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Men may come and men may go
by Kumud Biswas Bookmark and Share

In ancient times the people of Egypt used to make the fantastic claim that they were one of the earliest peoples on earth. How could it be so? argued Herodotus, for, compared to many other lands Egypt was only of recent origin and could not therefore be the home of one the earliest peoples. Enquiries and observations showed that the country from the mountain range above Memphis down to the Mediterranean sea was once a big gulf. It took a very long time for this gulf to fill up by the silt gradually deposited by the river Nile. In course of time it rose above the sea level and became fit for human settlement. Neither the bizarre tests conducted by the Egyptians nor the idle tales told by them to prove their claim was therefore of any avail. In ancient times the Egyptian delta itself did not exist. 

The ancient Egyptians were not the only people who told idle tales and fabricated fantastic fables. Myth-making has been the characteristic of man in all ages and places. The ancient world has however been the most congenial and prolific in this respect. This to a great extent explains the reason why epic literature flourished during the earlier states of human civilization. This has been largely because of the ignorance of primitive man. Yet to develop his power of scientific reasoning he was more like a simple child than a grown up adult. He was given more to imagination than speculation. He could not understand the world around him. it was full of mystery and filled him with a profound sense of awe and wonder. It also excited his curiosity with which he has been endowed by nature in an uncommon measure. At the same time there was a compulsion to unveil this mystery to ensure his survival. Since its birth as a part of the solar system the planet earth has taken millions of years and undergone violent upheavals and changes to evolve from a cloud of gas and dust to its present state consisting of continents and oceans, plains and plateaus, rivers and mountains. In the remote past it was not a very hospitable place to live in. In the history of the planet the emergence of life is a very recent phenomenon and its survival has been a perennial struggle against a harsh physical environment. Primitive man found his existence very precarious and full of perils. He felf utterly helpless in the presence of the elemental forces of nature. In the beginning he imagined these forces to be the manifestations of the powers of some supernatural beings-- the so-called gods and goddesses and devils and demons, who were very eccentric and behaved in an arbitrary manner. Their moods changed without any rhyme or reason. Now they were benign and bounteous for which the grateful primitive man sang their paeans in homilies and hymns. But the very next moment they were angry and ' red in tooth and claw ' they inspired fear. "As files to wanton boys are we to the gods they kill us for their sport", so the early man thought. He therefore did his best to keep them always in good humour. He recited tales of their power and glory, offered prayers and sacrifices and observed elaborate and esoteric rituals. The propitiation of some of these deities was often not an easy task. Only human blood could quench their thirst. It was rare that a Jehovah spared the life of an Isaac. To flatter some of them man went to ridiculous lengths. The Greeks, for example, called the Furies --- that fearsome trio of sisters --- the ' Eumenides ', meaning ' the good-humoured ladies ', in the hope that such flattery would induce them to be less furious. 

This was the world-view of the primitive man, this was his religion. But at some stage he must have noticed the illogicality of the behaviour of these divinities and began to have doubts about the efficacy of his devotions. He must have found to his chagrin that inspite of his worships and prayers disasters befell him like bolts from the blue. And everybody was not a Job, a model of patience and faith. There was often a Titan of a man, a Prometheus for example, who was curious and courageous and dared the wrath of the mighty gods to steal fire from heaven. As punishment for this the gods chained him to the rocks on the mount of Caucasus where a ferocious eagle continually tore at his liver. People like him also suffered at the hands of their fellow beings, the very people for whose benefit they worked. They were accused of impiety and irreverence. The questions they asked were sacrilegious to the cowardly and conservative majority and inconvenient to the class of people called priests who claimed to be the mouthpieces of the gods and had come to acquire and wield enormous powers. Such has been the fate of the pioneers and the pathbreakers. Socrates had to drink hemlock, Jesus was crucified at Golgotha with common thieves, Galileo was persecuted by the Inquisition and many such must have been there before them whose names are today lost to us. On the blood and bones of such people stands the magnificent edifice we call civilization. And nothing could suppress man's spirit of enquiry and he has gone on asking questions about the causes of things and found out the truths. 

