I am driving through a nondescript dam catchment in Northern West Ghats. They all look the same to me now, even though they are not. Mature forests, surrounded by dense shrubbery, with patches of scrub and open areas, as landscape ecologists would call them. We are told that the scrub and open areas represent a degradation of the forest and the forest needs to be saved.
It’s true. It is possible that several hundred years ago, clans of sustenance farmers or pastoralists moved from the Deccan Plateau to the Western Ghats and settled themselves into tiny villages all over these tough mountains. Their subsequent generations cut forests for firewood, grazing, and agriculture. It is indeed possible that a lot of these forests were cleared by those who live here.
But that’s only a partial truth. It has been well documented that many trees in these forests were felled for making coal to satisfy urban demand. The ring roads built around dam catchments increased urban access to these hilly areas and demand for timber was satisfied from these forests. The mountains lost a lot of shrubbery and grass to grazing. The cattle were grown to satisfy insatiable urban demand for milk and milk-based products. The dams were built to meet urban demand for water in the first place.
Thus, the urban way of living and demands of urban man have at least partially been responsible for forest loss in these pristine ecosystems. Urbanites are parasites.
It makes me contemplate after I return to Pune: What is a civilization? What does it mean to become civil?
To me all that civilization means today is to yield to a much more complex set of social norms as compared to our ancestors the hunter gatherers, pastoralists, tribal farmers, and sustenance farmers. It means increasing our intensity of natural resource use. It means modifying nature in ways that cannot be reversed or replenished easily. It means creating large volumes of waste and not taking responsibility for it. It means becoming a slave of technology at the cost of sustainable values.
Nature has always been generous to man. Thankfully, the needs of hunter gatherers, pastoralists, tribal farmers, and sustenance farmers were something that nature could fulfill easily. But when the intense agriculturalist and the industrial man arrived on the scene, things started changing drastically, with nature paying a heavy price. And this mode of living is not new. It started with the densely populated cities of the Harappan civilization.
So, is this civilization of ours something to be proud about? Is civilization without sustainable values worth cherishing at all?
Those big pursuits we chase in our lives, whether a great house, car, education, careers, mobility, travel, fame, money, recognition, even mastery of knowledge and the arts: Are these not mere minutiae in front of this grand, yet failed equation between nature and man?
So where do we go from here?
It is actually a miracle that the other sustainable modes of living, mentioned earlier, are still in existence. That we can observe them, we can study them. The question is: Are we going to learn anything from them?
Photo: Sustenance farmer working on her rice farm in W. Ghats, waiting for the arrival of monsoon.