A knot in Nature’s net

by Keerthik Sasidharan - Oct 28, 2014 01:34 AM +05:30 IST
A knot in Nature’s net

As the reactions to the Ebola epidemic amply demonstrates, until Man sees himself as part of a vast interconnectedness that is Nature, we will never be able to develop the right strategies and policies on either environment or ecology.

The Times, a newspaper published out of London, ran a report on October 20th, 2014 with a header: “Africans shut out of class as Ebola paranoia spreads”. It chronicles a series of anecdotes and official responses from individualsand institutions across the United States:

1. A missionary from Arizona had returned home from Liberia and had voluntarily quarantined himself. Talk, however, began of burning down his house.

2. In Mississipi, parents removed their children from schools upon learning that the principal had visited Zambia, “a nation 2000 miles south west of the nearest [Ebola] affected country.”

3. A university in Texas sent out rejection letters to applicants saying, none to subtly, that they were “no longer accepting international students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases”.

And so on. These may be isolated instances of latent xenophobia bursting to fore or perhaps merely an all too human effort at self-preservation, however overzealous it seems. What it does show is that paranoia has spread in some quarters, to wit, like a disease. Ever ready to ironicize, some users on Twitter called airline hysteria about ill passengers: “vomiting while black: the next big thing in racial profiling”.

A knot in Nature’s net

Be that as it may, the Ebola epidemic continues to rage and destroy lives. Yet, perhaps, the sole gains from this killer virus is the increased focus on the interconnectedness of the world – thanks to airline travel, mutability of pathogens and omnipresence of media. Once the hysteria and accompanying paranoia in media subsides, greater attention to public discourse on global health, epidemiology and response mechanisms seem inevitable. What will be evident is that there are lessons to be learnt, by governments and institutions on how to tackle such fatal communicable diseases. There are also questions to be asked of governments about our preparedness, but more so to theextent of training, readiness of infrastructure, training for health professionals as pathogens begin to emerge in new ways.

A knot in Nature’s net

There are subtler questions as well. That China and India together have contributed less to Ebola than the Gates Foundation and Mark Zuckerberg combined may seem natural. After all, neither country has been affected and West Africa is a world away. But just as diseases and viruses have histories, perceptions, responses and cures to them have their own histories as well.

In 1976, Nicholas Jewson wrote about the histories of what he called ‘medical cosmologies’. He argued that medicine isn’t simply a linear progression towards greater amount of scientific knowledge – but instead the history of cure-and-care is intimately tied to how society operates, the power dynamics at play and who influences the production of ideas. Before the Enlightenment in the 18th century, he argued, doctors treated humans as a person, taking into account an intimate knowledge of their own private histories as a person in society.(In a similar manner, many traditional Ayurveda practitioners insist on ‘cure the person, the disease will take care of itself’)

With increased industrialization, the rise of hospitals and mass treatment programmes, the person became coded in hospital logs as patients, the physician transformed into a doctor and a social relationship between individuals became a relatively more impersonal relationship between doctor-and-patient.

This slow creep towards ‘object oriented’ mode creates a new medical elite with their own hierarchies and influence. By the early 20th century, we saw the emergence of what Jewson calls ‘laboratory medicine’. This transformation of ‘physician-person’ relation to ‘doctor-patient’ and finally into a ‘physio-chemical’ discipline, in a way, manages to talk about medicine for humanity while effacing humans from the picture. So when a doctor-author like Abraham Verghese writes or speaks about listening to his patients, making rounds in a hospital, touching them to get a sense of their physical being – there is a gasp of recognition. It is a wolf-whistle to times that we – as doctors and patients – intuit but no longer know how to claim back.

Jewson’s focus, however, had been on the transformation of medicine itself. With the rise of transnational medical enterprises – in the form of NGOs, funding agencies, foundations and private individuals – new players have entered the discourse of medicine, research and care-giving. But, despite the goodwill of many involved, these organizations aren’t far removed from their own constitutive agendas and interests. The narratives these individuals and organizations privilege, without concomitant obligations,dovetails into the hierarchy and relationships they have with nodes of global power.

Questions on how medical findings are communicated, research is funded, diseases are recorded, the diseased are perceived – each of these are subject to forces that are opaque to the democratic mechanisms. The degree of this opaqueness is contingent on the State’s willingness or ability to assert it. An emerging nation-state, particularly countries like India, with the fate of millions of humans on the line, cannot afford to be outside the production of this knowledge by global archipelago of research laboratories, conferences and trials – even of diseases as seemingly far removed as Ebola.

