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The Role of Ethics in Environmentally Sustainable Development Education

Contributed by Sir M.A. Partha Sarathy, Hamsini, 12th Cross, Tajmahal Bangalore 560080 India

I cannot help feeling a sense of inevitability of events, as I see the emerging behaviour of the human race towards the planet upon which we live and the planet that provides us with all of our life-support systems; including the splendid botanical edifices which ornament our earth. In simple terms, it seems we are distancing ourselves from the earth's innate manifestation, its personality and the extinguished fragile fabric of nature, which requires us not only to take from it, but also to give it our protection and affection.

As I circle this planet and meet my fellow human beings, I see these distances growing more and more. Amidst all this, thankfully, the human race has conceived a concept called the Botanic Garden. These gardens are the result not only of a divine inheritance, but one that the human race has further evolved as its scientific achievement, an orchestra of God's nicest creations, both inherited by humankind from this planet, but also designed and devised by him through his own knowledge and effort.

However, more and more, these great botanic gardens are becoming critical vital links between humankind and their roots of culture, grace and equity and last but not least, bulwarks of sustainability of human's life on earth.

Let me now turn to the other gardens of the world, the forests. I have always considered a forest not as a chaotic cluster of trees, shrubs and flowers. The chaos that exists in a forest is only the manifestation of our own ignorance. We do not see in the design of a tree; or the formation of a forest; or the flow of a brook in a jungle; the divine design. Our ignorance of this makes us think of this as chaotic.

I have often stood in front of a magnificent tree. Its branches taking shape and form as its roots and its genes ordain it. The soil upon which it grows, the air that caresses it and the raindrops that nourish it, become the only external players that participate in this design, and thus we have in our midst, a tree. Humans have had no participation in the design or structure of this tree, be it a tree in a forest, or a tree in our garden.

Thus, I have thought of forest as another garden, a garden that has been designed, not by humans, but by nature. It is, in a sense, a Mother Garden.

Drawing from this immortal mother, humans over the centuries have attempted to take from her and re-design and re-culture what they now call botanic gardens, and indeed they have in this process made some great contributions, all over the world, by creating masterpieces.

The major concern today among all those involved is the future wellbeing of our planet, i.e. sustainable development. Let me re-define this term; we are concerned with environmentally sound sustainable development. While this sounds like a tall order, it is not. It is a means of evolving sensible development for the sake of our future and ourselves. Here, I have learnt to walk with care; as a member of the Planning Team for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, my mandate as a representative of IUCN (the World Conservation Union) was to draft Chapter 36 of Agenda 21. We were a small team working on this, travelling to the four corners of this plant (Asia, Africa, Canada, Australia, South America, Europe, Russia and China) to gather data and advice.

In many parts of the world, I began to hear people suggesting that we should evolve Environmental and Developmental Education as Chapter 36 of Agenda 21. They advised that I combine the two. The more I heard from people around the world, the more I was concerned. If we mixed environmental education with developmental education, we would surely confuse and diffuse the issue. I realised that developmental education is a different concept; it brings with it issues of productivity, increased product and profit.

We are being taught that we must produce more, better and faster; make more profit, and use more profit. Environmental education is another culture; it asks that we understand the environment, learn how to protect it, how to preserve precious natural resource and use them where necessary in a sustainable manner. I therefore argued that we should not speak of development education in the same breath as environmental education. But how should we harmonise the two? It is here that we researched into the whole issue and came up with the concept of environmentally sound sustainable development. Within the framework of environmental soundness, we introduced the concepts of ethics and equity.

