By Pradip Phanjoubam
Ruins of cities and civilizations have always been material for the poetically minded to take romantic journeys into the past, and explore the supposed glories these stony remains once represented. From P.B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in 1817 to William Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal” in 2006, the inspirations were ruins from the past – Egypt for Shelley and Delhi for Dalrymple. Many works in this genre are stories well researched and told, evoking nostalgia of worlds that once flourished, but which could not withstand the relentless onslaught of the sands of time. The mystic attraction and value accorded to ruins may also have to do with the grim reminder they serve us of the frailty of the human condition – of the transient nature of life which ensures nothing is forever, not the mightiest of civilizations or the most powerful of rulers. Everybody’s time is limited, everything one day will have to come to an end.
But increasingly, other than the fertile imaginations of poets and the desire of historians and political scientists to look for continuity of the march of civilizations, seeing these ruins not just as evidences of life’s finite nature, and striving to discover in them a cyclic continuity of history, anthropologists are now stepping in to look for something else. What made some civilizations fall, and what made others last. Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive”, is one of these. The well known anthropologist, is also the author of the international best seller “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies,” which takes a look at what made it possible for Europeans to conquer and dominate the world.
It is quite by co-incidence that I picked up this book (Collapse…) at a time Manipur is facing an alarming draught situation, and I would say an uneasy peep into why the place is not immune to possible human disasters in the future. Rainfall delayed by a month is virtually sending panic waves, imagine what it would be like if there were to be a radical shift in world climate, rainfall patterns were to change permanently to make similar draught situations into a routine condition. It is also quite by co-incidence that the World Environment Day arrived amidst this fear of rainfall delay and shortage, and the predictable consequences of crop failures and famine.
No intent to review Diamond’s book here, but some salient points from it will serve the purpose of this column which will look into where Manipur seems to be heading. Jared studies ruins to try and ascertain why they at all became ruins, after all, all evidences point that they were once thriving human habitations with thriving trade and commerce, arts and cultures, games and sports… Why were they abandoned and left to be reclaimed by nature? Not just ruins, but he also takes a look at societies which may not have lived in grand cities but certainly prospered and multiplied in population. Among these were certain Pacific Islands which were for a long time thought never to have been inhabited, but now new evidences confirmed were indeed very much thickly populated once. How did their populations disappear?
To cut the story short then, Diamond conjures up a convincing picture that much more than wars, civilizations fall because of changed climatic conditions. Some of these changes are external, coming about as meta-narratives of the larger universe and creation, such as the cycle of ice ages, and therefore outside the control of any given society. But what is interesting, and relevant, is that the fall of these past civilizations and societies had more to do with their self destructive characters. In almost all cases, unsustainable behaviours of these societies doomed them. Deforestation, loss of soil fertility, ground water depletion, river course shifts, over hunting and fishing, population growth outpacing food production… and by so many other ways of abusing the environment.
For instance, one of the reasons he gives for the ultimate annihilation of the population of Easter Island and the chain of other islands in its vicinity which were interdependent on each other is extremely fascinating. Excessive deforestation for various reasons, including reclaiming land for agriculture, ultimately left these islands with no worthwhile timbre to construct canoes, leaving these sea faring people stranded. Trade and barter dwindled between them, fishing became limited, wild life disappeared, ground water level sank, a perpetual and progressively worsening food shortage resulted, leading ultimately to disaster. Cannibalism made its appearance too, of which Diamond classifies two types. Distress cannibalism induced by desperation or bitter enmities, and non-distress cannibalism, where cannibalism has evolved as an accepted custom, whereby these societies eat their naturally deceased relatives and kin.
Diamond cautions not to be too hasty in making value judgments as so many Westerners have in the past. Some Polynesians he has known intimately confided they were equally appalled by the Western tradition of burying their dead. One of his research assistants, he said left the job as he had to go to another island to eat a prospective son-in-law who died in an accident. Non-distress cannibalism for these societies had become just a way of disposing their dead gainfully, and to them, as honorably as any other societies dispose of their dead. These societies were far from the marauding savages Western ethnographers have portrayed them to be, he says.
