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Small World, Big Ideas is an insight into the world of activism told through the inspiring stories of 11 activists, including Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine

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Small World Big Ideas

by Edgar Vaid

December 12th, 2012

A film-maker, a writer, a peace walker, a primatologist - these are just a few of the 11 activists who have contributed to a new book that claims there is an activist in us all. Edgar Vaid reviews Small World, Big Ideas..

Our collective inaction is simply extraordinary

With more sophisticated ways of scanning the Universe, astronomers over the last couple of decades have become increasingly confident that orbiting other stars are small Earth-like planets in the so-called ‘Goldilocks Zone’ – that is the narrow band where it’s neither too hot nor too cold, and where intelligent life might therefore arise.  

So, why haven’t they visited us?  Well, one obvious answer is that even for the apocryphal super-advanced civilisation which has solved the theoretical and practical problems of inter-stellar space travel, at a distance of say 278 light years, the Earth is simply too far away to be worth bothering with.

But what if we pose a slightly more intriguing question – why haven’t they contacted us?  Maybe one answer is that humankind is just not sufficiently interesting.

Or, perhaps there is another – and rather more ominous – possibility.

Could it be that when an extra-terrestrial civilisation reaches the stage of being able to alter its planetary environment, it inadvertently initiates its own demise?

That it has, for example, changed its own biosphere to such an extent (a tipping point, if you prefer) where remedial action has become hopeless, thereby dooming itself to oblivion.  

Or, as expressed by environmentalist Senator Bob Brown, an Australian green politician (about whom more later):  “That’s why they are not communicating with Earth.  They have ‘extincted’ themselves.  They have come and gone, and now it’s our turn”.  

This is one of the more alarming considerations likely to engage us in this new book of big ideas - for what is, in terms of its 21st Century population, a rather small world.  Those ideas are rooted in the experience of the books 11 heterogeneous contributors who explain the origin of their belief systems or, (in contemporary colloquial parlance), “where they are coming from”. 

Although Satish Kumar, the editor-in-chief of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, has grouped them under the collective noun of ‘activists’ (himself included), from even the most cursory involvement in the text it’s apparent that they do not necessarily fit the layman’s stock image of an activist.

No, this series of what might loosely be termed 'potted auto-biographies' forms a paean to some individuals with ambitions to improve the World and who, in their different ways, work valiantly to spread and activate their ideas for change. So in that sense they are indeed all activists.

The collection begins with a heart-warming cameo of the young 20-something Satish Kumar, imbibing the wisdom of the Indian Land Reform movement leader, Vinoba Bhave who, whilst noting India was free from British colonial rule, opined that it was “still not free as long as landlords live in luxury and landless labourers toil for starvation wages ........ How can anyone own the land?  It belongs to nature”.  

Buoyed up by such precepts, Satish and his colleagues managed to convince a local landlord to donate 120 acres of land to landless farm workers.  Vinoba had emphasised that there could “be no peace in the world while the powerful dominate the dispossessed and the rich exploit the poor”.  

And it was the shock at learning of peace activist Bertrand Russell’s imprisonment that prompted the remarkable and ambitious idea of walking to the world’s four ‘nuclear capitals’.  During this 8,000 mile trek as a peace pilgrim, Satish witnessed the extent of humankind’s environmental depredations – spurring him on to expand his raison d’être to encompass eco-activism.

Just as he inspired many people through his herculean journey on foot and subsequent talks, so the British film-maker Franny Armstrong has reached out to multiple audiences through her independent films. Their combination of interviews, actuality, graphics, and music, has the potential to reach millions of people and (hopefully) activate previously dormant parts of their hearts and minds.

Perhaps most notable amongst these has been “The Age of Stupid” (2009). Set in an imaginary, devastated world of 2055, and fronted by the late Pete Posselthwaite, an actor who exudes sincerity and regret, it forms a sorrowful retrospective of the global environmental catastrophes which characterised the previous 100 years.  

But why is our age singled out as deserving of a hugely emblematic dunce’s hat when we may easily point a finger at Europe’s 17th Century ‘witch’ persecution mania, or medicine’s even longer pre-occupation with bleeding patients of adverse bodily humours in order to cure them?  