Botanic gardens are not only manifestations of botany but also manifestations of art, culture, aesthetics and the environment. There is the great Moghul Gardens of India; the gardens in Kyoto, Japan, symbolising dignity and quiet grace; the resplendent explosion of an orchestra of trees, flowers, bodies of water, and mounds of emerald grass in the Queen Elizabeth Park at Vancouver, British Columbia; the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London U.K., or the magnificent botanic garden of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In addition, the spectacular botanical treasure houses of Proteas in Cape Town, South Africa. Each flower looking unlikely, the way in which its petals are placed one over the other in colours and forms that make some of these Proteas look like plastic objects glued together. There is also the heavenly valley of Saffron flowers in our own immortal Himalayas; each of these botanic gardens, to name but a few, represents not only a botanical treasure house, but also a celebration of people's finest sense of aesthetics, culture and, last but not least, a sense of ethics.

In my long service to the environmental cause on this planet, I have found that, increasingly, the ethical dimension of environmental protection has often been set aside. This is indeed a most painful, dangerous trend. People’s concern for humanity is one of the fundamental requirements of sustainable life on Earth if they want, and deserve, to be called human. The human race owes to today's humankind, as well as to Mother Earth, a sense of ethics and equity in everything it does. By overlooking or ignoring ethics and equity in the way in which we live, we are not only offending Mother Earth, but also insulting ourselves, and damaging the life and well being of future generations.

We need to come back to our own instinctive culture; the culture of the human being, which sets it apart from animals in the wild.

Let me hasten at this point to say, that I am not ready to accept that animals in the wild are any less, in terms of the ethical way in which they behave. Often, the behaviour of wild animals in a forest appears to be vastly superior to that of human beings, especially humans in our cities, and more especially in countries that call themselves developed. There is a sense of justice and a sense of equity among wild animals and birds. Life and death are part of a larger orchestra of nature. Wild animals do not manipulate and divide themselves into classes or castes; they do not have national boundaries; there is no politics in wildlife; there are no boundary wars. Plants have been known to migrate without hindrance from south to north; from continent to continent.

It is only the human race that has needed to evolve methodologies of war and antidotes to war, out of a sense of despair. The League of Nations, which evolved into the United Nations, has today needed to carry on unrelenting fire-fighting operations, only because some parts of the human race seem to have set fire to another. Wild animals do not set fire to each other’s lives. They perform with dignity, discipline and decorum as ordained by nature; they perform with a sense of ethics.

This important conference is addressing, among other things, the role that ethnobotany can play in environmental conservation through the proper protection, propagation and greater facilitation of botanic gardens. I do not claim to be a botanist, but I have the privilege of having been educated in the earth sciences. When I first perceived the concept of ethnobotany, I did not look at a dictionary. Instead, I said to myself: ‘I understand ethnicity and I understand botany; the combination of these two should imply ethnobotany’. What is Ethnobotany?

First my mind proceeded to the ethnics of the world. Indeed, the ethnic history of this world has not been something that it can be proud of. The 20th century has witnessed perhaps the most unfortunate catastrophes relating to what I call ethnic ethics. Who would have imagined that this great Earth, which produced great apostles such as Buddha, Gandhi, Christ, Mohammed, and a galaxy of immortal beings, not to speak of mythological beings, would degenerate itself into a thing called ethnic cleansing? Ethnic cleansing is not something we are witnessing in recent times; it has always been there. The history of many nations in the world has been tarnished by vulgar attempts towards ethnic cleansing in one form or another. One would only hope that the value of ethnicity and the need to honour, protect and preserve it, comes back to this planet as we enter the 21st century.

The word ethnic is described as a ‘…reference to races or peoples, with special reference to distinct ancestral, cultural, religious or linguistic characteristics’. Alas, this very definition has been its own enemy, since it has revealed how fragile ethnicity is! The Greek word ‘ethnos’ meant nation; what happened? Almost every nation on earth seems to have developed races, or peoples with their own distinct ancestral, cultural, religious or linguistic shells and barriers. As the world grew, so grew the walls among them; not only that but assertions of these boundaries rather than the unity among them. Fortunately, one such wall was beaten in Berlin and the 10th anniversary of that event took place yesterday.

