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Will You Yell Back At History You Meant To Do Better? It Wasn’t Just You?

By Suprabha Seshan

27 March, 2016

Cartoon by Radhika Neelakantan

As the biosphere collapses, so does the human species: we are all in the grip of an insidious toxic debilitation from the waste products of industrial civilisation. There have never been so many chronically sick humans, nor so many living dead, with masses of us dependent on big pharma and hospitals long before we actually die. It’s a cold fact we refuse to wake up to: just about everyone born is victim to the direct effects of the toxification of the environment, of air, water, personal and public spaces, soils and foods.

According to Wikipedia, Florence Nightingale believed that external factors associated with the patient's surroundings affect life or biologic and physiologic processes, and his or her improvement. And that the environmental factors affecting health were pure or fresh air, pure water, sufficient food supplies, efficient drainage, cleanliness, light (especially direct sunlight). Any deficiency in one or more of these factors could lead to impaired functioning of life processes or diminished health.

I live in the Western Ghats, a mountain range in southern India. It’s the last bastion of ancient nature in these parts, with a few pockets of forest still standing, a few rivers still flowing, a bit of wildlife and ecological diversity not yet wholly devoured by the industrial maw.

Every time I enter the megalopolis of Bangalore, the city I hail from, I am saddened by the transmogrification: by the crowds, the bumper to bumper screeching traffic; the intolerable levels of smog, the slaughtered giant trees, the blaring loudspeakers; and the growing numbers of wheezing, sickly, cancer-ridden slow-dying people, many amongst friends and family.

When I meet friends who attend pranayama class, or jog ten rounds in a park or diligently purchase organic vegetables, I wonder: how does one achieve health in a sewer? What’s it like to do deep breathing with an exhaust pipe up your nose?

For that’s what Bangalore also is, a giant exhaust pipe. And it’s up everybody’s nose.

Daily each urban Indian inhales the equivalent of 5 packets of cigarettes, of suspended particulate matter (SPM), mostly from vehicular exhaust, industrial pollutants, construction material and waste, each particle taking 30 seconds to enter her bloodstream.

More than 1300 new motorized vehicles are added to Bangalore’s traffic in a day. That’s 39,000 a month, 474,500 a year. Bumper to bumper (at an average length of 2 meters each), that’s 950 kms of vehicles, a distance from Bangalore to Mumbai. Implications? Insane congestion, insane sound pollution, more deaths by road accidents (700 per year Bangalore, 120000 nationwide) and a gazillion more particles up our noses.

Welcome to a gas chamber even Hitler could not have imagined: the modern Indian city, entire populations being choked to death, only a little slower, hooked to the promise of India Shining.
I practice yoga exercises, and heartily advocate others to do so, but when I heard NaMo’s proposal to the UN, of yoga as a means to mitigate climate change, my blood ran cold, and his speech stirred my ever simmering fear that men-in-power will resort to fantasy as a means to dumb down discourse for their captive audiences.

Here’s a fantasy: if all 7 billion humans did yoga, just imagine what we could achieve. Our pranayama would cleanse our own lungs and circulatory systems, and also filter the air from suspended particles, to support the lungs and lives of others. Indeed, our lungs, along with our skins and the leaves of plants, are perhaps the greatest air filters ever invented, and human bodies could be the greatest clean-up operation of atmospheric toxins. Yoga, if all of us did it all the time: could indeed be the ultimate cleanser.

Cosmic awareness through yogic union could so easily be a biological ecological reality.

Provided we stop the smog spewing machines.

Earlier this evening, while walking around the Jayanagar Shopping Complex, one of Bangalore’s early proto-malls, I had this strange feeling that what I was seeing: crowds of people out on fun shopping sprees, lured by festive sales and absurd price cuts, was something more ominous, and more intimate: my death, our death and the death of the planet. Maybe I’m just a freaked out environmentalist staring into the maws of doom in the shape of a million shiny bits of tinsel, mounds of rexene bags, piles of cheap clothing, shelves heaving with plastic, metal, paper, cloth, glass, wood; and exhaust fumes thicker than mist. Maybe I’m just irrationally morbid about something as wonderful and harmless as window shopping. Maybe my friends experience something else. Maybe they like the glittering silicon city that’s replaced the old garden city. Maybe they are happy people with unlimited purchasing power, living out their dreams.

Is a mobile phone alive or dead? Is a concrete house alive or dead? Is a tar road alive or dead? What about a plastic bucket, or a glass vase, or a gold necklace, or all the items in Ralph Lauren, Nike and Sony stores? Are these alive or dead?

What makes the city lethal is that every one of these dead things is made from the bodies of living beings, a tree, a habitat, a forest, a village, a river elsewhere. The industrial production process ensures they can never be turned back into life. No amount of recycling or green technology will do that. The machines eat life and churn out anti-life.

In the forest, living beings die, and their corpses decay to be consumed by other living beings. There is no waste whatsoever. In the city, dead (functioning or discarded) products of industrial civilization pile up, they accumulate, they support nothing. They render the place - and the planet - uninhabitable for eons to come. Industrial civilization, the mass producer of dead things is the genesis of ecological holocaust.

Do these dead things support real life, or fantasy life? The greatest con job of modernity is getting everyone to believe that buying objects (and more objects and more objects), brings us what we really need. Yet only life supports life. Only life (and more life and more life) supports your life, and your childrens’ lives, and your childrens’ children's lives.

