India Journal 2010 Part II – Finding Alternatives To Who We Are

So many people are now taking Prozac
that unmetabolized traces of the drug,
excreted in their urine, show up in
our drinking-water supply. So many people
are depressed that Prozac in their pee
is tainting our water!

– Colin Beavan

Some months ago, a colleague of mine suggested I read the blog, “No Impact Man,” created by Colin Beavan. Beavan is a New Yorker, who in 2007 committed his small family to a year-long experiment in making a move toward eliminating in their daily living all adverse environmental impacts.

Before I could find time to read the blog, I discovered that it was made into a book (and also, since then, that there is a documentary film). I bought the book, and set it aside to bring with me here to India and Bija Vidyapeeth. While here, I have been slowly making my way through the book during our rest periods. India 2010.Navdanya.3 036

The book is an easy, enjoyable read by a very good writer who is humorous, philosophical, and personally quite vulnerable. It is also an incredible witness to exactly what I have been struggling with in recent years: a sense that somehow it is Western techno-industrialized culture that is at the heart of my own experiences of distress, and why so many people, feeling caught in meaningless, abusive lives, are turning, as Beavan points out, to Prozac and other addictions to get them through a day.

Are you seeking a way to live day-to-day with less stress? Consider this simple observation made by Beavan (2009):

Back before the days of mechanized transportation and personal telephonic communications and coffee in to-go cups, there would be down times between the times of stress. Maybe you had a presentation at the office or a great party to go to or a tense talk with your girlfriend. But between those things you’d get a break. You couldn’t carry your coffee, talk on the phone, and ride a taxi to the next stressful event all at the same time (p. 89).

Somehow as a result of the “progress” of Western society, many of us are engaged in lives we hate. As Beavan writes:

Many of us work so hard that we don’t get to spend enough time with the people we love, and so we feel isolated. We don’t really believe in our work, and so we feel prostituted. The boss has no need of our most creative talents, and so we feel unfulfilled. We have too little connection with something bigger, and so we have no sense of meaning.

Those of us lucky enough to be well compensated for these sacrifices get to distract ourselves with expensive toys and adventures – big cars and boats and plasma TVs and world travel in airplanes. But while the consolation prizes temporarily divert us from our dissatisfaction, they never actually take it away. (pp. 8-9)

It has been almost a decade ago now that I began to talk and write about how the new cosmology and a renewed understanding of spirituality might help restore for us a sense of meaning to our lives and make it easier to get through the day. It was then that I came up with the title and wrote many of the reflections that appear on the pages of this blog. I had no idea back then that I was asking questions that would soon be at the center of a worldwide concern grown beyond just getting through another arduous work day to a worry about the chances for continued life on our planet, Earth. In the last ten years, my questions have become not only about my ability to “make it ‘til lunch,” but about how we as a human community are going to make it past 2020.

Here at Navdanya and Bija Vidyapeeth, we are being reminded that the reality that Beavan describes arose out of the move in the West toward industrialization. In the Western world, that industrialization took place in a major way over the last two hundred years. Here in India, it is only about 50 years old. Here in India, nearly 70 percent of the people still make their living by farming.

Today, however, the farmers of India are suffering from the newest expression of globalization: multinational corporations like Monsanto, which is attempting to corner the market on seed production with patented, genetically modified versions of rice and corn. Over the past decade, these “modern” farming methods have caused tens of thousands of Indian farmers, forced into unbearable debt, to commit suicide.

The organizers of the Navdanya movement believe these corporations are attempting to control our sense of ourselves, what we eat, how we and our children are educated, what we do for entertainment, how and where we work – and all with the goal, not of improving our lives, but of making corporate profits.

