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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF ECOLOGY

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Prologue

John V. Kingston

We already know what the 21st century will look like: it has been mapped out for us by seemingly irreversible forces. They are not necessarily bad in themselves, but they do hold a danger because no one can control them — and their effects seems to be gathering momentum. Populations are mushrooming, state agencies and free market players are becoming interdependent, and science and technology are taking giant strides.

After 2,000 years of almost universal belief in scientific progress, we are now seeing the price of this progress. The natural environment is being destroyed by the contradiction between technical and social advancement. We risk planetary destruction through the use of new technologies by countries that are philosophically or technically incapable of handling them.

The current concern over the deterioration of the global environment, for example, is a relatively recent phenomenon. One of the first meetings on this topic was sponsored by Unesco in 1968 as the ‘Biosphere Conference’. Here, for more or less the first time in history, the international scientific community collectively told the governments of the world that the environment was in bad shape and getting worse. Previous international scientific efforts had tended to accumulate data without seeking to resolve problems of land use, water, the ozone layer, urbanisation, etc. Research tended to focus on one species or to remain descriptive with little attempt to predict the impact of possible change.

But we know that living in harmony with nature has been an integral part of most cultures, including Indian culture. Tradition and ethics in nearly all countries of the world are closely interwoven with the idea of protecting nature. Why, in India we had, from very early times, cave paintings that showed the harmonious coexistence of the human and the natural worlds. Groves would be set aside for the worship of gods and goddesses, certain plants and animals would be considered sacred and would be protected.

The spectacular increase in industrial production that followed the Second World War improved living conditions around the world but also whetted appetites for material goods of all kinds. Industry provided a mass market with manufactured products at affordable prices. More and more goods were turned out at lower and lower cost, creating jobs and enabling people to buy more. Supply encouraged demand.

This situation could not last for ever. To sustain demand, products were so made as to become obsolete very rapidly. Surely this is a colossal squandering of energy and resources and creates volumes of waste that is harmful to the environment. Every American citizen, for example, throws away a ton of domestic garbage every year. In highly developed industrialised societies this refuse, which consists mainly of useless packaging, constitutes one of the most critical environmental problems today.

At least, it can be argued, the rich and industrialised world has the means to develop more ‘environmentally friendly’ technology if pushed to do so. The choices are far more limited and complex for developing and predominantly rural societies. Practices such as pastoral nomadism or slash-and-burn agriculture, that for centuries have had relatively little impact on the environment, are now proving to be damaging. This is due to the additional pressures on limited resources caused by rapidly growing populations. A study carried out by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated, for example, that slash-and-burn agriculture alone was responsible for 70 per cent of the deforestation that had occurred in Africa, 50 per cent in Asia and 35 per cent in Latin America.

Factors affecting the environment can be compared to smoking — they are known to be detrimental but many people do nothing about them. In a sense this inaction is psychological. It has been found that people pay lip service to environmental protection but few participate in recycling programmes or energy conservation programmes. After an initial flurry of enthusiasm people find that they do not really want to sacrifice their time or their comfort even though they recognise the importance of making the effort. It has been noticed that if everyone exploits a share of a collective resource, there is short-term profit but the resource is gradually destroyed and ultimately all lose. An example of this can be found throughout Africa where, according to the French agronomist Rene Dumong, ‘all that grows without human interference such as grass and trees belongs to everyone . . . no one worries about protecting these resources efficiently and ensuring their continuation’. Thus more than 650,000 sq km of land in Africa’s Sahel region has become desert over the past fifty years, due largely to overgrazing and farming techniques that are no longer sustainable on impoverished land which is asked to produce more and more.

Clearly, survival is here the prime motivation and techniques used are based on traditional knowledge. The protection of natural resources is not consciously considered or given priority. But it is equally clear that any serious attempt to protect the environment and promote sustainable development also means an overhaul of social and cultural practices and values in both modern consumer and traditional societies.

If culture can be said to be the key which unlocks a community’s creative potential, then education is the tool which shapes that potential. There is constant interaction between education and culture: if education sheds light, culture provides perspective.

Education is infused by culture; however, since cultural models and meanings are mainly transmitted through education, culture is also, in a sense, the effect of education. Education could, therefore, be regarded as possibly the most powerful agent for cultural development and change and not merely a neutral mechanism for cultural transmission. Education and culture are fundamentally allied, both are dynamic: culture is a form of out-of-school education and education is culture in school. The domain of culture is universal; but when several cultures coexist in a society, educators and cultural leaders have to find ways of harmonising them.

The challenge is great, and conflicts can arise. One of the great challenges of the 21st century will be the protection of minority cultures against the powerful forces of standardisation and integration. These forces — economic, linguistic, technological — tend to dilute, homogenise and regulate cultures throughout the modern world. Yet the survival and development of small cultures is important for two reasons: one, because this gives a sense of identity to their individual members; and two, because embedded in their traditions and beliefs are social, environmental, political and even spiritual solutions to some of the crises facing contemporary societies. The preservation of cultural diversity — no less than biological diversity — is crucial for the future of mankind. In the past, education has too often played a part in the destruction of minority cultures; but it can also play an important role in their survival and in sustainable development.

Inform them through example, then some of the battle — at least on the psychological front — is already won: for then we would not only be leaving a better world for our children but, I hope, a better generation for the world.

 

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