But man is not only a rational being capable of reasoning out the causes and principles of things. He also knows how to put his knowledge to practical use to solve the problems which he faces in his day to day life. Often these problems bothered him so much that they compelled him to wager everything to find out their solutions. Sometimes it was a question of life and death. The fund of knowledge thus acquired by him was necessarily meagre at first and he was yet to feel confident. He was wary and afraid of attempting something new. Once he came to discover the secrets of nature he must have made a tentative beginning by adjusting his ways of life to the ways of nature. But in course of time with the increase in his knowledge his confidence grew and instead of only himself adjusting to nature he began to make nature also adjust to his ways of life wherever possible. And his prize for such exertions has been nothing short of miraculous. His survival is no longer uncertain and insecure, his life has been prolonged, freed from diseases, made vastly comfortable, his food, shelter and clothing are in plenty and all these and many more to be had in season and out of season and enjoyed at great leisure. His restless spirit is always innovating and after satisfying the rudimentary and bare necessities of life he has been continuously creating newer wants and finding newer ways and means for their satisfaction. He wants as if to ' drink life to the less.' He wants to explore the uttermost potentials of his existence. Were one of his primitive predecessors to visit him today he would be dumbfounded to find that his modern successor's life is no longer 'nasty, brutish and short' and he has turned the world into a veritable paradise. Now he is ready to supplant the gods. 

The picture is very rosy and optimistic indeed. But is it really so? No less a person than Einstein thought that man has run his course and he will be extinct soon. It will not be an act of God like the destruction of the two sinful cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, by a fire from heaven, but man's own doing. The unprecedented holocaust of the Second World War must have prompted Einstein to make such a gloomy prophecy. For an intellectual giant like him it was very natural to feel frustrated, for people like him know better than ordinary men what immense possibilities of betterment of the conditions of human existence open up with each great scientific discovery, but it is the depravity of man that puts such discoveries to abuses. Even if we leave alone the wars and nuclear weapons and their capability to kill millions, we find that modern technology has other very destructive aspects which have already caused the extinction of many plants and animals and now it is threatening the very existence of man. The causes of extinction of many species during earlier geological epochs are subjects of much debate, but there is widespread agreement that the arrival of humans heralded the most recent extinctions. The lives of most animals are governed by instincts and they do not know how to make nature adjust to their needs. But in the animal kingdom man is unique. He is intelligent and skillful and capable not only of adjusting to the changes in his environment but also of manipulating it to suit his purposes. But man's power of such manipulation is not limitless. The geological changes take place over a span of time which is so vast that they are almost imperceptible to an individual or to a few generations. Such gradual changes may be coped with by living organisms by gradual adaptation. But when the changes are violent and take place all on a sudden without any prior warning, like an earthquake or a flood or a cyclone, they prove catastrophic. And man is as yet not capable of coping with such situations by preventing them from heppening. In such circumstances he is still as helpless as his primitive predecessors. The greatest irony is that much of what he has been doing to make his life comfortable by manipulating nature is bringing on changes in his environment which are proving catastrophic and fatal. He seems to be hoist with his own petard. The species which are extinct today could not in all probability adjust themselves to the changed conditions. But they were at least not themselves responsible for inducing or precipitating by their own activities those very changes which proved fatal to their existence. It is man who is inducing and precipitating such changes by his own activities. He first endangered the lives of animals and plants, many of whom have already become extinct and many more are being threatened every day by such man-induced environmental changes. As he himself did not feel threatened by such extinctions he did not bother much about them. But now it is his own turn, his own survival is in grave danger. Does he bother much about it either?

