Treating Nature as a helpless 'giver'

Beneath the veneer of veneration of planetary environment lies its objectification. Man, the self proclaimed dominant species, has ruined earth for ages. While post-colonial critics like Helen Tiffin have established how imperialistic greed, combined with anthropocentricism, laid the highway for wrecking environment, much less has been said about the fundamental problem of looking at nature as an object.

There has been a systematic endeavour in our culture to idealise and ‘woman-ise’ (pun intended) nature that has brought much damage than protection. Nature has now been reduced to a helpless ‘giver,’ much like a woman locked in the male gaze. It is first seen as an object and then as a source of pleasure who can be taken for granted and acquired by force. This attitude is well reflected in the report by former Isro chief K Kasturirangan-led high level working group on Western Ghats, which, as ecologist Madhav Gadgil pointed out, “attempts to maintain oases of diversity in a desert of ecological devastation”.  The report categorises two-third of Western Ghats landscapes as ‘cultural’ space which can be thrown open for development while recognising only one-third as ‘natural.’ It is, therefore, necessary to recognise environment as a separate entity – a subject in itself.

A distant dream

The 2011 forest cover report puts India’s green cover at an appalling 23.81 per cent. Lack of serious efforts has left the target of bringing 33 per cent of land under forest cover a distant dream. It is all too clear that democratic transition has done little to change the exploitation model of colonial period. The select few resource controllers and policy makers have embraced neocolonialism by giving rights over nature to multi-national companies while persecuting those (farmers, tribes and villagers among others) essentially tied to nature. The forced land acquisition for the Posco steel plant in Odisha should be seen in this light. Such a system also feigns helplessness in cases like Vedanta’s Niyamgiri project where the ministry of environment and forests ‘failed’ to stop the ongoing clearing of forest. In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court has directed the gram sabhas to decide on the issue. However, that judicial intervention needed to protect environment shows the political system’s failure.

In “First as tragedy, then as farce,” Slavoz Zizek illustrates how Starbucks, a coffee shop, leverages on starvation deaths in Africa for self-promotion. More importantly, the company helps people to sidestep their guilt of failing in social responsibility. One only has to buy a Starbucks product by paying a little extra to help feed the African children. Similarly, brand India does not lag behind in using violence against nature as a marketing technique. If the tragedy lies in the commodification and destruction of nature, it is the increasing number of products made and sold under the tag, “go green,” which play the farcical doomsayers. The global India bling blinds us from seeing the havoc wrecked in the name of development.

In a society where growth is materialistic acquisition and living is through exploitation, only money retains value. The extremity of such a phenomenon can be seen in the fact that even garbage, the ‘waste product,’ still remains a ‘product’ and becomes a means for a business venture. Crisis sets in when such a venture hits the wall, which was reflected in the recent garbage mess in Bangalore. The problem lies in seeing garbage simply as an object to be disposed of and denying the importance it deserves. As any other part of environment, garbage needs a separate set of arrangements. In a world being driven by corporate companies that thrive on selling more products – generating more waste – such a view is essential for balanced growth.

However, the hierarchical set up of our society, where only ringleaders call the shots, does not allow such a coexistence of man and environment. As long as the love towards nature is rooted in a desire for devouring, man will automatically put himself in a defensive position. The fear towards the “strangeness” of nature only leads him to blind veneration that hides his selfish narcissism. In such a situation, the pursuit for mastery over environment will never end.

It is high time that man started looking at nature as a subject that requires its space. He needs to respect its existence if he wants to avoid a farcical doom. What is needed at the moment is a new ‘economy’ of giving that cannot be reduced to economic terms: Giving without expecting. Only instances like the unflagging love of Salumarada Thimmakka – who nurtured over 400 trees, treating them as her children – can restore environmental balance. A prerequisite for such a change is bringing concepts of ‘going green’ out of hypocritical symmetries. Someone who thinks he is conserving nature by utilising renewable resources should know that he is not different from that guy buying a Starbucks product to sidestep his guilt while feeling benevolent.

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