Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In the Shadow of the Vulture

The Docile Dead Keeper
It is true, we all seem to be going somewhere. Very fast, and quick. The question is where? All around us, there are extinctions, as things get blurred and we cannot see what we step on, all sacrificed for the sake of the journey. But where does the journey lead to – what would we have learnt during it, that will form our future. It may be said that the barrenness will be fertilized with new dreams, new hopes and new possibilities. Yet, is that true? Do we really believe in this idea, or is the speed of the present so exhilarating that we cannot make sense of the landscape any more, since it is so very fuzzy? Maybe we are scared to see that it may be barren, very, very barren.

For one species, which came upon this planet, probably over a 100 million years ago, there is no journey left. Almost. The vulture is increasingly no more. Wiped out, from the staggering tens of millions in number in the sub continent, even a couple of decades ago, to less than tens of thousands. Over 95% of them have died, in the largest mass extinctions ever known in the recorded history of mankind. All killed, amazingly by one innocuous pill!

Maybe, it is a sign of times. Maybe, the wise vultures have departed on their own. Decided to withdraw from the cycle of evolution. After aeons of changing, adapting, evolving, co-existing, it may have become just too much to cope with. The world is no longer possible to survive in, and hence there is no future in it. What the biggest earthquakes, volcanoes, meteorites could not do, has happened in the time when we, as the human race, claim as a time of ‘civilization.’

A sign of animals and birds sensing a tsunami much before we can?

The vulture is carrion. It is seemingly dirty, large and scary. It feeds on dead flesh. Why on earth should we bother for it? What we fail to recognize, in the age of abattoirs and incinerators, is that the vulture is also on top of the food chain, doing nature’s job of ensuring that all dead are disposed of safely. It is also an unusually caring bird, nesting and bringing up its young with great devotion and tenderness, besides the fact that it only feeds on dead animals, but normally does not hunt.

It is the docile dead keeper of the planet. Only doing its job, and helping nature complete its ongoing cycle.

The Pill
Surprisingly, in the end, all it took was a simple pill. That pill proved more powerful than all the vagaries of nature such a species must have faced over millions of years. This pill was meant to reduce pain in ones muscles, especially in livestock, so that they can produce more milk, more often. Livestock as industry. A simple drug, which helps animals like cows and buffaloes, become better machines to produce more milk – not to feed their young but to feed the dairies, which feed us. For unknowingly the cows and the buffaloes became the bait, the poisoned bait, which took the vultures out. But coming back to the cows and buffaloes which meant no harm to the vultures except they offered themselves as food once they were dead. No big armies here. Just a pill, diclofenac, like aspirin, which we fed to the vultures through the carcasses of the cows and other slaves, and silently destroyed the kidneys of the vultures. First their neck would droop, then they would salivate, and then finally fall from the tree – dead. Perfect. Like nerve gas. Chemical warfare.

But no one is really asking why was such a pill necessary in the first place?

For over a century now human beings have been making and synthesizing chemicals for the benefit of human - kind. Over a hundred thousand such chemicals have been put out already. But no one knows what other harm they do to our lives and life forms which have inhabited this planet for millions of years. These are all considered safe till proven otherwise. While diclofenac did reduce body pain, it also made extinct a life form which had evolved over maybe a billion years – who knows from the beginning of time itself. Such is our intelligence and sensitivity and belief in our industrial systems. Such is the nature of the industrial systems we have created, and the methods of science we encounter.

It was in 1962 that Rachael Carson wrote the book ‘Silent Spring.” The observant scientist, reviewed thousands of papers, and predicted that chemicals like DDT are destroying the ecology of our planet. DDT and similar chemicals, she stated is causing the extinction of eagles, or leading to the genetic distortion of fish and other marine animals, which are continuously exposes to them, even in very minute quantities. Similar impacts have also been detected in human beings now. Through bringing home the increasing impacts of chemicals in our lives and the unintended and /or the unstudied impacts they have on our lives, she drew attention to the need of ‘precaution.’

However the market based economic systems do not have any place for such approaches. If it is good for the market, it must be good. The chemical and pharmaceutical industry has fought regulation, information transparency and independent research for over a centaury. Their financial and political clout makes us believe that everything that is introduced on the market is benign. The onus of the burden of proof is on us. Hence the drugs are safe, unless proven otherwise. “Prove it!” is the motto. It is not by accident that it took over a decade to ban ‘diclofenac.” This ban is also only for ‘veterinary’ use, and not for human use. It is not uncommon to find the drug being diverted from human to veterinary use.

The story of the near extinction of the vulture is also the story of the fiscal and political power of our economic and industrial processes It is indeed a reduced life we inhabit, and the loss of the vulture is evidence of that.

The Lengthening Shadow
The vulture did well, over time. It did well enough for the Egyptians to equate it with mother (Mut), or Cleopatra to wear them on her thrones and crowns. It also did well to be the great Garurda, king of birds which was faithful to the mighty Rama, or the winged warrior of the American Indians. It did well with everyone who saw life in its entirety and respected all they did not know and did not fully understand.

It was killed in a time when ‘knowledge has substituted the ‘knowing’ of things.

Simultaneously it is harder to see sparrows, or rose ringed parakeets flying home every evening around our homes. Tales of tigers dying, elephants being killed, rhinos being poached, saras cranes disappearing are descending all around us. Maybe this is the age of man-made extinctions! Or maybe man has always led to extinctions – like the cheetah, the bison, the great American eagle, or now even the disappearing honey bees!

How does a species which has survived for millions of years, just die out in a matter of a years? In the past too, there have been mass catastrophic extinctions- the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, or the extinction of the dodo. The dinosaur died seemingly as a result of a massive meteor collision with Planet Earth, which blanked out the atmosphere with dust, blocked the sun, and essentially snuffed the pre-historic and some massive creatures out. The dodo was hunted to extinction, unable to fly away from the arms bearing humans.

Our ecologies are changing. In the way we relate to the city, or the manner in which our network of relationships functions. The extinction of natural systems, of a biodiversity of ideas and connections, the discourse is reduced. Development seem to need an unnatural unipolarity and focus, but what lies its counter charge? In fact what is ‘development’ and how do we understand that term which seems to drive all our energies today?

In the shadow of the vulture we live. When wisdom passes, maybe the wise pass on too.

The Vulture is dead. Long may we live.