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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2009 > December 2009 > Changing Weather and Shifting Glaciers: Deeper Ecological Concerns

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Changing Weather and Shifting Glaciers: Deeper Ecological Concerns

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Chandra Mohan Bhandari


Intellect, will and emotion, the powers of head, chest and heart with whom man as a conscious being has been endowed, will prove his undoing if, caught in the net of his concepts, in the brilliance of his achievements and in the web of his entanglements he forgets his anchorage in the weaving and working of the greater life.

—Karlfried Graf von Durkheim

Deeper ecological concerns and possible remedial measures need more than patchwork solutions. The thesis that it would be futile to ignore a close linkage between happenings in the environment out there and also the world within has been the main theme of an earlier paper.1 This essay is an attempt to analyse the issues related to global warming and changing weather pattern in greater detail including global concern and debates on the issue. At a deeper level the crisis is a culmination of the tensions arising from different civilisational patterns, and only a fresh outlook into the philosophical basis could lead to durable tranquillity and peace.

Part 1

Environment: Warming and Degradation

Alarm bells keep ringing and the sound gets louder and shriller. It was being anticipated right since the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century. Very shortly a summit on climate change is being planned at the international forum. This is going to become a regular feature of our existence which is threatened. Many individuals have understood the writing on the wall and have done quite a bit to let others understand. However, collectively nothing worth substance has appeared on the scene although some groups like Green Peace have been able to highlight the issue for the general public. The overall scenario is frightening, not because what has happened till now and what might happen, but because there appears to be hardly any way to reverse the trend of the so-called civilised society. Finally we may have to leave to the Mother Nature who has given us the intellect to achieve great things but possibly not sufficient wisdom. The next step of stopping man from doing further damage will perhaps be taken by her.

Let us come to the point. The United Nation’s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has come up with a climatic trajectory for the twentyfirst century. The report anticipates an average temperature rise of four-to-five degrees Centigrade by the end of the century. The change is primarily due to the excessive use of fossil fuels although other reasons are also the contributory factors. According to the UN report India will be among the countries most affected.

The anticipated impact in India will be somewhat on the following lines:

• Melting of ice cover in Arctic and Antarctica could lead to flooding of the vast coastal areas due to the rising sea level.

• With the rise of the sea level in the vast areas along the Coromandal and Malabar coasts there could be salination of ground water near the coastal regions.

• A shift is visible in the Himalayan glaciers at a rate unanticipated and unexpected.

• The Gangetic plane, having the largest population density, may suffer from water scarcity.

• Excessive use of underground water to meet the needs of a rising population could lead to severe lowering of the water level affecting the availability of water to meet the needs.

• Lowering of ground water level beyond a limit could endanger whatever forest cover is left. Some of the green areas of today may end up as deserts.

• Cereal yields in this region may drop by 30 per cent by 2050 and could devastate the agriculture based economy.

Hopefully all this may be somewhat exagge-rated. However, given only fifty per cent of all that we anticipate is true, the nature and magnitude of the looming crisis is too obvious for us to ignore.

This is particularly so for our country. The fact is: given any eventuality of the kind, we are perhaps in the worst position to take effective counter-measures.

Many of us know this as a fact. This kind of speculation has been there for the past few decades. It was thought that with time corrective measures could be taken when the situation worsens. However, what we thought to be an overestimate appears to be otherwise and things have deteriorated at a rate much faster than anticipated.

Let us just reflect on the following news items during the past two to three years:

• A village situated on an island near Bangkok has been fully submerged. A place which almost four years ago was buzzing with life displays the top parts of half-submerged poles.

• An apparent rise in the sea level at Bangkok appears to be on the cards and could endanger the city itself.

• In West Bengal, the Sunderbans can boast of one of the best known mangroves. A part of it is already submerged with the possibility of going completely under the sea water.

• The Gangotri glacier has been receding for quite sometime. We must remember that the river Ganga and its tributaries are the lifeline of the vast Gangetic plane.

• In Germany, the glacier in the German Alps is melting at an alarming rate and efforts are on to take corrective steps.

• Vultures have always been there with the habitat. Clearing away dead animals was efficiently done by these birds which are now not usually seen in many areas. Insecticides sprayed everywhere and some of the injections given to the animals have been rather lethal for the vultures.

• Dengue, Japanese encephalitis, avian flue and swine flu were not that common two decades ago. Now these have become the norm and every year these diseases appear in almost epidemic form along the entire length and breadth of India..

