25 June, 2022


Harmonizing Coexistence And Sustaining Development

By Arjuna Seneviratne

Arjuna Seneviratne

All human activity on earth attempts to find safer, more stable and more comfortable environments to exist in and can be broadly lumped under the heading “human development”. The trouble is that every group has its own sweet idea of what comprises  “a better way to live” and thus, clashes will naturally occur and equally naturally, the more powerful minorities trundle over everyone else,  monopolizing what flies and what dies, what becomes policy and what does not. Mostly, that which flies and that which becomes policy, secures for them the lion’s share of human and natural resources required to um… “live better”.  This, despite the obvious fact that it goes against the very grain of natural justice. This, despite the fact that due to brutal exploitation of earth recourses over the last few centuries we are now on the brink of destruction. In order to turn it around, we need to understand what “environment” is, what “development” is and what the current human bias is when it couples these two words together.

This post is rather drawn out, definitely rambling in content and perhaps muddling in meaning but do bear with me. The “things of nature” explained in the previous post requires a bit of meandering and quite a few stops to smell the humus for it to make any sense at all 🙂

As we all know, the “environment” is a combination of three intrinsically bound components, namely, social, cultural and natural environments and “development” is a combination of three more such – environmental, community and economic development.

Now, the degree to which a majority of human beings place emphasis on one or the other of these six components determine the “stability” of a social system. Figure 1 gives a rough idea of where the powerful minority of the world’s urban population currently is and what the larger majority of rural and pastorals are constantly asked to aspire to. It is not an accurate picture but simply used to give an idea of weightage and bias.

Interesting isn’t it? What this essentially means is that development practitioners and environment policy makers are primarily attempting to convert the planet into America. In their minds, environmental and community development as well as the natural environment and the cultural environment should essentially disappear without a trace and we should convert ourselves purely into socioeconomic entities, living out our 600 months of life consuming as much of what is there to consume and give no heed at all to what those who come after us will feed their needs on. Never mind the great drumming, the superb dancing, the rituals of communal solidarity, the livelihood based recreational activity. Never mind the continuity of life on earth.

Such things don’t really give rural Africa any money, right here right now…. right? The rumba doesn’t allow a South American  farmer to buy a cell phone and feed Apple Inc.’s bottom line nor Awale enable and Asian rural to construct a high rise building and become a so-called top-feeder, does it? Nope. Even the so-called “developing group of human beings on this planet”, in their majority, is being led to believe that nothing can possibly be better than strong legal systems, reality shows, IPL, apartment dwellings and credit cards.

The simple stupid problem here is that if every single human being on this planet were to achieve socioeconomic equality as that phenomenon is identified by the drivers of world policy and focus exclusively on economic development and the social environment,  it is estimated we will require the resources of 2 ½ earths to satisfy everyone. This situation is made even more alarming because everyone knows but blithely ignores the fact that this focus has only yielded the enabling conditions for greed, opportunism, exploitation, moral degeneration, crime and destruction of the natural balance and that climate instability, pandemics, poverty and conflict are the life threatening results of such efforts for the planet.

Two questions pop up.  a) Is there any possibility of reversing this trend? and b) Is there any possibility to even out the balance between the component parts of development and environment as a viable alternative to the madness of attempting to eradicate four of the six components? The answer to the first question is yes, but it will require a huge effort on the part of all human beings (most significantly, those that have the finances and resources to control the actions of others) to make the choice to change the way they view life and the way in which they view “safe, stable and comfortable living”. The answer to the second question is no. At no point in history have all of these things been in ideal balance although many communities and even nations (such as Sri Lanka during the time of the kings) have managed to get very close. Given the current world population and the extent to which that collective has damaged this planet, a complete balance is an unrealistic expectation. The best that one can hope for (and the best one can hope for is not a bad place to be) is to achieve universal awareness of the interplay of these factors and how they affect long term stability of individual and collective lives and how to factor in the marginalized components more and more into core existence frameworks.

Well, how? Certainly not by ridiculing cultural and environmental sensibilities or by marginalizing natural and cultural development as Binyavanga Wainaina seems to think. Certainly not by tired thinking that wishes continual promotion of the straplines of development gurus. This requires a slightly deeper analysis. What follows is a lot of rhubarb, there is nothing here that people don’t know but it is important that people don’t conveniently forget so bear with me people.

