Winter, or, A Rambunctious Ramble
These are three very disorderly, disjointed, disproportional thoughts that haunted me much before this year began – since the end of the last year to be exact. That year, I rambled away after coherently trying to make sense of the world as a flower-collector saw. While time has taken us a year ahead since, space has brought us back to where we think time ends and starts anew. Come to think of it, I was out of place and time, and over the hill and out of my mind. At this junction, I revisit that time and that mindset with little sense of what it was – or is – all about.
Part One: What Makes Me Inept
At an interview many years ago, I was lambasted by a probably well-meaning but perhaps ultra-inquisitive interviewer when I uttered ‘natural resource’ in some human context. The gullible me scampered to defend myself, but I’ve always wondered why is it wrong to call something a resource. If an ecologist can use the term ‘resource partitioning’ relating to species interaction, who am I otherwise if not a species in this world using up resources for my survival.
Where do we draw that line of resource utilisation and resource partitioning and resource exploitation? Perhaps he and many of us exclude humans as a species so prolific in its environment. We shape geographies, ecologies, and atmosphere wherever we exist. Being a mammal following a k-selection growth, we really do stand apart from the rest of our mammalian relatives. A species cannot grow without resources. Given enough resources including not only food but also protection from diseases, natural disasters, wars, even mutations or genetic bottlenecks and what not that would curb a population, studies have shown, in case of a little fruit fly which follows r-selection, to produce traits typically associated with K-selection – effectively making them better equipped to spread across the planet.
In every sci-fi movie I watch, or in talks I engage with on human population, we are almost always compared to bacteria or a virus grown in a beaker. These bacteria that multiply in the beaker show an exponential growth given their resources are enough, then just as suddenly flatten up to form a stable population growth. Without any recycle mechanism, the population starts to die out. Humans are showing an exponential growth currently, certainly in some part of the world, and that has a lot to do with the resources available to them; not luxuries, mind you, but resources: food and shelter in their simplest sense. We’re like bacteria, we’re virus, we’re this and we are that. Indeed, we are alive. Given enough protection and a good resource support, wild tigers bounce back and spill over within a few years, too. How are we any different?
The difference among us and other species versus resource utilisation, some argue, is that we almost always exploit the resources, deplete the resources, and while extracting the resources we destroy everything around that resource. Whether it is cattle ranches, intensive agriculture, commercial fishery, coal mining or even sand dredging for building houses. The argument is that this sets us apart. But really, it doesn’t.
I have always been fascinated with a scenario where it wasn’t humans who became the most industrious. This isn’t too far-fetched an idea. In the Amazonian rainforest, the indigenous communities have been noticing clearings right inside a forest with only one species of plant being able to grow for no apparent reason, they called these the devil’s gardens. It was only in the last decade that scientists found not humans who made these clearings to worship the devil, but ants (Myrmelachista schumanni, or, Lemon Ant) that killed any and every plant except for Duroia hirsuta, with which they have a symbiotic relationship with this plant offering them shelter and the plant in return gets the space exclusively to itself. The tree itself is allelopathic – it secrets certain chemicals which inhibit growth of other species. Teaming up with ants which nest in the cavities exclusively evolved by the plants to accommodate their friends only makes them both supreme.
Ant are quite industrious, although the external, environmental factors that act upon them are something they haven’t overcome yet. To take our thought experiment further, I always wondered how lions would do if they became industrious. Would they build zebra ranches? Would they herd wildebeest and build extensive pastures? Would they slash rainforests to suit their savannah habitats? Build enclosures for us? They would, ask Orwell.
So, if I were to say that any species as industrious as humans would do as we have till far, why do we treat humans any more differently than any other species alive? Well, I know we do because in the present scenario it is humans, neither ants nor lions. This gives us a responsibility and we have to own it up.
In face of the changing climate accelerated by humans, we as a species are still trying to get our heads around the fact. The fact is that climates change is universal, if only we could ask Mars. We have two schools of thoughts. The first: global average temperatures are not increasing versus global average temperatures are increasing. Those stuck on this school of thought are stuck in a limbo. The second: global average temperatures are increasing because of humans versus global average temperatures are increasing naturally. Those stuck on this school of thought also realise that both scenarios, whether brought upon by humans or naturally, are detrimental to us, our resources, and all those with whom we share these resources.