The list could go on. Although we have specifically considered the problem in the Indian context, there are changes at the global level with repercussions for the entire world. Consider, for example, the shrinking of the Gangotri glacier which is receding at a considerable pace. Glaciers elsewhere too are shrinking. Alaska was known for its glaciers. Those who have visited Alaska during recent years are told that the there has been an unprecedented shift in the snowline of the glaciers and if things continue at the same pace in a few decades there would be nothing left of the snow mass. The shrinking of the Alaskan glacier is due to global warming. The same holds true for the Gangotri as well. Global effects will require global solutions and for that all nations including the superpowers would have to agree on some line of action. In addition to this, there are local problems with relatively easily manageable situations.

Let us for a moment reflect on the main issues. Various aspects of global warming are being discussed in international forums. Perhaps as individuals or as members of small groups we cannot do much about them. We have to wait and see. The European nations have taken up some of these issues and appear to be sincere. The United States has been rather slow in realising the enormity of the problem. Or perhaps it may be in a better position to take counter-measures as and when necessary. We do not know. What we know is that our own actions have been too inadequate.

Self-regulation and Self-organisation

All living systems are characterised by self-organisation. A self-organised unit can create and maintain its own order. Based on multiple feedback loops, a living system is capable of organising its own order and managing its own affairs. However, for the system to have this property it has to depend on its environment for its different needs and requirements. A change in the environment beyond a certain limit may disturb the delicate balance between various processes. The order which has evolved over a period of millions of years could face the risk of losing some of its variety at the best and of being chaotic at the worst.

Admitted that global warming is a global phenomenon, the question is: what has been our share in this and what will be our share in the corrective steps to be taken?

We should be frank. As a society we are too engrossed in our day-to-day struggles for survival and have hardly time to ponder over issues of this kind. We are in a state of utter confusion at our best and utter ignorance at the worst. A vast population is living below the poverty line and another vast population just above it is struggling hard to maintain a reasonable and respectable living. Global warming will affect a person if he survives the onslaught of swine flu, insecticide poisoning, terrorist attacks, accidents of various kinds. Often those who do not have to struggle hard have been the worst offenders. They usually lack the sensitivity to tackle delicate issues like this problem.

Analysing Objectively

An objective analysis of the scenario is essential. Let us consider the following points:

• We are among the few nations with the highest population density. Even China, at present the most populated nation, has less population density.

• We are also among the few nations with the highest growth rate of population. There appears to be no imminent change in the state of affairs in this area.

• Ours is a truly plural society with various groups having their own traditions and codes as regards social life.

• The governments are generally weak-willed when it comes to taking hard decisions with their priority being immediate political survival.

• At the individual level we are too engrossed in matters of daily survival. Hence issues as global warming are of no immediate concern to most of us.

What are the possible steps that we as a society could take to reduce the environmental stress? The steps could be to reduce vehicular pollution by encouraging the public transport system, to reduce the use of fossil fuels by encouraging the use of solar cookers, to reduce significantly the use of plastic and polythene, to reduce energy consumption by way of more efficient devices such as compact fluorescent lamps. The list could go on and on. However, all these steps would be meaningless if we cannot do something as regards our population growth.

We do not even talk of curbing population growth through legislation. Our political leadership does not regard it as a problem. Some who consider it a problem find it of less significance than winning elections. In short, there is not even an iota of political will to face the problem.

The Gangetic Plane

Let us take up the case study of the Gangetic plane particularly the region lying within Uttar Pradesh. Let us further confine ourselves to three rivers—Ganga, Yamuna and Gomti.

Ganga and Yamuna are snowfed rivers and these rivers along with their tributaries form the lifeline of the entire region from western Uttar Pradesh to Bihar and West Bengal. Let us start with Yamuna which is the main tributary of Ganga. Till a few decades ago it was full of life. Beside the growing population in the entire region, disposal of untreated water from factories, households, thousands of small industrial units and hospitals has continued unabated and as a result the lifeline of the region is on the verge of becoming lifeless. For this one just needs to have a look at the river on whose banks Delhi came up. What one finds today is virtually a stagnant and dirty mass of water full of chemical and bacterial pollutants. The river water during lean seasons is unfit even for animals, and probably for certain plants as well. This is the present scenario. With the ever increasing population of the Capital city, and with more small and large industrial units established in the neighbourhood, things could worsen at an unimaginable pace.

The general apathy of the people, municipal personnel and government officials towards such matters is indeed astonishing. What are they waiting for?

Part II

Nothing in nature is random…… a thing appears random only through the incompleteness of our knowledge. —Spinoza

The issues of glaciers shifting and drifting snowlines have been more or less accepted at the theoretical level. There are few who will doubt the essence of all that has been said. There may, however, be some difference on whether any serious line of action is to be taken now. There may also be divergences about the exact course of action to be taken now or in future to manage the situation. The implementation part, and that too against the larger canvas, is always going to be difficult. However, that should not deter us from accepting a model of the possible course of action to be adopted.

