Oswald Spengler published the first volume of his two-volume life’s work, The Decline of the West, in 1918. Seventy-four years later, speaking at the Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 41st US President George HW Bush, a decent man, declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.” This pre-emptive declaration by the leader of the world’s most powerful nation essentially castrated the noble intentions of the summit, to limit humankind’s exploitation of the earth’s resources to sustainable levels. The result of the Rio summit was Agenda 21, a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan for the 21st century. This was the paltry outcome of a nine-day meeting representing 172 countries attended by 116 heads of state, 2400 NGOs and 17,000 other representatives of indigenous peoples and ordinary ‘you and me’ types.
Twenty-one years after the US President’s declaration in Rio, the WWF designated the 20th of August 2013 as “Earth Overshoot Day;” the day that humanity has used as much renewable natural resources as the planet can regenerate in one year. In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day is estimated to have fallen on August 8th, after which date we’re drawing down the planet’s renewable resources for the rest of the year. Pity the poor planet! The American way of life is still not up for negotiation, and the rest of the world is rushing to catch up. If ever populous countries like China and India get there, the planet will be sucked dry and we’ll all have to follow Elon Musk to Mars! So are we condemned to a two-track planet where some countries (or some sections of society within countries) corner material resources and the rest go a-begging? This is the scenario being projected by right wing demagogues worldwide and this is the reason for their recent successes at the ballot box.
Economists and philosophers have tried to redefine human well-being to reflect planetary limits, most notably in recent years by Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity without Growth, which acknowledges that the current definition of economic success is fundamentally flawed. Prosperous societies today increasingly recognize that increased material wealth does not increase well-being. However, most people the world over, regardless of their economic condition, still aspire to some version of the American way of life. This aspiration is reflected in the respect automatically accorded to wealthy people in the world today. A look at the Who’s Who of practically any country includes the names of its wealthiest citizens, together with lists of eminent physicians, lawyers, sportspeople and so on.
Gandhi pithily articulated this state of affairs decades ago when he said: The world has enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed. For each according to her needs would be the ideal but, as always, messy reality intervenes. One man’s need is another man’s greed. So it is that millions of well-meaning, virtuous, affluent people the world over would never dream of giving up hard-won creature comforts for the sake of other planetary denizens who are less well off. The spiral of technology has historically been to continuously improve human life, and to continuously create problems at the same time. These problems in turn needed infusions of new technology to solve its problems. So right now, the choices seem to be to outer-planetary colonization, or to invest in defences (gated communities, wealthy enclaves, security guards, border walls) to hold on to material gains. Technology offers a third alternative. The idea of a sharing economy has recently gained a lot of traction. Who needs ownership when mobility and services are seamlessly available? Indeed, ownership becomes a bit of a burden in comparison to the convenience of superb services available on demand with little or no delay.
Even if all this is achieved, humankind’s basic inner restlessness will ensure that we keep wanting more and better, with one eye on the people next door. Global contentment is a moving target. Enter mystic and philosopher Sadhguru and his lectures on inner engineering. His most memorable anecdote in the video (begins at minute 16) is a reminder that all is not lost in the midst of this doom and gloom if we can take the time to laugh at ourselves and the posturings that have brought us to this point.
There are so many different kinds of palm trees that it’s difficult to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys in the palm tree story. By bad guys, I mean only one, the oil palm. Oil palm plantations have been blamed for extensive tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as for habitat loss of critically endangered species like the Orang Utan and the Sumatran Tiger. Blame the producers by all means, but don’t forget to blame the consumers as well. And that means us, the consumers of so many products that have palm oil as an ingredient. These include soaps, washing powder, cooking oil, butter substitutes, pastry dough, many baked goods, and most recently, biodiesel. Anyway, this posting is in praise of the lesser known palmyra palm, one of more than three hundred varieties of palm tree. Here’s a useful website with illustrations of 30 varieties.
The palmyra palm tree and its delicious fruit remain relatively unknown worldwide despite its wide use in southeast Asia, especially in India and Cambodia. In India, it is the state tree of Tamil Nad. Palmyra jaggery is a recommended sweetener in Ayurvedic medicine. Modern tests show it has a low glycemic index of 40 (as opposed to 100 for refined white sugar) in addition to containing a range of B-complex vitamins. There are over 800 listed uses for the palmyra tree. Every part of the tree can be used for a range of foods, timber and household products. Palm tree kernels, pictured above, are like large, sweet water chestnuts and very refreshing summer snacks, rich in minerals. In addition, its leaves can be used as thatch, to weave baskets or mats. Centuries ago, palm leaves were used to write on. The wood provides excellent construction material.
Most people, myself included, think of coconuts or dates when palm trees are mentioned. The palmyra palm is a neglected cousin that is just as useful and deserves to be more widely known.