This second school of thought fascinates me, because it presents us an opportunity to do something good in the world. However, this good-for-the-world comes from the realisation that global warming is not going to help my population survive. The grim reality that smaller nations – in terms of area and resources – respect agreements to curb emissions to lower temperature increase is because they are at the forefront of it: compare Maldives with Australia, both islands, both at the opposite ends of the effects of sea-level rise, both governments at the opposite spectrum on the threats of global warming. The notion that larger area will protect us from larger problems is still rife among us.
I give you this, global warming is an invisible problem, there are those that need our attention just as much: the cancer of plastics, deforestation, trade in wildlife, and social injustice, many, many more. This is where I am reminded of my ineptness. Sometimes, I feel like an old man behind the counter in a small town watching the world come and go. Am I forgetting all the bats disappearing from the twilight skies in our cities, moths vanishing from the nightlamps? Does my mere presence affect anything that needs to be done?
My ineptness is perhaps the result of the strong resistance I face; like the wind on the face of a winged termite. Perhaps my economy is not as rich as that of the termites who head out a million strong in the face of rain and wind. Perhaps I am being an impediment to the world as it wants to shape itself.
Part Two: We Are All Dead
It disheartened me to learn of the confiscation of a 20-odd-year-old parakeet owned by an old couple. That bird now spends its life in a cage in a zoo. It was the right thing to do legally, but ethically, was it? For the bird and the family, it wasn’t. Parakeets are social, and they form strong bonds with their companions – their own kind or human. In the larger scheme of things, however, this will deter anyone from keeping wild birds as pets, as it should be. The questions of ethics, therefore, needs to be seen from different perspectives. For a long-term goal of discouraging anyone from caging an animal, sometimes, in the finer scheme of things, ethics need to be broken. This act by officials will deter anyone from caging another bird again. Sometimes, to play out a larger act, we have to keep a stone on our heart.
It is not surprising why people called biologists inept, heartless, even ignorant. One of the hard truths of conservation is keeping short-lived compassion aside for long-term goals. Standing at the threshold of this versus that, I seem to reckon with the idea that if we are to conserve a species, one individual may have to be sacrificed for the greater good. This is especially the case when that individual turns dangerous, or ‘man-eater’, and the last few years have seen enough of both sides: of both, the people and tigers turning against one another when both weren’t at any fault of theirs and acted upon their natural tendencies. Removing problem animals not only builds trust among local communities at the forefront of the brunt of wildlife conservation – we hardly ever consider the fact that sentiments are not always localised. An event where a tiger attacks a person here can have adverse repercussions several hundred miles where a tiger merely strays into farmlands but is met with a horrendous end because of the memories shared from elsewhere. The classic case of this is of mob lynching of supposed strangers being branded as kidnappers.
From another perspective, my ineptness may be my own doing. There is no hot wind being blasted on my face. Perhaps, my inaction is a result of a more sinister, nihilistic ideology. I began exploring the idea “in the long run we are all dead” and how it relates to our role in this big wide world. It was John Maynard Keynes, an influential economist of the 20th century credited with fundamentally changing the theory and practice of macroeconomics and the economic policies of governments, whose words were immortalized in the statement: “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves to easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” This statement is looked at and analysed and interpreted in polarizing ways.
My understanding of my ineptness possibly has a lot to do with this thinking. Looking back at the history of this planet, from a pessimist’s perspective, everything has ended and new beginnings created, like a cycle of crests and troughs. A cycle of destruction and creation. We are the middle of one crisis that ends with the beginning of another. In the end we are all dead.
In economics, many have termed this short-termist, a very present-state-of-mind syndrome we all suffer from today in our daily lives, and I’m not even talking about our bank-balance. I am talking about the living-in-the-moment thing, a highly volatile state of happiness and sadness. We now disregard everything inbetween our emotional encompass. Looking at world problems from this lens is a little dangerous, however. Keynes wrote this in 1923 strictly on economy. According to Simon Taylor, he did not mean to say that we should carelessly enjoy the present and let the future decide for itself. Perhaps. What else are we doing?
