2.1 The Perfection of Nature

SAI Sanctuary 2009.jpg

It was the summer of 2009, a dark night in a remote wildlife sanctuary nestled in the Western Ghats of India. My sister, Sudha and I were walking back after dinner from the main house in the sanctuary to our detached sleeping quarters just a few hundred yards away. The sanctuary is not connected to the electric grid and therefore, we were carrying a solar torchlight between us to illuminate our way in the dark. That made it a very exciting short trek. Sudha is prone to be jumpy when insects land on her and the torchlight was attracting a whole bunch of them. When we reached our sleeping quarters, she bolted indoors, only to discover various insects had somehow managed to infiltrate the inside despite the mosquito netting on all the windows. Consequently, I had to run an informal taxi service at various times that night transporting insects from indoors to outdoors, which left me plenty of opportunities for reflection!

Our hosts, a couple from New Jersey, Pamela and Anil Malhotra, had been telling us the story of their Save Animals Intiative (SAI) Sanctuary over dinner[5]. They started the SAI Sanctuary by purchasing a 55-acre coffee plantation in the Kodagu district of Karnataka in 1991, tearing down the fences and just letting it exist in its natural state. From 1991 onwards, they had been steadily acquiring neighboring coffee plantations and tearing down fences so that wild animals could take refuge in their now 300-acre plus sanctuary. Sure enough, the animals did take refuge and those coffee plantations turned into the lushest tropical forest that you could imagine, all in the span of less than 20 years.

This was Eden, sheer perfection!

As Pamela described it, the forest regeneration was mainly due to the animals that wandered into the SAI sanctuary from the nearby National forests and then chose to make the sanctuary their home base. The elephants would eat ripe jackfruits in the National forests and then come back and deposit the seeds with their droppings in the sanctuary. The jackfruit tree is one of the primary tree species in the Western Ghat forests of India and its ripe fruit is a favorite snack for the elephant. Also, birds and other animals dropped other seeds over time and these diverse seeds combined with the rich soil and the monsoon rains to initiate the afforestation process. All Pam and Anil had to do was to patrol their land to keep the human poachers out and the animals safe. They didn't have to do much tree planting, tilling or fertilizing in order for the forest to regenerate. The elephants and other wildlife did most of it!

One of the advantages that the SAI Sanctuary enjoyed was its close proximity to the Bandipur and Nagarhole National forests and the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary. However, the biodiversity found in the SAI sanctuary is far richer than the biodiversity in these nationally protected forests mainly because these protected forests are also "managed" by the Forest Service of India. As any visitor to these nationally protected lands would attest, this "management" has resulted in rows and rows of neatly planted teak and eucalyptus trees, which are useful for furniture and lumber and count as tree cover in forest land surveys, but are otherwise out of place in the forests of the Western Ghats.

At the SAI sanctuary, the trees were growing randomly, not in neat rows. The underbrush was so thick that only creepy, crawly creatures could traverse through them. The main paths in the forest were the ones made by the elephants who are the only wild animals capable of clearing such paths in the forest. All the other animals including us, humans, followed these elephant paths. Elephants also casually break branches from trees to eat the leaves while creating openings for sunlight to stream down and nourish the underbrush. Everything that the elephants did in the forest seemed to have some beneficial impact on the forest. It was as if the elephants knew exactly what to do to be an asset to the forest ecosystem, to keep life flourishing. They belonged! So did all the other animals. In contrast, it seemed that the best that we, human beings, could do to be an asset to the forest ecosystem, to keep life flourishing, was to simply stay away from the forest.

This troubled me as I was running that informal insect taxi service for my sister's benefit. I was also born in the same forest, some 200 miles away from the SAI sanctuary and some fifty years before, but why don't I belong as is in the forest ecosystem? How did I grow up to be such an outcast in my own home, my birthplace?

This is a common theme in many environmental circles, that human beings, with those in traditional indigenous cultures exempted, are a destructive force in the Earth's many ecosystems. We don’t belong. In contrast, every creature in that sanctuary seemed to have found an ecological niche so that the night sounds of the forest filled every octave of my auditory spectrum. Clearly, each had a distinct identity within that ecosystem. Between them, these creatures had turned a coffee plantation into such a thriving forest that students of ecology from reputed American universities were spending months at the SAI sanctuary studying the biodiversity of the Western Ghats. The wildlife routinely contributed more to the recovering ecosystem than they consumed from it until the ecosystem flourished and reached a thriving stable state. In contrast, we humans tend to consume far more from even a flourishing ecosystem than we contribute to it and thereby cause its rapid degradation.

So wild animals live their normal lives and the forest thrives. Humans, especially those of us in the cities of the world, live what we consider to be our normal lives, and not just the forest, but the entire planet dies?

