15 June, 2019

Homo Insapiens


The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an intergovernmental body which assesses the state of biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides to society, last week released a report stating one million species are at risk of extinction. They estimate there are 5.5 million species of insects, of which 10% are threatened (500,000 species). In addition, 2.5 million species are animals and plants but not insects, of which 25% are threatened. This 25% figure is estimated from IUCN Red List assessments (500,000 species.)

Whatever the numbers, which will surely be hotly debated amongst conservationists, biologists and industrialists for years to come, it is clear from numerous studies that the volume of animal and plant life all over the planet is declining in alarming numbers.

Humans are the main culprits. Their industrial agricultural practices which tolerates only monoculture and aerial applications of toxic herbicides and pesticides, huge cities of concrete, massive toxic emissions from fossil fuels, millions of tons of toxic plastic objects which breaks down into a soup of microplastic in the waterways, pharmacological waste, and a dizzying array of chemicals used in daily life is contaminating every millimeter of earth, water, sky and air.

And then there is the hubris of a humancentric worldview where the planet is viewed as terra nulla for humans to colonize. Every other species must make way, or die if need be, for our smallest needs.

Nepal may feel separate from these discussions. And yet we cannot afford not to be part of his global dialogue. Our shops are full of pesticides. Our waterways are full of plastic bottles. Our supermarkets are full of beauty products and cosmetics containing innocent sounding ingredients which cause endocrine disruption, leading to a “thyroid” health crisis. Our chickens are full of last resort antibiotics.

When I visited Jumla in 1993, I was 20 years old. With just a junior technical assistant from the NGO who had hired me to write a report about its work in Jumla as a guide, I made my way across the district for six weeks. Chickens were kept in close proximity to sleeping areas, and people were often so disturbed by the pests on the birds they sprinkled DDT onto their beds before going to sleep. I was offered some DDT to sprinkle on my bed, which I politely declined. Lecturing people on the harm created by this practice was useless—the people felt there was no alternative if they wanted a good night’s sleep.

I often think about this disturbing memory and wonder how much of the cancers occurring in Nepalese are triggered by agro-chemicals. There was a young woman ravaged by breast cancer who I met at the Nepalgunj airport on that trip. More recently, I was in Dhulikhel when an elderly lady on a bus told me she was undergoing treatment for cancer at the hospital. She was obviously sick, and I wondered how much of the beautiful landscape outside was scarred with invisible poison.

We have been made to believe Western science and its inventions are the height of intelligence and infallible wisdom. Yet how can a worldview which encourages people to keep making chemicals and compounds with not a single thought about its end result be ethical, rational or wise? In Eastern philosophical traditions (different strands of Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism) the ethical consequences of harming another life is front and center in every action that we take. How could we have been made to believe that this “science” which keeps inventing one toxic killer substance after another is not just a way of thinking that we must all adopt on a global level, but indeed the only way? What made us so deluded we have no effective way to push back at this genocidal regime and say: “No, we refuse to adopt a way of life which is murdering a million species on earth?”

Homo sapiens—Latin for “the wise man”-- was the name given to humans to indicate their ability to think. Scientists often boast intelligence marks humans out from other beings who cannot think with the same cognitive complexity. Our cognitive abilities are far superior to any other species on earth, the scientists assure us. They’ve done the studies, so they should know.

And yet how could we be an intelligent species if we’re destroying the very basis of what makes us alive—the web of life which sustains us on earth--all destroyed with no end in sight? We may have the military, industrial and chemical arsenal no other animal does. But then no other animal attacks its own basis of life in the way homo sapiens has so successfully managed to do, with the help of science and technology.

Does this mean we are not as intelligent as we think we are? Does it mean we are missing a chip—the ecological quotient chip that all other animals come so beautifully equipped with? Will we manage to decimate the whales who survived for 2.5 million years? Will we kill even the cockroaches, the ultimate survivor? Are we bringing the web of life crashing down, all the while clapping with our own brilliance? Perhaps it is time to change our name to homo insapiens—the foolish human species.

Annapurna Express, 31/5/2019