In economy as in ecology, interventions are important. Simon states that Keynes later argues that “the economy can slip into a long term underemployment equilibrium from which only government policy can rescue it.” In ecology, interventions today may save our future generations the costs we cannot fathom today. And this is exactly what Greta Thunberg and similar-minded folks are doing, compelling decisionmakers to take action today for the conflict that is likely to befall us because of global warming in the future. Keynes says that we must mind the present for tomorrow we are dead, but we must address the tomorrow today and not wait for the troubled waters to calm by themselves.
Circumventing the nihilistic ideology is key to addressing my ineptness. No matter how much time it takes, within or beyond this life I live. One of my thought experiments is again about tigers. Were we inept at conserving tigers in time, we would have lost all the tigers by now. It has happened in several South-east Asian countries. One solution my mind offered is to get tigers from another country. Fair enough. Restocking decimated populations from other areas is a proven strategy of reintroduction of the species in that area. Yet we must start looking deeper into ecology, looking at populations within a species, and at individuals within a population. The species that was decimated was a population with some unique traits that we cannot see directly, embedded in its genetic makeup. The idea of introducing the African Cheetah to India for me, therefore, is preposterous. What we have lost is lost, and we must now live with it unless your objective is not rebuilding a lost ecosystem but collecting revenue that that specimen – not species – will attract.
Today as I sit and write this, I am made to realise one thing, that the something of everything I cannot do now is a debt to my older self. Not everyone can afford an exotic cheetah to replace. Similarly, we can’t afford another climate, or another planet; just as we shouldn't replace a parakeet for another parakeet. But am I also justifying what the officials did to a 20-year old relationship? No. I am simply ineptly observing the world as it shapes itself.
Part Three: The Dilemma Of Everything
My ineptness knows no bounds. There is a spider in the corner of my house, and a fly often visits. As I stand behind the counter, I ponder if I should rescue the fly caught in a spider’s web, or should I let the spider have her fill. Well, morally, I should do nothing and let nature take its course. In all likelihood the fly will get entangled in the web by its own movement, the spider will sense it, and the fly will be captured and consumed. If I intervene, the fly will be set free and the spider will be left with a hole in its stomach and a hole in its dainty web.
If the fly has had her fill, has mated and laid her eggs, and therefore biologically its purpose is fulfilled, and the spider is hungry, and if it does not get this meal, it will die: knowing all about their life histories, if I decide to save one of them, the other dies. With this background knowledge – or under this situation – I can make a choice. I choose the spider, and let the fly that has completed its life history sacrifice itself so that the spider survives. But really, philosophically, logically, rationally – or what have you – no one is compelling me to make a decision but me, myself.
What of the ant then: the ant on my bed fetching little breadcrumbs my lazy morning-self forgot to clean: do I let it go or kill it out of fear of getting bitten? A destructor ant’s bite is quite stingy, and I don’t like them a bit. The ant shoulders a responsibility, to carry any and every edible item it can find back to its colony in my balcony.
What of the tiger then: the tiger on my turf threatening to kill me or my cattle which graze in the nearby forest: do I let her have her fill or retaliate out of fear of getting killed? A tiger’s bite is fatal, and I don’t want me or my cattle to die. She shoulders a responsibility of subadult cubs with a big appetite she has to satisfy in my backyard forest.
The situation I propose is this: I am at odds with the ant, I am at odds with the tiger. This war is for mere survival, I am not weighing an ant’s bite to a tiger’s – for this I need to ask what I perceive more threatening.
For now, I am weighing something even more basic: life itself. The choice I make can be that I either kill both of them, or let them both live, at a threat to my own safety. It is a basic choice I make.
As a sentient species, we have some forethought. With perception – the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses – I can take this decision wisely albeit with a little bias – there is room for chance. I kill the ant, knowing there are a hundred more in the balcony to bring back food. I let go of the tiger knowing there are very few left in the wild. With a little background this wasn’t so difficult after all.
But in my basic choice things get complicated. With all this knowledge, if I start weighing life for life, what decision I make has some consequences. That that ant carrying food was the last hope for this colony to survive in my house. That that tiger killing my cattle or me was the last food for the survival of her malnourished cubs. Alright, forget the repercussions, that killing life itself is morally wrong is where I am stuck, a statement I make realising that I am not completely vegetarian, but let me not digress, we talk about interacting with other organisms as organisms, this is not about predator-prey relationships.