The interrelationships among development components:

These are fairly well known but for the record, I’ll state them nevertheless. Obviously, the linking common ground between the development components and the environment components is environment itself. However, we will address the two entities separately in order to make the interrelationships clearer. The Venn in figure 2 has been known to development practitioners for quite some time now and there is a belief among quite a few of them that balancing environmental, community and economic development would result in sustainable development. mmm…Interesting.The thing is, this process is not quite that simple. If it were, we would have already achieved sustainability. We haven’t. Here’s the reason.

One cannot simply attack all of these areas simultaneously but rather, one must work on them a) through attempting to balance the relationship between any two pair of components and b) through qualifying the starting point of such an exercise. That is, we must address the common outcome of balancing environment and economic development in the relational activity of conservation (group cohesion excluded), the common outcome of balancing economic and community development in the relational activity of community economic development (nature excluded) and the common outcome of balancing community and environment development in the activity of deep ecological life-systems (money excluded).  Now, excluding entire facets might seem on its face as an iffy way of looking at the problem but that is because one is using a Venn to define the interrelationships and there is no discernible “where to start” within in. However, the problem resolves itself when one looks at the issue in terms of an “onion diagram” (Figure 3).

Everything starts with the conservation and management of natural resources for without them nothing survives. Therefore this is the organic point of takeoff for achieving sustainability in development. While everyone needs to pull their weight by actively coupling any economic activity with environment sensitivity as a non-negotiable foundation, who amongst us can actually be the best custodians of such exercises? Well, the answer is obvious. The best are those who need no special “training” to understand balancing the human-environment interface. These are primarily communities of hunter-gathers such as the veddas of Sri Lanka and secondarily, rurals and pastorals living in dependence on the balance of natural resources. Now, here is where the problem lies. Urbanites are hell bent on “civilizing” these people with their urban crimes, their urban diseases and their cell phones. They, would like nothing better than to see the shepherds of our planet “socialized” and “economized”. The urbanized believe, almost like a mantra, that living either in complete dependence on natural environments or slap dab in the middle of the jungle is a terrible miscarriage of justice and that these people deserve to discard their drums, their weapons, their ways of engaging in their livelihoods, their values and their idea of what constitute “civilized behavior” and espouse those of a group who promote, in their naiveté, lifestyles requiring 2 ½ earths.

Do those people want it? Well, as one old-timer in the Vedda community stated to me a few years ago, “සිදාදියෙන් අපට දුන්නේ හර්ධාබධ පොජ්ජ. දියවැඩියා පොජ්ජ” (all that we received from living in semi-urban communities was heart disease and diabetes).

So, no. Policy planners and development practitioners across the world need to understand the life-critical caregiver role that these people play, recognize their importance, provide them with every form of assistance possible and listen to them on how best to manage the world’s resources. The same policy planners should also start qualifying the recommendations of environmentalists, sustainable development experts and other urban ideologists against those of such communities.  Then, and very possibly, only then, will we engineer community cohesion and resilient community development and recreate the foundations for sustainability.

This is not going to be easy. In fact, this would require an upping of the ante for humankind and an increase in the difficulty and complexity of engagement because one will no longer be able to use the popular “one-size-fits-all” methodology of high-rises, TV dinners, pill-popping and rights as valid measures of comfort and security and will need to completely understand the unique interplay of environments and communities before they can be “developed”. The outcome, or rather, the fallout of such an exercise would be, simply, sustainable development. It is something that one must aspire to through years of developing the world based on a significant shift in thinking and it is something that will result almost as a continuously collateral “interim result”, rather than the achievement of a specific “final goal”.

The interrelationships among environmental components:

The relationships amongst the environment components are not well known. The terminology used in figure 4 to describe the union of any two components is not the best. However, they are the closest one can get to. The phenomena are better explained using Sinhala.

The balance of the natural and cultural environments gives “යහ සිරිත්” or wholesome/rewarding customs. The balance of the natural and social environments gives “යහ ජීවිකා” or wholesome/rewarding livelihoods and the balance of the social and cultural environments gives “යහ වින්දනය” or wholesome/ rewarding enjoyment.

The outcome of balancing out these dualities gives rise to “සමතුලිත සහජීවනය” or harmonious co-existence. As with the development components, the onion diagram in figure 5 better explains the starting point and process of moving towards its natural outcome.

Under ideal conditions (some of which did exist in the not too distant past), custom drove the way in which human beings did practically everything. The systematic marginalization of the natural and cultural environment saw the equally systematic rise in the establishment of laws. Whereas once, a whole nation managed co-existence through mutual agreement on how to live, now, there is a need to force them to live within relatively agreeable frameworks and this force is exercised through legislative instruments.