There’s more. The amount of suspended particulate matter in Bangalore’s air has risen it seems at the same rate as private hospitals. I did some googling for fun. Bangalore health clinics: 2.3 million results; Bangalore hospitals: 2.5 million; Bangalore yoga centres: 1.8 million; Bangalore gyms: 795,000; Bangalore meditation: 794,000; Bangalore pranayama: 99,000; Bangalore psychiatry: 495,000; Bangalore doctors: 7 million; Bangalore pharmacies: 492,000; Bangalore alternative health care: 1.3 million.

I’m all for improved health care, but here’s something weird about those numbers, something spookily industrial about them. Is it just a matter of population, more hospitals for more people? Could it be that more people are more sick so they require more intervention? Could it be that it’s a good business strategy to pollute and poison the population first and then be the beneficent saviour? Not only life, but also death is under corporate control these days.

Is it coincidental that 40% of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air or soil pollution and that the health industry is booming like never before? Why is no one upset that air pollution can reduce a life by 9 years? Why have we taken sides with car companies against our own lungs? Why do we settle for palliatives, when we know what’s at stake? Why do we not tackle the source of the problem?

Does the term toxic mimic ring a bell? Derrick Jensen’s book Endgame proposes that a toxic mimic imitates the form of something else but not its content. Rape, he says, is a toxic mimic of sex. Nationalism is a toxic mimic of community. War is a toxic mimic of play. Ever since I read this I’ve been seeing toxic mimics everywhere.

This city is a toxic mimic of the forest where I live, a mimic in which the in-credible diversity in living beings is replaced by an incredible diversity in dead things, by a galaxy of dead things , destined to fulfil your every want and dream; at the expense of your body, and the earth’s body.

Cities are anti-life. We’re being killed, slowly but surely. We are being gassed, poisoned and irradiated as we read this. Our children are being bombarded by killer particles on their way to school, at home, at play. Our lives are being used to run machines that will produce more dead things, which then add more toxins to your life. Plastic is not harmless, nor are computers, nor mobile phones nor cars. There are hundreds of hazardous substances, entering our body from all these things. And if not our bodies, then surely into the body of the earth once we’re done with them. Are the rates of cancer surprising?

Of course, there are many perspectives on this matter of cities. Some (most) say it’s never been better, some (very few) say it should never have happened, and still others say, at any point in history there’s always been a problem; we can fix it, there’s time, and we’ve got the technology.

I’m panicking that no matter the perspective, the real world, which includes our lungs, hearts and kidneys, and the lungs, hearts and kidneys of our children and our children’s children, and the cells, tissues and organs of every life form, as well as the living earth, is being poisoned to death, and that too many of us are in denial. Too many of us refuse the connection between land, water, air, plants, animals, climate and our own viability.

I’m panicking that the worldwide amphibian die-off, the worldwide fish die-off, the worldwide bee die-off, the vulture die-off, and the big mammal die-off, will soon be followed by the worldwide human die-off.

But think again, why do all these have to die? Human beings and other beings don’t have to die. Only industrial civilization does.

Who is responsible for this poisoned world, our only home? Is it the person zipping off to Electronic City with a conscience as clear as white sugar (for being part of India Shining), in her air conditioned Hyundai (that drives home a relationship), while her lungs go a deathly black (to be fixed by the friendly neighbourhood corporate hospital)?

I hold the emperors of industrial civilization responsible, their armies (that consume a greater share of the world’s petroleum to add a greater share of the world’s pollution), and their propagandists in media and education, for turning decent human beings into zombies who care less about the air they breathe than the size of their automobiles or bank balances. Zombies, who will soon be buying bottled air like they buy bottled water, believing that air comes from bottles, at a price. In fact, I hold the emperors of industrial civilization responsible for turning decent human beings into invisible cogs in their earth-destroying machine.
In the era of mega scams, there’s one scam that’s going unnoticed. The scamming of the masses into believing that the earth is limitless, that the shelves will always be full, that a world free of pain comes when you get your galaxy of things at the flick of a switch.

Our bodies are resilient, but they are also vulnerable, threatened and endan-gered, like the rest of life is. Our bodies are creatures of nature, innately wild, with the same capacities of the wild, to be strong, and healthy and vibrant, but they are also susceptible, for the body and the environment are inter-dependant. The more we understand this and the more we experience this, the more we may seek to do the right thing by our own selves and the world we live in.

If we don’t revolt, our bodies will. They will start with us for being so cowardly. The cyclical nature of life ensures that new strains of carrion eaters form out of the debris of this monstrous existence. Witness these: tumours ballooning out of every inch of our innards, autoimmune disorders running rampant, new untreatable diseases, allergies and disorders. What is ahead of us? Rivers of strife coursing through hapless populations hooked by the promise of eternal pleasure from a coterie of conmen via the Happiness Machine.

How brahminical can we get? Deny the excretum and we have pure mind nourished by petroleum.

Meanwhile, the rebellious underground ensures we will be punished by our own filth for disobeying, disregarding, dismembering the laws of life. We are blind to the fury in our own cells.

Imagine a smogfree Bangalore, green with trees, people walking, talking, communing and serenaded by birds, with time to sing and dance in celebration of a really clean, healthy, sane and related life. It’s still like this in some parts of the planet.

In the forest where I live, fecundity still abounds, for the regenerative capacity of nature has not yet been irreparably damaged. Even as things gets worse on a global scale, I am compelled to affirm life’s true brilliance, how wild beings make each others’ lives even better. How there is no waste; how death begets life, and all beings co-exist in long-lasting community.
Unlike in a city.

The only solution to a toxic world?
A wild one.

Will you yell back at history, it wasn’t just you? You meant to do better?

Suprabha Seshan lives at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad in Kerala and works as an educator and restoration ecologist. She gives a talk titled “Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad”.




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