We see things as we perceive them. Our actions indicate how we perceive things. Our behavior with our natural environment clearly depicts our perception, i.e. its objectification. Calling natural phenomenon as natural disaster or environmental problem, as if it is a misfit in our natural world, is today’s tragedy. Earth was formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago while life in its simplest form began about 3.6 billion years ago, out of which human beings began their journey merely about 2 million years ago. The Earth came much before the human beings came in this world, thus the right to reject human beings wrested with the Earth and not on human beings who can have the right to judge any natural phenomena. Thus, calling a natural phenomenon such as a volcanic eruption, an environmental hazard or a problem is no less than a misnomer. It depicts our perceptual distortions as much ethics and values.
Some environmental perceptions
Environment is perceived by us humans in different ways.One of the common perceptions is nature is fragile. Due to some of the agricultural practices which resulted in irreversible environmental changes, environment is now perceived as fragile. However, in reality environment is bound to change, the change is gradual and evolutionary. Only when human interferences speeds up the gradual process of change, the ecosystem becomes vulnerableand hence, nature is perceived as fragile.
Environment is also perceived as benign when it provides services as we desire and also perverse otherwise when people change ecosystem in such a manner, and to such an extent, that the ecosystem is not able to function properly, at least as before.
The reason we have developed such faulty perception is the words we associate with environment. ‘Words’ associated with environment are not only words; they carry an entire array of perceptions, opinions, feelings and attachments.
The use of the word ‘problem’ with environment itself has not been ethical. The word “environmental problem” treats nature as if the mankind has to find a solution to some ailment that affects nature.Natural events are events, phenomena, not a problem. The word environmental problem therefore points to some perceptual distortion.
Another case in point is the use of the word “hazard”. Dubbing an event as “hazard” absolves people of their responsibility to perceive it as a problem, removes respect and “awe” associated with nature, degrades it in the eye of the perceiver and allows people to become even more judgmental. This is nothing but objectification of environment.
Consequence of such perceptions
These perceptual distortions mainly cause the objectification of environment, difficulty in identification of problem, cause us to look at the environment from anthropogenic perspective and develop a judgmental attitude.
Anthropogenic perspective means perception of nature either as benefiting or as harming the mankind.Consequently some phenomena are looked upon as a problem and are presented in a “practical” and selfish viewpoint of environment. Thus environment is often considered to be friendly if it benefited, and hazardous if not.
While judgmental attitude towards nature prevents people from learning from nature and prevents the shaping of learners attitude. Being judgmental means nature can be blamed, assessed, evaluated, looked down upon and corrected of its problems.
Consequently, the use of various types of expressions came in vogue- Uncertain monsoon, Normal monsoon, Flood hazard, Drought hazard, Earthquake hazard, etc.The word “uncertain”, and “normal” is actually very judgmental and insulting to the monsoon, as if monsoons are the culprit and humans have every right to make a judgment about some aspects of natural phenomena as wrong or right.
How nature should be perceived
Firstly, the reality in contrast to the perceptions people have built is that nature is the best teacher. Nature is to be seen as a learning form, as a teacher as a mentor and an all powerful and as an inspirer. Nature has been and is an institution, the best institution mankind has ever seen, observed and is capable of providing a lot of insights as well as intuitive learning. Intuition helps in coping with life’s unpredictability, uncertainty and undiscovered aspects of it.
Secondly, environment is not something which can be modified, neither is it something that can be commented upon, nor something that always follows logic. Environment is to be seen as something that provides insights and intuition.
Thirdly, there are no problems in the environment that requires to be solved, there are ailments that require to be corrected, there are no patches that required to be cleaned, and there are no complexities that are to be managed. There are only phenomena to be understood, respected and consequently desired.
It is in this light that Icelandic volcanic activity is to be viewed, earthquake in Nepal is to be viewed, tsunamis are to be appreciated. The Icelandic volcanic eruption has been seen as creating problem for aviation or seen as a pollutant emanating toxic fumes into the environment. Without it, the atmosphere would have lost a major chance of getting it replenished. Without a billion or so earthquakes, there was no way, that the Himalayas could have formed.. The tsunamis that take place clean and replenish the whole of coastal areas….
