Government ignores Vedic injunction, destroys environment for material growth – Gautam Benegal

Logging in India

Gautam Benegal“Madhu vātāḥ ṛitāyate madhu kṣaranti sindhavaḥ mādvih naḥ santuṣadhi. Madhu naktamutusāsu madhumatpārthiva rajah madhu kṣorastu suryah mādhirgābo bhavantu naḥ’’ (Rig Vedic prayer invoking divine intervention to bless and protect the environment). – Gautam Benegal

More than 3,000 years ago, all the four Vedas—Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva—recognised the importance of the maintenance of the seasons’ cycles, likely to get altered because of inappropriate human actions.

It is remarkable that our ancestors of Vedic times regarded nature and the environment in a holistic manner and revered each of its constituents and entities while having meticulous prescriptions for carefully preserving them. The Vedic people had a sustainable relationship with nature. They compared trees to human beings, they prayed to Indra not to separate trees from the forests, which is akin to separating sons from their fathers (Rig Veda 8/1/13).

The Vṛkṣāyurveda says that planting a tree is as beneficial as having 10 sons: “Dasakūpa sama vāpi dasa vāpi sama hradaḥ dasahrada samah putro dasaputra sama drumaḥ” –  Vrksayurvedah 5.

And yet, for all the harking back to the past we’re seeing—and the avowed rejection of western ways, which is the ideological doctrine of the RSS-BJP—where do we stand today and why? The recent loss of biodiversity is unprecedented and at no other time in human history has this loss been as great. Habitats are being lost and degraded, natural resources are being exploited beyond their capacity, pollution is taking a toll on the systems, species that are not native are taking over new habitats, and climate change is threatening the very existence of all species.

Speaking of specifics, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train Project is a 508-km line that would cost about Rs 1.1 lakh crore, needing around 270 hectares from Maharashtra—which will claim some 53,000 mangroves.

By now, every high school kid knows why mangroves are important, and hopefully, every adult knows what happens when high tides come into the coastline of a city like Mumbai. We also have a fair idea that the bullet train is going to be only for a handful of well-off businessmen who can afford it, and hardly cost-effective compared to the price it will extract, in terms of environmental degradation and the subsequent havoc caused.

Or take the Mumbai Coastal Road that is being built.

On March 19, 2019, the Bombay High Court questioned the state authorities on how they could begin work on a coastal road project without determining whether it was going to adversely affect fishing communities and breeding grounds for fish along the proposed road. Mumbai lies on 23 major fault lines along the Thane creek, Ulhas river, the Manori and Malad creeks and the lakes that supply drinking water to the city. To the west, a fault line stretches from Colaba to Vasai, touching Malabar Hill, exactly on the route of the coastal road. Meanwhile, one of the last green lungs of Mumbai, the Aarey forest is reportedly being denuded of 2,703 trees for the metro line three car shed construction.

Given the massive rate at which environmental depredation is taking place and habitats are being destroyed, it is very unlikely that the conciliatory Plant India Initiative of the government is going to produce substantial relief.

Take the Mumbai coastline. Once mangroves are gone, they can’t simply be replanted.

Mangroves actually hold the coastline in place, giving it its shape. Once they are gone, the land erodes and tides and currents reshape the coastline, making it difficult or impossible for mangroves to grow back in their former habitats. When mangroves are planted, it is absolutely crucial to plant the right ones. Mangroves aren’t a single species—the term “mangrove” covers the 70 or so species of shrubs or trees that grow in saline or brackish water. Each kind of mangrove is uniquely suited to its ecological niche—the wrong kind in the wrong place won’t survive.

After Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines’ coastal communities, the government committed to planting one million mangroves. Unfortunately, many were planted without regard to getting the right species in the right place—and many of the trees died.

This government, like previous governments, continues to follow a model of progress that is colonial and invasive, that bulldozes everything that it considers “redundant” and an obstacle to industrialisation.

Brett Bowden explains in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology: Colonialism, Anti-colonialism and the Idea of Progress: “The idea of progress has two related components. The first is that the human species universally progresses, albeit at different rates and to different degrees, from an original primitive or child-like condition, referred to as savagery, through to barbarism, and culminates at the apex of progress in the status of civilization. … The notion that different peoples or cultural groups are at different stages of development along the path of universal progress has led some to deem it necessary to try to ameliorate the condition of those thought to be less civilized. This enterprise has variously been known as the “white man’s burden”, the “burden of civilization”, or the “sacred trust of civilization”.