Life is very precious because it is very rare. So far as man has been able to ascertain, it exists nowhere else other than on this planet, because the physical conditions which make the emergence and survival of life possible are to be found only here. The evolution of these conditions seems to be an accident as a result of the whims of nature. And life can thrive only in a miniscule part of this globe called the biosphere. It is a spherical zone of thin and delicate film of gases, water and soil coating the stony surface of the earth and extends over those parts of the earth where water can exist in a liquid form. Its size is a mere 1 / 300th. part of the earth's diameter. Its upper limit is little higher than the permanent snow-line, just over 6 km, (4 miles ) at the highest. Below ground it reaches down into the soil as far the deepest growing trees and into caves. In the oceans life ranges from the surface to the furthest depths, about 11 km. ( 7 miles ). Between its highest and lowest limits the biosphere is thus less than 21 km ( 13 miles ) thick ---- only a tiny fraction of the earth's equatorial radius of 6,378 km ( 3,963 miles ). But thinner still is the productive zone of life --- between an altitude of 1,800 m ( 6,000 ft. ) and a depth of 180 m ( 600 ft. ), the deepest that sunlight penetrates clear water. Enormous extremes of temperature and other conditions are known to exist in the universe. Temperatures, for example, vary millions of degrees from the depths of the empty space to the centres of stars, yet most metabolic processes stop in conditions below 0oC ( 32oF ) or above 80o( 176oF ). It is like the mother's womb, which nourishes and protects life with a care as if no less loving than of a mother. The range and diversity of life that thrive in this womb is also amazing --- at one end there are single-celled bacteria which are invisible to the unaided human eye and at the other end are the gigantic whales of 150 tonnes; there are mayflies whose adult life may last only 24 hours, while the wandering albatrosses fly thousands of miles over southern oceans and live as long as 25 years. Plant life ranges from filmy ferns, whose delicate fronds shrivel in a minute if taken outside their natural habitat, to the tough-skinned cacti which can survive on water stored in their stems; from the lichens which cling on to rocks to the huge North American redwoods, some over 300 ft. high and more than 2000 years old. All these living creatures compete and co-operate within this biosphere and form a great chain of being. And its every part seems to be teeming with life --- 1.5 million species of living organisms have so far been catalogued and about 10,000 new animals and 5,000 new plants are added every year. There were many more who are now extinct --- 100,000 fossils have been found and there must have been many more whose fossils have never been found. 

This biosphere is the common home of all creatures and contains innumerable ecosystems which support the lives of innumerable species of beasts and plants. All of them are interconnected and interdependent and nature seems to hold them all in a delicate balance. And no change in a single part is an isolated phenomenon, it effects the whole environment, the entire biosphere. With the development of technologies like agriculture and industry man has multiplied his number manifold, made ever greater demands on the environment and its resources, and in the process destroyed many ecosystems along with the animals and plants whom they support. The process is going on at an ever increasing rate. In the universal scheme of things this biosphere cannot be likened to even a speck of dust. Nobody knows how long it is going to last. Yet a tiny creature that man is, he thinks its dimensions are limitless, it is everlasting and its resources are inexhaustible. Like the prodigal son of the parable he seems to be in a spending spree. He does not bother whether there is enough room for the ever-growing population of his species, and at the ever greater rate of his consumption how long the limited resources of this planet will last or his material progress can be sustained. Human population has already crossed 6 billions and by 2050 AD it is likely to cross 10 billions and some mineral resources will be completely exhausted within the next couple of years. Man's environment is also very fragile and is to be handled with care. Mindless tinkering with its natural processes may set in motion an irreversible chain reaction threatening life. But man does not seem to care, he appears to be reckless. He is emitting and discharging an enormous amount of toxic gases and chemicals and dumping harmful solid wastes through his industrial and other activities. These are polluting and poisoning the air, water, soil --- the whole environment. The climate is changing, the planet is getting warmer and warmer every hour and the ozone layer which protects the biosphere from harmful solar radiation is gradually disappearing. Yet more than three thousand years ago the ancient Indian rishi Uddalaka Aruni taught his disciple Yajnavalkya to pray every morning that everything in our environment be as sweet as honey --- ' may the air blow like honey, the rivers flow with honey, our days and nights, the dusts of this earth and the skies above be as sweet as honey, our drinks be deliciously invigorating like honey and make our intellect keen, the sunlight be pleasant and all our neighbourhood be smiling.' And he guaranteed that such prayer would make even a dead tree sprout with fresh green leaves. On the material plane the picture is already very alarming and on the spiritual side it is even worse. Man is becoming more and more greedy, much of his greed being unnatural, because they are for things which man can easily do without and are not at all essential for a decent existence. Within the biosphere all living organisms not only compete but also co-operate, because that is the rule by which nature maintains this great web of beings. But man seems to consider himself to be above this rule. He will only compete and not co-operate. He does not recognize that in the father's house there are many mansions. He is unwilling to co-exist with others whose territories he has been continuously invading and he has been elbowing out everyone else. But does the predator know that his own survival will be in dire peril if his pray on which he feeds becomes extinct?

