What a lovely story of an evolved society finding ways to integrate its elderly members into productive roles to keep the larger social unit functioning. Division of labor stratified by age/mandible sharpness – surely even we can learn something from that!
It was exactly a year ago that I heard about the passing of S. A. Hussain, and wrote a hasty tribute recollecting the all-too-brief time I was able to spend in his company learning how to handle birds, skills he taught this random youth who wasn’t even formally his student. Several months ago, I met (virtually, on Facebook) Geetha Nayak, another student whom he also inspired (almost a decade after inspiring me) to pursue an academic career in ornithology. As this year comes to a close, to mark the anniversary of his passing, Geetha offers this appreciation:
Appreciation of my mentor SA Hussain
The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind – Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese American artist, poet, and writer.
It was sometime in May 1998, I had completed making a list of 100 species of birds and was eagerly awaiting the reward for being able to identify all the birds I had seen. The promised reward came in the form a pair of binoculars and a book – “The Book of Indian Birds” by Salim Ali. I was overjoyed to see through the binoculars and to receive a copy of a book on birds. The book was signed as- ‘To: Geetha Nayak, Best wishes and a bright future, Keep your eyes, ears and mind open you will learn a lot by observing’ – S. A. Hussain, 23-06-1998. At that moment all that I could think about was to flaunt these gifts among my classmates and friends than to grasp the meaning of the words he had written.
With my mentor SA Hussain in Bhagavati Nature Camp, Kudrekmukh National Park (in 1998).
Even as onion prices have hit the fan in India at the year’s closing (a crisis that would never have touched my grandmother’s economy because she never touched an onion in her life, while cooking some of the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten!), The Economist tells us (cautiously, but still sounding the drumbeat for growth) that the American stockmarket enters 2011 in a jolly mood. Not so jolly is Prof. Jayati Ghosh, described as one of the world’s leading Female Economists (therein lies another tale of lack of growth in economics) who warns us that the next financial crisis is not far off! In the midst of her cogent analysis of the world’s far-from-over economic ills (she is better, I daresay, than Krugman in laying bare the workings of the global economy in a few short paragraphs), this catches my ecologist’s eye:
The gloves are not yet off, but they could be soon, because no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from.
“… no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from.” Think about that for a minute as you contemplate the world’s dwindling resources and ever-flourishing ecological crises.
“… no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from.” Yet, everyone seems sure that “growth” must come, that “growth” is the only way out of this crisis. Without getting into the fundamental absurdity of expecting continued economic growth on a finite planet, let me ask this: have we forgotten that much of this ongoing crisis was created by people in pursuit of very rapid, and therefore unsustainable, growth in profits? Why then would anyone think that we can rapidly grow our way out of this crisis? Are we thinking that we have dug ourselves into such a deep hole, that if we keep digging faster, we will emerge into daylight on the other side of the planet?!
“… no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from.” A good place to start looking for an answer to that conundrum can be found in Prof. Ghosh’s own column from almost exactly a year ago when she wrote, in the aftermath of the breakdown of global warming negotiations at Copenhagen:
But describing this as a fight between countries misses the essential point: that the issue is really linked to an economic system – capitalism – that is crucially dependent upon rapid growth as its driving force, even if this “growth” does not deliver better lives for the people. So there is no questioning of the supposition that rich countries with declining populations must keep on growing in terms of GDP, rather than finding different ways of creating and distributing output to generate better quality of life. There is no debating of the pattern of growth in “successful” developing countries, which has in many cases come at the cost of increased inequality, greater material insecurity for a significant section of the population and massive damage to the environment.
Since such questions were not even at the table at the Copenhagen summit – even a “successful” outcome with some sort of common statement would hardly have been a sign of the kind of change that is required. But this does not mean that the problem has gone away; in fact, it is more pressing than ever.
Optimists believe that the problem can be solved in a win-win outcome that is based on “green” growth and new technologies that provide “dematerialised” output, so that growth has decreasing impact on the environment. But such a hope is also limited by the Jevons paradox (after the 19th century English economist William Stanley Jevons), which states that the expansion of output typically overwhelms all increases in efficiency in throughput of materials and energy.
This is forcefully elucidated in an important new book by John Bellamy Foster. [Note: that link is broken, so I’m not sure, but I think Ghosh is alluding to his latest book, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth.] Foster argues that a rational reorganisation of the metabolism between nature and society needs to be directed not simply at climate change but also at a whole host of other environmental problems. “The immense danger now facing the human species … is not due principally to the constraints of the natural environment, but arises from a deranged social system wheeling out of control, and more specifically US imperialism.” (p 105)
How does imperialism enter into this? “Capital … is running up against ecological barriers at a biospheric level that cannot be overcome, as was the case previously, through the ‘spatial fix’ of geographical expansion and exploitation. Ecological imperialism – the growth of the centre of the system at unsustainable rates, through the more thorough-going ecological degradation of the periphery – is now generating a planetary-scale set of ecological contradictions, imperilling the entire biosphere.” (p 249)
This does not mean that the interests of people in the centre are inevitably opposed to those of people in the periphery, since both are now adversely affected by the results of such ecological imbalances. Instead, it means that it is now in all of our interests to shift from an obsession on growth that is primarily directed to increasing capitalist profits, to a more rational organisation of society and of the relation between humanity and nature.
So there is indeed a win-win solution, but one that cannot be based on the existing economic paradigm. The good news is that more humane and democratic alternatives are also likely to be more environmentally sustainable.
How about changing that economic paradigm then? If being in the throes of such a festering economic crisis is not a great time to change paradigms, when is? Or shall we just keep on digging, hoping for light at the end of the tunnel, even though we suspect that the increasing glow is most likely from (no, not an onrushing train, but) the magma we are about to hit?
Happy New Year!
Although I cringe at this fantastic Vampire Squid being described as a “living fossil”—another oxymoron that won’t go away from the popular lexicon of misrepresentations when it comes to evolution—even by the estimable Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, this is an amazing video, and I like the rest of the narration. How little we know about the wonders lurking underneath the oceans! How much of it will we never discover because of what we are doing to the oceans?
As another year approaches its sad end, Professor Dennis Dutton, who created “complicated fiction” (as seen doing so in front of a live audience in the clip below) by combining art and literature with science and skepticism, and curated digital streams of works from across these creative realms for our perusal at the Arts & Letters Daily from the earliest days of the WWW, has died. Read this tribute, watch his funny appearance with that living work of art Stephen Colbert below, and pick up his book (at a bargain price) about how art may be a tool for propagating our species. Whether you agree with the evolutionary psychology aspects of that argument or not, the man gave us plenty to think about. RIP.