Prof Shyam Sunder Jyani, associate professor of Sociology at the Government Dungar College, Bikaner, Rajasthan, has been instrumental in increasing the green cover in arid Rajasthan through community participation in plantation drives. He is a recipient of the UN Land For Life award for his Familial Forestry concept and its practical application. On World Environment Day 2022, he shares how protecting cultural plurality is crucial for inculcating ecological empathy and sustainable living:
This year's world environment day is emphasising "living sustainably in harmony with nature". When I read about this theme, the first thing that came to my mind was the absence of harmony. If we look at the food chain, we will find that every creature is contributing to the balance of the ecosystem except human beings.
Unfortunately, we are at the top of the food chain and are being driven by desires, not by needs. Our impression of the environment is governed by our inclinations, which are social products like God and religion. Contrary to this, exigencies are basic instincts. That is why all other creatures are natural beings but we are social beings. Our social construction of reality differs from the natural construction of reality.
Earlier, we didn't have a lot of means to control nature. But despite that, we destroyed jungles and contributed to the extinction of various species of flora and fauna.
When we entered the industrial era, this devastation was accelerated. Hundreds of species went extinct.
We are now heading rapidly towards extermination. Therefore, we have started advocating for the health of our planet – the only home in this universe. There are as many suggestions as advocates. Some are calling for plantations, cutting back on fossil fuels, and adopting sustainable lifestyles, while others are suggesting different measures.
Before reaching any conclusion, we must understand that there can be multiple ways to address this crisis but without answering the structural aspect of sustainability we cannot achieve the goals. The structural aspects of sustainable living lie in our collective approach toward nature.
Our collective consciousness considers nature as a set of resources that must be exploited for the pleasure of humans. We have reduced nature to just another commodity. This collective consciousness is designed and promoted by the market which is emerging as the major determinant of our societal understanding.
When we see it as a set of deposits then we pick them up as per our desires and disturb the flow of life. A strong sense of individual responsibility toward nature is a functional prerequisite for sustainable living in harmony with nature. For this, we require ecological empathy.
The early stage of socialisation is the key to being empathetic.
But new means of communication such as television and social media have been capping the role of these three agencies. Therefore, we need new ideas that can strengthen these agencies and lead toward green socialisation.
Familial Forestry is one such idea.
Familial Forestry is all about an environmental intervention in the early stage of socialisation. Through personification, it relates to the tree as a green member of the family. Once a family adopts a tree as a green member it starts experiencing nature at home. The tree attracts insects like bees, butterflies, and birds thus enabling the family to appreciate biodiversity. This leads to a green discourse that inculcates ecological empathy. Such togetherness brings harmony and leads to an ecological civilisation.
Social changes are based on certain processes and without following those procedures, we cannot operate the change mechanism.
Jasnath ji, a great environmentalist of the medieval age, taught ecological affinity to desert dwellers that can be observed to date in those who follow his path.
But, unfortunately, we are rapidly moving towards cultural homogenisation and it is being done at the cost of cultural diversity. We must understand that when a folk tale dies, a set of thoughts and practices die with it.
And if they are found to be less effective, then we cannot inculcate ecological empathy which is the key to moving towards sustainability and living in harmony with nature.
(The author is an associate professor of sociology at the Government Dungar College, Bikaner, Rajasthan. He is a recipient of the UN Land For Life award for his Familial Forestry concept and its practical application)