The wisdom of an octopus

In September, the South African Parliament played host to an unusual speaker speaking on an unusual subject. Leaving the underwater kelp forests on the southern tip of the African continent where he works, wildlife researcher and filmmaker Craig Foster sought to “take the wisdom of the octopus to the South African Parliament” in a presentation he made on South Africa’s proposed Marine Spatial Planning Act.

Mr. Foster narrated his experience of visiting a wild female octopus every day for a year in the waters of the Western Cape, of building a relationship of mutual trust, and, in the process, gaining new insights, understanding and respect for an amazing creature. The octopus he called “liquid magician” was an entry point for him into a wide range of issues — from the evolution of art and culture in the human species to the current status of the oceans and the threats that they face. He argued for erring on the side of precaution when dealing with the environment. Here, it might be the human speaking, but this is the story of an octopus — a story from the other side, of a voice that is barely heard, let alone being given respect. It underlines the fact that our world is made up of different voices, each as relevant as the other.

This was similar to another unusual presentation at the Student Conference on Conservation Science in Bengaluru in September by another unusual speaker, Madhu Ramnath, a researcher and author. Mr. Ramnath shared anecdotes and lessons he learnt from decades of living with the Durwa community in the heart of Bastar. He spoke about life in a conflict zone and asked what “conservation in a conflict zone” would be like. The Eastern Ghats, he said, have been hugely neglected by the scientific and conservation community even though they are rich in biological diversity and tribal cultures. He was not blindly romancing or glorifying the tribal way, but his was a plea to understand their lives through their experiences and knowledge systems. This was another voice for and from the other side, urging humility on one’s part and respect and recognition for the other.

It is significant here that the South African Parliament on the one hand and this conference on the other have institutional platforms where such voices are heard. Together they allow for key questions to be asked about the nature of skills, knowledge, and systems of knowledge. In a recent column, an economist said “the most unskilled worker in India is the ploughman; with some skills is the carpenter.” Skill, knowledge and livelihoods have multiple meanings. The articulation of the ploughman and carpenter as “unskilled” is evidence of the limitations (and perhaps arrogance) of modern science and economics in understanding and describing our world. Mr. Foster and Mr. Ramnath (and the octopus and the tribal) offer us alternative windows into different ways of making meaning. These are more holistic, respectful and sustainable ways to the future and if we ignore them, we do so at our own peril.

Pankaj Sekhsaria researches issues at the intersection of environment, science, society and technology


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 10:00:12 PM |

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