The general aim of these often violent and overly-zealous “civilising missions” was to ameliorate the state of the “uncivilized” through tutelage, training, and conversion to Christianity.

When the RSS-BJP rally against the “West”, do they have a clear idea of what it means and how much they are a part of the very idea they claim to condemn?

The industrialist entity we now call the Westand compete withwas layer upon layer created through the exploring colonial nations of Western Europe. The “civilised” West also came to define itself in contradistinction to the “barbarians” and “savages” discovered beyond the European horizon. This process was neatly captured by the poet Friedrich von Schiller in the late 18th century when he writes: “A wise hand seems to have preserved these savage tribes until such time as we have progressed sufficiently in our own civilization to make useful application of this discovery, and from this mirror to recover the lost beginning of our own race.”

Schiller declared them the “barbarous remains of the centuries of antiquity and the middle ages!”

That is how our own governments have treated our Adivasis and our forest spaces for all these yearsas a work in progress, whose final outcome is to surrender to the mainstream, either by elimination or subjugation, and not entities that deserve to exist as they have, in harmony with their ecologies as part of nature, to be preserved.

No, we readily mouth homages to our Vedas but do not follow them in spirit.

It is a lot like making a big deal of the tokenism of carrying the Union Budget wrapped in a bahi khata doing away with the colonial briefcasebut arriving in a BMW to do it.

(Not to mention the ironic fact that after much ado about that traditionalism, the government proposed more Foreign Direct Investment in media, aviation and insurance.)

Make no mistake, the new India is materialist, militarist, neo-colonial and will extract every last bit of juice from her rocks, plants, animals and trees to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the western world. No matter what the cost to the environment or her indigenous people. (The Mumbai Coastal Road is aspirationally compared to the Pacific Coast Highway in the US). There are also plans to have a road going along the ecologically sensitive coast all the way to Goa that will cut drown travel time to six hours.

We have still got our heads stuck in the colonial, invasive idea of progress and have not moved to the ideas of mutualism and sustainability.

The only difference between the West we pretend to reject and us is that we have so-called godmen in saffron robes fronting for industrial interestsand making it all look like a resurgence of our ancient glory from mythological times. – Daily-O, 8 July 2019

»  Gautam Benegal is an award winning animation filmmaker, artist, author, and social commentator.



Electrocution: A rising threat to wildlife – Rachel Nuwer

Electrocuted elephant in Odisha

Rachel NuwerMore than 100 endangered Asian elephants were killed by electrocution in the state of Odisha, India, over 12 years, mostly by contact with power lines. – Rachel Nuwer

South Africa is a country of ranches, farms, reserves and national parks, many surrounded by miles of electric fencing. The fencing keeps out unwanted animal and human intruders, and protects livestock and desirable wildlife.

But the fencing also has a deadly, unintended side effect: It frequently kills smaller animals, particularly birds and reptiles that scientists are eager to conserve. Trip wires are often to blame. Positioned about half a foot off the ground, the wires are meant to send a deterring zap to hungry lions and crop-raiding bush pigs.

But not all creatures respond by turning tail. Tortoises that hit a tripwire withdraw into their shells rather than retreat, while pangolins curl over the wire into a defensive ball. The animals stay put, shocked until their hearts give out.

“Farmers will walk along fences and find six to eight dead tortoises in the space of 100 meters,” said Luke Arnot, a veterinary surgeon and lecturer at the University of Pretoria. “With tortoises, we tend to think of poaching and bush fires, but electric fences are as big, if not a bigger problem.”

According to a 2008 study, some 21,000 reptiles in South Africa are killed each year after coming into contact with electric fences. Dr. Arnot has been trying to sound the alarm, by publishing articles in farming and ranching magazines that detail practical, inexpensive fixes and by devising wildlife-friendly guidelines for electric fence installation.

His remedies are simple: lifting trip wires higher off the ground, for example, or running the current only at night, when predators are around.

“These fences have got the capacity to decimate whole populations, and they’re doing that,” he said. But the threat posed to wildlife “is still not something a lot of people think about.”

South Africa is not the only country struggling with the problem, and it’s not just fences that kill. Power lines are being strung haphazardly across poor countries; these, too, electrocute animals, and collisions alone often prove fatal for birds.

“There are studies from all over the world that have documented this as an issue,” said Scott Loss, an ecologist at Oklahoma State University.

Electrocution affects a diverse variety of species; in some, it is so common that it jeopardizes the survival of species. In southern African countries, electrocution is considered a leading threat to endangered Cape vultures and critically endangered white-backed vultures.