One example related to this given by Beavan really stood out for me when I read it. I have long been teaching about the history of the ecology movement as part of my workshops on ecofeminist spirituality.  As part of that, I tell the story of my own awareness of the movement’s emergence in the 1960’s. One vivid memory I often share with people is seeing a commercial which ran on American television as part of an anti-litter campaign. In it, a Native American man is sitting by the side of a litter-strewn roadway, a single tear running down his cheek. Beavan offers background on the commercial, of which I was previously unaware.

According to Beavan, the Keep America Beautiful (KAB) campaign, which sponsored the television advertisement, was created by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, the inventors of the throw-away, nonreturnable beverage can and bottle, respectively.  Beavan writes: “They recruited fellow industrial polluters, from paper-cup manufacturers to oil companies, to help fund KAB and then use it to promote the idea that individuals rather than companies are responsible for litter and pollution” (p. 66).

In other words, instead of thinking about whether or not their products were good for the environment, the leaders of these corporations conspired to pass the blame for the pollution their products cause onto their consumers. They made it our worry to responsibly use their environmentally damaging products. Nothing was said, I might add, about the fact that their non-reusable, toxic products inevitably would end up polluting the land and ground water, whether they are thrown directly onto the roadside or into trash bins from where they make their way into landfills.

Inspired by methods used by Mahatma Gandhi to free India from the British Empire, Navdanya is taking steps to address the course that the multinationals are taking in ruling the economy and lives of the people of India and the rest of the world. Vandana Shiva, the founder of Navdanya, pointed out in her lecture this week that Gandhi’s first strategy was to develop an alternative to the way things had developed under the British in India.

Before the British East India Company arrived, Indians grew their own cotton and made their own clothes. The British set up a textile industry, taking control of all the cotton and clothing production. Gandhi looked at this situation and realized he had to help people see that there could be an alternative. He adopted the spinning wheel as his symbol for the national free-India movement. He began once again to spin cotton and to make his own clothes, and he urged others to follow.

In the same way, in the face of Monsanto’s patents on seeds and its attempts to make it illegal for local farmers to save seeds, Navdanya was birthed as an alternative movement with the decision by Vandana Shiva to tell local farmers to start saving seeds.

Here at the farm, there is a small shed at one end of the property that contains Navdanya’s seed bank. We visited it on one of our first days on the farm. As I walked through the three small rooms lined with cabinets and shelves holding containers of seeds, I began to have a very moving emotional and spiritual experience. Slowly, I began to sense that I wasn’t just looking at jars of seeds, but standing in a sacred space where Life as we know it, and our ancestors have known it, is being lovingly preserved. In fact, the walls of the shed have been painted by a local indigenous man with drawings and symbols of India’s aboriginal culture.

Our course here at Bija Vidyapeeth is coming to an end. I have spent the past ten days as part of a small community of people from more than a dozen countries, each of us seeking to be part of finding an alternative to the path on which the human community appears destined at present. Among us are organic farmers, educators, activists, students. Ironically, it will be the telecommunications systems set up by the multinationals that will help us stay connected once we leave here. But, as Satish Kumar told us last week, Gandhi believed that technology is good if it assists humans in doing what they need to do. It is when technology begins to replace humans and to distance us from our true connection to Earth and to one another, that we need to be concerned.

If you would like to know more about Navdanya, the list below contains a summary copied off the movement’s website. Click on the links provided to learn more.

Beavan, C. (2009). No impact man: The adventures of a guilty liberal who attempts to save the planet, and the discoveries he makes about himself and our way of life in the process. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Navdanya is a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 16 states in India.Navdanya has helped set up 54 community seed banks across the country, trained over 500,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades, and helped setup the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in the country.Navdanya has also set up a learning center, Bija Vidyapeeth (School of the Seed) on its biodiversity conservation and organic farm in Doon Valley, Uttranchal, north India.Navdanya is actively involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge and culture. It has created awareness on the hazards of genetic engineering, defended people’s knowledge from biopiracy and food rights in the face of globalisation and climate change.Navdanya is a women centred movement for the protection of biological and cultural diversity.
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