Obviously, anything that attempts to force a system of living on a person or a community will have to contend with resistive action. Therefore, laws are constantly broken leading to a lot of human effort going into destabilizing and re-stabilizing of societal frameworks. When custom was in vogue, there was nothing that could be “broken” since the entire process was one of “agreeing with one another” that had established itself in each social system over a long, slow period of time. Violation of these customs was a heinous crime punishable mostly by ostracization, sometimes by removal and occasionally, death. Development practitioners need to recognize this, and be ultra-sensitive to the customs that govern every micro-community and the place that this natural-cultural weave holds as the basis for any process leading to a harmonic balance.

With reference to the onion in figure 5, wholesome customs leads into a balanced understanding of the relationship between the natural and social environment. With a deep appreciation of the need for a balance in the natural environment, social activity itself becomes harmonized with nature and living and livelihoods are established that do not abuse the natural or cultural environment. Therefore, livelihood systems that endanger or puts undue pressure on these (such as exploitative commerce, “criminal” business etc.) are rejected. So, by default, communities engage in livelihoods that reward them, the community in which they live and the nation.

Now, while wholesome custom and livelihoods are important, recreation, entertainment and other forms of enjoyment are as crucial to a complete life. For harmonized communities, understanding the balance between the social and cultural environments gives rise to this. What must be understood here is that for them, enjoyment does not become an exclusive, stand-alone social phenomenon but rather a supportive and sustaining one enmeshed with their lives and livelihoods.

Again, granted, the paradigm shift required would be phenomenal and the effort that needs to be put in would be enormous. we have, as a planet, come so far down the road of “massives” that was Rome just before that particular civilization was wiped out that we can’t even see we have simply recreated the competitive, excessive, gladiatorial mentality that brought about its downfall and that we are dangerously close to a similar fate. Take sport for example. Currently, sport has ceased to be a recreation and become a livelihood. It has become a socio-economic phenomenon rather than a socio-cultural one. Another example is that sexual activity has become an addictive physical engagement and not a life supportive or life enhancing one. Communities with a deep sensitivity to the outcome of wholesome enjoyment never indulge themselves in an excess of it but they are in the minority these days and the entire world needs to shift its collective rear and overcome its “comfortable inertia” to enable the world to survive.

Lastly, the wholesome individual existence that is the outcome of balancing out these environment components then leads into faith. Faith in the ability of a human being to live today well and trust in the fact that tomorrow will be stable, safe and comfortable regardless of the expansion of choices that tomorrow may brings. The individual knows and understands that this faith and trust did not become out of individual effort and appreciates that stability and safety came out of the stability and safety of the entire community. The individual appreciates that breaking from this collective will necessarily endanger him or herself primarily and the community secondarily. Thus, every individual naturally and organically arrives at a state where harmonious co-existence becomes critical to the continuity of excellence of individual existence.

Apologies for rambling on but the final question is “Do we want this?” No. We Don’t. We are on a runaway train of excess in everything we do and we will, sooner rather than later, hit a wall at twenty million miles an hour. In the interim, we will condition ourselves to bear our own misery by attempting to drag everyone else down with us into our whirlpool of doubt and worry. Those that do survive would be those that resisted being sucked in or those that recanted their belief in “civilized behavior”, sold their apartments, binned their cell phones, buried their M16s and hid in jungle caves. Those will have every opportunity to recreate the peopled earth in accordance with that which sustained it in the first place. Not us. We would have committed suicide a long time before. To those few who lived, simply as a result of making some high quality choices,  simply because they never considered life a game of survival, I say “Salute! Good luck! God speed!”

Ok – I’m having a whale of time with this post so… here’s an elegant recap of all the rhubarb above from Dire Straits. Thirty years ago, they were one of the few bands whose music actually reflected their lyrics and Mark Knofler is far better at this game of “communication” than I ever will be. You get both the lyrics and the live video from Alchemy *winks*

*Other pieces by the same author can be read at http://arjunareflections.blogspot.co.uk/

*This post was based on the engagement paradigm of the Green Movement of Sri Lanka which the author constructed with the leader of the movement Suranjan Kodituwakku. Thanks Sura, for the many ideological skirmishes, hours of “bana” and many nights spent worrying about the effectiveness of our work

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