Harmonising with nature

We need to shed some of the chutzpah we seem to have acquired with achievements in science and technology

Updated - April 17, 2020 07:17 pm IST

Published - April 16, 2020 12:05 am IST

A jackal stands in the grass in Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv on April 13, 2020. The jackals of Yarkon Park took the paths of the park with greater confidence in search of food during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic as a result of the lockdown imposed by Israeli authorities to curb the spread of the disease.

A jackal stands in the grass in Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv on April 13, 2020. The jackals of Yarkon Park took the paths of the park with greater confidence in search of food during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic as a result of the lockdown imposed by Israeli authorities to curb the spread of the disease.

A quote attributed to Aristotle Onassis says, “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” So, even as we, along with millions of our fellow citizens, observe the curfew while under a lockdown, this hiatus offers a rare opportunity to reflect and take the long view.

The way human society behaves after a crisis can vary significantly. Germany’s abiding obsession with fiscal discipline and aversion to inflation, even today, can be traced to lessons learned during the 1920s, when that country experienced devastating hyperinflation. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt unleashed a series of financial and social reforms under his New Deal that covered financial sector regulation, insurance of private savings, labour standards and the introduction of social security — lasting interventions that serve U.S. society to this day. The 9/11 attacks, and India’s own tragedy of 26/11, fundamentally altered our perspectives on safety in public spaces, and we have come to accept intrusive security checks as a price we must pay. Yet, other crises seem to leave no lasting imprint even when they ought to have made a bigger impact. In a world once again awash in cheap funds, lessons from the 2008 financial sector collapse seem forgotten.

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Changing our outlook

So will the COVID-19 pandemic change the way we behave in the years ahead?

If there can be any enduring takeaway from the social and economic cost imposed by COVID-19, it must be that our much-vaunted modern and technologically sophisticated society can be humbled by nature operating at its most microscopic scale. At this scale, the speed of replication and proliferation is astounding and, within a few weeks from its first manifestation, the virus has brought a globally connected economy to a standstill, and endangered the lives of total strangers across all continents. At the same time, almost silently, at the other end of the scale, a slow but perceptible escalation of climate calamities, including more severe storms, more destructive forest fires and faster melting of glaciers, indicate a carbon-emissions-triggered crisis where nature in reacting on a macro scale. The sobering conclusion is that our armoury is inadequate to deal with either end of nature’s scale of intervention.

So, what can society do, as we ponder life after the pandemic? To start with, it would help to shed some of the chutzpah that we have allowed ourselves to adopt through the 20th century — that we can develop technologies to overcome nature and re-shape our environment. There is no doubt progress in science and technology has served humanity well over centuries and they will continue to be called upon to serve society for centuries to come. What we will need, however, is an outlook that seeks to harness our knowledge of science to work in harmony with nature, rather than attempt to bulldoze it. Is this merely a romantic theory with limited practical use? Not really.

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NASA’s Voyager mission to explore the edge of the solar system would have been impossible with even the most powerful rockets, without leveraging the slingshot manoeuvre using the gravitational fields of planets along the way. The growing appeal of renewable power generation stems from the fact that it can harness nature without damaging it, while providing us with the energy to power our lives. And most doctors treating COVID-19 patients vouch for the role of healthy living and robust immune systems as the best bet, so far, to protect ourselves. Wellness advocates have a number of useful suggestions on how we may fortify our natural immunity as the best defence to combat this virus, even as we await the development and certification of much-needed vaccines and reliable treatment. The approach suggested is certainly not novel. When Rachel Carson advocated use of microbes to combat agricultural pests instead of harsh chemical compounds like DDT, she was at the vanguard of our growing interest in bio-control. Economist E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful — A Study of Economics as if People Mattered , gained fame during the energy crisis, but quickly faded, as if that thesis did not matter anymore. Actually, in a world where the digital economy has unleashed the power for Davids to take on Goliaths, these ideas are even more relevant.

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In all of this, nature seems to expect of us a certain economy of consumption and gentleness of impact. A human society that is sympathetic to and in harmony with our environment, and where human beings listen to and nurture their selves, may be an enduring recipe for a safer future. India has a long heritage of nurturing one’s inner self — yoga and meditation have been adopted globally as secular exercises for a more robust constitution. India also has a long tradition of dealing with frugality as a virtue and can easily relate to what in ancient Greece was revered as gaia — dealing with the earth as our mother. These can be timeless lessons as human society seeks closer harmony with nature, to take us on to a safer trajectory in a post COVID-19 world.

V. Sumantran is the Chairman of Celeris Technologies

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