Science and technology had a crude beginning in primitive times when man's attitude towards the world of nature was different from what it is today. If primitive man wanted to understand it and treat it with care and respect, modern man wants to enslave and exploit it. Primitive man thought that the blessings of nature were due to its benevolence which he could get only by its humouring, modern man thinks that by sheer force he can make nature yield him all its benefits. Primitive man's myths and legends were his science to the questions of the barbaric child, the explanation of the thunder or the rain, of the origin of man or fire, of disease or death. An animist in faith he admitted no distinction in the kind of existence of a man, a dog, a tree, or a stone. He considered himself as an integral but insignificant part of creation. He was imbued with a spirit of humility and respect. He treated all objects whether animate or inanimate as his fellow beings. He imagined that ' from heavenly harmony this universal frame began'. The highest state of his existence, therefore, man mystically conceived to be a harmonious relationship with all creation. This simple faith born of imagination gradually gave way to philosophical speculation that searched for a first principle embracing all diversity in one great unity. It gradually assumed a sophisticated form in his early philosophy. Plato, for example, conceived the creation as a ' great chain of being ' underlying which is a cosmic unity and fullness, where the lowest forms of being are linked with the highest in an ascending order starting from a material basis and rising to a spiritual pinnacle. The kind of ideal commonwealth in which he sought happiness ---- the Republic of Plato for instance, laid stress mainly on the social, economic and political aspects. Francis Bacon, the Renaissance propagandist of science and technology, respected Plato and Aristotle but was disappointed with them as they diverted their attention to ethical problems, which was a setback to the development of science and technology in ancient times. During the medieval period theology came to dominate human thought. It was the 'queen of science' and anything conflicting with the dogmas of the scriptures was heresy, which the Inquisition did its utmost to suppress and brutally punish. By the standard it had set for itself, its treatment of Galileo was rather merciful. Otherwise anybody trying to delve deep into the mysteries of nature, like the legendary Faust, was a ' black magician ' and a worshipper of the Devil and had to be exorcised. Theology gave man dominion over other creatures no doubt but taught him the virtue of renunciation of sensual pleasures for enjoyment of eternal bliss in another world. With the advent of the Renaissance in Europe towards the close of the 15th century all these began to radically change. In contrast to the Aristotelian method of deduction, Bacon in his Novum Organum advocated the new method of induction for studying nature in order to master it so that man's 'estate' could be improved. The ideal commonwealth which Bacon visualised in his New Atlantis laid emphasis not on governmental or social or moral institutions, but on scientific achievements. Bacon's plan calls for the creation of a research institute of scientific workers, a "Solomon's House," producing " great and marvellous works for the benefit of man ". In other words, mastery over nature and technical skill and the resultant material progress are conceived to be the key to human happiness. This is available in this very world to which man needed to turn his attention more than to an ' other world ' yet to come and which one could reach only after one's death and by an ascetic pursuit of moral and religious virtues and renunciation of material comforts. With the establishment of the Royal Society in England, largely by his adherents after 34 years of his death, Bacon's dream came true. What followed was the 17th. century scientific revolution. This was accompanied by a radical change in man's attitude towards the world of nature. Nature was seen as a machine, no longer the master but the slave of man to cater to his needs. His conception about himself also underwent a corresponding change. He was no longer an ordinary member of the animal kingdom which consisted mostly of creatures without any power of reasoning. Descartes, the great mathematician and the father of modern European philosophy, deduced the existence of man from the fact that he possessed the power of reasoning ---- ' cogito ergo sum, ' I think therefore I exist, thus he argued. How exaggerated a notion man came to from about himself is evident from the same philosopher's theory of psycho-physical parallelism, according to which there was no interaction whatsoever between the bodily and the mental states and processes. When his own body was so inferior the status of nonhuman creatures, not to speak of the world of nature as a whole, can easily be guessed. As a rational and thinking being man saw himself as a creature apart from the whole creation. 