An obverse set of questions that indicates the value of global engagement with highly communicable diseases are – should there be an Ebola panic in Delhi or Chennai, how prepared are we? Can our governmental machinery withstand such a shock? What are the economic consequences? Most importantly, in a fractious society such as ours, how quickly will we cleave along familiar lines of us versus them? In his blog post, Professor Ajay Shah comments that, should such an eventuality manifest, Indians will have to rethink how they cremate individuals. These aren’t new questions or answers. Neither is, it turns out, the prospect of breakdown of social order and instances of violence like those we now hear of in West Africa. In some cases, the sick are being bludgeoned, houses are being burnt and those suspected of being potentially ill, simply killed. Thucydides writes of other pernicious consequences of the Plague in the summer of 430 BCE:

“Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honour was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honourable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.” 

Like much else in human society, these global pandemics are not just what meet the eye. Beyond viruses and human health –epidemics are also a means of asserting control over flow of people, goods and services and eventually relationships themselves. Michel Foucault, the philosopher, argued that when the State (he calls it more abstractly ‘governmentality’) must communicate to its citizens, it ends up relying on experts as the mediators. But, these classes of mediators who are now arbiters of how knowledge is transmitted, inevitably, seek to maximize their power to control the discourse and seek to further themselves or their group interest.

When the State abdicates its responsibility or deems the disease irrelevant, the very same class of experts gravitates to global NGOs, who serve nebulous interests. In the first-best world, NGOs supplement and seamlessly collude with the efforts of the State; but the world is what it is. With the size of NGOs on the rise, even democratic States are subject to capture by a flotilla of social entrepreneurs. The ‘disciplinary gaze’ of the State that usually controls the fate and lives of its citizens is now at the hands of those outside its boundaries and beyond any accountability, notwithstanding their goodwill.

So, we have situations where, while Nigeria was able to control the epidemic, Liberia-Sierra Leone-Guinea have imploded due to their own lack of planning. Add to it the burden posed by what Nassim Taleb calls ‘empiricism of idiots’ (arguments that cite cancer statistics or road-kills as a way to downplay the multiplicative severity of infectious, communicable diseases) that ends up killing more people, crippling resources and leading States to rely on external help.For cures and for how they are perceived, they are reliant on the goodwill of strangers. There is a lesson in this for India too, if one chooses to learn.

(Continued in the next page)

As of now, the present Ebola outbreak is expected to cost around $32.5 billion till the end of 2015. In passing, it is useful to note that, the GDPs (in PPP) of the three worst hit nations – Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone ­– are $2.9, $12.56 and $9.156 billion respectively. Exports, trades and travel have stalled. In America, insurance companies have begun to talk about higher insurance premiums for firms who do business in Africa.More than the actual incidence of diseases – the perception of being diseased and helpless– can cripple countries.

West Africa Ebola outbreak situation, 2014
West Africa Ebola outbreak situation, 2014

One only needs to recall Surat in 1994, when cases of leptospirosis/pneumonic plague cost the Indian economy around $600 million (unadjusted). Back then, UAE suspended all cargo traffic. The American Center for Disease Control heightened surveillance of passengers arriving from India, but the Russians – like true friends, as Oscar Wilde said, stabbed us in the chest – by putting all Indian passengers into a six-day quarantine. Even Mauritius cancelled an official visit by one of its ministers. In essence, when fear of epidemics looms large, self-interest seems inevitable.

Nation-states that are open economies are particularly vulnerable to how diseased conditions are perceived by others. Consequently, it is the State that must actively anticipate how to control the narrative regarding how diseases are combated, controlled and eventually chronicled. The harsh reality of global medicine, and particularly epidemics, is that only those who contribute resources can strategically ‘over-react’ to the disease at its core. Only these countries can have expectations to control not just production of cures but also the language in which the diseased reality is explained and communicated. A disease such as HIV-AIDS that was seen as a death knell in the 1980s, is now seen and spoken of – among the affluent portions of the First World with access to pills such as Truvada – as a permanent condition, but no different than diabetes.

Epidemics don’t merely raise questions of realpolitik, economic affairs or even managing perceptions – but more so that, these events offer an opportunity to deepen our consciousness and further our engagement with the biological penumbra under which we live.

For the past 200 odd years – since the beginning of industrialization – the master narrative regarding Nature has been one of decline. The proto-environmentalists of the 19th century argued that Nature was in balance, homeostatic and man’s interventions and avarice had worsened it. In the 20th century, after World War 2, every decade seems to have had a favorite story of peril that feeds into fears of imminent catastrophes. In the 1960s, it was demographics and pollution; in the 1970s, it was acid rain; in the 1980s, it was ozone hole; in the 1990s, it was decline in biodiversity and by 2000s, it has been climate change. Irrespective of whether any of these phenomena actually end the world or not, the persistence of ‘end times’ is hard to miss.