None has described the volcanic eruption as ‘Majestic’ ‘Heavenly” or ‘Eternal beauty”. A volcanic eruption is the most awesome phenomena of nature; most astonishing, amazing, extraordinary, godly …….. event.Expressions change the way people think and perceive their surroundings.
All the so called “hazards” volcanic, earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis, flood, droughts have been beneficial to mankind. Without these hazards, there was no way human beings could have lived on this planet. The base for human habitation and its activity has been set by earthquakes, volcanic activity, tsunamis and all those natural phenomena which the modern civilization calls it as ‘hazard’.
Thus precisely, environmental problems are not a problem to be solved or managed.Environment is itself the best manager and can be managed best by adjusting to it, adopting. Nature is always changing- warming and cooling are part of it. Climate has not changed; it’s the people and their perception towards climate that has changed. Change is the only constant in nature. Neither there are any hazards; there are only perceptions and phenomena. Nature is not our facilitator but our heritage that commands us. It is not an object but our mentor. There are no issues, no excesses in Nature there are only marvels.
Any thinking other than that is a “perceptual distortion”. This realistic perception will help Nature to command respect that it deserves to support mankind, educate them and teach them.
Indian Environmental perception
India with a 6000 year of long history had been a very obedient student of nature.Indians accepted, adapted and adjusted themselves in a variety of ways to their environment.Indians have been using of local water harvesting technologies like Ahar, Johad, Pyne, Jing, Thingal. Neither was environment ever an object of description rather it was a ritual, a religion to learn something, to know the summary of living things. Indians have been practicing River worship whichis symbolic in form to worship water. It is evident in the names that have been used to denote them- Ganga as Mata, Yamunaji. Trees in their natural form were glorified. Places were named after trees as a mark of respect for trees; for example-Champaran meant a place for Champa trees, Vaishali was named after Sal, and Sal was used for various types of buildings like Goshala, Pathshala, etc.Names were based on this environmental symbolism rather than on functional entity.Nature was something to be revered, respected and feared.Disaster was perceived as valuable enough to learn from our mistakes, as a tool to wipe out all our mistakes.Cities were sustainable.The cropping pattern was sustainable and so was inland water transportation. The availability and management of the resources were decentralized. Decentralization was the core mantra of adaptation to environment, and to environmental management.
Evidently, these practices and perceptions have gradually been replaced or modified by western philosophy, leaving us only with vestiges of it.
The beginning of loss of environmental ethics
The colonial imprint and the mindset brought about a lot of change in the thinking of the masses.
Colonialism more than anything else, tries to bring about a change in the way colonized people think, it dents their psyche, makes them feel inferior,convinces them to be inferior in terms of their language culture, lifestyle, their identity itself so much so that they become slaves in their mind.
The environmental management followed in India after independence was based on the thinking of the colonizing countries and represented a western European mode of thinking.
The Western European with the spread of Christianity and scarcity of resources due to its geographical location and changes extensively started exploration. There explorations involved search for more resources. These countries had not had enough experience in managing their resources and environment largely on account of low biodiversity, short history of development and insufficient trial and error through which they have gone far.
Western countries thinking about the use of words was the product of thinking of a society not rich in terms of values, education (not information) towards environment, consequently they did not attach much significance to the choice of words and semiotics. The use of the words was careless.
India abandoned its traditional wisdom, local genius, and adapted Nehruvian ideas of resources management whose mind, psyche, lifestyle, thinking, management was heavily, under the British influence. Indians used to describe the nature and natural phenomena sedated by colonial injection heavily influenced by Nehruvian thinking. As a heavily sedated person of colonial injection, Nehru followed everything that was western ignoring and sometimes insulting the availability of local wisdom and genius. Everything was copied and against Indian thinking and whatever India had learnt.
As a first lesson and ‘solution’ to any environment related aspect, and also as the first step to solve the problem if it is, what we require is the change in the perception of the people about their surrounding and their nature, about mother Earth and all the components of environment. People must be prompted to correct their perceptual distortions, or else nature over which no one can win will continue to be viewed wrongly. In essence, in spirit, in form it is nature that knows best.
One of the greatest tragedy of so called modern civilization is to be judgmental towards and look down upon the very environment that created us. Correcting our faulty perceptions and reviving our environmental philosophy and practices shall strengthen the foundations of our heritage. As the best time to start being ethical towards environment was 25 years ago and the second best time is today!