daily lives in and out of their homes. One visible outcome of this realization can be seen in advertisements. Scenes of masters behaving courteously with their servants, who in turn are ecstatic with gratitude are being depicted in advertisements of a lot of products. Of course, the target audience of such advertisements is certainly not the labour class but their masters who have not lost their wealth even during this economic slowdown. In reality the interrelation between people from across the socio-economic strata is much more complex than this current oversimplified depiction. Social scientists can certainly evaluate this phenomenon better than me; however, what I contemplate long and hard about is the realization of the second force by the urban upper middle class.
A few weeks into the lockdown, and people suddenly started noticing different birds, animals, insects etc., in their vicinity. They sensed a drop in air pollution levels, and also observed water in rivers and lakes to be cleaner. In that initial period, practically the entire world was under lockdown. Reports of noticeable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, as claimed by many scientists, were rife in media. Such news reports too have influenced the mindset of the Indian upper middle class. Along with the awakening of our sense of social interconnectedness, sensitivity to our relationship with the natural surroundings has also heightened as a result of all of this. Environment, climate change etc., are more mainstream topics now, and more people are now voluntarily asking what they can and should do to conserve the environment. Though this is indeed a welcome change, there is nothing substantial to be found if you scratch the surface.
It has taken nearly 4.5 billion years for the Earth to attain its current geographical and atmospheric state. The most extraordinary event in our solar system has been the emergence and evolution of life and in turn the emergence and evolution of humans on the Earth. Even the living world in its current form is a result of 4.5 billion years of complex interconnected processes. Based on available evidence, our species, homo sapiens, has existed for two hundred thousand years. We are a part of what we call as environment, and at the same time we are quite separate from it. The relationship between our species and the earth is a very old and complex phenomenon. However, just as the advertisers have oversimplified the newly awakened social sensitivity of the urban rich, the new-found interest in environment of this same class, which also happens to be financially as well as politically powerful, is also being oversimplified.
Half knowledge is worse than ignorance. This newly awakened community is seeking to become a quick savior of the world without diving deep into understanding the interrelationships. As a result, tokenism is flourishing faster now. Those who benefit from rampant degradation of environment may well flaunt decorative pieces made from recycled plastic in their homes, but this does not contribute to the conservation of the environment. However, what is even more worrisome is that this new-found bond with nature is not only superficial but also insensitive.
‘Human’ is a virus infecting the earth, Covid-19 pandemic is a lesson nature has taught to the savage ‘humans’, these and many such statements have been made by many in the past year. Some of those who expressed themselves in this fashion have a good name in the field of environmental conservation. I have only one question for all of them - What exactly do you understand by ‘Human’? Is human a homogeneous species?
Between a tribal woman living in a shanty in the poorest country running her home using resources available within her walking distance and a business tycoon living in a grand villa in one of the wealthiest cities of the world spreads the nearly 8 billion human population of the earth. This is just the socio-economic diversity. Apart from this, there is also a socio-cultural diversity among human beings.
The spread of the virus was significantly higher among the people in low-income settlements of our cities. The extreme measure of imposing a harsh lockdown to curb the spread of the virus dealt a blow to the livelihoods of millions of migrant workers. On the contrary, secured income sources never dried up for those who could work from home. They even got plenty of time to shower virtual hearts, kisses and thumbs-ups on phony social media messages dripping with love for the environment. There were many who could have been knocked over by the pandemic but managed to survive by leveraging their own courage, ingenuity coupled with some luck. We saw many of those who could have stayed secure inside their houses, getting down to ground zero to help the distressed. But these were exceptions rather than the norm. Then who is this virus in human form and who is being punished? Cannot we see how ironical as well as insensitive it is that those secured inside their cocoons built by consuming more than their fair share of natural resources are scorning the hardships of the destitute as a fitting punishment?
On this background, an event that took place in the world of science in 2020 deserves a mention.
Geologists use a system of dating that describes the geologic history of the Earth. This system labels every transition period of the earth with a specific name. Since the last Ice Age ended about eleven and a half thousand years ago, the climate of the earth has mostly remained stable. This epoch is known as Holocene. Due to favourable and stable climate many human groups transitioned from hunter gatherer lifestyle to agrarian lifestyle, which in turn gave rise to various human civilizations. Interactions of these civilizations over hundreds of years has led to today’s multi-faceted and yet homogeneous global social-economic-political system.
However, in the last few decades, Earth’s atmosphere, that has so far been in an equilibrium favourable for us, is rapidly changing. This has led to a rise in the global mean temperature, and has in turn disrupted the weather cycle. Key reason for such a disruption is the frenetic pace of industrialization under a global economy driven by fossil fuels. Along with climate change, our agricultural, construction and mining activities are also altering the geological systems above and below the surface of the land. Consequently, natural balance in the living world is also getting disturbed leading to extinction of many species. Even our own species faces the same threat.
Towards end of the 20th century, it was proposed that Holocene epoch had ended and a time in which humans are directly impacting the environment - called Anthropocene - has started. To decide whether to accept this proposition or not, a committee of geologists was formed which has arrived at a conclusion which is likely to be announced in 2021.
This is not just a scientific curiosity. This thought has echoes in various other fields. While formally accepting the nomenclature for the present times as Anthropocene, it must not be forgotten that the diverse human groups on the earth do not have the same ecological impacts. Studies conducted from various perspectives have shown that the actions of past and present rich and upper middleclass people are more responsible for the blows delivered to the balance of nature. To maintain the environment in a condition to support human life, we now need a total reconstruction of all our economic, social and political paradigms. Will the environmental consciousness awakened among the urban upper middle class of India during the Covid-19 pandemic break free from tokenism and pursue this path?
Author: Priyadarshini Karve
English Translation: Meera Rotti