Society and Ecology – courtship and conflict

The variety of disciplines and specializations that have proliferated sometimes hinders larger understanding of any phenomenon, especially one that involves anything more than (an arbitrarily selected number!) 3 variables of different types. Then someone comes along and sees things happening that cannot be explained through any existing theory, and hence we have ‘inter-disciplinary’ studies. So, we can have, for example, economics, mathematical economics, ecological mathematical economics and so on, as long as we are comfortable with unwieldy (but cool sounding!) names.

So is the study of relationships between collections of humans and collections of everything else, living and non-living. Sometimes called human geography or social ecology, the main aim is the same: to study how man and nature are intertwined in a circle of courtship and conflict. The separation of man from nature itself is quite arbitrary, and has roots in religion rather than in any sensible thinking. Study of people interacting with each other, which is commonly studied under the banners of economics, sociology and anthropology (and all combinations of the three) has very rarely touched upon our interactions with plants, animals, trees, mountains and rivers, assuming a mutual independence between the material and social worlds (which is again quite arbitrary).

This separation of man from nature is extremely well reflected in products of present culture like TV series and novels. Take for example, the latest hit shows (which I religiously follow) in the US, House M.D. and Heroes. The absence of nature from the studio sets unless it is absolutely required (i.e, it is an outdoor shot) is quite remarkable. This is even more so in our very own Saas-Bahu soaps, which don’t seem to be shot outside a single set. New generation ‘Multiplex movies’ by film makers like Rahul Bose also show how little nature has a role to play in the lives of residents in metropolises. Traditional movies aimed for the less cultured masses still have a role for nature in them, since their audiences may still interact with it on a daily basis.

Take another example of the latest NDTV campaign to spread environmental awareness. As usual, NDTV got a lot of celebrities to support their campaign. A sampling of their comments leads to interesting conclusions : They articulate their concerns in abstract terms like climate change, aesthetics (beautiful/green city = good), energy. The only true down-to-earth concern is that of dwindling water supply, since that is what each and every city dweller is really constrained of. Citizens of the city have really very little understanding of what it means to be part of an ecosystem that does not contain only asphalt and concrete, and typical gathering grounds for them like malls, movie theatres, pubs, nightclubs are indicative of this epistemic void.

But we seem to have evolved to also like being among living beings which do not wear spaghetti tops or rippling abs, and hence the urbanite’s courtship with nature. Nature is an abstract entity that manifests itself in regular trips to National sanctuaries and mountain treks. Not something one needs for daily life (Spencer’s Daily is there for such things), but something that has some nebulous link to our aesthetic and moral sense.

This understanding is quite inaccurate and unfortunate, since it hides from us our means of sustenance. This is where the conflict between different people and people and animals arises. The environmental movements in India started mainly because of these conflicts between man-man and man-beast for natural resources (Chipko Andolan, Narmada Bachao), whereas those in the West derive from the urbanite view of Nature. In fact, the first few to articulate environmental concerns in Europe were artists and poets.

The bitter irony of the matter is that the same people who seem to court nature with their concern towards it are locked in a huge conflict with other people over the same nature, albeit unwittingly. The conflict has been ‘outsourced’ to their creations, the State and the Corporation, and so they can feel purged of moral obligation by buying village handicrafts and tie-dye clothes. Does our obligation stop here ? Are there ways by which one can indulge in ‘high’ culture and still live in harmony with other people and animals?

As always, the questions are easy to ask, the answers may not follow as easily.

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