In Central Asia, electrocution kills an estimated 4,000 endangered Saker falcons each year. In the United States, Dr. Loss and his colleagues have estimated that tens of millions of birds are killed by power lines each year.

Scientists aren’t yet sure how great a threat electrocution poses to many of the affected species. “Birds of conservation concern, like red-tailed hawks and golden eagles, are dying from electrocution, but we don’t have a good handle on how that mortality source is contributing to changes in populations of these species, if at all,” Dr. Loss said.

Making reliable estimates is especially difficult in wilder areas because scavengers quickly sniff out fallen carcasses, said Simon Thomsett, an ornithologist and trustee of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust.

“In wildlife areas in Kenya, hyenas and other animals make paths to power lines to get at dead birds,” he said.

Electrocuted animals are also not necessarily killed on the spot. Birds may “get zapped,” Mr. Thomsett said, and then fly hundreds of miles away, only to die a week or two later when their damaged limbs atrophy and become necrotic.

“This makes it impossible to go underneath power lines to enumerate the number of deaths,” Mr. Thomsett said. “But I think this is a growing threat and that it’s enormously underestimated by most wildlife conservationists, wardens and conservancy managers.”

Even large animals are threatened. More than 100 endangered Asian elephants were killed by electrocution in the state of Odisha, India, over 12 years, mostly by contact with power lines. GiraffesAfrican elephantsleopards, Cape buffalo and white rhinos have all been electrocuted in various countries.

Primates are especially frequent victims. At least 30 species and subspecies, half of which are threatened with extinction, are affected by electrocution in Asia, Africa and Latin America. “This is a widespread problem, but it’s also underreported and understudied, so there could be more species affected,” said Lydia Katsis, a recent graduate of Bristol Veterinary School in Britain.

In July, Ms. Katsis published research in the International Journal of Primatology  identifying electrocution hot spots for five primate species in Diani Beach, Kenya. Electrocution accounts for up to 20 percent of primate mortality and injury cases reported to Colobus Conservation, a nonprofit group based in the town.

In general, primates that are electrocuted die instantly or from the impact of a fall, but if they survive the initial jolt, they may succumb later to secondary infections from “horrific injuries” caused by the shock, Ms. Katsis said.

In addition to the conservation costs, animals that come in contact with power lines or other electric infrastructure extract a significant economic toll. In 2016, for example, a vervet monkey caused a nationwide blackout in Kenya after tripping a transformer, cutting off power to some 4.7 million homes and businesses.

“Animals have caused outages, disruptions and damage to infrastructure amounting to billions of dollars,” said Constant Hoogstad, a senior manager of industry partnerships at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization in South Africa. “We estimate that 60 percent of line faults and interruptions in South Africa are wildlife-related.”

Mr. Hoogstad and his colleagues work directly with Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned electricity provider, to carry out various mitigation strategies. These include making power lines more visible to birds, insulating conductors on pole tops, and designing poles so birds cannot make contact with live components.

“It’s really important to engineer this problem out,” Mr. Hoogstad said.

The results have been hit or miss. For some species, such as Ludwig’s bustard, interventions to reduce collisions with power lines have met with little success. For others, including blue cranes and flamingos, mortalities can be reduced by 90 percent or more.

Why these measures work for some species and not others is “the million-dollar question,” Mr. Hoogstad said, one that his research colleagues are working to answer.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s efforts are being replicated in Jordan, Namibia, Tanzania and Australia. In the United States, the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee, a nonprofit organization whose members include more than 50 utility companies, also works to reduce bird deaths.

Most other countries lack such initiatives, however, and in many places the problem is only set to worsen, Mr. Thomsett warned.

In Kenya, for example, power lines are being installed at breakneck speed, often in protected areas and along major pathways used by migratory birds. In October, Mr. Thomsett’s colleagues found the electrocuted remains of a threatened martial eagle—Africa’s largest eagle—beneath newly constructed power lines near the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

The bird, a juvenile, was one the conservationists knew: They had tagged it just seven months before as part of a long-term study on the species’ ecology and survival in Kenya.

“The terrible thing about power lines is that every single one will kill,” Mr. Thomsett said. “But people here say they don’t care because we need to develop our country.” – The New York Times, 1 January 2019

» Rachel Nuwer is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes about science, travel and adventure for outlets such as The New York Times, Scientific American, and National Geographic.

