Oxygen and the airs of forgetfulness

By Ashish KotharionMay. 17, 2021inEconomics and Technologies

The most important thing in our life

Deforestation in Indian Himalaya, deepening our rift with nature © Ashish Kothari

Oxygen, suddenly, has become a word of note. In India, as millions of people are being afflicted by a second, deadlier wave of Covid-19 that attacks the lungs, frantic messages are going out on all social media: “Oxygen needed”. Traumatising videos of patients gasping for breath, many dying while waiting to be admitted to hospitals or due to lack of oxygen machines are trending on Twitter and Facebook. The country’s capital, New Delhi, seems like a war zone, an epicentre of a disastrous breakdown in health systems. The crisis is severe in many other parts of India too, where the media is not present to cover in gory detail.

To be short of oxygen in a world that is awash with it is a cruel irony. But perhaps it is a metaphor for what happens when we take things for granted. Things like life and what makes it possible.

In the last couple of decades, I’ve asked thousands of people … students, children, academics, activists (even right to life activists!), where our oxygen comes from. It is a measure of the impoverished nature of our education system that I have got the correct answer perhaps a dozen times only. Most people say ‘trees’ or if they think they are being clever, ‘vegetation’; some say forests, others say Amazon (the forest, not the company, though I would not be surprised if by the next generation many will be thinking it’s the latter). Almost no one seems to know that the majority of oxygen on earth comes from microscopic creatures in the seas, accumulated over millions of years of photosynthesis.

Our ignorance of where the most important thing in our life comes from is symptomatic of the schism (or, to use Marx’s term, rift) that has occurred between us and the rest of nature. Note that I use the term ‘rest of nature’; I don’t say ‘between us and nature’ because we are part of nature. But this most fundamental of understandings, which indigenous peoples and other traditional communities have known and reflected in their ways of living and being for millennia, has been lost to the modern world in its hubris to master nature and its race to ‘develop’.

We ‘educated’ moderns have airs about who we are, attitudes that make us forget who we really are. Our airs make us take air for granted. Most of us who are part of a formal education system with its emphasis on the three Rs and on the rational side of us, would have grown up imbibing the idea that we as humans are on top of an evolutionary pyramid, that we are the pinnacle of what nature (or god or whatever else one’s inclination is) intended. We are made to lose or suppress our instincts, our emotions, our innate ability to connect with not only other people but with all life around us, all of the natural elements, including those we call non-living.

Thinking of ourselves as being on top of the pyramid enables us to think it is justified for us to dominate the earth, that there is a hierarchy built into the natural order. Second, it enables us to ‘other’ the rest of nature, in the same way that whites othered the ‘coloured races’ and did not think twice about trading them as slaves, or men have othered women and considered it just fine to lord it over them. Animals and plants and entire ecosystems become commodities to exploit, devoid of their own agency and subjectivity, existing only in order to meet the insatiable appetite of industrialised humanity.

Let’s go back to oxygen. The term itself is indicative of the schism I talk of. This component of air was ‘discovered’ in modern science around 1600 and was referred to by various names, including ‘cibus vitae’ (food of life). In 1777, the scientist Antoine Lavoisier renamed it oxygène, from the Greek oxys (meaning sharp and referring to acid) and genes (something that begets or producer). He was under the false impression that all acids had oxygen; while this was later corrected, the term remained, with all its reductionist implications.

I do not know if pre-modern cultures have identified this vital component of air or not. But their terms clearly indicate profound respect for what air means for us. In several Indian languages that have origins or some roots in Sanskrit, for instance, the term prana vayu (life air) is used to indicate that this is a life-giver, not merely a chemical or physical element. Breathing exercises and the meditation related to them in yoga are called pranayama, exercises that are life-giving. It is interesting that the early scientist-philosopher Michael Sendivogius who described this component of air, called it cibus vitae (food of life), close to traditional community terms, but later scientists chose to think of it much more narrowly.

Thinking-feeling-sensing of air (or water) as life-giving, whole and something that is within us and that we are within does not allow us to separate ourselves from it. Breaking it down into bland chemical or physical elements, as we do with nature as a whole in currently dominant modernism, allows us to treat it as the ‘other’. In the case of water, this was brilliantly articulated by the philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich in many works, including H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness (which I’ve shamelessly borrowed for the title of this essay).

