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Monday, November 30, 2020

The Misfits

Every living organism has a role in sustaining the world. But what about humans?

Written by Ranjit Lal | October 25, 2020 6:30:17 am
living organism, ranjit lal column, ranjit lal sunday column, indian express, indian express newsOf all the living creatures in existence, we are the big misfits.

From microscopic lifeforms called cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae) to giant blue whales, from lowly worms and dung beetles to mighty elephants and big cats, from rainforest giants reaching to the sky and making their own rain to unseen networks of roots holding the soil together and storing rainwater, from stinging insects playing Cupid for plants, and birds scattering their seeds far and wide, every living thing on our planet plays a role in keeping the world running in tip-top condition. Cyanobacteria photosynthesise in the dim light conditions underwater and produce most of the breathable oxygen in the world. Tigers and big cats keep the population of herbivores in check so that they don’t clean up every green leaf, elephants turn over trees, enabling homebody seeds to get sunlight and thrive.

The system works so well that scholar and polymath Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) suggested that the whole of nature worked as a single entity, which he called Gaia. Even now, there is a school of thought which suggests that all the oceans of the world are working as one. Of course, this makes environmentalists go gooey-eyed, but hard-bitten scientists have a different take on the matter. They hold that every living creature does what it does for its own benefit — so that it can propagate its genes into the next generation. If this means that some other living entity benefits, then well and good — but even that entity is only looking out for itself. Conversely, if some creature gets harmed —plants and herbivores get eaten, and that’s the end of the line for them — well, that’s too bad! Whatever the case, the fact remains that even while working utterly selfishly, the entire world got on with the business of life pretty savvily.

Then, we came along. The smartest of them all, right at the top of the food chain and already looking towards homes on other planets. We showed every other living thing its proper place, didn’t we? One would imagine that being as brainy as we profess to be, we would have helped the whole machinery of nature to work even more seamlessly and beautifully. Sure, we, too, want to send our genes to the next generation, every other living thing be damned, but what did we end up doing? We systematically wrecked every major facet of the environment because we were and are greedy and selfish beyond belief.
We’ve filled the sky with poisonous gases that choke our children so we can’t send them out to play. We heated up the earth so the mighty ice-caps are now dissolving, making the oceans rise. Oh, yes, global warming has happened naturally in the past, but taken millions of years — we’ve put it on fast forward and how!

We dug up the earth to mine minerals and metals and pump oil, leaving an unholy mess in our wake. We were not satisfied with what earthworms, ants, termites, microbes, and dung beetles were doing to convert waste material into nutritious soil so plants could thrive, so we added a host of chemicals that, yes, for a while, gave rise to body-builder like plants that grew fast and fat and free of at least some diseases. But they couldn’t reproduce: we took that away from them. And, in doctoring the soil, we killed it. Once exhausted of its Red Bull-like chemicals, it had to be replenished or was useless. We cut down or set fire to enormous rainforests killing millions of living things and upsetting weather patterns grossly. Now, we’re bemoaning the everyday occurrence of Grade 5 hurricanes, huge tidal surges, cloudbursts, or simply no rain at all for years at a stretch. Our oceans have more plastic than fish. I’m still to come across recipes for pan-seared PVC with lemon-butter sauce, otherwise we’d be hosting buffets in the great Pacific garbage patch! Our rivers look and smell like virulent cases of diarrhoea, in which we wash and bathe — and the water of which, we bottle and drink. And, here, in India, we claim our rivers are holy! If there is a God, it would turn his or her stomach. We’ve thrown our rubbish everywhere from the deepest ocean trench to the glittering peaks of the Himalayas.

Ah, you will say, but there are those good souls who are fighting to prevent the damage and to clean up the mess. Of course there are, but they are like an army equipped with wooden sticks facing a force armed with smart missiles and bombs. What we’ve done is to dump all over a magnificent banquet and then expect our children to help themselves to the mess.
Of all the living creatures in existence, we are the big misfits. The planet would carry on pretty happily without us. Yes, of course our genes want to propagate themselves into the next generation — and, if other living creatures have to pay the price for it, so be it. But other creatures’ genes are vital to the continuation of our own: if we wipe them out completely (as we seem to be doing), we’re self-destructing. But it seems the first salvo to stop us has already been fired — the enemy is “alive”, invisible and spreads like stink. And it kills.

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