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"Rethinking Sustainability"- By Sampurna Goswami

Scene-1(Year 1987)
World Commission on Environment and Development
The commission brings in the concept of Sustainable development and defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”,

Scene-2(Year 1992)
Rio Earth Summit.
Agenda 21 adopted by the world leaders.

Scene-3(Year 2017)
Richard Vevers is moving through the serene underwater of the Great Barrier Reef. He suddenly smells death.

Scene-4(For all times)
A person is knocking every door in a village of Gond tribes to find some cow milk but failing nonetheless.

The scenes depicted above present itself with a nice balance of hope and despair. Scene-1 and Scene-2 makes us hopeful of a better future and suddenly we are hit in the head with scene-3. Thank god for scene-4 that we find a new light, a new ray of hope. From the first scene to the third we have traveled 30 long years. Thirty years ago the world first pledged to save the future. However, little was achieved in that direction. The climate change has been so severe that one of the biggest ecological wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached so badly that many scientists believe it is too late to save it. We have been trying very hard to develop sustainably without hurting our ecological balance. But still there remains a problem.

From Scene-1 to Scene-3 we have traveled 30 years in time. In 1987 we were hopeful that we would not have to see 2017 as we see it now. The idea of sustainable development that was conceived in 1987 stood on the three pillars of economic development, social development, and environmental protection. Standing in 2017, the strength of these three pillars can be severely questioned but in this particular writing, I keep my focus on the third pillar of environmental protection.


I would not start this writing in a negative light and give credit where it is due. We have all for some time now given up on our languid demeanor when it comes to nature and a concerted effort can be seen worldwide to preserve nature. But still, it has pelted humanity straight from scene-1 to scene-3 in just 30 years time. And just a few days ago media was splashed with Stephen Hawking’s concern to colonize other planets in order to avoid extinction of the human race. To put it in Hawking’s own words “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics, and population growth, our planet is increasingly precarious”. Now the question is where did we go wrong? Why have our repeated efforts not resulted in something substantial and why this destruction continues?

I would like to make a move towards finding an answer by bringing in scene-4 which describes the unavailability of milk in the places inhabitated by Gond tribes. To put things into perspective, the Gond tribes, who inhabit various regions of India believe that milk is for the calves and not for Human consumption and hence it is unusual for them to drink cow milk. Now, the question might arise as to why suddenly I brought in this point. Well, to show that we do not need to worry about terms sustainable, preserve, conserve when we are implicit in this gigantic system called nature. The Gonds have lived for centuries in the forests and left it mostly unharmed. What is to be noted is the fact that without much effort these tribes are able to preserve nature and us, the children of modernity are struggling hard to do so and not to mention landing in massive destruction with a deafening thud!

The problem as I understand is the lens with which we see the world. A lens that provides an objective understanding of the world. Now the question is what exactly is meant by this objective understanding. It is that particular understanding which helps to establish a subject-object relation between two entities and allows the subject to observe and study the object in clinical isolation. This exact relation can be seen to exist between nature and Humans. The problem started when our subjective understanding was removed and it was replaced by an objective understanding. Once we started perceiving nature as something removed from our own being did we start seeing opportunities in it. And it is basic human nature to exploit opportunities to the fullest. The Gond tribes do not need to make an extra effort for conserving nature as they never use it to the level of depletion. They use it to satisfy needs and not their wants. And hence they never disturb the natural balance. We, on the other hand, exploit nature to the fullest as we have this sense of entitlement over nature. We see humans as superior to nature and hence nature becomes something to be controlled by us. Thus, in my understanding, the issue of sustainability dwells at the level of practice and not at the level of epistemology. All our actions are a result of our understanding. If at the level of epistemology we continue with this objective lens, then in my Understanding Mr.Hawking’s might be right as well. When we start seeing nature as a part of us and not as a plethora of opportunities we would definitely have a sustainable future as I believe we are not mad enough to cut off our own hands and legs.

What I thus understand is that we need a sustainable epistemology. An epistemology that will lead to a sustainable understanding and hence sustainable practices. The intervention or the rethinking should also be at the level of knowledge formation. And as Michael Jackson puts it :

“There are ways to get there
If you care enough for the living
Make a little space, make a better place
Heal the World”




References Used:
1) CNBC Special Report
2) Images of New bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef- The Guardian

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