Leopard electrocuted in Telangana


Of tearful peacocks, Trumpism and celibacy of reason – Shankkar Aiyar

Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma
Shankkar AiyarThomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, observed, “It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief that mental lying has produced in society.” In their desperation, politics and politicos have installed the alternate truth and rendered reason celibate in public discourse. – Shankkar Aiyar

It has been an eventful week even by the normal mid-summer silly season standards.

Like it would appear that school and college zoology lessons need to be updated with the concept of conception. The idea of the rule of law, it would seem—and not just in India—is subject to the law of who rules.

Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, observed, “It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief that mental lying has produced in society.” In their desperation, politics and politicos have installed the alternate truth and rendered reason celibate in public discourse.

Like, earlier this week, a judge in the Rajasthan High Court, informed the court and Indians at large that the peacock is a lifelong celibate, it never has sex with a peahen and the peahen gives birth after getting impregnated with the peacock’s tears.

In one breath, the concept of Immaculate Conception found its way into what was intended to be an order on the rule of law. Indians were  also  informed  through the lengthy 139-page order, “Cow  is  the only  divine  animal that  exhales oxygen”, that it was  a  mobile “clinic  on  its own” among other positives. The judge also recommended that the cow be declared a national animal and that its slaughter be punishable with life imprisonment.

Like all this knowledge was on a petition on ill-treatment of cows in a local animal shelter. The treatment of the cattle was also the subject of a new clause in the regulation on cattle sale impacting trade, threatening jobs, supplies and exports.

The issue has haunted governments since 1950s. The legal conflicts, the cultural compulsions, the political sensitivities and the economic issues had been argued and reviewed in a 1958 Supreme Court judgment on ban of cattle slaughter. This would have been known to the proponents of the idea. Yet, the authors of the clause caused chaos and confusion in the markets, invited stay orders and triggered protests by states.

Like in Kerala, the land of near-total literacy, and ostensibly a matriarchal society to boot, a judge inducted the ultimate expression of patriarchy and declared: “A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways”. It didn’t matter that adulthood has been defined as attaining the age of 18 by the Majority Act, 1875, and subsequently, emphasised in the Indian Majority (Amendment) Act, 1999.

Like India is known for its prowess in frugal cost engineering and in tech processes—ISRO stunned the world by launching 104 satellites in one go; Indian software engineers write code for global systems and are driving advancement in artificial intelligence. It is true that subscription to what is divine is an article of individual faith. But can matters of science—exhalation of oxygen or cure of cholera or reproductive biology—be rendered a matter of belief?

Like there is the phenomenon of rhetoric sans logic, and then there is economic data in search of logic. This week, Indians were informed that the economy grew at 7.1 per cent in 2016-17—a drop of nearly one per cent from the last fiscal. The data continues to show cohabitation of high growth and low job creation, high growth and poor credit off-take, high growth and falling investment rate. The question: Was the slide in growth only about demonetisation?

Like the data also raises a political and pertinent question. GDP growth year was boosted by record agricultural output—gross value addition went up from 0.7 per cent to 4.9 per cent. Prosperity though has eluded farmers—this week, farmers poured milk on the streets of Mumbai and threatened to stop cultivation, there is a national demand for loan waivers and higher prices. Why are farmers angry? The answer is: Not “because the opposition” is egging them on. This is a crisis on simmer. It will not go away with silly rhetoric.

Like the real risk to the cause of reason is the success with which the US President has marketed illogical arguments as politically acceptable logic. Of course, the flip side is that every other global leader seems reasonable. Indeed, in the geopolitical sense, its advantage China. And it says something about the disruption of Trumpism that Xi Jinping is acquiring  a halo and is emerging as lead statesman on globalisation.

Like the question is not whether the United States was right or righteous in exiting the climate change agreement. It is not surprising either—after all there is precedence, the negation of the Kyoto accord. The peril is the saleability of what was hitherto considered as “reneging” on the word. Global statesmanship about issues that affect seven billion plus human beings on the planet, and multilateralism, it would appear has been reduced by the $18 trillion superpower into my way or the highway.

Like it didn’t matter that this was one rare time 195 countries agreed on something or that the US had led the initiative. The question is not about the timing either. The question is about the presentation of fiction as fact. “India”, he said, “makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries”. Incredibly, the intellectual heft of the accord has left the Trump administration untouched.

Like the truth about climate change, the risks to the planet, the lives of millions at stake, and the obligation to future generations are scarcely an issue in this debate. The Trump administration has now crafted retrospective reasoning for the pull out. It is now reasoned that the imposed obligations lacked legislative sanction—this from an administration that has paraded executive action as a divine entitlement.

