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Nelson Mandela and the long walk to reconciling humanity with nature

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. Somehow, it even caught the eye of the Ecological Society of America, which posted about it on their blog. Here’s my original version of the essay, before it was edited down for broadcast.

MandelaMonument sustainability quote

The iconic Nelson Mandela monument via Fr Lawrence Lew, OP on Flickr

With the passing of Nelson Mandela last month, we lost one of the strongest needles in humanity’s moral compass.

While many aspects of Mandela’s remarkable life are justly celebrated, one of the brightest moral beacons is surely his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After 27 years spent behind bars, the world would have understood, maybe even condoned him had he gone after his oppressors seeking retribution for the injustices he and his fellow black South Africans had suffered under the white rulers of apartheid.

Instead, Mandela chose the path of reconciliation, bringing victims and oppressors together in nationwide public hearings to air out the real stories of injustice. Subverting any desire for victor’s justice, he found ways to heal the nation without bloodshed. Someone who had once been labeled a terrorist for supporting the overthrow of an oppressive regime had found a way to not only forswear violence, but to actually forgive his own jailers and the other perpetrators of injustices against his people.

Perhaps even more remarkably, his people followed his leadership, and accepted the path of reconciliation to bring South Africa into the community of nations as a new kind of democracy and a leader in the so-called Dark Continent. Others have since set up their own Truth and Reconciliation commissions to deal with crimes and injustices in their countries.

While this process of seeking truth and reconciling formerly antagonistic parties shows remarkable promise to transform human society, can we extend the power of reconciliation to heal humanity’s deepening rift with Nature?

Ever since the industrial revolution, our relationship with Nature is marked by our increasing exploitation of resources in the interests of profit and prosperity for some members of our species. We have transformed the Earth’s very surface, ushering in a new geological era—the Anthropocene—and have pushed many other living beings to the brink of extinction, if not right over that cliff. Earth’s biodiversity has endured at least 5 other mass extinction events in its history, when various natural forces—from volcanoes to meteors—wiped out over 90% of the species. We, the industrial engine of the ongoing 6th mass extinction, are the first such planetary force to have a moral conscience capable of being troubled by what we wreak.

Even as we justify our actions in the name of economic growth or progress, our morality tells us that something is deeply wrong when they result in the ravaging of the planet, and the devastation of so much life. How can we reconcile our destructive acts with any morality that teaches us to respect life, and to be good stewards of the land for future generations?

Can we expand Mandela’s vision of reconciliation to offer ourselves a shot at redemption from Nature, just like he offered his oppressors? Unlike him, Nature is amoral and lacks any conscience to offer us a path at redemption. It is up to us, therefore, to recognize the consequences of our actions, admit our culpability, indeed guilt, in destroying Nature, and seek forgiveness—through actions which repair the damage we have done—if we are to ride out this Anthropocene extinction crisis with our civilization intact.

Mandela once said

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Nature, of course, is not our enemy, although we’ve been acting like all of Earth is enemy territory we must conquer. In 2003, speaking at the IUCN’s World Parks Congress in South Africa, Mandela also said

A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else.

Can we make peace with the Earth, start working with Nature and transform ourselves into her partner?

Even as many former supporters of apartheid and critics of Mandela turned around to celebrate his life last month, can we turn ourselves around as a civilization, to reconcile and rebuild our relationship with Nature? That would be the deepest, most meaningful way to expand Mandela’s legacy.

An American Age of Endarkenment

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share an expanded version of my essay lamenting the decline of American support for science.


It is a peculiar moment to be a scientist in America.

For decades, the United States of America has not only been the world’s leader in advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery, it has also been a powerful beacon attracting scientists and students seeking enlightenment through science from the far corners of the world.

That beacon was set alight by a whole generation of scientific geniuses, some born here, many migrating over from Europe escaping the great wars of the 20th century. It burned especially bright in the decades following World War II when America donned the mantle, not only of the political and economic leader of the free world, but also its scientific and cultural leader. It set the stage for unprecedented social progress and economic development driven by America’s investments in its universities.

