LINKAGES BETWEEN HUMAN DEVELOPMENT AND NATURE’S RESOURCES

At the 66th session, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a resolution on Harmony with Nature (A/RES/66/204). The UN General Assembly held a dialogue at their New York headquarters to examine how human activity has damaged Earth’s natural systems and affected the planet’s regenerative capacity, and how we can shift from a self (utilitarian)-centered to an Earth-centered approach. The dialogue emphasized that our success and wealth must be measured by the balance we create between ourselves and the world around us, that is, by our ability to live in harmony with nature. Rebalancing with nature, recognizing the role of Mother Earth in our socioeconomic fabric and reshaping the economy were the main points suggested to move nations forward with sustainable futures.

To apply an Earth-centered approach, we need to explore our connections with Mother Nature. AUN’s report on “Sustainable Development—Harmony with Nature” (A/66/302) reflects on relationships humans have had with the Earth, as well as with their own existence, from various civilization, spanning from the ancient tunes to the 21st century. It also proposes some relevant lessons that can be learned from ancient civilizations for advancing our understanding of people’s connections with nature:

1. Eastern traditions (Indian and other Asian countries) usually have no divide between the creator and his created animals. In Indian religions (Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and others), there is a focus on metaphysics and the belief that our bodies are made of five elements: earth, water, air, fire, and the soul. There is strong emphasis on the concepts of scimsara (reincarnation), karma (cosmic justice or the deeds we do), moksha/mukti (liberation from the cycle of existence), and atma (soul/inner ultimate reality). Promoting good deeds that include caring for Mother Nature and other living organisms created by God are central to this philosophy.

The Vedic philosophy of India has always emphasized the human connection with nature. Vedism shows a way of life which is in harmony with nature based on scriptures called Vedas/Aranyakas or “forest books,” which were written by sages who lived in the forest. The Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, and Smritis contain some of the earliest messages on ecological balance and suggest the need for humans’ ethical treatment of nature. There are strong connections suggested between the stability in nature and human existence.

In Chinese traditions, external nature is never understood on its own terms. It is always intimately related to human life. Chinese culture believes that reality consists of countless manifestations of one unbroken continuum, the Tao. It has a cosmological myth in which the universe is viewed as an organic system of interdependent parts, thus representing a holistic perspective of life on Earth.

  • 2. Ancient Egyptians worshiped a number of deities that involved their natural environment. They recognized the vital links between humans, nature, and the divine. The fact the Nile River served their lands to produce food was deeply embedded in their rituals and belief systems. With the Nile flowing to the north, the ancient Egyptians believed the sun rose on one side of the river and set on the other; and it passed through the underworld to begin the cycle again the next day. The bright star, Sirius, was believed to announce the annual floods, which supported irrigation and crop-enriching silt. This marker of time, crucial in the ancient calendar's development around 5000 years ago, provided a cyclical background to life rhythms of humans.
  • 3. Among the African coimnunities, natural phenomena were perceived as spiritual powers. The natural world that supplied food and shelter was respected. Certain trees were considered as God’s trees, thus were sacred while the others were endowed with healing powers. Land belonged to clans which included the living, the dead, and even the unborn—a concept that enhanced the idea of sharing and caring for nature.
  • 4. In the Andes, pre-Columbian cultures used the term “Pachamama” for Mother Earth. Pachamama means “fertile and fruitful mother.” It symbolizes the symbiosis between humankind and nature.

5. In Western traditions, Romans had specific laws for the common use of air, water, and fish, as mentioned in the Justinian Code (A.D. 529). This code represents the first body of law related to the environment and asserted that the laws of nature pertain to all life forms.

Around the world, ancient civilizations have a rich history of understanding the symbiotic connection between human beings and nature. Ancient sites, many of which recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are part of the World Heritage. These have a key role to play in 21 st century people’s spiritual, cultural, and material lives.

A CASE STUDY OF MISUSE OF NATURE’S RESOURCES—THE DEMISE OF INDUS CIVILIZATION

The Indus region, from northeast Afghanistan to northwest India, flourished from ~9.5-3.3 ka BP (Fig. 1.2; Sarkar et al., 2016). The Indus people established a highly sophisticated urban culture, with their own “Dravidian” script, well-developed houses, public and private wells, wide roads, and underground drainage systems; proving to be one of the most extensive ancient civilization (Sarkar et al., 2016). Mohenjo-daro is currently listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The floodplains of the Indus (“Sindhu” river in Sanskrit or Hindi) and Ghaggar (used to be known as “Saraswati”) rivers supported Indus civilization (Fig. 1.2). Both rivers and their channels offered fertile soils for agriculture, and people mastered the art of growing a variety of crops such as wheat, barley, cotton, mustard, and sesame. However, the waning of monsoons ~5-4 ka BP, coupled with large-scale droughts, led to changes in people’s subsistence strategies. Particularly, these events caused reduced seed ubiquity and density of wheat and barley, which ultimately lessened food availability, and led to de-urbanization and the slow decline of this great civilization (Redman, 1999; Sarkar et al., 2016).

Although a number of factors including change in monsoon and river dynamics, trade decline with increased societal violence, and spread of infectious diseases are considered responsible for the demise of Indus civilization, the catastrophic floods and severe droughts that affected agricultural productivity, such as food resources, seem to be the key factors triggering sociopolitical turmoil (Sarkar et al., 2016; Weiss and Bradley, 2001). It is thought highly likely that reduced agricultural productivity disrupted the

Indus economy, making survival difficult for people; however, this requires further investigation (Ancient History Encyclopedia).

Map of northwest India and Paldstan indicating the location of main Harappan settlements (in pink circles). Black dotted lines suggest 100 mm rainfall isohyets

FIGURE 1.2 Map of northwest India and Paldstan indicating the location of main Harappan settlements (in pink circles). Black dotted lines suggest 100 mm rainfall isohyets.

Source: Reprinted with permission from Sarkar et al., 2016. http://creativecommons.org' licenses/by/4.0/

Analogous to the ancient Indus civilizations, our modern society equally faces the challenges of climate change, the uncertain and reduced availability of water and food resources due to droughts, floods, degradation of land, and their misuse, which further links to a myriad of social, economic, and health issues across the world.

 
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