For an Ethical Approach to Our Environment
— S. CHIDAMBARAM
“Our view of the world and the universe is crucial to our approach to the environment. Too often and for too long it has been mechanistic and materialistic and we have to balance it with a humanistic vision of the future. There is no need to become neo-romantics or to seek the abolition of capitalism. There is however a need for every individual to construct a vision where he will be able to assume full responsibility for the planet not out of any self-interest but because he realizes that he must live in convergence with nature…”
In the nineteenth century, when the Indian officer R. Thompson produced his report recommending the extension and better preservation of the mountain and river reserves of Mauritius, all the members of the Council of Government unanimously supported his recommendations because the economic survival of the country depended on securing adequate water supplies through effective use of rainfall for the sugar industry. However when the Ordinance was passed on mountains and river reserves, there was strong opposition from landowners and proprietors because the law infringed upon their private property rights. The major obstacle to the preservation of the environment in the past and to the present day has always been the self-interests of individuals, communities, corporate groups and nations. It is likely to remain that way in the future as well.
When the delegates meet once again in Rio, opposition and obstacles will again appear in the form of national interests seeking to maintain their competitive economic advantages in the global world. Some countries will support better management of the oceans; others will focus on the green economy, but the twin objectives of lifting people out of poverty and arresting environmental degradation will remain daunting challenges.
‘Maurice Ile Durable’
We must recognize and acknowledge that we have made steady progress since 1972 in increasing awareness and sensitisation about the threats facing our planet. Whereas measures have been taken in many countries to mitigate the baneful effects of climate change, industrialisation and ‘development’, in Mauritius these efforts are encapsulated in the ‘Maurice Ile Durable’ vision, which puts sustainability as the linchpin of our future development. Important measures are being taken in various areas to protect our environment but the challenges remain as daunting as ever. For example, the battle against plastic and pollution has hardly been won.
Both in Mauritius and in the world, education and awareness campaigns, supported by lots of facts, figures and tables about environmental degradation, have laid emphasis on an understanding — especially scientific — of our planet. These campaigns have appealed most of the time to our rationality, hoping that solutions will inevitably follow. Admittedly knowing that a Leeds University research has concluded that tropical forests remove 4.8 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year provides evidence of the importance of world rain forests to life across the planet. But we are no nearer to any solution when we also learn that thousands of acres of trees are lost in the Amazon forests every year.
However much we may understand a problem, it does not follow we will take the appropriate remedial measures or change our behaviour. The harmful effects of tobacco and alcoholism are well known but many people knowingly continue to ignore the warning signs. We behave in this manner because we have constructed our own individual cosmologies on what we consider appropriate for us. For this very reason we tend to pay little attention to nature and contribute in many ways to environmental degradation. For example, many with a scientific outlook or rather a blind faith in science understand a lot about the environment. This understanding is doubled edged: it may deter us from destroying nature but it may also impel us to a greater exploitation of our natural resources for very selfish ends.
In Mauritius in spite of the campaigns for raising awareness and for promoting an understanding of the environment which rely mostly on scientific rationality, we have not attained the various objectives whether in the use of plastic, energy efficiency, pollution and/or the judicious use of our resources. This may be partly due to our young history and the fact that we have not developed a strong attachment to our physical environment unless it is for satisfying our material interests. Our approach to the environment has always been functional — for gaining our livelihoods and maximizing our profits and benefits irrespective of the dangerous consequences to the environment. We created botanical gardens to acclimatize plants in the wake of colonialism. And today we turn to green tourism simply to offer new products. We may have some emotional and nostalgic attachment to our villages, to buildings and also to some beaches, forests, rivers or mountains, mostly for their ‘uses’ but we have hardly any deep and strong commitment to their particular landscapes.
The sugar factory chimney, a symbol of pollution, reminiscent of the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Engels, adorns our new commercial architecture. Most families rarely live in their villages for more than three generations and know little of the surrounding landscapes. May be this is due to the fact that we have never had real access to these landscapes because they were private properties or simply we like to remain barricaded in our ‘domains’ and the few landscapes we normally have access to are the Crown Lands – ‘our commons’. Whatever the reasons, it must be admitted that we lack an environment culture.
Given the lack of attachment to our physical landscapes, the only way to motivate people to have some concern for the environment has been to increase awareness and understanding. Environmental organisations still comprise mostly of community organisations defending their turfs from indiscriminate destruction, privatising of the peoples’ ‘commons’ or activities threatening their livelihoods. Middle class environmental organisations emerge every now and then on some environmental issues because they want a clean environment for themselves, for the tourists and in a few cases as a substitution for a political engagement.
There are also the new migrants who have run away from democratic south Africa but who find it difficult to integrate in black Mauritian society. They are now seeking legitimacy as the new ‘Mauritians’ by integrating the landscapes and championing their protection. Even those chattering classes, usually better equipped with money and education, enjoy an overwhelming advantage over other social groups with regard to decisions about which projects to be stopped or to go ahead and even in courts where the ‘lawyerless’ poor are at disadvantage. A historical perspective indicates clearly that our dominant attitudes concerning the environment are largely influenced by our interests.
The only landscape we have so far attached great importance to whether as individuals or communities have been the places we have endowed with some symbolism — both religious and secular. These are the company’s garden, the Champ de Mars, le Morne Mountain, Marie Reine de la paix, Grand Bassin, several places of worship and nature reserves. Even these places are vulnerable to property developers and as for other sites they are disappearing everyday before our eyes.
The oneness of humanity
Faced with these challenges, education remains the only means to protect our island and the planet. There is a therefore a need in our education campaigns to safeguard our environment to go beyond our interests or a merely scientific understanding of our environment. We must include a general change of attitudes which should be an integral part of our approach to the environment. This should comprise a strong dose of spiritual values and ethics. These values can be drawn from all the religions including a secular religion like Marxism, which in their different philosophies support the preservation of the planet and the oneness of humanity. Marxism has been against the exploitation of natural resources and human beings for the selfish interests of the few. It has also always regarded people as human beings with a consciousness and values who can define their needs in socially useful ways.
It is from these religious and other secular philosophies that we can draw to add an ethical and moral dimension to the protection of the environment. Our view of the world and the universe is crucial to our approach to the environment. Too often and for too long it has been mechanistic and materialistic and we have to balance it with a humanistic vision of the future. There is no need to become neo-romantics or to seek the abolition of capitalism. There is however a need for every individual to construct a vision where he will be able to assume full responsibility for the planet not out of any self-interest but because he realizes that he must live in convergence with nature.