This idea, however, isn’t really new. Even ‘end times’ has a history.It has manifested in different forms in various societies – but with substantive subtleties. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the idea of ‘end times’ (what the Biblical scholars calls ‘eschaton’, from which we get the word ‘eschatology’) is more of an event – when the Kingdom of God manifests. This idea itself has undergone various iterations. From the spiritually redeeming notes struck in the days of the Jewish exile to Babylon in 597 BCE to assorted, mindless death cults such as Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas in 1994.

In the Hindu tradition, the end times is both an event (the arrival of ‘Kalki’, Vishnu’s 10thAvatara) and a state of affairs as indicated by the taxonomy of epochs. The Kali Yuga – the age of vice – is less of an event, but more of a state of continual decline. The end comes, not with a bang, but with dissoluteness. The present day fears of Ebola, the accompanying warnings in the digital underground to prepare for widespread epidemic may seem irrational to some, but in a way it merely speaks to a more ancient fear of an end of civilization. It is a fear that, for most part, we successfully quarantine within ourselves. And when this fear spills forth into the open, we rely on the language available then – be it God, messianism, avatar, the third eye, post-History, eternal cycles or Science.

In the past, these religiously inflected ideas of ‘end times’ was expressed often in its own unique cadence and lyricism; the modern versions of doomsday are spoken in the language of science. In the forests of modern life, Science plays Virgil who guides us, forces us to re-evaluate how we see life, death and all that comes in between. Ebola and other epidemiological disasters are no different. We try to understand it ‘scientifically’.

For now, we still don’t know much about the origins of Ebola. There is some evidence that increased human intervention in deep forests of equatorial Africa may have disturbed the natural habitat of the reservoir host and thus disrupted the natural coexistence of humans and the virus. Whether this is entirely borne out by more research or not, the idea of ‘end times’ for our secular age continues to play on human anxieties that religious vocabulary tried to assuage. Popular science books written on the subject aren’t inured from this apocalyptic language. Even sober assessments such as a book by Laurie Garrett is called The Coming Plague.

Those antipathetic to religion too must grapple with the arrival of Death in so macabre a form as an epidemic. Existentialists like Albert Camus, in his novel The Plague, observes the lethal nature of the plague – but he is struck by the meaninglessness and randomness of the death that is visited. As Malcolm Jones wrote recently, the Plague and its consequences are as inscrutable as it is murderous. For others, with a more religious bent of mind, these epidemics are inextricably linked to the language of the comeuppance.

A knot in Nature’s net

In America, in the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was reduced to God’s vengeance for homosexuality. Similarly, the idea that Ebola and other viruses are due to man’s sins is deeply held by many. But who exactly are we sinning against? For writers such as Richard Preston (his terrifyingly delicious book The Hot Zone), it is man’s transgressions against Nature (deforestation, rampant mining, mindless exploitation of resources) that has brought this about. Others like the analyst Laurie Garrett sidestep this language of sin, but nevertheless cautions from the altars of science that: “Ultimately humanity will have to change its perspective on its place in Earth’s ecology if the species hopes to stave off or survive the next plague.”

(Continued in the next page)

Fair enough. But to change perspectives is hard work and in a way begins with the very language and models of Nature we construct in our head. It is here that we come face to face with ways of thinking about the environment. Simplistically, the two predominant views on the environment can be called – anthropocentric and biocentric. The former privileges human perspective over otherspecies. It finds reasons to preserve the environment and rationally exploit the world’s resources. Anthropocentric views look at the world from a cost-benefit analysis and ask what is it that we are likely to benefit from tearing down a rain forest or nearly-depleting fishery stocks and what are the consequences. In this way of thinking, the environment is reducible to a collection of self-interests. The advantage of this perspective is clear: it is easier to sell concrete actions to the voters who may or may not be paying attention to other non-quantifiable consequences.

But this perspective ends up posing more philosophical questions. If nature is viewed solely from a human perspective, much of the planet’s biodiversity is irrelevant to us in an immediate economic sense. After all, how does it really matter if penguins starve to death or the lion-faced macaque goes extinct? This view must also begin to delve into other complications–what levels of biodiversity are we really concerned with. There is species biodiversity, genetic biodiversity and ecosystem biodiversity – each with its own complications that any policy prescription is soon confounded by, given the correlations that Nature throws our way.

The biocentric perspective, in contrast, is more expansive in its vision and more intuitive. But it is also vaguer to motivate. This view privileges each species, gene and ecosystem for its own sake. In its most concrete form, it asks for collective restraint by consumption driven human economies.But also implicit in this is the tenuous language of rights of other species. As well meaning as it is, in a democracy – with questions of hunger, growth and inequality – it is hard to campaign against false dichotomies that rhetorically ask if a rainforest frog has equal right to exist as tree logger with three children to feed. An instrumental view of Nature, it seems, is perhaps the most predictable rhetoric in democratic politics. In short, the biocentric view, while motivated correctly, thus far, has had little traction; its proponents comfort themselves with the moral correctness of their position and sanctimony towards those who beg to differ. But they face an imponderable challenge to communicate their message.

