Although I am at the end of my third visit to India, this is still a nation that feels more remote from my experiences than any other. In the far south, it took nine hours to drive the hill country from Tamil Nadu on the east coast of India to the edge of Kerala on the west. The roads winds through villages, tea and rubber plantations, groves of spices – pepper, cardamon, cinnamon and nutmeg – then worth their weight in gold in European capitals.
Today, India is a nation on the move. Despite the suffering of its poor, the dirt and pollution and plastic-strewn commons, the nation is rising, propelled by two cylinder engines, nuclear power plants, and the global economy.
Still, with so many unique languages and 29 strong and independent states ruled by their own congresses, to an outsider India can seem more a state of mind than a sovereign state. When President Obama on his visit to New Delhi stated that there is no fixing climate change without success in India, I wondered: “How? Who? Where?”
This morning, I woke at the edge of the largest wetlands system in Kerala, called Vembanadu. It is shallow, not quite as shallow as Inle Lake in Myanmar, and home to fishermen paddling dugouts and wading birds scouring lotus mats for food in the quiet dawn.
In winter, the temperature here is very similar to the Florida Keys, a place I’ve known intimately for more than forty years. The sounds and flocks of cormorants, herons and egrets reminded me of dawn on Florida Bay in the early 1970s when – miles from the nearest marina – you would wheel the skiff around a small island at daybreak and cut the engine just to feel the world come alive.
Lake Vembanadu is a completely managed water system: saline in the dry season and fresh water during the monsoon. In India, flooding is crucial for the cultivation of its primary food crop: rice. In South Florida, flooding is managed primarily for one industrial crop: sugar. After many decades of mismanagement by government agencies, Florida Bay and the greater Everglades ecosystem has been so thoroughly degraded that its assets now can only be found in hidden corners, unaffected by pollution or water management extremes. Unless one experienced the place then, the value of what has been lost is for the imagination: sapphires and rubies and emeralds we let slip through our hands.
Unlike India, the “who, what, how” of Everglades restoration is clear. The government agencies and farmers and land speculators and conservationists are identifiable. It’s an important reason I am so adamant about seeing the Everglades in Florida returned to life so other generations can witness the ephemeral beauty of the world.
Our heritage wilderness is the rootstock of civilization because the values of conservation — at least, in principle — are based on a moral order. Accordingly, in the United States and in Everglades National Park, we decided to value wilderness for itself — not for profit motives — , and for that reason alone, it is more valuable than any treasure scoured from the earth. What we gain from nature is proof that life regenerates. Proof that hope springs eternal. It is a promise only humans can break.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” If we, in the United States, won’t clarify this point, who will?
The dawn haze on Lake Vembanadu and the morning mist over sawgrass prairies in Florida are separated by ten thousand miles and billions of beating hearts and sleeping souls, each filled with anticipation of the day ahead. For hundreds of thousands of years, the growth of the human tree has been defined by another promise: that one generation might follow another within the small space and time of a human life, if only we are industrious, wealthy and fortunate enough.
To those who say what happens to the environment is God’s will and besides, nature will adapt without any help from us, I have a simple response: that hubris breaks any connection to moral or spiritual value, turning us into a scavenger species.
At the end of the day, when the diversity of species is crushed, what survives are species and organisms that thrive on waste caused by decay. You can find that condition in Florida Bay now, where catfish dominate in places biodiversity flourished only a few decades ago. What is on the climate change horizon is not a world you or I would want to live in – a desecration of creation or a fulfillment of destruction theology. So why aren’t we changing our behaviors and beliefs to avoid that outcome?
I may have a better chance understanding India than the answer to that question.
Alan Farago writes the daily blog, Eye On Miami, under the pen name, Gimleteye. He is president of Friends of the Everglades, a grass roots conservation organization based in Miami, FL. A long-time writer and advocate for Florida’s environment, his work is archived at alanfarago.wordpress.com