That's such a depressing story to live by. Surely, we should be telling better stories about ourselves, about whom we are and what we need to do going forward, based on scientifically verifiable facts? Surely, there is an identity, an ecological niche that we can assume as a species, so that we belong on the planet exactly as we are? Sustainability is attained when we can routinely contribute more to ecosystems than we consume from them, just as the elephants do for the forests of the Western Ghats and indigenous communities do for the Amazon rainforest. Surely we can devise systems of social organization that can help us achieve that in our technological civilization? What common story should we live by that can help us reach that goal?

Such a common story was staring me in the face at SAI Sanctuary though it took me five long years to piece it together. Pam and Anil were shining examples of how we can live in harmony with Nature. Compassion for all Creation was the core organizing value in their simple lives, not mindless consumption. In contrast, the poachers who had to be kept out of the SAI Sanctuary were desperately eking out a living by meeting the demand for ivory from remote consumers who had bought into that consumption paradigm.

It was the Karech milk story all over again!

If we're so inclined, we can read the rest of the book assuming that we are each part of a perfect whole and therefore, there's an infinitely compassionate, higher intelligence at work in the cosmos at large. Call this higher intelligence God, Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, the Creator, the Great Spirit, Higher Consciousness, or just Life, that amazingly beautiful process which seemingly defies the fundamental laws of entropy (it doesn't) and coaxes order out of chaos. It is the same holistic intelligence, which guides the elephant, the tiger, the birds and the insects to routinely create the sheer perfection of the SAI sanctuary. True, there is suffering in the SAI sanctuary as predators consume prey, but Life as a whole thrives in that beautiful intricacy of mutual connectedness. It is surely unimaginable that this higher intelligence would birth my fellow human beings and I in the perfection of those same forests of the Western Ghats - in order to destroy it?

That story of separation is rooted in exceptionalism! Instead, let us begin with the assumption that everything is indeed perfect as is. This is also in alignment with the undeniable material progress that we have already made during the course of history! As Peter Diamandis, the chair of Singularity University and co-author of Abundance[6], pointed out in his TED talk from 2012[7],  

"Over the last hundred years, the average human lifespan has more than doubled, average per capita income adjusted for inflation around the world has tripled. Childhood mortality has come down a factor of 10. Add to that the cost of food, electricity, transportation, communication have dropped 10 to 1,000-fold. Steve Pinker has showed us that, in fact, we're living during the most peaceful time ever in human history. And Charles Kenny that global literacy has gone from 25 percent to over 80 percent in the last 130 years. We truly are living in an extraordinary time. And many people forget this. And we keep setting our expectations higher and higher. In fact, we redefine what poverty means. Think of this, in America today, the majority of people under the poverty line still have electricity, water, toilets, refrigerators, television, mobile phones, air conditioning and cars. The wealthiest robber barons of the last century, the emperors on this planet, could have never dreamed of such luxuries…

When I think about creating abundance, it's not about creating a life of luxury for everybody on this planet; it's about creating a life of possibility. It is about taking that which was scarce and making it abundant. You see, scarcity is contextual, and technology is a resource-liberating force…Think about it, that a Masai warrior on a cellphone in the middle of Kenya has better mobile comm than President Reagan did 25 years ago. And if they're on a smartphone on Google, they've got access to more knowledge and information than President Clinton did 15 years ago. They're living in a world of information and communication abundance that no one could have ever predicted. Better than that, the things that you and I spent tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars for -- GPS, HD video and still images, libraries of books and music, medical diagnostic technology -- are now literally dematerializing and demonetizing into your cellphone”.

While some of this material abundance occurred for exploitative reasons, e.g., the cell phone is a tool to summon distant labor to work in the cities at slave wages, we cannot deny that it has occurred. Our communications infrastructure has turned this world into a neighborhood laying the framework for our ethical commitment to turn it into an Eden. Even on a moral and ethical basis, we have made tremendous strides in the industrial era. Take for instance, our granddaughter, Kimaya. She is half Indian, one-quarter African American and one quarter American Indian. Thus, she is the daughter of three continents, born in America.

A hundred and fifty years ago, she might have been captured and brought on a slave ship from Africa[8].

A hundred years ago, she might have been a colonial subject in India[9].

Seventy-five years ago, she might have been a zoo exhibit in Europe[10].

Fifty years ago, she might have been forcibly educated out of her cultural heritage in America[11].  

Yet, she was a welcome guest at the European Parliament just prior to COP-21 in Dec. 2015[12]. This speaks volumes about the ethical and moral strides we have made in just a few generation.

[5] http://www.saisanctuary.org

[6] Diamandis, Peter H., Kotler, Steven, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Free Press, Feb 2012, ISBN-13: 978-1451614213

[7] http://bit.ly/1smriwy

[8] A timeline on legal slavery can be found in http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/timeline/1865.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Raj

[10] The last ethnographic display of humans in a zoo was in Belgium in 1958: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16295827

[11] http://bit.ly/1SR0oe0

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PgMETKrQD4