The role of the State is to actively balance the imperatives of growth and the preponderance of evidence that points to the importance of thinking about the world from a biocentric perspective. But policy that maps both concerns to some form of agreement is not easy, either. This difficulty isn’t simply about invidious influences, but also the limits of rationality that can be applied to policy. At its extreme, small innocuous actions can lead to monumental shifts in how humans interact with ecology.

In William Cronon’s landmark book, Changes in the Land, there is a fascinating example of this causality. It is a tale of how European settlers arrived in the New England area and formed relationships with native Indians and subsequently gained control of the land. In the huge swathe of that colonial-settler history is the story of the animal called beaver which highlights how difficult it is for governments to anticipate consequences of their action:

Consider, for example, the lowly beaver, hunted and ultimately destroyed by Indians at the behest of English traders. From its demise flowed a long chain of ecological consequences. Settlers laid out roadways to cross its abandoned dams. Ponds behind the dams filled with fish and thus became an invariable source of food and fertilizer. Eventually, the dams gave way, emptying the ponds and exposing heavily silted bottoms that soon sprouted luxuriant grasses for livestock. Alternatively, these same bottom lands afforded excellent soil for planting. Thus were whole communities shaped, and reshaped, by a single moment in ecological history.

The challenge is that while, for most of us, our instincts may point towards some form of weak-biocentrism, the question remains of how actionable policy is created of this moral intuition. Perhaps, as talk of economic growth rises to the fore, we need to take ideas like green GDP more seriously. In fact, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the noted economist Sir Partha Dasgupta had initiated efforts to study Green National Accounts in India; but it remains yet another instance of what fell by the wayside under the UPA.

But these challenges aren’t merely governmental either. It also has to do with how we think and conceive of the wild. Many of deep-biocentrism advocates propagate versions of neo-Luddite-ism where wilderness is treated as ‘pure, pristine environment’. From the pages of the Ramayana, when forests were terrifying and hostile places filled with mysterious forces, we have arrived to a more Biblical or Romantic notion of the wild as a ‘Garden of Eden’. The reality is however more complicated and nuanced. The ‘sacred sublime’ of forests is yet another man-made construct of purity – no different than other ideas of unblemished virtue, be it racial or linguistic purity.

William Cronon, who challenged this extant view of the sacredness of the wild in his classic The Trouble With Wilderness, argues this ‘sacred’ perspective allows citizens to evade any direct responsibility. This, he argues, needs to change. For starters, a useful way to think is to stop exoticizing the wild or for that matter those who live in the wild. But closer home, Cronon argues, the challenge is to learn to respect the ordinary – the tree outside our house or the pond in our villages. He writes: “By seeing the otherness in that which is most unfamiliar, we can learn to see it too in that which at first seemed merely ordinary. If wilderness can do this – if it can help us perceive and respect a nature we had forgotten to recognize as natural – then it will become part of the solution to our environmental dilemmas rather than part of the problem.

To change perspectives, as Garrett or Cronon say, we need policy, infrastructure and resources – but we also need to get our language right such that it places humans within a network of connectedness. There has to be a shift in our thinking: from essences of being (humans, stones, trees, frogs etc), we need to think of their co relatedness. In this vein, when Prime Minister Modi announced at the UN that India’s message is ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (‘the world is a family’) – the question we must ask is what does this ‘vasudha’ (or ‘world’) refer to? A world of me alone, of me and my family, my family and my city, my city and my country, me and fellow humans or is it something more expansive, more ineffable.

Athirappilly Falls
Athirappilly Falls

In the late 2000s, I went to the Athirappilly Falls in Kerala, a small waterfall that pours the Chalakudy River, which snakes through the Sholayar-Vazhachal forestranges, over the tail end of the Western Ghats. There, amidst the cawing of hornbills, hooting of assorted species of monkeys, the whistling of Indian bamboos and the dampness of tropical soil – was a small derelict board with words from the Vrksha Ayurveda in Sanskrit and English that said:


 Ten wells are equal to a Pond,
Ten ponds are equal to a Lake,
Ten lakes are equal to a Son,
Ten sons are equal to a Tree.

Reading that, I couldn’t but wonder why this verse from 10-11th century that places man within a net of relationships was forgotten. In those lines, there is no instance of us-versus-them, no hint of apocalypse or God – just an ancient wisdom that saw man as one should: neither privileged, nor denied his place; as just another knot in the net of life. Perhaps, the language we seek is already amidst us. We just need to learn to reclaim it.

Keerthik Sasidharan was born in Palakkad; was educated in Canada and lives in NYC. His writings have appeared in The Hindu, The Caravan and other publications. He is working on his first book, to be published by Aleph Book Company.

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