It is hard to write about the tsunami disaster. But I was struck by an article written by Vandana Shiva and others about why humanity has to suffer such terrible tragedies. Many people join theologians and religious believers in resorting to concepts divorced from the natural world with philosophical arguments about divine punishment, fatalism and so on.
Just like most of the news stories about the victims, these questions are analyzed with our usual Eurocentric outlook involving a Christian, Jewish or Western philosophical focus. But if we go and explore the viewpoints of those in most of the affected countries, if we make the effort to see things through their worldview influenced by Eastern religions and thought, everything is seen in a different light and we realize how short-sighted, presumptuous and irresponsible we are.
Yes, Vandana Shiva knows what a sense of responsibility is, and so do large numbers of those involved in the disaster. They are people we know little about, who live according to a principle of responsibility based on the concept of karma — the need to behave well in this life in order to live better in the next. They believe in reincarnation and that behaving responsibly is a way to ensure a better world for themselves and their children in the future — for the future generations who will come after us.
Vandana Shiva says that the tsunami should be seen as a warning of what will happen if we do not make provision for the future and if we continue to only focus on immediate profit without looking further ahead.
‘The lessons of the tsunami show the need to prepare for disasters and should extend to the other disasters which can occur as a result of models of development that ignore environmental costs and vulnerability, in favor of short-term growth.’
Vandana sees the world of large corporations as the culprit, a world where what it is money that unites us rather than a sense of responsibility and compassion. A world where, on December 26, while the tidal wave was breaking on the coasts of India, the Indian government was approving legislation on patents, which from January 1 this year has prevented the manufacture of low-cost drugs. Right at the time when there hundreds of thousands of people who suddenly needed them.
The tsunami was not just a wave hitting coastlines, it also represents the collision of two different worldviews. In one there is a focus on immediate profit and the destruction of nature, while in the other human beings feel vulnerable and responsible for what they do.
Agribusiness does not respect environmental balance and represents a worldview which will result in a range of accidents. This is not meant to be just a forecast of future disasters — we have to be aware that it is part and parcel of a view which totally disregards the equilibria of ecosystems, and involves a large dose of presumption — or irresponsibility — which makes us think we can dominate nature. No, we should be more humble, safeguard ourselves and collaborate with nature as much as possible: just as it can harm us, it is nature which can save us.
There is now an emergency situation, with huge numbers of people who need help: Vandana has told me that in Tamil Nadu people have not only lost everything, but the soil can no longer be cultivated since it is covered in sand and saline deposits. Fortunately the association she heads has gathered a vast collection of Indian biodiversity, including seeds able to resists high levels of soil salinity: biodiversity can again be the solution for starting afresh, even from rock bottom.
I would like this small story of Indian reconstruction to be a lesson for all. Oriental philosophy shows us a link between an incredible earthquake on the seabed and our situation as exploiters of the planet, a link we have forgotten in our drive for development and which will make us pay dearly for the environmental debts which we never repay.
In our everyday lives in the country or large polluted cities, while we rightly make charity donations using our mobile phones, shouldn’t we also be thinking about this, taking precautions and maybe changing our way of life?
First printed in La Stampa on January 23 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards