The Venus Flytrap: What The Virus Shows Us

Imagine if able-bodied people routinely honoured habits taught in kindergarten – like closing the tap while lathering up or brushing, or washing hands after using the bathroom (many have commented on how long the queues at sinks in men’s bathrooms are right now, which tells you…). Imagine if these remarkably simple habits weren’t regarded as crisis-only measures. In fact, we’re already in crisis, all the time. Climate change has long been scheduled to kill us and many of Earth’s other populations, but that’s never taken seriously. Wash your hands, yes, but remember: even if you survive the coronavirus epidemic, the planet is running out of water and summer is around the corner.

Meanwhile, some European airlines, legally required to perform 80% of their allocated routes or lose them to competitors, have been burning fuel on empty planes. This is the kind of excess that misses the point: human life is at stake because of how humans have chosen to live.

This epidemic has begun to show that many of the structures that undergird modern civilisation are deeply flawed. The capitalist model in which few profit while many struggle is profoundly unsustainable. So is any system which deprioritises the environment. Or any way of life that strips us of our humanity, turning us into cogs in wheels, Other-ing peoples, measuring our worth by our productivity (or by any measure of validation that erodes our integrity or joy).

In this state of emergency, universities have switched to online classes, jetsetting meetings have become conference calls and telecommutes have been encouraged for various white collar jobs. People with disabilities, often excluded from opportunities because “there’s no substitute for presence”, have rightly shown indignation at how the world has been quickly reordered now whereas lobbying was ignored. The truth is that more of us could operate like this all the time: saving money, fuel and personal energy while cutting environmental risks and improving our quality of life.

International travel bans reveal starkly how illusory the lure of hashtag wanderlust always was. Just because we can have something doesn’t mean we need it. Especially when, like hand sanitisers today and maybe hospital beds tomorrow, there isn’t enough to go around. We’re also realising how free universal healthcare and paid sick leave are fundamental rights, which too many are deprived of.

We didn’t arrive at pandemic panic without there being long-term decisions at high authoritative levels. Our anger must be used to perform our own civic duties better, demanding greater accountability from those in power who can make structural differences, and activating change on the individual level too.

Experts currently say that most who contract coronavirus will recover, but to maintain high caution to protect the vulnerable (the elderly, the immunocompromised, etc.) who may be infected through them. What is a flu to one is death to another. If this doesn’t lend itself to a pithy teaching on responsibility and interconnectivity, what will? If this epidemic doesn’t galvanise those who survive it to insist on radically changing bureaucratic and ethical norms so that they support rather than define what society is, then humanity truly is doomed – and not because of a virus.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 12th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Solastalgia

The omens on the path to hell appear to be beautiful. Last week, the sea waves swelled with light, transformed the shoreline into something out of a dream. I was too far from the coast and had too much lonesomeness in my bones – lonesomeness is the anti-venom, I am finding as the years pass, of adventure – to go and see them for myself. I envied those who did that night, envied them more than only the sight of it. Envied whatever it was – ease of companionship or with isolation, proximity, some uncomplicated impulse – that let them have it while I seethed, my eyes and feet dry while longing burned in me.

I had seen bioluminescence in sand once, when a zoologist showed it to me by digging his fingers close to the shoreline, conjuring a memory of how he had once brushed some off a nesting Olive Ridley turtle and found that it shimmered. “Sea creature on sea creature,” he had said. Magical. I hadn’t known at the time that bioluminescence in large quantities is dangerous, a sign of the apocalypse. I had known by the time the shore lit up, but the truth is that my sense of marvel would have been no less pure had I been in Thiruvanmiyur that night. “We used to see it in the water at Batu Ferringhi sometimes,” my sister told me, reaching almost twenty-five years into our childhoods. I had no memory of this, and rued this too. Awareness changes nothing of the ache of being drawn to a thing knowing it’s as good as a drowning.

Rivers covered in pretty water hyacinths indicate heavy metal poisoning, and clog the flow. Scenic casuarina and aromatic eucalyptus trees drain the soil, selfishly hoarding nutrients while other flora wilt. Botanists in the UK recently announced that cycads, palm-like plants which thrive in heavy CO2, have made a comeback. A male cone, followed by a female cone, have appeared, making reproduction possible. They were common 280 million years ago when Earth had more carbon dioxide naturally. Like the bioluminescence that embroidered Chennai’s waves, all these things appear to be more beautiful and praiseworthy than they actually are.