That beacon is what brought me to these shores, just another graduate student among the countless immigrants streaming into the nation thirsting for higher education in science, and a chance to participate in expanding that frontier of scientific discovery. Just another particle in the torrential brain-drain flowing out from nations across the world that America was happy to soak up and nourish and allow to flourish among its elite universities.

That beacon, alas, began to dim towards the end of the 20th century, and has been allowed dim even further in the first decades of this 21st century which was supposed to be the real era of science and technology enlightening a new age of progress in human history. This is an age which is fulfilling that promise in many ways, yet America, that leader which led us to this threshold, has faltered, and dropped the baton of scientific progress.

It was no accident that the beacon of science burned so strongly in America 50 years ago. It was an active choice by the American people, through their government, to fund science and technology, and higher education in general, that established America as the world’s leader. That depended, of course, on the relatively high levels of taxes collected by the government and invested back into the country’s physical, social, and cultural infrastructure as it recovered from the depths of first Great Depression to soar up into the astonishing heights reached by what’s been called the Greatest Generation in this country.

Yet, at the heights of that arc of progress, many Americans somehow decided—were persuaded by forces of a new endarkenment—that paying taxes, and investing in public goods was somehow inimical to the American drive for freedom from tyranny. Government of the people, by the people, for the people bizarrely became painted as a new tyranny that must be starved of taxes and drowned in a bathtub. It astonishes the world that these forces have succeeded in turning the US government lights off, quite literally this October, and starving higher education and science of the funding that made it the world’s leader.

This too, is no accident, this dimming of the beacon of science in the leader of the free world. For just as its universities and science laboratories defined this nation in the late 20th century, it has also been defined by what Isaac Asimov famously described as a constant thread of anti-intellectualism “winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. That anti-intellectual strain flourished in the shadows even as the beacon of science and technology burned bright, and is now doing its best to douse the light in the name of freedom.

It is no accident, it may indeed be part of America’s self-contradictory DNA, that the land that attracted and nourished and became home to the largest number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences also has the highest proportion of people among developed nations who don’t accept the facts of biological evolution. That the nation with the largest number of climate scientists, and the most comprehensive coverage of weather on television with whole channels dedicated to it, is also home to the greatest number of climate change and global warming denialists.

It is no accident, therefore, that America has slipped from its position of the world’s leader even as its beacon has been doused and starved of the public funding which kept it burning brightly for so many decades. That other nations are picking up on this, and beginning to surge ahead, by following America’s earlier lead in investing in higher education and science and technology to fuel social and economic progress. That my own native country India has just sent an unmanned probe—rather cheaply and efficiently—to Mars at a time when even Neil de Grasse Tyson must keep lamenting at every opportunity the death by a thousand budget cuts being administered to NASA, that jewel in America’s scientific crown. As he asked: How much would you pay for the universe?


India’s cheap rocket carrying its exciting mission to Mars, and a bid to claim the baton of space exploration seemingly dropped by the US after decades of leadership.

It is not too late for America to regain that lead, to relight the beacon, by renewing its commitment to invest in the public goods that made this country great. To rediscover its own heritage of how government is a force for good when allowed—nay, made—to invest in the public goods that brought the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. That. one hopes, is one of the lessons to be learnt from the recent government shutdown, which hit particularly hard the enterprise of science in this once—and hopefully again—beacon of enlightenment for the world.

It sure is a peculiar time to be a scientist in America, but it doesn’t have to remain so.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

On the perils of drawing permanent lines on a fluid canvas, or demarcating landscapes on a dynamic planet

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share a somewhat longer version of my essay where I ponder the predicament our species finds itself in, having gone extremely territorial in its conquest of the planet’s resources.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence?

Territoriality is the bane of human existence. We human beings are an aggressively territorial lot, willing to defend what territory we claim to be ours against all comers using whatever means we can devise. By no means the only species to be strongly territorial, we surely are the most extreme in our territoriality.