And so, we are encouraged to think of forests as timber, marine biodiversity as fisheries, wild animals as a game, plants as genetic resources. These are all shorn of being worthy in their own right, of commanding respect just as we would like ourselves to be respected, of having lives independent of humans. Nature becomes a natural resource, as if its very reason for existence is for our exploitation. Bulldoze rainforests, breed animals in mass concentration camps, exploit wild meats to feed a global market … all become par for the course. And voilà, out jumps the Coronavirus, once perfectly content to live in its non-human hosts, but now suddenly getting a chance to go on a global tour on the backs of people and materials rushing around the world in a mad race for globalized development. National governments and capitalist corporations are briefly worried but then learn quickly how to use the situation to their advantage, significantly increasing surveillance and authoritarian measures in the name of health or greatly enhancing their profits through online commerce and patented vaccinations.

If we want to make peace with the earth and its viruses, micro-organisms, plants and animals … which is the only way we will survive … we need to fundamentally alter our economy and politics. For this, we must learn from the peoples who have lived in relative harmony with their natural surrounds, Indigenous Peoples and other local communities (fisher, pastoral, farming, etc.), many of whom still retain the wisdom and the knowledge we can benefit from. In the no-nonsense words of Nemonte Nenquimo of the Waorani Indigenous people in the Amazon: “This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth … It took us thousands of years to get to know the Amazon rainforest … I never had the chance to go to university, and become a doctor, or a lawyer, a politician, or a scientist. My elders are my teachers. The forest is my teacher … I won’t be able to teach you in this letter, either. But what I can say is that it has to do with thousands and thousands of years of love for this forest, for this place. Love in the deepest sense, as reverence. This forest has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning. And you are taking all this away, not just from us, but from everyone on the planet, and from future generations.”

With the increasingly visible impacts of the combined crises of biodiversity, climate, and pollution (here’s a fun fact: average sperm count in men in western countries has halved the last 20 years, due to pollutants in plastics), Nenquino’s words should be our wake-up call. As should Covid-19. This shock we have received should lead us to reconceptualize and rebuild an economy that (unlike capitalism) is within ecological limits and that puts the well-being of all and relations of caring and sharing at its core. It should drive us to a politics where each of us takes back the power that is inherent in us, through processes of radical ecological democracy or swaraj where neither the state nor the corporation can dominate us. It should strengthen the struggles for social justice, equity and equality, the eradication of racism, casteism, patriarchy. It should teach us to respect cultural and knowledge diversity and keep knowledge in the commons rather than in greedy private hands (the fight against intellectual property rights on the Covid vaccine as an example). And it should tell us that the ethics or spiritual values of solidarity, love, generosity, care, autonomy, peace, responsibility are the ones we must cherish and reflect in our daily lives. There are thousands of grounded initiatives around the world showing how all this is possible, a veritable pluriverse of possibilities and actualities, if only the rest of us are willing to listen and learn.

Back to oxygen. The last couple of hundred years of industrial devastation have had their impacts on the oceans, converting coastal and near-shore areas into toxic, acidified, plastic-filled dumps and filling even the deep seas with pollutants of various kinds. Pollutants can cause localized algal blooms – rapid overpopulation of some species – that have been known to deplete oxygen levels and lead to the mass killing of fish. Yet, given that the earth’s accumulated oxygen reserves are vast, it is doubtful that humanity or other life forms as a whole will be left literally gasping for breath any time soon; we won’t run out for thousands, perhaps millions of years, which is long given that we tend to take decisions in 5-year election cycles. But figuratively, this is already happening for millions of species that are going extinct due to Homo industrialis. And literally, for millions of people who live or work in polluted cities and industrial areas, for fish and other aquatic creatures in polluted, oxygen-depleted waters, and the millions whose lungs are currently invaded by Covid-19, gasping for breath is very real. Nothing above should be misunderstood to be in support of the utterly ridiculous and scientifically ignorant suggestion made by Kangana Ranaut, a famous Indian actress who is close to the right-wing party in power, that “anybody who is feeling low levels of oxygen”, as an aside, should plant trees!

We – the industrialised, elite, power-and-money hungry part of humanity – have been terrible stewards of Planet Earth. Will a virus reminds us that our place is not on top of the pyramid but as one part of a circle of life with billions of other beings sharing the Earth with us? Will our descendants in 2100 look at 2020-21 as the Great Turning Point, when we began to crawl out of the traps laid by our own airs, and reached for the kind of custodianship of the Earth that Homo sapiens – if it really is sapient (wise) – should be capable of? Or will they have collapsed into the kind of dystopia shown in movies like Waterworld?

First published by Wall Street International Magazine on 13 May 2021

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