Solastalgia is the word for emotional and mental distress over climate change. It could replace “sapiosexual” in dating app bios. There’s also a nihilistic edge to it, something that suggests you’re willing to be spontaneous with whatever time’s left. To be solastalgic says, “Kiss me before my lungs collapse”.

It’s terrible to find beauty in such devastation, isn’t it? I’m asking because I’m not sure. Studies show that the carbon footprints of tourists account for almost 10% of carbon emissions. Wanderlust is bringing the end of humanity closer, but we can’t seem to stop wanting. Rainforests burn and glaciers dissolve, and still there is this hunger – to see it all, to feel it all, even if it means we are going to be the full stop after a very long, very irresponsible sentence. I’m telling you: I’d have gone to the seaside that night and been solastalgic, but there would have been goosebumps on my skin from something other than the salt-tongued wind.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 29th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Doomsday Clock

I had thought that human life on this planet had about a dozen years left, based on a UN warning last year, but it looks like a new report, released just ahead of World Environment Day on June 5, has given us an extension. Australia’s Breakthrough National Centre For Climate Restoration now sets the doomsday clock to 31 more years before climate change will have killed most of us.

“Even the ozone layer repaired itself,” someone shrugged when I chided them recently for a careless disposal of plastic. There is no doubt that the planet has self-healing capabilities. The problem is that we expect it to continue to both tolerate and heal from our damage at the same time. The anthropomorphisation of the planet and of its presiding sentience into Mother Earth and Mother Nature, respectively, are perfectly in line with how the human species regards its mothers too. Ascribing qualities like self-sacrifice, benevolence and forbearance while treating them really badly, and expecting them to take it. What’s the planet-sized version of misogyny? Whatever the punchline is, the joke’s on us.

Because there’s no reason to believe that this self-healing, evolving, extraordinary planet cannot go on without us. It will, no matter how we annihilate ourselves. Other life forms will replace us as the dominant one. Perhaps they will be all-seeing plants, because surely there must be plants. Or yet-imagined creatures made for new climes or through resourceful mutations. Or simply the sorts of species we used to crush underfoot, or consume, or whose habitats we turned into conurbations. We may not have their resilience. Nothing of our so-called superior intelligence has suggested that we will, not when we have allowed for all that has already happened.

I’m not here to offer solutions, because there’s nothing we don’t all already know. We’ve all seen the images of sea birds with six pack rings around their throats. We adjust our consumer choices with mindful boycotts. We don’t leave the water running as we brush. We even know that just 100 mega-companies are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions, and that while the blame doesn’t squarely fall on us, the burden does. And we do what we can.

We (must) live within the likelihood of apocalypse in the same way that we live despite the inevitability of our individual deaths. There are two ways to parse this statement. The first is insouciance: changing nothing about consumption or usage, insisting that the AC is personally well-deserved and there’s always mineral water to bathe in if the tankers don’t come, and generally continuing as though every resource, particularly one’s own privilege, is infinite. This is what many of us do. The second way is with awareness. To understand that individual effort without collective backing can do little, but to do it sincerely. To make choices which are really apologies, but at least those are better than excuses. To accept that the collapse is coming, but that our surrender will be with some certainty that we tried. To consider this goal daily: that this life, hurtling toward drought and misery, extinction and doom, was still experienced with honour and humility.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 6th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Recycling From Home In Chennai

I’ve been recycling from home for a couple of years now, and it’s such a normalised part of my life that I’m confident when I say you can do the same, with just minimal effort.

As recycling isn’t big on Chennai’s municipal agenda or imprinted on our civic consciousness, the personal initiative is important. However, we have one major deciding factor which isn’t available everywhere: doorstep collection. I am familiar with two such service providers: Kuppathotti and Paperman (the latter also lets you contribute financially to charitable causes). Both services tie up with small scrap buyers and paper traders in your locality to collect recyclable trash from your home.

When you read about how there’s enough plastic on the planet now to cover Argentina, or about brimming, city-sized landfills, don’t just shake your head and sigh. Know that you can commit to reducing your personal contribution to environmental apocalypse. You’d be astonished how much so-called waste material each individual produces that can be recycled. Once you start, it’s like wearing green goggles: you’ll automatically know what items to collect, without deliberation!

Begin by educating yourself on the process. For instance, did you know there are seven types of plastic, which is why bottles and other materials have a numbered symbol? Once, when a collector declined one kind, saying it could not be recycled, I knew that while that particular scrap buyer didn’t have the resources to accept it, another would. So I called them instead of dumping it all.