Many animal species like to mark out and defend territories to ensure access to crucial resources such as food, water, shelter, nesting sites, and mates. Many will defend their territories aggressively, even risking injury or death to stave off challengers. You can see this every day all around us: in the sweet song of birds in our gardens, which are usually males proclaiming dominion over the garden, and in the way our dogs mark their territories at every fence- and lamp-post we happen to walk them by. Even plants show subtle territoriality, engaging in covert chemical warfare underground to prevent other plants from growing under their canopies and sucking away “their” supply of water and nutrients.

Yet hardly any other species takes territoriality as far as we have done. Most species reserve their hostilities towards members of their own species and maybe a few other direct competitors. Even when they physically or chemically mark the boundaries of their territories, these demarcations are hardly permanent. Scent marking, scratches in tree barks, vocal proclamations: these are what reinforce the shadow lines by which most animals carve out the world’s resources for their exclusive use. And, of course, these boundary lines are just as ephemeral as the lives of the individuals (and sometimes families) marking them.

Each individual may develop a strong sense of place, even an emotional attachment to some piece of land, or coral reef, or tree, or rock, but only rarely do they pass this on to their progeny, who often tend to disperse away into new areas to seek their own fortunes, set up their own new territories. Boundaries may be defended fiercely, but they remain fluid and diffuse and are ever changing, especially as the geographic ranges of species wax and wane and change on our dynamically changing planet.

Human beings have taken territoriality to whole new levels. We have not only sought to make our territories permanent, building fences and walls to keep intruders out, but even enshrined territoriality into elaborate systems of laws regulating ownership and inheritance. Unlike in any other species, we exhibit territoriality across a whole hierarchy of social levels: from individual and family homes to clan and tribal domains to kingdoms and empires to modern nation states and coalitions among them.

We have demarcated the Earth’s entire surface in cartesian lines scaling up and down these territorial hierarchies. We even carve out and defend boundaries in the ocean and the air and the very skies. Uniquely, we also seek to control every element that occurs within our domains, extending our territoriality against every other species on the planet. Whether it is ants or cockroaches in our kitchens, geckos in our living rooms, squirrels and monkeys in our gardens, or invasive species we label as aliens within our national boundaries, our pan-territoriality puts us at constant war against a whole host of species merely trying to eke out a living in the interstices of our rigidly demarcated landscapes.

Political World Map as Pangea 200 300 million years ago  Imgur

Unfortunately, our extreme territoriality flies in the face of a dynamic planet on whose surface hardly anything has ever stayed put in one place for ever, not even the very continents over which we continue to wage epic and devastating wars for resources. A key to evolutionary success on such a dynamic planet is a species’ ability to adapt to the changing landscape, and a fluidity of movement to match the ever changing zones of suitable climate and geology. Yet we have painted ourselves into cartesian prisons, investing so much in defending pieces of land and volumes of water that may not remain the same for long. Rising sea levels threaten cities that we thought we were building for eternity. Sandstorms herald the march of the deserts as climate zones shift, and glaciers and polar ice sheets melt, drastically changing the shape of the lands, with no little help from our own industry. And every other species tries to pick up and move along with these changes, extending its range towards the poles—or to the brink of extinction as suitable habitats disappear permanently. Yet we continue to cling to our cities and homes, unable to move, like deer frozen in the headlights of climate change. We are setting ourselves up for inevitable disaster, like a child building elaborate sand castles below the high-tide line on a beach, or an obsessive compulsive painter desperately trying to draw permanent lines on a liquid canvas.

Much of human history can be told as a series of tales about individuals and groups of people fighting each other over pieces of this demarcated landscape. History is also generally written by the victors and the survivors. To be able to write our own future history, we must first figure out, collectively, how to survive past our own ecologically disastrous fossil-fuel-burning industrial age. If we are to ride the tides of climate change and other unpredictable events our planet throws at us, we must find ways to ease our attachment to rigid territories, soften our boundaries, and allow other creatures, and ourselves, more room to share the resources of this pale blue dot.

Talking trash on Valley Public Radio

I continue my contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio with another essay to be broadcast during this morning’s Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. The audio will later be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, I am posting the text of my essay (slightly expanded and linkified) below.