What of the ant and the tiger? They have a chance. There is a chance that I don’t notice it at all, the ant took away the breadcrumb and the tiger my cow. There is a chance that I saw them both take away – the breadcrumb and the cow – and I did nothing at all. There is a chance that I killed both of them.
The fly, the spider, the ant, the tiger; in all of these chances they had, they were directly influenced by my mere presence: the one who had a choice. In the given situation, I make a choice based on my perception. And the consequences follow.
Morally, I shouldn’t have to make these choices at all. Let nature take its course. Life or death is fair under certain situations and circumstances, and perceptions and choices are only secondary senses.
Now, what if I decide to save myself from being bitten by killing them. What if I decide to be the lonesome decisionmaker? I make a choice, and follow it through. This helps. What if the choice I made has reverse consequences: in their death lies my doom!
If I do not perceive it, the consequences follow. If I perceive it before I act, I still have a choice.
Replace this ant or the tiger with an entire ecosystem. And me with an entire community. In destroying it I get the riches: the coal and the metals and the diamonds, but with reverse consequences: I lose the water, the air, and my lifespan is cut in half, slowly but surely.
In case of the fly and the spider dilemma, I’m what one would call a politician, and in the latter, I’m a local person dealing with life’s problems. We have taken chances in the past, influenced by our perception, of all the chances we made one decision, and we have been fiddling with the dilemma of the scale of life for ages. And in all these things, we’ve more often than not taken worst chances that have affected us in some way or another.
Yet, as a species we have sort-of always resisted species-scale disasters. We bounced back as a species with a specific set of genes at the worst choices we made. Killing that ant or that tiger, and the consequences that followed, we survived them as a species.
But the consequences we see are only a thin layer on the surface of Earth. Our perceptions are largely limited to it. The consequences go deep. They go deep in our psyche, our culture, our language, they cause deep-rooted cracks that can never be healed. They leave behind holes that can never be filled.
Unfortunately, often I fail to see things through before making a choice. Unfortunately, often I leave it to chance. Let nature take its course.
With climate change being perceived as a major threat to humans – based on sound science – as a species, this is perhaps the only single cause that can unite humans from the unforeseen consequences, or leave it to chance. In this situation, a decision has to be made. Let us consider two scenarios: (A) we want all the coal plants to run as they did, or consume fossil fuels as we always did, (B) we want to put a stop or a cap on them both.
This is one situation where we can’t – or shouldn’t – let (A) happen. Here, we must consider selecting a choice – or decision-making – as two different classes: individual and collective. When it came to the ant and the tiger, our decision was individual. If it was made in discussion with, say your children or your sibling, your decision was collective. And finally, when we replaced the ant or the tiger with an ecosystem, and you and I with a community, the decision becomes collective. Yet we all know this doesn’t always happen. Most wars were fought over individual decisions. Most regions were dug up by individual choices. Many collective decisions have led to civil wars. Although we are good at repeating our mistakes, we’ve learnt what follows if we choose war.
With man-made climate change, we don’t know what we’re getting into. There is no past to perceive what it will be like in the future. There are only computer-generated models, and written records. We cannot perceive the scale of the repercussions we are to face.
Look at me now, in place of the ant and the ant in my place. Clearly, the roles are reversed. In spite of being sentient, I have more likelihood of being destroyed by the giant ant who sees me as its food. Sometimes, it just so happens that we need to look from this perspective. Only that the ant is nature – in the form of cyclones, dust storms, droughts, floods, and such natural calamities in front of which we’re sitting ducks. The twist here is that these natural calamities are intensified by our own doing. As a species, we may survive given our resilience – somewhere in the corner of the planet – but at what cost? And why is it so difficult to comprehend this cost, I cannot answer, my mind blunders past a few zero’s.
Look at me now, rambunctiously ramble away as the year ends, nay, begins.If it doesn’t make any sense now, it will. Going through 2020 has made me realise there is no time to make sense but to heal, heal, heal. Wishing we unburden ourselves one day soon, and a better coming year.