This scientific revolution was followed by the Industrial Revolution which capitalized on the achievements of the theoretical scientists and gradually made science the handmaid of technology. It revolutionized the western society in all its aspects ---- intellectual, religious, ethical and economic. Roman Catholicism gradually gave way to Protestantism, Feudalism to Capitalism, and Dogmatism to Rationalism. The rise of the factory system and mass production of cheap consumer goods came as a great boon to the people at large, and created the widespread awareness that the kingdom of heaven had arrived at last. Selfish profit-making became the dominant motive of human actions, and the capitalists in their relentless search for more and more profits whetted the appetite of men and made them insatiably greedy by creating newer wants and turning yesterday's luxury into today's necessity. The seeds of modern consumer society were thus sown. The days of plain living and high thinking were gone. This was also the beginning of the so-called technological man. His chief concern is the improvement of his technological skill and maximization of material comforts. To achieve that end he is even ready to sacrifice morality. And gradually he has grown almost totally amoral. Any discovery or invention he sees as a work well and intelligently done without bothering about its total moral or other effects. To him perfection of workmanship and execution is an end in itself to be achieved at any cost. From the splitting of the atom to the building of the bomb was but a small step which man took without any compunction. He has gained in intelligence and mechanical skill but lost in morality and wisdom. In many ways Bacon typifies the modern man. He died of bronchitis contracted while experimenting on refrigeration. He was ambitious and fond of the good things of life. He was a self ' seeker and thoroughly worldly and secular. To fulfil his ambition he did not hesitate to betray his friend and patron, the young Earl of Essex, in whose trial he volunteered to give incriminating evidence. This English Machiavelli never had enough money necessary for his material comforts and as a judge used to accept bribes. He was a great intellect but without any moral scruple. In the bureaucratic rat race he managed to get preferment over the eminent jurist Coke by supporting the supremacy of royal prerogative over common law of whose supremacy Coke was a great advocate. And yet more than Coke Bacon had the premonition of the coming conflict between the king and parliament. It is not only the rottenness of the court at Elsinore but also this moral depravity of the intellectually resurgent and adventurous Renaissance man that seems to be the theme of the famous soliloquy of Shakespeare's Hamlet : " What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, no, nor women neither --------." 

Modern man is intoxicated by the power he has acquired through his scientific inventions and technological skills and he views the world as a mere object of his enjoyment. In his arrogance he thinks he can do whatever he pleases with this world. He has turned it into a hedonist's heaven where sensual pleasure is considered to be the summum bonum of life. To achieve that end he is extremely narrow and selfish and uses others, including even his own fellow creatures, as mere means. Increasingly lacking in public spirit he only lives for the present and for his own self. The kind of future he feels concerned about is more fantastic than realistic. In his science fictions, the epics of the modern age, he has created new myths and legends to replace those of the primitive man, in which the technologists are as omnipotent as those gods of old. He has developed a kind of arrogance and superstitious belief that there are no problems which his science and technology cannot solve. How hollow is his boast is proved not only by such cataclysms as floods, cyclones or earthquakes, which occasionally visit him and about which still he can do hardly anything, but also by his helplessness in controlling his own creation ---the monster of modern technology. Yet proud man forgetting his 'glassy essence' and 'dres't in a little brief authority' 'like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, as make the angels weep'. Newton, whose momentous discovery of the laws gravitation changed the whole character of the physical sciences, knew this and remained a humble man. He thought that he was only collecting some pebbles on the shores of an unfathomable ocean. The same cannot be said of our scientists and technologists, our miracle men, whom we indiscriminately regard as our heroes. Some of their precursors ---the alchemists and necromancers of old, were viewed with suspicion, because it was thought that they had sold their souls to the Devil. Science and technology mean much of our civilization and we cannot do without them. They are neither good nor bad in themselves, it is man who decides how will use them, either for destructive or for constructive purposes. What should be the option of man as a race? According to the astronomers our sun is an ordinary star and like other stars will ultimately die along with its planetary system. In his efforts to escape that fate man has conquered space and his search is on to find out another world where he can hope to survive as a race. But neither the death of the solar system nor the discovery of another habitable world is going to happen tomorrow or day after. Till either the one or the other of these happens, perhaps millions of years hence, man has to survive on this very planet. And that is possible only by saving and not by destroying it.