I wrote this essay during Thanksgiving weekend, that celebration of American cornucopia which is now increasingly marred by the ever-earlier manufactured rush of Christmas shopping, with Black Friday this year starting on Thursday, i.e., on Thanksgiving! As Jon Stewart later noted, Christmas is now eating other holidays, egged on by a marketing push in an economy wedded to ever-increasing consumption of goods, damn the environmental consequences.

Interestingly, a short while after I sent my essay in to the series editor, the Fresno City Council voted (closely, 4-3, after a heated debate) in favor of a measure pushed by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to outsource the city’s garbage collection to a private company, ostensibly to save money and get revenue from the company to balance the city budget. Ironically, a few days later, National Geographic lauded Fresno as “a city serious about recycling”, since it now keeps 73% of its trash out of landfills, making Fresno number 1 in the nation for recycling. Shortly after that, the garbage outsourcing measure passed a second round of voting by the same margin, so the city is one step closer to losing its nationally leading recycling program. I haven’t seen much discussion in the local media about what happens to the excellent recycling program, nor how the city plans to make sure that the private contractor will maintain quality of service. We will see how it all shakes out, I suppose, but the outlook is not very good, and the city leadership’s shortsightedness is disappointing if predictable.

All of this adds to the context within which I happened to write this essay, intending to make broader points about our garbage-spewing consumer culture. So here is my essay:

Can you imagine ever running out of garbage?

Maybe it has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics, the one about how entropy or the amount of disorder in a system will always increase. Or maybe it is this time of year, between Black Friday and Christmas / Boxing Day, when we are constantly exhorted to go out and buy things, things we may or may not need, but things we should want, because they are bright and shiny and cool, and offer momentary happiness in sharing gifts, or because this is how we are supposed to help businesses stay in the black, and help the economy! Accompanying all this jolly holiday consumption, of course, is a growing mound of garbage from all the packaging and the gift-wrapping, and the unwanted or rejected gifts that end up, eventually, in our landfills. It is hard to imagine us running out of garbage!

These days we are running out of many of the earth’s natural resources, ranging from oil and other fossil fuels, to drinking water, to even the fertility of our soils. In this time of scarcity, if there is one thing that we are in no danger of exhausting, surely it is our supply of garbage. So how can we run out of the stuff? And what would that even mean?

Well, as it happens, the country of Sweden is running low on garbage lately, so much so that they import it from neighboring Norway—and get paid for taking it off Norway’s hands! So efficient have the Swedes become at recycling and composting all of their household waste that only 4% of it ends up in landfills. As a result, they simply aren’t producing enough trash any more!

Wait! Not enough trash? Not enough for what?

For generating energy, of course!

According to a recent NPR story, Sweden runs one of the most successful waste-to-energy programs in the world, generating one-fifth of the nation’s district heating, and powering a quarter million homes. But now, because its citizens have become so conscientious about minding their own household waste, Sweden has to turn to other countries for garbage. Isn’t that a nicer problem to have than the litany of more depressing environmental challenges we face these days?

Why don’t we all do this? Kill two birds with one stone: reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and reduce our need for fossil fuels in the process.

Indeed, Fresno County is now entertaining proposals for a new garbage-fueled power plant. And, Fresno is already recognized as a national leader for its recycling programs. It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the modern landfill: the pioneering design of the Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill, a National Historic Landmark, set the standard for municipal waste management in 20th century America. Now Fresno can lead us again as the 21st century standard-bearer, by turning our trash into energy!

Dungbeetles Canthon simplex rolling a ball of dung.
Nature’s recycling crew at work, because in natural ecosystems, everything is recycled

In nature, there was never such a thing as garbage until humans came along, because any waste produced by one species is consumed by another in the circle of life. Our industrial civilization, paradoxically efficient and wasteful, broke the circle, and this may be the first time that a single species has generated too much waste for ecosystems to handle. 

We must close the circle again, and soon, before our planet is dead and covered in giant trash heaps.

Skyscraping towers of garbage on a desolate earth, as seen in Wall•E

A planet running short of garbage? Why, that’s how ours was not too long ago, and how it can be again if we put our ingenuity to solving the problems we have created.

For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti