The difference isn’t ecological, it’s cultural

It is seemingly a strange notion that there should be different perspectives on urban ecology, especially when urban areas worldwide exhibit similar characteristics in the broader era that we now commonly call the anthropocene.

The diversity of “Southern” perspectives draws on the cultural diversity of the “South”, which  is rooted in the ecological diversity of this geographical collective.

These perspectives should be similar—if not outrightly the same—everywhere, as the problems related to urban environments (see the four urban environmental goals identified by Bigio and Dahiya, 2004) and urban ecology are rather similar, even though they manifest themselves differently. Further, based on the “urban environment stage model” (Bai and Imura, 2000), we can with great confidence say that urban environments around the world are going through a similar, if not really the same, transition in the so-called “South” in today’s anthropocene.

It follows, therefore, that if the “Southern” perspective is different from the ‘Northern’ perspective, this distinction must be based on or rooted in something equally fundamental, and that is culture. From this standpoint, the relevance of the “Southern” perspective, or perspectives more correctly, becomes highly significant. The diversity of “Southern” perspectives must then draw on the cultural diversity of the “South”, which in turn is rooted in the natural and/or ecological diversity of this geographical collective.

As Carl O. Sauer elaborated, the cultural landscape of a particular place is a cumulative result of the interactions between the nature and culture of that place. In his words, “The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result.” From this perspective, the thoughts that developed in the “South” on urban ecology, or a broader nature-culture relationship, form an extraordinary subject of study.

From the geographically vast and culturally diverse Asian region, a few of these “Southern” perspectives are worth mentioning to illustrate the point.

First is an ancient thought borne out of the culturally rich and fertile soil of India. In Indian thought and tradition, a human being is considered as a part of a larger and nested structure. The individual human being is nested within the wider human society. The dialectic between the human individual and society defines their mutual complementarity. The society (including all individuals) is then nested within nature, and the relationship between the two gives rise to the culture of a specific place. Further, the individual, the society, and nature are nested within the cosmos. These four seemingly are different concepts and identifiable realities. However, they are part of each other, or better to say, identifiable with regard to each other. This underlines each entity’s interdependence and, therefore, interconnectedness. In practical terms, this idea gets translated into the philosophy of “oneness” (Sanskrit: Ekatmata) or “non-duality” (Sanskrit: Advaita) in the entire cosmos, “the world is one family” (Sanskrit: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam), and “non-violence” (Sanskrit: Ahimsa). Using this concept, the Indus Valley cities in ancient India, such as Dholavira, had developed elaborate systems of water harvesting and management that helped their citizens to survive in some of the harshest arid environments that nature presented. It is this concept and its understanding in the wider society that leads to the worship of nature and her representations, such as rivers, mountains, trees, and so on.

Second, the idea of “Pratītyasamutpāda” (Sanskrit; Pali: Paticcasamuppāda) or “dependent origination”, which is commonly known as “interconnectedness”, finds a philosophical place and practical application in the Buddhist tradition. According to the principle of “dependent origination”, all things arise with dependence on one another. It follows that, since we, as human beings, are interconnected with nature, it becomes our duty to be compassionate to Mother Nature and all living beings. Therefore, Emperor Ashoka, who adopted Buddhism as the state religion in his reign (from c. 268 to 232 BCE) in India, prohibited the killing of animals and birds. With Buddhism, the principle of “interconnectedness” spread far and wide in Asia. For example, in Thailand, rivers are revered as “mae nam” or “mother river” to the present date. With such rich endowments of thought, tradition, and culture, one would expect that the relationship between Mother Nature on the one hand, and cities and human settlements on the other, would be truly harmonious in current times in these places as well. That is, however, not a widespread practice in urban Asia.

Still, some of these ideas and thoughts are being tested for their practical application in today’s urban Asia. For example, public authorities in Lumphini Park—Bangkok’s oldest green space, have allowed the growth of Bodhi plants that had germinated from seeds contained in bird-droppings (Lai, 2016); Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. In India, the National Ganga River Basin Authority has started the Mission Clean Ganga with a comprehensive approach to champion the challenges posed to Ganga (commonly known as Ganges) River through four different sectors: wastewater management, solid waste management, industrial pollution, and river front development.

But an obvious question arises: Why are these efforts not widespread? A set of interrelated factors causes the present situation to persist, or even worsen in some places.

First is the meaning associated with “development” in the international arena. “Development” is commonly understood as an increase in income and an improvement in the quality of life, which are the derivatives of national economic growth. This is based on the example set by the Global North, which, for historical, geo-political, and economic reasons, “developed” before the South did. Once economic growth became the marker of development in the North, the South started to follow this paradigm, facilitated by international development agencies. And until the late 1980s, the idea of “development” did not include sufficient attention to nature.

Second is the integration of the world economy through the process of economic globalization, which finds spatio-economic manifestation in the cities of the “South” (as well as the “North”). This often allows little space for the inclusion of caring for Mother Nature as a “mother” or “giver of all life”. The concomitant occurrence of urban environmental problems related to poverty, production, and consumption (following Bai and Imura, 2000) in the South confirms this.

Third, the South generally follows the path laid by the North: grow first, clean up later. This has worked for the North as it has had a long gestation period with regard to its economic “development” process. However, this will not necessarily work for the South, where cities are experiencing explosive economic, demographic, and spatial growth, particularly in Asia (see Dahiya, 2014).

Lastly, the neo-liberal economic model crowds out caring for nature even though nature is deemed culturally important. This is because the culture of caring for nature is increasingly being replaced by the culture of accumulation and consumption. Money, after all, matters a lot!

Looking forward, the culture of respect and care for nature will have to be brought back if the cities of the South, as well as those of the North—and, for that matter, humanity and all forms of life—have a chance of survival on planet Earth.

Image: Bharat Dahiya

Source: Academia

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.

Bharat Dahiya