IN ALL CULTURES OF THE PAST, mankind lived in harmony with nature. There was healthy respect for nature and with limited population there was never an issue. The earth was regarded as mother and life giver sustaining all forms of life. It was never considered as an inanimate object, but rather a living being. Not only the earth, even the living organisms were ascribed various qualities and treated with respect. In fact, any phenomenon which can’t be explained was ascribed to a God.
In Manipur, legend says that when Luwang Ningthou Punshiba decided to craft a boat, he sent his two greatest artisans Nungban Wangmitkhu Khut-heiba and Luwang Wangmanao Sinheiba and these two eyed on a lofty Uningthou (Phoebe hainesiana) growing at Kaoba Ingel hill and after cleaning the surrounding, the accompanying priests conducted rituals to bring an understanding but after the ceremony as the sun went down and as the tree had gone to sleep, they did not fell it.
In the night, the parents of the tree, Irok Laija Leima and Irok Ningthou (King of rain and cloud) cried, unable to bear the pain of impending separation and heartbreak. The next morning, the team axed down the gigantic tree and after trimming it, Wangmitkhu Khut-heiba announced that Luwang Ningthou Punshiba simply did not want to reduce to a simple boat but to a royal boat (Hiyang Hiren). This story emphasises on the belief that all matter in this earth is important and permission must be taken for its use by mankind.
During the past era, there were conflicts between groups of people and butchery was the norm. Slavery was practiced, but nature was minimally harmed. Towns and villages may be ravaged, but the surrounding areas and the habitats were generally left untouched. Every inanimate object was regarded as representing a God and generally thus left untouched. However, when the European nations rose to power and seek conquest of other continents, in search of spices and other tradable items, the rivalry between the then super powers like England, Holland, France, Portugal and Spain compete with each other to conquer new territories in America, Africa, Asia and Australia. They literally decimated the native population of America and Australia, while severely marginalising the population of Asia and Africa.
The Industrial Revolution ushered in a new economy and the mills needed to be fed with raw materials which were made to be supplied by the colonies. The development of science led to the thinking that many objects which were earlier regarded as having life was treated as inanimate and the respect it had been accorded was withdrawn, to be used as one likes. They tend to forget the classical principle that “for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction”. Science was divided into disciplines without considering that all things are interconnected on earth.
The decimation of the Native American was made not only by systematically targeting them, but by targeting their main food source, the bison, which was hunted in millions by the British and US military later on, but by also engaging hunters just to kill the animals. Such large-scale slaughter of the bison led to the demise of the Native American who fought for a long time. On the other side, in Australia, similar treatment was meted out to the aborigines of Australia that they were literally decimated. In fact, the extermination of the native population was so vast that a controversial theory that the mini ice age of the 16th to 19th century was ascribed to such decimation of large population of human and animals and that nature took over and the CO2 level fell a bit; leading to the mini ice age. This is despite the fact that various natural causes have been ascribed like cyclical low of solar radiation, heightened volcanic activity, variations in the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt. Although the idea is very controversial, the fact that such a theory is proposed underlines the massive destruction of the natural habitat in the colonies during that period.
The colonists using better weaponry believed that the natives were nothing but vermin and systematically exterminated them. With the settlement of colonies by people from Europe who brought in domestic animals that after escaping from the pens and pastures destroyed the native flora. They also brought in new diseases like the small pox, sexually transmitted diseases, against which the natives have no immunity and they perished in thousands. The US then used bio-weapons by gifting small pox impregnated blankets to the natives to mass exterminate them.
The underlying philosophy was totally in contrast with the earlier one where the earth was treated a part of nature and was accorded respect. But with the advancement of science, there was a tendency to believe that the earth is composed of inanimate objects and the parts do not deserve the honour it was accorded earlier but to use it at will in the interest of mankind. The start of mining for coal and petroleum led to further destruction of nature not only due to the mining process but the ill effects of their burning for the benefit of mankind. There was increase in the CO2 level in the atmosphere leading to what is now called global warming and subsequently helps in climate change.
When this author visited the border with Myanmar (then Burma) in the early seventies and early eighties, he saw huge stumps of trees which on query was told that these were left after the trees were harvested in the sixties by one Robin Purkayashta, who seem pretty adventurous to travel to such interiors then to extract the timbers using elephants. Further, Tachou Toijamba in the seventies used to narrate that when they were growing up in Nambol they were so afraid of even stripping a branch of the trees growing in the Khoriphaba sacred grove with the belief that this will lead to immediate death. But one Manipuri contractor cut down all the big trees and when this was carried out locals believed that he will not survive but he not only survived but made a name not only in wealth but in other areas too. With the lost of the tree cover fauna like wolf, wild dog, birds, etc also disappeared. This happened in all sacred groves.
Ukhrul used to have large pine forests that in the sixties and seventies there was even a proposal to start a turpentine factory, but now except for a few small trees here and there all have been logged for the benefit of a few and the mountains have become barren.
With the great groaning under the weight of climate change and global warming, realisation slowly crept in that all matter in the earth is linked and tinkering with one impacts the rest. In the late sixties, James Lovelock, on the advice of novelist William Golding, Nobel laureate (1983) used the term Gaia, while developing the Gaia hypothesis with Lynn Margulis, where the earth is considered as a living entity where “life maintains the conditions of life” that brought about a paradigm shift in the Earth sciences. His essay “What is Gaia” and Commoner’s Four Laws of Ecology are a must read and deserve incorporation in the education syllabi. Gaia is the Greek Goddess of the earth and she is both benevolent and malicious. She is both a giver and taker and if she is treated well she showers blessings but if she is harmed in any way she destroys. Legend says that she gave birth to Uranos, who slept with her but due to his wickedness; using her son Kronos killed Uranos. And when Kronos started devouring all his sons through his wife Rheia, Gaia used Kronos’s son Zeus to overthrow him. From these tales, Gaia is not only a benevolent mother but also a scheming persona who strikes her enemy when unexpected. That is happening with extreme climates all across the globe. Now scientists and thinkers realise that tinkering with parts of the earth have impacted it so much that urgent action need to be taken to reverse it but governments are slow in acting and parts of the earth is becoming a living hell; with many landmass slowly becoming unfit for human habitation.
Realisation slowly dawned on the need for systemic utilisation of resources while also reducing the atmospheric carbon load. It has led to the plantation of indigenous species rather than exotic ones.
Focus is on regenerating the wetlands which is the largest carbon sinks. There is concern that biodiversity will be lost and the planet will have a uniform flora and fauna, much to the disadvantage of all, including mankind. As in nature where all are interconnected, the multidisciplinary approach seems the only way forward. Man is the destroyer but he has come to slowly realise the dangers of his own acts.
(The views expressed is the writer's own)