Since the Renaissance there have been phenomenal advances in man's scientific knowledge and technological skill which have made his modern civilization possible. The prospect has been so optimistic that the sky seemed to be the limit of his progress. The material quality of his life has improved to a level beyond his imagination and made him blind to the dangers of science and technology not only to the moral fabric of his society but also to his very material civilization. Two catastrophic world wars in quick succession for the first time made man aware of the enormous destructive potentials of his technology. The realization that its use in other spheres is no less destructive came late. A handful of people who first tried to draw attention to this were regarded as morbid creature or false Jeremiahs, and nobody was prepared to pay any heed to their warnings. There overoptimistic detractors argued that the recent changes in the environment were the results of cosmic evolution rather than man-induced. 'This is the excellent foppery of the world'  - so says very appropriately another Shakespearean character in a different context, "that when we are sick in fortune --often the surfeit of our own behaviour --we make guilty of our disasters, the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we are villains by necessity---". Theirs was a lone voice crying in the wilderness and no group action in the form of a movement for the protection of the environment had begun. By the last quarter of the 20th century the ecological and environmental disasters which modern technology was causing became too obvious to be ignored any more in the highly industrialized countries of the West and gave rise to protectionist movements. Complacence gradually gave way in worries and anxieties, and deliberations at the international level under the auspices of the United Nations about devising the ways and means to combat the evils of modern technology and saving the environment took place for the first time at Stockholm in 1972. Since then many summit meeting have been held, lengthy and pious declarations made and many protocols signed. But man is still ambivalent in his search for and use of an alternative environment-friendly technology. And if the latest summit be an indication of the sincerity of participating nations, it is going to be long before what is publicly professed is actually practiced. This summit even failed to reach unanimity on vital issues. The reasons are not far to seek. The individual is unable to disabuse himself of his addiction to existing technology and any downscaling in its use he views as a disaster. For that will make him forego much of his long accustomed luxury that serves as an aphrodisiac to satisfy his perverted appetite. The Bhopal gas tragedy and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster are not isolated phenomena. Scientific investigations and studies have conclusively proved how dangerous modern technology is to human environment, yet its advocates are not wanting. The governments are shy, for technology means power and prosperity. The rich ones are afraid of becoming poor and losing their dominating position in world politics, while the poor ones are reluctant to miss the chance of solving their problem of poverty through greater use of technology. Moreover there is a good deal of distrust between the nations of the rich North and the poor South and there has already started a virtual cold war between them over environmental issues. Technologically the most advanced state today is the U.S.A. where there is a strong protectionist lobby. Its present president before recently getting elected made many promises for the protection of the environment, but went back on them soon after assuming office apparently yielding to the pressures of the industrialists. Whereas he has been ignoring the pressures from other highly industrialized western nations and is refusing to sign the Kyoto protocol for reduction of emissions of green house gases. Globalisation has generated greater compulsion for the multinational giants for increased use of technology in order to survive in the worldwide competitive market. Thus vested interests are many which are deeply entrenched in human society and the moral courage and the political will needed to fight them are most often lacking. The crisis is very much upon us and yet we are not ready to act. It is our duty to make ourselves acutely aware of the risks we are running in our use of some of the existing technology and the urgency in finding out an alternative which will not lower the level and quality of our life without causing irreparable damages to our environment.


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