Like, in the past 10 days, Trump has called his allies in NATO names, charged them of not paying up, apparently asked them to call him directly on his mobile and coined a new word ‘covfefe’. What Trump tweets, and even when he fails to complete a sentence, has acquired the status of appointment viewing of a daily soap.

Like the real moral hazard is the allure of Trumpism. Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”. Trump politics is a reality show.  And the danger is that what is passable in the world’s oldest democracy, may become standard operating practice, the exceptionable may become ubiquitous.  – The New Sunday Express, 4 May 2017

» Shankkar Aiyar is an analyst and journalist for The New Indian Express in New Delhi. Tweet him @ShankkarAiyar.

Donald Trump, Paris 2017

Ganga & Yamuna are ‘living persons’ with legal rights, decrees Uttarakhand HC – Vineet Upadhyay

Devprayag : Confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers, and birthplace of the Ganga.

Ganga DeviThe status accorded to the Ganga and the Yamuna means that if anyone is found polluting the rivers, it would amount to harming a human being. – Vineet Upadhyay

In the first order of its kind in the country, the Uttarakhand High Court on Monday decreed that the Ganga and the Yamuna as well as their tributaries and sister bodies be declared “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities.”

This, the court said, was to ensure “preservation and conservation of the two rivers and to protect the recognition and faith of society.”

A division bench of Justices Alok Singh and Rajiv Sharma noted that “the extraordinary situation has arisen since the rivers Ganga and the Yamuna are losing their very existence.”

The court’s order comes days after a landmark bill passed in New Zealand making the Whanganui river, revered by the indigenous Maori people, the first in the world to be recognised as a living entity with full legal rights.

The status accorded to the Ganga and the Yamuna, legal experts said, would mean that if anyone was found polluting the rivers, it would amount to harming a human being.

“By this order, the court has recognised ‘fifth generation rights’ which are not limited to humans but extend to the habitat. The order will give a new dimension to the laws framed for protection of the environment,” said senior lawyer K. H. Gupta.

The court named the director of Namami Gange, the chief secretary of Uttarakhand and the advocate general of the state “persons in loco parentsi“—the human face representing the rivers. “All the Hindus have deep astha in the Ganga and the Yamuna and they collectively connect with these rivers. The rivers are central to the existence of half of the Indian population and their health and well being. They have provided both physical and spiritual sustenance to all of us from time immemorial,” the judges said.

The judges noted that a “startling revelation” had been made by the senior joint commissioner, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, that “despite long correspondence, neither the state of UP nor the state of Uttarakhand are cooperating with the central government for the constitution of Ganga Management Board”. The High Court ordered the central government to constitute the board and make it functional “within a period of three months…. We need not remind the state governments that they are bound to obey the orders passed by the central government, failing which consequences may ensue under Article 365 of the Constitution of India.” – Times of India, 21 March 2017

Prayag : Confluence of the Ganga (muddy brown) and Yamuna (dark blue) rivers

Tiruvannamalai: HR&CE Dept plans to cut 545 old forest trees, build guest house – Priyanka Thirumurthy

Arunachala Hill

Priyanka ThirumurthyHR&CE Department in a document dated February 27, has ordered the axing of 545 naturally grown trees in the Sona Nathi Thoppu. The land to be razed, belongs to the Arunachaleswarar Temple and contains 22 species of trees. According to the order, … the trees are being razed to construct a tourist guest house. – Priyanka Thirumurthy

Environmentalists in Tiruvannamalai are not new to the fight to save trees along the Girivalam path. Only last year, they were up in arms against the Highways Department that wanted to fell trees to widen the path for pilgrims. An interim order from the National Green Tribunal, directing that not a single tree be cut, came as relief to activists in December. But now, another battle awaits them, in the form of a Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department order.

In a move bound to stoke controversy, the HR&CE Department in a document dated February 27, has ordered the axing of 545 naturally grown trees in the Sona Nathi Thoppu. The land to be razed, belongs to the Arunachaleswarar Temple and contains 22 species of trees. According to the order, accessed by TNM, the trees are being razed to construct a Yatri Nivas (Tourist Guest House) for pilgrims who embark on the Girivalam path.

The path is essentially a 14km road around the sacred Annamalai hill, which is considered to be a form of Lord Shiva. A journey around the hill is undertaken by pilgrims every full moon day of the month. Lakhs of devotees participate in this ritual in Tiruvannamalai.