Crisis: Outer and Inner

It has been emphasised in an earlier paper1 that the looming crisis is on two planes: one related to the world out there, and the other pertaining to our inner world. What I propose to elucidate in the present essay is something which is at the boundary line of ecology and psychology. In part I/we have talked of the difficulties in implementing any meaningful plan of action. That difficulty is due to processes that are operative in the world of psyche. We can refer to two broad domains of psyche: the ego level and the biosocial level.1,2,3 The ego level has been with us right from the birth and is responsible for self-preservation. As the child grows its interaction with the world around gradually shapes another part of the psyche, described as the bio-social level—parents, the family, the neighbourhood, friends—all contribute to the process. A major part of our personalities is dominated by these two levels for all practical purposes. This interactive shaping of the biosocial level of the psyche is similar to the interactive processes between an organism and the physical environment. A healthy meaningful interaction between an organism and its environment is necessary for its growth as also its survival. The same is true for a healthy biosocial level interaction. Of course, it may not be easy to list all the necessary requirements which could be place-specific as also person-specific. However, in spite of these difficulties some broad outlines can be figured out.

Glacier Within

The glacier has a strong ecological connotation. As it rains most of the rainwater flows rapidly on its way to the lower reaches and finally to the sea. This flowing mass, unless utilised almost instantly, flows to the final abode—the ocean. As snow at higher reaches, it is stored in the large glacial mass. It is a reservoir which releases the water mass in times when it is needed most—the summer. This has a strong implication at the psychic level. The region of our bio-social level has many sub-regions, one of these is the glacial level. A long-term memory storage may store memories of early childhood days. As the child grows into an adult, the glacier within feeds slowly but surely never allowing the onset of helplessness and despondency in relatively difficult situations. On the other hand, a childhood with no storage of the life fluid of hope and expectation can lead the child to a state of despondency even with moderate hardship at a a later time. We have ample evidence of such situations.

Electronically Connected,
Psychologically Isolated

What I wish to present in this essay is the possible impact of modern lifestyle on the trajectory of the glacier within. The industrial revolution with its impact on lifestyle changed man’s social environment drastically. That was the so-called Second Wave4 which altered man’s lifestyle once again, the first change following the agricultural revolution several thousand years ago. There were innumerable positive sides of the Second Wave. However, there were problems too. Apart from ecological problems that we have talked about and its immediate as well as long term effects, there were problems emerging at the psychological level too. Among these an important difference between the post-First Wave society and the post-Second Wave one was that in the former men knew people in a personal, intimate way whereas this was no more true in the latter. The modern man does not know people around in a personal, intimate way.5 The earlier towns were small by present standards but the shift had even then started taking place from a personal to an impersonal society. The sense of belonging brought a certain sense of security and comfort and that too had its impact in terms of strengthening the glacier within.

We are now witnessing the emergence of a new revolution, a new gigantic wave is making its presence felt. The Second Wave emerged millennia after the first, whereas the time interval between the Second and the Third has been shorter by comparison. The microelectronic revolution or the information revolution is before us. This is going to change our lifestyles in a big way although the precise impact of the Third Wave may not be easy to guess at this moment. The industrial man was different from the agricultural man in so many ways. The village dweller had changed into a city dweller, the bullock cart was replaced by the use of the motor car. There may not be that kind of change with the onset of the Third Wave. The city dweller is the same in looks but his attitude is in the process of change. The man of the post-Third Wave society is much better informed, and the information he needs is obtainable with the movement of a cursor on the screen. Just look at this. Writing letters and sending them by post is now already much less in use and by the end of this century it may become obsolete. The description of units called ‘post office’ will be found in history books. Look at the mobile technology. Everybody can be connected to everybody else almost any time anywhere. This connectedness is digital. At the psychological level we are in the process of getting disconnected—from those with whom we were supposed to be connected in the earlier era. Digital connectedness and psychological isolation is likely to define the trend in the coming years.

Let me talk of the impact of e-revolution on a child’s mind. Every information is available to everyone all the time. The exploring mind of a child has hardly any space left to explore. A very severe mental claustrophobia is on the cards. The claustrophobia among city dwellers was already taking shape and finding expression in one form or the other. And now the information revolution has brought into focus additional problems. Both physical and mental claustrophobia are making their presence felt although the quality and quantity of the impact is not yet known.

The purpose of this essay is not to present a dark picture of the coming era. The positive aspects of the three great revolutions changing the way of life as also the mode of communication and information are already too well known. The purpose is to emphasise the lesser known aspects pertaining to the ensuing changes. Every technological breakthrough has many positive aspects and a few hazards too. The purpose here is to point to the hazards which may not harm everyone, yet to prevent them from harming anyone should be our goal.

The three important changes pertaining to Second and Third Waves have been:

• Emergence of an impersonal society (digital connectedness and psychological isolation).