Thank God ethnobotany does not have any racial barriers or ethnic cleansing. Ethnobotany, which forms part of what I consider the root-structure of botanical gardens, symbolises a unifying force. It also, for me, implies an ethical presence; it symbolises an act of living and letting live and harmonious life among the species that are found in these beautiful botanic gardens. It offers to the human race an example and a sanctuary of peace and harmony.

Permit me now to express one of the concerns that I have had, over the last several decades, as a student of earth sciences and a person who has also been deeply involved in international conservation, as well as international environmental education and communication; which I consider an important component of effective conservation efforts. I have found that science has been playing a prominent, if not dominant, role not only in conservation, but also in development. In fact, science and technology appear to have become a leading force, driving all life on earth. As a scientist, who explored with great pleasure the emerging vistas of science and technology, I have often felt that they have a habit of occupying my mind and several of my faculties in a way in which I run the risk of losing myself in them. It is my view that science and technology, while one cannot but admit, have been important and useful tools that have contributed to humanity’s improvement of their life on earth, they have also often demanded a great price for this benefit. It is here that I feel that, in the pursuit of science and technology that is often a headlong pursuit, we should guard ourselves from being servants or blind worshippers.

Science and technology often represent a cage or a prison. The bed, which is offered to humanity, often disguises the bars of this prison. Even when we enter this prison, we are not aware that we are in fact imprisoned. This prison gives us a bed, a comfortable bed, faster and faster food, great artificial weather, and everything else. What it does not give us is the fresh air of a free mind (which can explore beyond the limitations of the formulae and the assertions of the science and technology) and the directions which science and technology often insist upon.

Very often, tragically, ethics is among the victims as humankind speeds headlong towards surrendering to science and technology.

There is a biblical statement concerning common salt. Common salt is supposed to be added to enrich food. Salt is also considered to be an essential element among all living beings. At the same time, if the salt is applied to the eyes, the eyes run the risk of being extinguished. If salt is overused, it becomes poison. Do we therefore do without salt? certainly not. By the same token, I am not advocating that we reject science and technology. I am pleading for human good sense and ethics, and a recognition of the need for human beings to be concerned about humanity and nature; and use the God-given freedom to think and act beyond the constraints of a society enveloped by a science and technology obsession.

Fortunately, the role that botanic gardens around us are playing as a scientific presence providing aesthetics, tranquillity, environmental education and education towards ethical behaviour among humanity, has gained richly deserved importance. Even though we have just witnessed the ugly manifestations of ethnic cleansing, among other misfortunes in humanity’s recent life on this planet.

Permit me to speak for a moment on another educational, if not enlightening event in my life.

I was once walking in a forest in Africa. Suddenly, my guide and friend, a tall Masai tribesman came upon an Impala (a deer) and her new born baby. The mother was panicking, for, not far away, was a leopard with her cubs. The leopard began to move towards the Impala. My friend the Masai whispered to me to be silent and watch. The leopard needed food for her cubs. As she approached, the mother Impala ran away, leaving her little baby, who stood there, not knowing what was happening. The mother leopard approached, and I held my breath, knowing that a cruel event was about to happen. As the leopard came to the baby Impala, the baby, mistaking it for its own mother, began to search for its milk. The leopard stood still for several moments. Then, in an incredible gesture, she licked the face of the baby Impala a few times and walked back to her cubs.

This was among the most unforgettable moments of my life. I like to think that the human race, which is indeed designed to be an improvement on what is called the wild animal, with faculties and capacities superior to all wild animals, would be an improvement also in terms of ethics and compassion where it concerns fellow humans. And yet, as we go into the 21st century, I do not see too many signs of it. It is against this background that I feel that botanic gardens which have all the manifestations of an extraordinary presence, complimenting the best of human endeavour, exuding the finest of colour, grace, tranquillity, peace, spraying around them the perfume of ethics and equity, should become centres of enlightenment to all human life on earth.