The move has led to outrage among activists who claim that the order will result in the destruction of untouched land that is home to trees that are over a century old. Moreover, activists allege, it will destroy the habitat of animals and over 40 species of birds that exist in the area.

Kumar AmbayeramActivists in the area, are now questioning the HR&CE department over the need to build a Yatri Nivas, in an area where a plush green canopy is hard to come by. “This is a completely insensitive act. There are enough places to rest for those travelling along the Girivalam path. There are several empty lands that belong to the temple. If you must build a Yatri Nivas, why not build it there?” asks Kumar Ambayeram, an environmentalist based in Tiruvannamalai.

Activists claim that they are currently contemplating taking the matter to court, if there is a move to execute the HR&CE’s order.

“This is the only patch of trees that survives even during a drought. We all know how dry this area can get. It is a safe haven for animals and birds. You can’t ruin greenery when it is already scarce,” he argues.

Activists further claim that this order comes at a time when afforestation programmes taken up by the Forest department are bearing fruit. According to The Hindu, the forest department has planted saplings in 275 acres over the years. In addition to this in 2010, they began a drive to plant 50,000 saplings in 260 hectares of the Adi Annamalai reserve forests. “After decades worth of efforts, the region is becoming greener. At such a time, this is a big blow,” says one environmentalist, under the condition of anonymity.

“The trees in the land under the Arunachaleswarar temple are the only ones that have stood there for decades naturally. The trees there are extremely tall and wide. It will take three people to cover the girth of one tree with their arms. Building a Yatri Nivas is just not a good enough reason to destroy this hotspot of biodiversity,” he argues.

If they were to go through with the instructions in the order, 22 species including Palm, Neem, Coconut and varieties of mango will be felled.

Despite attempts by TNM to contact the Commissioner of the HR&CE Department, he was unavailable for comment. – The News Minute, 6 March 2017

»  Priyanka Thirumurthy is a reporter for The News Minute.

Girivalam Protest

India’s own sacred ecology – Michel Danino

Peepal Tree

Prof Michel DaninoThe notion of a creator apart from his creation, superior to it, more often cursing than loving it, is a wedge that Judaism and its two daughter religions vertically drove into a hitherto seamless cosmos. – Prof Michel Danino

We saw in the previous article (Decoding the idea of India) how the creation of a sacred geography for India was a major instrument of her cultural integration. Not only the countless teerthas, but also the mountains, seas, rivers, forests, trees and other plants, animals big and small, were imbued with divinity. Of course, most pre-Judeo-Christian cultures shared this worldview: from the Nile to Mount Olympus, from Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, to the phoenix, that universe was crowded with living symbols drawn from nature. The notion of a creator apart from his creation, superior to it, more often cursing than loving it, is a wedge that Judaism and its two daughter religions vertically drove into a hitherto seamless cosmos.

In the Rig Veda, India’s earliest text, earth and heaven are addressed as a single being (dyavaprithivi); they are “father and mother” but also the “twins”; together, they “keep all creatures safe”. India’s Yggdrasil is the ashvattha (the pipal or Boddhi tree) which the Gita turned upside down: the cosmic tree, the origin of India’s tree-worshipping traditions, has its roots above and branches below—a transparent symbol for this creation, which can be represented by a cosmic cow, the source of all food. Indeed symbols endlessly multiply, from celestial rivers to the gods’ vahanas. More importantly, the Upanishadic precept that “all creatures are impelled by consciousness” unites us to the humblest plant or animal.

Dr Meera NandaIs this the origin of the Buddhist and Jain doctrine of ahimsa or the concept of wildlife sanctuary in Ashoka’s edicts as in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, perhaps a “world first”? If so, this tradition is more than just idyllic. Not everyone agrees. Meera Nanda, for instance, a self-styled historian of science whom I had occasion to critique in earlier articles, condemns this “Dharmic ecology”, which she defines as “an unabashedly Hindu supremacist, nationalistic version of the same religious environmentalism that the anti-Enlightenment left has been preaching and practicing.”

Nanda sees this worldview as a dangerous weapon in Hindutva’s arsenal: “Dharmic ecology of Hindutva right is emerging as the hub of a new neo-pagan International. Neopaganism in Europe and America has deep and historic ties with Nazi and Neo-Nazi groups,” and, as we know, there is a “long history of the Nazi and neo-Nazi involvement with occult and paganism.” Thus the syllogism works as follows: Indic traditions of sacred ecology (as I prefer to call it) are pagan; Nazism was involved with paganism; the said Indic traditions are thus obscurantist and dangerous.