• Lack of physical space (claustrophobia).

• Lack of mental space (mental claustrophobia).

The net impact of all these factors is the shifting of the glacier within—the deeper layers of the bio-social level of the psyche which release strength and a sense of security in difficult times. The threshold to withstand a crisis situation goes down when this happens. The manifestation of all this will depend on the individual and his immediate environment. It may manifest in the form of mental breakdown, violence, depression or even schizophrenia.

What is the Remedy?

The onward march of science and technology cannot be stopped. The direction taken by the growth process too cannot be altered in a significant way. The need of the hour is to analyse the possible impact of all these developments on the human psyche. The most important first step in the right direction would be an acceptance of the problem itself.

In Conclusion

The shifting of tolerance lines, retracting snow-lines and lowering water levels underground are holistic problems that require holistic solutions. Understandably, any action in that regard is not in the action domain of individuals. Only governments can do something about these; however, the chances are not bright on that count. Groups sincere about combating these can come together and start a kind of movement. Instead of preaching we have to start practising in whatever measure we can, irrespective of the immediate response of the society in general. We must have reason to believe that if we are committed enough many amongst us will come forward and join hands as also minds in checking the undesirable shifts in the desirable eco-psychological patterns. We have to start dreaming of a land

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habits.

—Rabindranath Tagore

The problem is local as well as global and the efforts to tackle it should be at both levels. A wild chase of the technological marvels will do us no good, it should go hand in hand with the growth at the level of the psyche. The physical environment out there as also the environment of mind have to be tackled simultaneously. Both are dependent on each other. The role of the unconscious has been stressed by the psychologists in various ways. Whatever be the detailed architecture of the unconscious, one thing is certain. It is not merely a storehouse or a data bank from where information in various forms and symbols keeps on pouring onto the conscious. The unconscious should be better compared to the activity at the deeper layers of the earth where things are not static. There are tectonic movements, albeit slow but significant. These slow movements at the deeper layers have been responsible for ‘continental drifts’ over a period of time. Somewhat akin to this are the drifting psychic patterns. In addition to this, the role of the unconscious in data storage and retrieval is also an accepted fact. The storage part depends upon, inter alia, the environment, physical and psychological. Whatever is being retrieved knowingly or unknowingly is certainly dependent on the stored data. We can only ensure to the best of our knowledge and ability the quality as well as the quantity of the inputs. This may not be of immediate help in a specific case but in the longer run the population at large will certainly get benefited. The shift in the snowline of the glaciers out there and also within can be some-what slowed down with proper environmental and attitudinal measures. To begin with, this in itself would be a significant step.

Deeper Philosophical Issues

The crisis arising in the ecosystem has its origins in the situation that existed in medieval Europe. The time was just ripe for the kind of paradigm shift that changed the man-nature relationship. The material needs of the people increased and the desire to acquire more led to imperialistic designs. The sea-faring people of Europe went on exploring the planet for themselves. They could find plentiful regions where they could, with their superior strength subjugate, or at times eliminate, the original inhabitants. The age of imperialism thus came into existence and it fairly well coincided with the advent of modern science.

It also coincided with the humanist movement. Broadly speaking, three distinct civilisational patterns can be outlined:6 [a] the dualist, where individuals in communion with their God are at the centre of concern, [b] the mystic, where the group or community is of primary concern, and [c] the humanist, where the individual is of primary concern. In Europe the humanist movement arose as a strong reaction to the hold of the clergy. The scientific revolution in Europe was, to some extent, an outcome of the humanist resurgence. The so-called mystic tradition of the East, having assimilated complementary opposites to some extent, could avoid a strong reaction of that kind. The Baconian view of Nature gave some kind of a moral authority for exploitation of its resources. Notions like ‘survival of the fittest’ fitted well in the grand scheme of the imperialist design. The present crisis has its linkage with

(a) the Baconian paradigm shift in the man-nature relationship,

(b) a lifestyle based on unchecked consumerism.

A new thinking encompassing various civilisational types as also re-defining the man-nature relationship at different levels could in the longer run provide a durable solution to all kinds of ecological problems. Let us hope that the international summit on climate change would be able to have a deeper look at the issue. The coming Copenhagen Summit would be a futile exercise unless some of the questions raised herein are addressed too.


1. C.M. Bhandari, “Deep Transpersonal Ecology”, Mainstream, October 4, 2009.

2. Ken Wilber, Psychologia perennis.

3. F. Capra, The Turning Point, Wildwood House, 1982.

4. Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, William Collins and Sons, 1980..

5. Desmond Morris, The Human Zoo, Triad Panther Books, 1979.

6. Madhuri Sondhi and Mary M. Walker (eds.), Ecology, Culture and Philosophy, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1980.

The author is on the faculty of the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad.

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