The answer is that our age is uniquely stupid because, unlike previous generations, not only are we aware of anthropogenic climate change, and not only do we know how to ameliorate it, but faced with the critical challenges to our planet’s future habitability, our relative inaction/inertia is simply extraordinary.  

Thus, just as we refer to some earlier periods of history as the Middle Ages, or the age of exploration and discovery, so future generations who suffer from the malign effects of our behaviour may justifiably dub it the ‘Age of Stupid’, although we may reasonably expect it to be briefer than, for example, the so-called Dark Ages. 

Bob Brown suggests that if we adopt Green political decisions there is still time to avoid the future odium of being described as the ‘Age of Stupid’, commenting that “in thinking one hundred years ahead, we set our community’s course for one hundred thousand years: that humanity will not perish at its own hand but will look back upon its twenty first century ancestry with gratitude”.  

Having been imprisoned, assaulted, and even shot at during his anti-logging protests in Tasmania, he has been left in no doubt of the difficulties in persuading large swathes of the population that unless their priorities and activities change course, future generations will encounter enormous difficulties.  This he highlights with the frightening statistic that we are already consuming 120 per cent of our small world’s productive capacity – its renewable living resources.  

That humankind’s future problems will be psychological as well as physical, is underlined by the Mind/Body/Spirit guru, Deepak Chopra, (now a regular columnist on this site) who emphasises how the ill may be healed and good health promoted through mind/body connections. Unfortunately, for me, his message was inadvertently overshadowed by what read as something of a less modest tone than some of the other contributors. That said, perhaps this is a result of his long residence in the United States, where there is often a  propensity to express oneself in a fashion veering perilously close to immodest; perhaps a routine feature of the prevailing literary milieu there.

Such a charge cannot be laid at the door of Australia's chief climate change commissioner Tim Flannery, who provides a captivating account of the influences on his life, beginning with his childhood in a Melbourne suburb, where he watched the bulldozing of his informal natural playground – a copse of native ti trees.  

This piece of municipal ecocide rendered him wary thereafter of those who championed such changes in the name of progress, and strongly affected his life’s outlook.  He recalled how the “brutal destruction of the natural environment I witnessed as a child ..... left me with an enduring belief that Nature is precious and vulnerable, and that humans can destroy beautiful things in an almost malicious manner”.  

Such thoughts crystallised further during his twenty year sojourn amongst the native peoples of Melanesia, to whom “nature and humanity are one, and thus to damage Nature is to damage ourselves”.

This theme of the harm that humans cause to the natural environment also forms the leitmotif of the primatologist, Dame Jane Goodall’s African reminiscences where, for almost half a century, she studied the social behaviour of chimpanzees in a Tanzanian national park.  

Her observations led to the inescapable conclusion that the gulf between humans and animals was an illusory construct of outmoded anthropocentric thinking, compelling us to admit that we are not the only beings on the planet with personalities, minds, and feelings.  This leads to the ethical imperative that we owe respect not only to chimpanzees, but to other sentient creatures sharing the Earth with us.

And, just as the World has needed a devoted primatologist to raise people’s consciousness about our chronically poor and abusive treatment of animals and their ecosystems, so Polly Higgins, in a ‘light-bulb’ moment, realised that it might also need a good lawyer.  

Despite a proliferation of both national and international laws purporting to protect our global home, the planet suffers unprecedented destruction in regions such as the Amazon rain forest and Athabasca Tar Sands of Canada.  

As though summing up the case for the prosecution, she writes if we destroy our Earth, we destroy our lives – the two are inseparable”, going on to persuasively reason that just as there were laws against killing one person (homicide), or a group of people (genocide), then there should be an international law protecting the Earth’s right to life – ecocide.  

Wondering whether such a piece of legal alacrity will ever be achieved, Polly draws instructive historic parallels with the slave trade and apartheid. Both were firmly entrenched in their times, both taken for granted by the majority of participants – willing or otherwise – and both overturned by the sheer dedication of those activists such as William Wilberforce, willing to take a moral stance, and work to change things.