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If we look at development work as the business of changing attitudes, then attitudes to learning must change a great deal in almost every continent in the world today (with the possible exception of Antarctica). One has only to read the newspapers of any country in the world to hear of growing xenophobia, widespread fearmongering, environmental destruction and climate catastrophes. The American psychiatrist Karl Menninger often said: Attitudes are more important than facts. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung said the same thing in different words. It depends on how we look at things and not how they are in themselves. The Indian philosopher and mystic, Sri Aurobindo said: What is of first importance is not the religious or non-religious character of the work done, but the inner attitude in which it is done.
My wife and I chose to begin our (self) development work in a tiny village near Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. We were there to learn and not to teach. My wife, who has worked as a teacher in international schools around the world all her professional life, began her interaction by learning a few Tamil words and phrases from village children who had expected her to spout knowledge and teach them English or mathematics. To their delight, they became teachers themselves from the very first day. They planted saplings, choosing the trees they wanted to have growing in the compound. They planted the ubiquitous banyan tree, in whose shade a few decades hence, generations of school children might seek shelter. They planted the arasu maram, the tree of kings it’s called in Tamil, under whose pointed leaves a latter-day Gautama Buddha might find enlightenment. At the end of the day’s lessons, instead of guiding us to the bus-stop, they showed us around their village and introduced us to their parents. We learned a lot throughout our five-week involvement here, and came to know a number of interesting local people. A politician, who I might have once dismissed as a party hack; this one might be key to helping the seven thousand people who live in his rural community preserve the intact ecosystem that exists in the area. A real estate developer, a truly modest man, who is interested in promoting rural youth education. He puts his money where his mouth is, by sharing a couple of acres of land to the project and getting sponsors for some of the forthcoming school building constructions. The entire venture is the brainchild of a retired college professor, an eminent Tamil scholar, who has already helped hundreds of, and several generations of, disadvantaged urban school kids in Chennai (Madras) by setting up five after-school learning centers at various points in the city. This venture with four acres of land around a container, is his first rural learning center. We are honored to be a part of this enterprise and look forward to spending several months a year here. On this initial visit, we commute every day from the city to the village by motor-bike. On our next visit, we hope to stay in a small thatch-roofed hut right next to the school.
On day one of the school, activities were inaugurated by planting trees. We learned so much from the villagers. We started by weeding the grounds. A creeper growing wild at the foot of the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer: more on that in a subsequent post) is about to be ripped out of the earth as a weed. Renuka stops me. This is a medicinal plant, she says, and tells me the name in Tamil. It’s leaves can be ground into a paste and used for arthritis or bodily aches and pains.
A number of saplings were taken to the empty site that had been marked out with a wire fence and stone posts. A container stood there, the first class-room. Fees should be modest and affordable, but the school should not be free. The people in the village tend to be cynical, and rightly so, about free gifts. They’ve been receiving freebies from politicians for a couple of generations; politicians who tend to look at them as vote banks. So it was decided to charge the students a fee of 50 rupees per month for the privilege of attending (around 75 Eurocents, yes cents, per month at today’s exchange rates). That’s all it costs to educate a child. That, and an enormous amount of goodwill. And goodwill there is aplenty. We have more than a dozen willing volunteer helpers. There’s Chakkaravarthy, who’s given up his job as an engineer at a multinational to become a technical help to the school and several other ventures started by his uncle. There’s Sukumar, who has been working with disadvantaged children for over a decade. He comes alive when he is with the kids, and never gets tired of interacting with them. Looking at him, one sees a picture of the right man in the right place doing what he loves. And what of us? We are on a steep learning curve, and the children have much to teach us. And the more they teach, the more they will learn.
The school is just a container, but learning is happening all the same. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that it costs on average US$ 1.18 per day to educate a child in low and middle income developing countries. This is a small sum, but multiplied by millions of children, several billions are needed annually. Unfortunately, influential people lobby their governments for fighter planes so they can bomb the hell out of their enemies from a safe altitude. Each of these warplanes costs more than the entire school education of several million children. Fortunately now, this village model shows that learning can take place even without a schoolroom and with far less than surmised by the Global Partnership for Education.
If a modern urbanite, Indian or foreign, were to visit the village today, they might see an ‘underdeveloped’ community. Access roads are poor, electricity is intermittent, and the children learn by rote in public schools staffed by teachers who insist on mindless discipline to the detriment of knowledge acquisition. What we see here is something quite different. We see children hungry to learn, living in a vibrant ecosystem that is intact and flourishing. This is rich farmland. Judging by the abundant birdlife (black drongos, Alexandrine parakeets, green parrots, greater coucal, hoopoes, bulbuls, swifts, spoonbills, several varieties of water birds, mynahs, weaver birds, francolin and several others), nature and man coexist comfortably here. Presumably there are poisonous snakes, scorpions, centipedes and rats in this paradise although we did not see any on our visit. We look forward to spending a lot more time in this village ‘undeveloping ourselves’ before we begin to teach. Or perhaps we have nothing to teach and everything to learn; about how not to confuse development with economic advancement. I fear the world has suffered enough from the latter.