Constitutionally constructing nature

Nature cannot be seen only materially, but must be seen as a set of connectivities that we do not fully comprehend. We need a new paradigm for democracy that adopts this lens, writes SHIV VISVANATHAN.

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IRISH scientist John Desmond Bernal, a great Marxist and crystallographer, was a many-sided genius, an authority on Irish writer James Joyce, and a man who understood nature. I remember he was once travelling in India, in Jamshedpur, on a boat on Dimna Lake. My father and he were talking of the Tata company’s attempt to coat the lake with chemicals to prevent evaporation.

Bernal stopped halfway through rowing, and exclaimed, “don’t fool with nature, it will outthink you eventually.” To this one can add the comments of the British scientist James Lovelock who claimed that man might damage nature, but nature can shrug man off with dispensable ease. How does then one relate to nature? How can one constitutionalise one’s relationship to the Other? One has to realise nature is as important a category as citizenship in any futuristic Constitution.

Also read: On Nature, Diversity and Law

Differing views on nature

One has to recognise that the dominant attitude to nature is an ethnocentric one. It has its roots in a Judeo-Christian view of nature which believed nature was made for man’s use. Nature was seen as a commodity and redefined as a resource, and modern economics was built around this resource-driven obsession.

Nature in most other eras and cultures has a touch of power, mystery and the sacred. One builds affinities in terms of totems, kinship links to nature and taboos so one touches nature and gently. Nature, thus, has to be exorcised of its current definitions before it becomes a constitutional category. A scientific definition of nature in fact virtually deprives tribe and fisherman of his civic rights.

Our constitutions have to recognise that productivity in modern economics and diversity are incompatible languages. Some scientific languages need to be exorcised before entering constitutional life.

Nature in a constitutional sense has to embrace the cosmic. Modern nature is impoverished of time. Grounded in linearity, it has no sense of cycles; no concept of decay. The Canadian botanist Suzanne Simard put it brilliantly when she said that modern forestry mimics the machine; it idolizes productivity and monoculture, while nature seeks diversity. Liberty, equality, and diversity has to be a part of constitutional definitions. One has to accept that a scientific temper cannot sustain nature.

India has 150,000 varieties of rice. One needs myth and festival, a sense of storytelling to sustain such diversity. Our constitutions have to recognise that productivity in modern economics and diversity are incompatible languages. Some scientific languages need to be exorcised before entering constitutional life. Social Darwinism creates a Hobbesian world where nature, red in tooth and claw, already undermines the notion of a sacrament. Nature blossoming excessively is nature’s wager of keeping a species alive.

Also read: Reinventing the Constitution on Science and Democracy

Nature must be constitutionally constructed

To keep nature alive, both nature and knowledge systems that sustain it have to be integrated. The tribal, the peasant and the housewife are as much trustees of nature in its diversity as the scientist. One has to embrace a sense of cognitive justice to understand the plurality of perspective nature demands. The tribal as trustee of the forest adds a new dimension to his sense of citizenship. One has to complete the arguments that Jaipal Singh Munda began in the constituent assembly.

Nature, to be diverse, has to be constitutionally constructed multiple times. A constitution has to be visualised cosmologically and cyclically. Death and decay both become part of nature. Obsolescence belongs to the machine, not to nature.

Also read: Finding New Meanings in a Carnival of the Constitution

Nature cannot be seen only materially. Whether soil or seed, it is epistemic. Replacing soils is destroying it epistemologically. What the thinker Dharampal said was tragically true: when the British came to India, they destroyed agriculture not just as a revenue system but as an epistemology.

Nature has to be seen as a whole, and as a set of connectivities that we do not fully comprehend. Fetishism and reductionism go together. A regime which worships the cow and destroys farming reveals that it understands neither. Reductionism vitiates the rights of nature and creates a monocultural mentality.

Man needs a sense of ritual regarding nature. Festivals were ways of combining nature and culture. Rituals create memory, and embed knowledge systems across generations. A constitution for nature, thus, needs a new social contract between orality, textually and digitality. Nature needs the Constitution as a mnemonic world.

Nature needs folklore and local epistemologies which create life, giving attitude to it. The Directive Principles of State Policy must provide the ecological mnemonics to sustain man. Folklore provides the epistemologies that Constitutional Law must rework.

Citizenship cannot be purely contractual or justice strictly compensatory. The citizenship of nature requires not just rights but taboos, totems, a sense of the sacred and trusteeship. When environmental activist Professor G.D. Agarwal died fasting for the Ganges, he claimed that Ganges, with 600 check dams, was no longer the Ganges.

Memory as a life form is the only memorial nature needs. Ceylonese metaphysician and historian A.K. Coomaraswamy correctly noted that the Indian National Movement must fight a guerrilla war against the museum. Nature cannot be a Tussauds, but must be a living act of evolution. To museumize nature is to embalm life, memory, and nature. A sacred grove, on the other hand, expresses man’s gratitude to the fecundity of nature.

The Anthropocene as a crisis is history’s way of acknowledging that man and nature need a dialogue, a relationship that moves from I-T to I-Thou. Reverence becomes a mode of understanding the sacred, and is necessary to sustain life.

Also read: Petition in Supreme Court to declare barbaric practices for warding off wild animals as unconstitutional; notice issued

One immediately senses that different relationship between life and livelihood and lifestyle. Cutting consumption is minimising violence to nature; restricting greed so that future generation might survive. Life as a constitutional gift moves across generations. When the Sri Lankan judge Justice C.G. Weeramantri argued at Hague that nuclear testing violated the rights of future generations, he understood the constitutionality of nature.

A constitution becomes life-giving when it liberates nature and body, and allows the free play of sensoriums of memory. Soil, seed, man are all equal elements of constitutionality. An anthropocentric constitution is an oxymoron, and a violation of nature as life.

Cutting consumption is minimising violence to nature; restricting greed so that future generation might survive. Life as a constitutional gift moves across generations.

Diversity adds to the idea of gift and commons. To patent nature as property is obscene. Tribes which confront intellectual property, must secede epistemically. Intellectual property is a Rousseauist sense of theft.

A constitution must seek new forms of harmony between life, lifeworld, livelihood, lifestyle, and lifecycle. When nature enters the constitution, one realises the need to modify 19th century assumptions. Social sciences and economics as epistemologies must be more life giving to be constitutional. A constitution assembles epistemologies of freedom. Between constitution and cosmology, we need a new paradigm for democracy.

(Shiv Visvanathan is an Indian academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of science and technology studies, and for the concept of cognitive justice-a term he coined. He is currently a Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat. The views expressed are personal.)

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