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Op-Ed

Traditional Environmental Ethics: Way to Counter Environmental Degradation

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By EMN Updated: Jun 04, 2019 10:45 pm
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By Dr. Tuisem Ngakang

“The birds of the air have fled and the animals are gone.”

Jeremiah 9:10

The Tangkhuls relish birds of any kinds except jungle crows, house sparrows and swallows. These birds live mostly in close association and proximity with men. The Tangkhuls values sharing home with sparrows and swallows because they believe it brings happiness and warmth to the house. Despite the traditional hospitality towards these birds it is observed that its numbers are decreasing considerably. No satisfactory answer has been found for the diminishing of population of these three friendly birds. The fast disappearance of these birds can be realized by the common people because they share the same habitation. But, there are many other species which, we do not realise are silently disappearing every year. The number of species in the world, according to Census of Marine Life Scientists is 8.7 million. The expert calculated that between 0.01 and 0.1% are going extinct annually i.e 870 to 8700 species disappeared forever every year! The uncontrolled used of toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides present a serious threat to all forms of life.

Black Panther locally called kuirang in Tangkhul is no more to be seen. It is said that until 1980s kuirang is spotted in many areas in Ukhrul district. Kazingkha (lion) kharei (leopard), hornbills and many more animals and birds which are very common in the Tangkhul tales and folksongs are no more seen, the reverberating sound of the hoolock gibbon locally called uri-ura are silenced.

Physical and cultural landscapes are dramatically changing; there is fast disappearance of flora and fauna, fast change in the pattern of the use of resources. Monsoons or the rains no longer come in their predictable seasons; the frequency of flash floods is growing frighteningly. Numbers of animals and birds are already extinct, many streams and rivulets have dried up. The area of fertile land have diminished to a large extend in recent years.

The traditional Tangkhuls believes that humans are part and parcel of the creation and not above creation. They have developed specific narratives myths and beliefs that answer fundamental questions about how people should behave towards their environments. They perceived that humans are the only living creatures to have shiyan chikan (norms, ethics or etiquette), human have the obligation to extend its law towards other fellow living creatures. There are many prohibitions with regard to behavior of human against nature which the Tangkhuls called sharra. Sharra has no exact corresponding English word; it can be loosely translated as taboo or forbidden. Some of the example of the extension of the laws towards other beings: sa ngaso mahung dalei lakha pharshara/sathat sharra (misfortune happens to those who spear and kill the animals at the act of sexual reproduction). Zur atamli thing haosharra (it is forbidden to chop or cut tress during the rainy season). As a people whose livelihood depend on the bountifulness and generosity of nature, it is unwise and unethical to cut tress at the best growing season of the year. The traditional Tangkhuls obey sharra because they understand the serious and crucial role nature plays in sustainable culture and they experienced the certainty of the impact of disobeying the taboo!

For the Tangkhuls, the virtue like ethics and etiquette is not merely for human but they also extend to the environment. The traditional Tangkhuls environment ethics can be understood as the whole sets of values practices, behavior towards nature that Tangkhuls have developed based on observation, experiences and reflection over hundreds of years of living on their traditional land.

There are many folktales which tells about the interrelationship with the animal’s world. It tell of animals and human exchanging roles acquiring supernatural powers, teaching and providing for one another. There are stories where animals are given the human nature and character. This relationship tells the harmony of living together. The relations are not based on consent but rather on law of nature. In the traditional environmental moral system of Tangkhul, nature are not forcibly conquered but pacified and petitioned with the belief that animals can understand human behavior and language. Knowledge to propitiate nature is crucial for knowing how to live in harmony with nature.

To paraphrase what Garrett Hardin said on population (1968), “the problem of environmental degradation has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality”. What Hardin meant here is that there are human problems that have no technical solutions; the technological innovation alone cannot solve all problems that we are facing today. In order to enhance the relationship between human and nature, environmental law of the land and regulation need to be complemented by environmental moral ethics and sensibility. The traditional Tangkhuls has believed in the law of natural ethics that there is an inherent connection between the moral qualities of the people and the stability of the ecology. Therefore, harmony of the natural world depends on the continuation of the extension of the morality of human to the non-human lives.

It is disheartening to see today that the morality of a community has been dissolved by the quest for individual satisfaction and material comfort. The duties we owe to our children to handover the resources of the earth no longer hinders our greed for our quest for satisfaction in the present. If the system was centered on self-interested individual behavior, the system is bound to collapse. They have always believed that individual behavior is not greater than community in any level. They knew that there can be never sustainable culture in which individual exceeded the community value. Individual freedom is integrated into the norms and convention of the community. The sad demise of traditional and cultural system of morality can be seen as the origin of the environmental degradation. The health of the environment can be preserved only through the change in the behavior of the user of that environment.

It may not be able to attain the utopian society of complete harmony of man and nature but institutionalization of an environmental ethic which has been practiced for ages may draw our behavior closer to the goal.

The writer may be contacted at tuisem.ngakang@gmail.com

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By EMN Updated: Jun 04, 2019 10:45:37 pm