I keep a large, covered laundry basket lined with a rubbish bag to collect my recyclable trash, knotting and storing away each bag as it fills. A little wise space management will allow you to do this. If you’re careful about food packaging unless it’s residue-free, you’ll never have issues like bad odour or insects. And always: reduce, reuse, then recycle.

There was a point when I would wash yoghurt cups and other food packaging in order to recycle them, then realised the water wastage negated the effort. It’s important to keep the big picture in mind: it’s not recycling itself that is the point, but how you reduce your ecological footprint. This can extend to various other efforts, depending on your personal capacity: taking shared or public transport, planting and raising trees, composting food waste, consuming local organic produce instead of imported goods, Skyping instead of meeting, reusing cloth grocery bags, avoiding turning on the AC, advocating for solar and other clean energy forms, and so on.

Bear in mind: currently available recycling service providers are small organisations, and rely on a chain of equally small waste traders and their collection staff. This is a chain that can break down, and not because the services are themselves unreliable, but because the system isn’t perfect yet. It can be frustrating to not be able to get through on a phone number, and the sight of garbage bags in your home may become exasperating. But it’s us, ordinary people who want to reduce damage to the environment, who will eventually perfect that system. The more we get involved, the more efficient solutions will be designed and implemented.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 3rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Turtlewalking Through The Night

“Little is known about the lives of turtles underwater, but this much has long been understood: Where a turtle hatches is where she comes back to nest, a dozen or so years later. In the nearly three decades of the SSTCN’s work, Venkatramanan estimates that 2,50,000 eggs have been transferred from the beaches to the hatcheries, of which 2,00,000 hatchlings have been released into the sea.”

Read my piece on turtlewalking in Chennai, and the increasingly threatened marine ecosystem, in Hindustan Times.

The Venus Flytrap: Original Instructions

In the small town of Gudalur, two and a half hours downhill from Ooty, there is a coalition of NGOs that, through serendipitous circumstances and sound intentions, run a school and a hospital for the tribal community. I’m visiting with my friend the American Badaga, tagging along on an Ooty-Gudalur-Coimbatore-Palani-Perumalmalai-Kodaikanal trip completed over just five nights, sleeping in a different place on each one. We’re there to look into alternative education systems; after the tribal school is an international school in the forest. Mostly, though, I’m there on impulse, just to get away.

The week before, I’d attended a lecture in Chennai by Vandana Shiva, the renowned physicist and activist. Dr. Shiva had spoken about the country’s agricultural crisis, encouraging the audience to “violate the contracts” that gave undue power to governments and organizations that contribute to the deterioration of the environment, and to suffering among the poor.

Yet, sitting by a window overlooking the filthy Cooum river later that rainy afternoon, coming down from the high that listening to an inspiring speaker brings, I was saddened to think that the only phrase that still haunted me was something said in passing as Shiva was introduced. Another world is possible. I so much wanted it to be.

It came to me again in Gudalur. I’d never expected that just a few days after the lecture, I would find myself reading on a rock under a tree on the far west of Tamil Nadu, wet earth under my bare feet, adivasi children singing nearby, a cow to my right and a chicken to my left. My troubles very, very far away.

I’m reading Cait Johnson, who posits that spirituality is essentially rooted in the elements, the same notion that had me head for the hills to hide among trees, and attend Shiva’s lecture. Whenever I lose my connection to my elementals, I seek to replenish them in nature. Johnson writes about “Original Instructions” – intuitive knowledge kept alive by people, like the adivasis, whose ways of life honour the sacred interconnectedness of all life.

Watching the good people of Gudalur – the teacher who speaks openly and without prejudice to a classroom about gay and transgender people, the Ayurvedic doctor seeking to both learn from and better equip traditional healers, the professionals who set up the Ashwini Hospital and Vidyodaya School and gradually ensured that autonomy over them returned to the adivasi community – my heart remembers its own Original Instructions.

Watching them, I remember that there are good people in the world, who do good work for its own sake. I had forgotten.

I have been heartsick for what feels like a long time, but isn’t. I have been disillusioned with my own journey. I have wanted to count to one hundred and bow out, like the poetess in Ana Enriqueta Terán’s mysterious poem. What I did because I thought it was in my blood, I’ve watched others do with a bloodthirst I cannot muster. I have felt time and again that I can barely co-exist in a world so cutthroat, let alone compete.

But this is what I know, after Gudalur: another world, in all the many variations Vandana Shiva may or may not have meant, is possible. In fact, it may already exist. All it takes is to get back there.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.