The fallacy of it is glaring: the premise is incorrect; Hindu beliefs behind sacred ecology are not just “pagan”, a term of contempt created by medieval Christianity; they are founded on a philosophy and a spiritual experience of the “nature of nature”. And the association with Nazism is a vicious case of reductio ad Hitlerism. (to put it crudely: if you wear boots, you may be accused of a link with Nazism, since Hitler wore boots too). It has indeed become a fashion among certain intellectuals to “reveal” hidden connections between Hinduism and Nazism. Nanda’s more serious criticism is that there is no evidence that India’s sacred ecology “encourages wise use of nature”.

Instead, she advocates “secular environmentalism” as a “source of secularism and a class-based collective action”. It may be true that today’s Indians have by and large poor environmental awareness, wantonly contributing to the destruction of forests, the disappearance of wildlife and the spiralling pollution. But perhaps that is because Indian society has hardly had any transition between tradition and modernity. From the rich ethno-botanical traditions of the Bishnois, Bhils, Warlis, Santhals or Todas to the current urbanite disaster, there has been almost no time to adapt. – The New Indian Express, 5 December 2016

Pilgrim offering a lamp to Ganga Devi at the Kumbha Mela 2013

What would happen if the world went vegetarian? – Rachel Nuwer

 Vegetable Market Rishikesh

Rachel NuwerIf vegetarianism was adopted by 2050, it would stave off about 7 million deaths per year, while veganism would knock that estimate up to 8 million – Rachel Nuwer

People become vegetarians for a variety of reasons. Some do it to alleviate animal suffering, others because they want to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Still others are fans of sustainability or wish to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

No matter how much their carnivorous friends might deny it, vegetarians have a point: cutting out meat delivers multiple benefits. And the more who make the switch, the more those perks would manifest on a global scale.

But if everyone became a committed vegetarian, there would be serious drawbacks for millions, if not billions, of people.

“It’s a tale of two worlds, really,” says Andrew Jarvis of Colombia’s International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. “In developed countries, vegetarianism would bring all sorts of environmental and health benefits. But in developing countries there would be negative effects in terms of poverty.”

Jarvis and other experts at the centre hypothesised what might happen if meat dropped off the planet’s menu overnight.

First, they examined climate change. Food production accounts for one-quarter to one-third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and the brunt of responsibility for those numbers falls to the livestock industry. Despite this, how our dietary choices affect climate change is often underestimated. In the US, for example, an average family of four emits more greenhouse gases because of the meat they eat than from driving two cars—but it is cars, not steaks, that regularly come up in discussions about global warming.

“Most people don’t think of the consequences of food on climate change,” says Tim Benton, a food security expert at the University of Leeds. “But just eating a little less meat right now might make things a whole lot better for our children and grandchildren.”

Marco SpringmannTexas Meat Breakfast, a research fellow at the Oxford Martin School’s Future of Food programme, tried to quantify just how much better: he and his colleagues built computer models that predicted what would happen if everyone became vegetarian by 2050. The results indicate that—largely thanks to the elimination of red meat—food-related emissions would drop by about 60%. If the world went vegan instead, emissions declines would be around 70%.

“When looking at what would be in line with avoiding dangerous levels of climate change, we found that you could only stabilise the ratio of food-related emissions to all emissions if everyone adopted a plant-based diet,” Springmann says. “That scenario is not very realistic—but it highlights the importance that food-related emissions will play in the future.”

Food, especially livestock, also takes up a lot of room—a source of both greenhouse gas emissions due to land conversion and of biodiversity loss. Of the world’s approximately five billion hectares (12 billion acres) of agricultural land, 68% is used for livestock.

Should we all go vegetarian, ideally we would dedicate at least 80% of that pastureland to the restoration of grasslands and forests, which would capture carbon and further alleviate climate change. Converting former pastures to native habitats would likely also be a boon to biodiversity, including for large herbivores such as buffalo that were pushed out for cattle, as well as for predators like wolves that are often killed in retaliation for attacking livestock.

The remaining 10 to 20% of former pastureland could be used for growing more crops to fill gaps in the food supply. Though a relatively small increase in agricultural land, this would more than make up for the loss of meat because one-third of the land currently used for crops is dedicated to producing food for livestock—not for humans.

Both environmental restoration and conversion to plant-based agriculture would require planning and investment, however, given than pasturelands tend to be highly degraded. “You couldn’t just take cows off the land and expect it to become a primary forest again on its own,” Jarvis says.