The cannibalism bit was a digression. To return to the original narrative then, it is common knowledge that the evolution of food production technology and the birth of civilization are vitally linked. Societies which have learned to domesticate animals, and have also managed to domesticate herbs and weeds to give them staple food grains, have always been where civilizations took roots. Just as cattle, sheep, horses were once wild, so were rice, wheat, corn, once wild weeds.
The obvious conclusion is also that since food surplus and civilization are so important to each other, the loss of food production capacity would jeopardize civilizations and threaten the existence of societies. In today’s interrelated democratic world, where trade relations is a given, things would be a lot different, but still, imagine what would happen if there were to be crop failure in Manipur because of poor or no monsoon for three consecutive years. Half of the population would have migrated out of the state or else perished. Imagine further that the soil in the hills have depleted because of erosion and in the valley have become infertile because of chemical contamination. What results would be nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Let us remind ourselves, these are scenarios not altogether remote anymore. Deforestation in the hills is causing soil and wildlife depletion. In the valley, since everything is drained into it and little is drained out of it, every single plastic bag, every grain of chemical fertilizer, every drop of pesticide, will remain as residue in its water bodies and soil, perhaps forever. If we are not careful, soil salinity and toxicity could climb beyond natural tolerance level.
Just to recall the place’s riverine geography, all or most rivers in the state, except notably the Barak, drains into the Loktak Lake. Only one river, Ithai River, flows out of the Loktak to become a tributary of the Chindwin River system in Myanmar. Now a barrage has been built over the Ithai River to block and maintain the Loktak water level constant so that its water can be diverted through artificial canals and tunnels to the Leimatak River, which would ultimately join the Barak River system.
In other words, just as the hills can become devoid of top soil, the soil in the valley can become contaminated easily. Let us therefore not take the eco-system of the region too much for granted. It is fragile and its fragility can cost us extremely dear if we are not careful. We cannot stop the larger climate change alone. That has to be tackled at a global level. But if we are far sighted enough, we can save our immediate environment and the civilization which it has nurtured from possible disasters.
Let us then act responsibly. Let us take the calls for leaving as little carbon footprints as possible very seriously. If there have to be some sacrifices and extra personal labour to be put in to have this come into effect, let us not hesitate to do so. Such sacrifices collectively would be towards promoting the enlightened self interest of our society as a whole, and indeed every individual in the society. Small sacrifices like refraining from using plastic bags, or at least disposing them properly, making our offices paperless to the extent possible (now in this computer age this is no longer impossible)… will all add up to make big achievements possible. In more eco-responsible societies, people even consciously avoid asking for paper printouts of balances at ATM machines. That ATM machines are programmed to prompt you of this each time you make a withdrawal, is evidence of this consciousness.
On such matters, sights in Manipur are not very encouraging. A look at the Nambul River at the Bazaar stretch will confirm this. The river has virtually become a filthy, plastic clogged drain. People litter everywhere without a thought, as if all the streets of Imphal is their natural garbage dump.
In Diamond’s fascinating book, the pattern he notices of civilizations which failed or survived in the past, apart from all others, is that their failure or survival are directly reciprocal to their citizenry’s show respect and responsibility towards their living environment. Those who lived for the immediate fared worse than those who had visions of the future. Consequently, societies with written histories fared better too, for they remembered their past better, their good times as well as disasters, putting them at a better stead to learn from past mistakes.
We are fortunate that we live in a literate world today. We have collective memories much better preserved than in the pre-literate days, in vast disciplines of knowledge pursuits. Our pasts live and recreate themselves perpetually in our literatures, cinemas, theatres, books, digital world of computers and internet. We have inherited far more insights into our pasts and possible futures thanks to dedicated and innovative scholarship on them though the generations. But all these will not matter at all if our society remains selfish and irresponsible to what we all know is the greater common good.
It is therefore essential for us all to once in a while sit back and do honest reality checks. Do we, as individuals and as a society, live for the immediate or also earnestly try to moderate our present lifestyles with what we as literates think the consequence of these lifestyles would be to the ultimate welfare and longevity of our society. At the moment, where practically everybody, even ministers and bureaucrats are essentially contractors and contract brokers, eager for easy money through organised robbery of the common coffer, signs definitely are not very encouraging.