To bring about change through political avenues has been the aim of Green Party member (and former leader) Caroline Lucas who, with particular reference to UK foreign policy, despairs of our machination-blighted conventional politics, from which she distances herself with great clarity: “Greens see that the laws of nature and of physics cannot be changed by wishful thinking.

If you take too many fish one year, they will not be there the next.  If you concentrate food production on single crops, you risk blight and famine.  If you depend on scarce resources looted from other countries, you may end up having to fight for them”.

Humankind’s treatment of the planet has also been the focus of environmental writer Bill Mckibben, perhaps best known for “The End of Nature” (1989) which, apart from its contents, is memorable for a symbolically colourless dark grey dust jacket.  

In 2008 he learnt from NASA that atmospheric concentrations of carbon-dioxide greater than 350 parts per million were, in the long term, incompatible with the way terrestrial life had developed.  Given that whether you lived in Los Angeles, London, or Lagos, the CO2 figure was already 390 ppm, he realised the ominous implications. Cannily acknowledging the usefulness of Arabic numerals in breaching linguistic parameters, he subsequently initiated the worldwide campaign of ‘350.org’. 

Especially insightful is Bill's analysis of the global power imbalance between on the one side the environmental movement (plus a few semi-enlightened governments), and on the other the fossil fuel industry, represented by eight of the World’s ten largest multi-nationals.

In one section of searing clarity he points out why green activists are not the real radicals: “We merely want a world a bit like the one we were born on to. It’s oil and coal and gas barons who are radical: they’re willing to fundamentally alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere in order to make more money”.  

The resultant adverse effects on global biodiversity are well attested to, although Carlo Petrini’s concerns are centred on the loss of cultural diversity, and in particular the malign homogenising influence of fast food. He pioneered its antidote of ‘slow food’, explaining how, after a genesis in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, its precepts have spread around the World.  

In aiming to resist a “deluge of standardisation”, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity protects traditional ways of processing food, thereby helping to conserve the variety of plant, insect, and animal species.  Although we may instantly conjure up an image of what constitutes ‘fast food’, how might we characterise ‘slow food’?  

It is defined here as “good, clean, and fair: good in terms of taste and culture, clean because it is sustainable at every step of the way from the field to the table, and fair because it respects the rights of human beings and of the Earth”.

Planetary respect also forms a central theme of Vandana Shiva’s clarion call for resistance to genetically modified seed monopolies and patents, her Gandhian approach manifested through the Navdanya movement.  

Its approach comprises “a non-violent, non-cooperation with laws that claim seed is a corporate invention and can be the property of Monsanto” - an insidious development quite reasonably described as ‘biopiracy’.  

The moral strength of her argument is supported by the inclusion of some disturbing details.  These include the 75 per cent loss of agricultural biodiversity owing to the pervasive spread of ‘modern’ monocultures, the 95 per cent of cotton seed in India now accounted for by Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt. Cotton, or the quarter of a million suicides amongst India’s farmers – significantly the majority in the cotton belt.  

Not for the first time in our planet’s recent history, the source of such socio-environmental tragedies may be traced to the doors of the World Trade Organisation, its fairly innocuous sounding Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement encouraging the baleful inter-continental reach of genetically engineered seed.  

So it’s heart-warming to learn of Navdanya’s success in gaining revocation of some biopiracy patents such as that on Nap Hal, a traditional variety of Indian wheat.

The selection of contrasting voices in “Small World Big Ideas” speak to us of their diverse strivings, not only to ameliorate the many harms we bring upon the Earth and its people, but to show also how things could, and should, be different.  

Their inspirational accounts are by turns sobering, poignant, or vexing, but rarely dull or mundane.  For those aware of its big ideas but less familiar with the activists promoting them, this collection is recommended reading. However, for those who may only be peripherally conscious of the crucial issues affecting their futures, it is essential reading.

Edgar Vaid is a freelance book reviewer. He can be contacted at orizabalodge@yahoo.co.uk 

Small World, Big Ideas edited by Satish Kumar is published in hardback by Ivy Press, and is currently on sale at Amazon for £10.87 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Small-World-Ideas-Conscious-Living/dp/1908005572

 

 

 

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