How history helps remind us of our moral responsibility to the planet and the transient nature of our place upon it.
By Farhat Nasreen, Jamia Millia Islamia, India, and Yusuf Rana Kamal, Vardhaman Mahavir Medical College, India
Climate change is one of the fastest growing worries of the world. The fact that climatic conditions cannot be bought adds much to their value. They are indeed priceless. Of course, climate has always evolved. It was climatic change which made the Earth habitable for human beings. But we now face the risk of an uninhabitable Earth – and this is due to human intervention.
Men have cut jungles, invaded biodiversity, and overused natural resources. The drive for uncontrolled growth has eaten into forests, coral reefs, oceans, and gases. It might hurt the ego of the conceited human species to hear it, but the truth is that the Earth does not need us; we need the Earth and we need it at least the way it is now.
We are already at such an edge that even a slight climatic shift in an unfavorable direction would devastate the natural balance. This brings with it extreme weather, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, the mass extinctions of species, and the growth of dangerous bacteria and viruses, to name a few. Our bodies are damaged every day by contaminated water and air. It is time to knock at every door of knowledge to learn what we can do to deal with a deteriorating climate situation. Luckily, the houses of the history store jewels of wisdom.
In the ancient times, spiritual systems often claimed that natural calamities befell humans due to individual or mass sin. Early scientific knowledge presented a counter argument, claiming that natural events are autonomous and beyond human control. Now, however, we are back to square one where the sciences agree that humans are responsible for at least accelerating climatic events, if not by their ‘sins’ per se, then by their greed for more.
Human intervention in itself is not an individual or recent phenomenon. It is a traceable historical process that is slowly eating into the viability of Earth as a habitable planet. Yet, if we look to the past, we see how many religious and spiritual schools placed respect for the natural environment at the heart of their texts and teachings. Texts dating back hundreds of years spoke of protecting florae and faunae. Many of the ancient civilisations depict animals on their seals. The Indus Valley Civilisation, for example, has yielded large numbers of seals depicting animals - like the one shown below - including bulls, tigers and hares. The edicts of the ancient Indian ruler Ashoka show a similar respect for animals, including a list of protected species: the wild goose, she-goat, parrot, monitor lizard, and cobra among them.
But it’s not just living creatures that find deep significance in religious and spiritual texts. Water bodies were marked as sacred and had legends attached to them, guarding their pristine state. The concept of water as ‘holy’ is also interesting and embedded in the rituals of many religions.
The same goes for the land and the concept of sacred geography, whereby natural features of the earth have deep significance. Think, for example, of the holy mounts such as Mount Sinai or Safa and Marwa in Mecca – sacred sites of reverence and pilgrimage. Or the Himalayas or Mount Goverdhan, both either the abode or embodiment of Hindu deities.
Dust to dust
The natural world emerges again when we think of the alignment of prayer times in accordance with the movement of the Earth around the sun: a prompt for humans to remember their connection with the universe which is far and yet near. Prostration before supreme divinity has always been a physical manifestation of submission. It brings man’s face close to the dust of the Earth – a reminder of the inescapable journey from ‘dust to dust’ and emphasising the need for humility, rather than the greed and mindless materialism which have driven the plundering of the planet.
In many ancient cultures, natural elements like rain, clouds or even diseases, were personified in human forms as demi-gods who were to be feared and respected. Such metaphors were reminders of the power of nature. Religious texts of Christianity emphasise that trees are a resource that facilitate life and should not be purposelessly cut. The Buddhists taught that even while ploughing a field, one should be consciously careful of not hurting the unnoticeable and fragile life forms that thrive in the soil – in other words, a concern for biodiversity.
Speaking of the essentiality of biodiversity, perhaps the most famous example comes from the story of the prophet Noah and his ark. The point to be noted here is that Noah had directions to bring in a pair of every possible species. He didn’t have a choice in this matter; he was not allowed to select only those he found to be useful.
Chains of connection
The subtle lesson from the ark is that humans invariably underestimate the complex chain of interconnections between nature and themselves. The renowned Indian historian Irfan Habib gives a useful example of these interconnections: algae are eaten by small fishes; these fishes when caught in bulk are used as manure in sugarcane fields; the sugarcane is converted into sugar and it reaches our dining table. If the algae are destroyed, the small fishes will also die, leading to a shortage of good manure for sugarcane. This will lead to lesser production and the price of sugar will rise.
A lot of the causes of food crises are hidden in the incredible complexities of multi-staged food chains. Even competition between species is part of these chains, with seeming competitors also often collaborators in discreet ways.
Nature also has inbuilt mechanisms to protect itself. Flowers have thorns, snake skins often match the terrain they slither in, butterflies are as colourful as the flowers they rest on. These are natural shields. Unfortunately, our unchecked greed shatters many such shields. Humans must remember that they are only a part of this chain; nothing more, nothing less.
Lessons from history
It is widely accepted that protecting our planet ultimately has to do with the sensitisation of human beings. The fabric of climate change is finely woven with everyday human behaviour and choices. Therefore, humans have to do their bit to put the right threads in place. We often hear the word ‘adaptation’ to imply changes in policies and practices to resolve an issue. This might mean changing agricultural crops to cope with changing seasons or developing medicines and preventative measures to tackle new or drug-resistant diseases, and so on. Adaption reminds us that human societies have the potential to evolve and reinvent themselves for survival. Here, historical examples can help them to make the right choices and identify those that were problematic in the past.
Historians closely follow the chain of causation to retrace the build-up of a situation. They study patterns such as event-impact-event or situation-response-situation. Deductions from patterns of historical repetitions can help humans navigate their way through the present. In other words, knowledge of the most advantageous choices made in the past can unravel clues for better choices in the future. The past in a way ‘tips off’ the present. In this context, notwithstanding the importance of experimentation, experience itself is very precious.
History records the passage of time. It records everything from mistakes to corrections, from regression to progress, from scarcity to abundance, and from the criminal to lawful. There is an equilibrium in the statics and dynamics of the past and the present. Sins have existed from forever, but so has human goodness! If the containment of climate change has to do with individual choices – which, when added up, will become mass choices – then it is human goodness which needs to be awakened.
Stories of great people who lived simply yet mindfully must be popularised to shift the focus from the craze of immediate and endless acquisition. The younger generation has to be enthused to connect with nature and historical narratives present this connection in the most inspiring of ways.
History has shown time and again that the best freedom is that which does not harm us or others. Similarly, the lens of history casts light on modern materialism: the passage of massive dynasties and civilisations have taught that we don’t really own anything that we currently have. They will always pass on to another generation no matter how hard we try to hold on to them. This is how life has always worked. Herein comes the moral responsibility to use the Earth and its resources with an understanding of the temporariness of our ownership. Historical perception can be used to wipe clean the dust that settles on ethical practices. Climate change is yet another game of time and history decodes time.
Dr Farhat Nasreen is Professor and Head of the Department of History and Culture at Jamia Millia Islamia, India.
Dr Yusuf Rana Kamal is a postgraduate resident doctor at Vardhaman Mahavir Medical College and Safdarjung Hospital, affiliated to Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, India.
Images (from top) Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan, from a translation of the Bhagavata Purana, c. 1625, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Illustration of Noah’s ark via Keith Lance at iStock.
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