Imagine we’re gathered in some holy place. An architectural wonder. Like St Paul’s Cathedral in Rome or the St Sophia Mosque in Instanbul. Or perhaps the Gateway of the Sun in Peru or the Giza Pyramid Complex in Egypt. And we’re here to knock this whole place down and build a megamall right here because it would make better economic sense.
Imagine the tremendous outcry against such an outrage. We’re talking about demolishing a cultural and spiritual artifact – a monument to a whole religious tradition. We’re talking about trading in our prophets for profits. Absolutely unthinkable, right?
Now: imagine you’re living in a small house you built yourself, beside a clear stream in a beautiful, forested river valley. Your ancestors have lived here for a hundred generations. According to your folklore, the landscape is the living flesh of divine progenitors whose essence condensed to form familiar features - like the mountains, the rivers, the rocks and the trees - and who are integral aspects of a Great Spirit inhabiting all forms, a unity in astonishing diversity. To you, the fact that the land is sacred – endowed with meaning, significance, and intrinsic spiritual value – is so obvious, no one needs to put it into words.
Imagine we’re here to log this magnificent forest, blow up the hills, dig up the rocks, turn a green sanctuary into a giant construction site, seriously pollute the water basin, cause massive erosion in a water catchment area, and dam up one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in the country. Why? Because economic growth demands greater water consumption - and water supply is a growth industry. And because we have been grossly insensitive in the way we use and manage our water resources.
A CLASH OF PERSPECTIVES
We are born into cultural perspectives that become imperceptible to us - until we find ourselves outside of them. Like fish that never wonder what water is, we grow up with assumptions about reality we rarely question. For instance, we rarely question the need for governments... or armies... or landlords... or caste systems (whether hereditary or monetary).
When we hear the word “development” we assume we know what it means. We experience the flow of time as linear, just as the world looks flat to a lowlander. When conversing with people from a different cultural and linguistic background, we assume they aren’t as clever as ourselves – because they’re not very fluent in our language.
When urbanites encounter country folk, they unconsciously assume an air of superiority. Surely our sophisticated way of life is far better than theirs! Surely they’re better off becoming more like us (no way they could ever become just like us, of course, since we have too far a headstart on them!)
Civilization creates art, it’s true, but art creates artifice and artificiality. Industrial man sees the wilderness as a vast resource that can be converted into private wealth. Recklessly, ruthlessly, we go about building our national aspirations by tearing down our natural heritage.
Morally, this is no different than a cannibal eyeing an infant as a delicious and convenient source of protein. The wilderness, like a baby, has only beauty and innocence as its defences. When Darwinian notions of “survival of the fittest” form the basis of modern society, the total extermination of entire species becomes justified in terms of Them or Us.
CONVERT OR DESTROY THE SAVAGES!
Unfortunately, some of us don’t truly appreciate anything until it’s gone forever. Hardwoods can be converted into hard cash. Ignorant savages can be converted into consumers, taxpayers, mindless believers, obedient slaves of the System.
Filthy heathens have no souls and feel no pain - unlike us civilized God-fearing folks.
Some of us have tried to warn the others about the folly of such shortsighted behavior – and the dangerous consequences lurking ahead. For the most part we have been ignored.
The Earth fights back by getting feverish. When her flesh is torn apart by man’s rapacious machines, she shudders and quakes and sweats profusely, releasing a deluge of mysterious plagues upon us.
At the fountain of knowledge, we drank too thirstily, only to become drunk with a false sense of power. We thought we could manipulate the masses with fear and greed. But the fear and greed enslaved us instead. Now we find ourselves powerless to alter our destructive course. We’re on the fast track and can’t stop the mindless runaway train of economic growth. Our materialistic definition of growth has limited us to the physical world, and excluded us from the limitless realm of the metaphysical. This growth has now taken on the form of a cancer that is about to kill us all – unless we redirect our attention to growth in mental and spiritual terms.
For a start, we can apologize for the hideous damage we have inflicted on the wilderness and indigenous ways of life. Then we could focus our efforts on helping the wounds heal. Only in a quest for renewed wholeness can we find our collective way home. And only through the heart can we know the universal love that redeems tragedy and transforms it into a higher truth.
Damnation is the fate of those who would turn the Earth into a living hell where everything is measured in terms of buy and sell. Our salvation can only come from regaining our lost innocence and restoring the beauty of our wildernesses.
We don’t really have a choice: win-win or lose-lose are the only options left.
[Written in June 2001 in response to the Selangor Dam project; but still topical in view of all the destructive dams currently under construction, or under consideration. First posted 3 November 2009]