Cow, Pig & ChickenCarnivorous careers

People formerly engaged in the livestock industry would also need assistance transitioning to a new career, whether in agriculture, helping with reforestation or producing bioenergy from crop byproducts currently used as livestock feed.

Some farmers could also be paid to keep livestock for environmental purposes. “I’m sitting here in Scotland where the Highlands environment is very manmade and based largely on grazing by sheep,” says Peter Alexander, a researcher in socio-ecological systems modelling at the University of Edinburgh. “If we took all the sheep away, the environment would look different and there would be a potential negative impact on biodiversity.”

Should we fail to provide clear career alternatives and subsidies for former livestock-related employees, meanwhile, we would probably face significant unemployment and social upheaval—especially in rural communities with close ties to the industry.

“There are over 3.5 billion domestic ruminants on earth, and tens of billions of chickens produced and killed each year for food,” says Ben Phalan, who researches the balance between food demand and biodiversity at the University of Cambridge. “We’d be talking about a huge amount of economic disruption.”

But even the best-laid plans probably wouldn’t be able to offer alternative livelihoods for everyone. Around one-third of the world’s land is composed of arid and semi-arid rangeland that can only support animal agriculture. In the past, when people have attempted to convert parts of the Sahel—a massive east-to-west strip of Africa located south of the Sahara and north of the equator—from livestock pasture to croplands, desertification and loss of productivity have ensued. “Without livestock, life in certain environments would likely become impossible for some people,” Phalan says. That especially includes nomadic groups such as the Mongols and Berbers who, stripped of their livestock, would have to settle permanently in cities or towns—likely losing their cultural identity in the process.

Plus, even those whose entire livelihoods do not depend on livestock would stand to suffer. Meat is an important part of history, tradition and cultural identity. Numerous groups around the world give livestock gifts at weddings, celebratory dinners such as Christmas centre around turkey or roast beef, and meat-based dishes are emblematic of certain regions and people. “The cultural impact of completely giving up meat would be very big, which is why efforts to reduce meat consumption have often faltered,” Phalan says.

The effect on health is mixed, too. Springmann’s computer model study showed that, should everyone go vegetarian by 2050, we would see a global mortality reduction of 6-10%, thanks to a lessening of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers. Eliminating red meat accounts for half of that decline, while the remaining benefits are thanks to scaling back the number of calories people consume and increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables they eat. A worldwide vegan diet would further amplify these benefits: global vegetarianism would stave off about 7 million deaths per year, while total veganism would knock that estimate up to 8 million. Fewer people suffering from food-related chronic illnesses would also mean a reduction in medical bills, saving about 2-3% of global gross domestic product.

But realising these projected benefits would require replacing meat with nutritionally appropriate substitutes. Animal products contain more nutrients per calorie than vegetarian staples like grains and rice, so choosing the right replacement would be important, especially for the world’s estimated two billion-plus undernourished people. “Going vegetarian globally could create a health crisis in the developing world, because where would the micronutrients come from?” Benton says.

Vegetarian GhoulAll in moderation

But fortunately, the entire world doesn’t need to convert to vegetarianism or veganism to reap many of the benefits while limiting the repercussions.

Instead, moderation in meat-eating’s frequency and portion size is key. One study found that simply conforming to the World Health Organization’s dietary recommendations would bring the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions down by 17%—a figure that would drop by an additional 40% should citizens further avoid animal products and processed snacks. “These are dietary changes that consumers would barely notice, like having a just-slightly-smaller piece of meat,” Jarvis says. “It’s not this either-or, vegetarian-or-carnivore scenario.”

Certain changes to the food system also would encourage us all to make healthier and more environmentally-friendly dietary decisions, says Springmann—like putting a higher price tag on meat and making fresh fruits and vegetables cheaper and more widely available. Addressing inefficiency would also help: thanks to food loss, waste and overeating, fewer than 50% of the calories currently produced are actually used effectively.

“There is a way to have low productivity systems that are high in animal and environmental welfare—as well as profitable—because they’re producing meat as a treat rather than a daily staple,” Benton says. “In this situation, farmers get the exact same income. They’re just growing animals in a completely different way.”

In fact, clear solutions already exist for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock industry. What is lacking is the will to implement those changes. – BBC, 27 September 2016

» Rachel Nuwer is a freelance journalist who contributes to outlets such as the New York Times, the BBC, and Smithsonian. She lives in Brooklyn.

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