2.1 Actions and Inaction Matter


The promise of Karma is that no act is ever ignored by the universe. Every act matters, no matter how insignificant we may regard them to be as we perform them. The repercussions from our actions ripple through the fabric of the universe, perhaps well beyond our own individual lifespans. Therein lies the “Karmic retribution” of everyday lore.

The Bhagavad Gita is very clear on the point that we are given the gift of Life to act, for Life is about action. I have so much to be grateful for in this gift of Life. I am now in the 9th year of my bonus years on this Earth. Born in 1960 in India, my life expectancy at birth was 42 years. My twin perished at birth, perhaps to allow me this extra statistical lease on Life.

When India achieved independence from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1947, the life expectancy at birth for an Indian infant was a mere 36 years[1]. The corresponding figure for an infant born in the UK was 65 years. Childhood vaccinations were almost non-existent in India and childhood malnourishment rates were approximately 90%, leading to high infant mortality rates, which was the main reason for the low life expectancy in India compared to the UK in 1947. As a result, the average Indian woman bore 5.6 children since many of her children did not live past their first year. When I was a four year old, I distinctly recall my grandmother advising my mother not to get too attached to my youngest brother until he was at least a year old.

For my grandmother grew up in the colonial era, expecting babies to die within their first year. But my siblings and I received our childhood vaccines plus adequate nutrition and survived.

In the UK of 1947, the average woman bore only 2.7 children.

Fast forward to 2009 and the life-expectancy of a child born in India is 64 years, the childhood malnourishment rate has fallen to around 48%, while the fertility rate has declined to 2.68 children per woman. Thus, sixty-two years after being freed from the yoke of colonialism, India is on a demographic par with the UK of 1947, but with a population that has ballooned to almost 1.2 billion.

Not only do actions matter, but inaction matters as well. The colonizers’ neglect of infant mortality, childhood diseases, childhood malnourishmentand the general standard of living among the colonized now matter as there are billions more mouths to feed on the planet than otherwise. Our continued neglect of public health in poor communities matter, not just for the poor themselves, but for the rich and for Life on Earth, in general.

The five decades of my existence since 1960 have been the most profoundly transformational years in the anthropogenic Earth’s history. Half of the destruction on the planet has occurred in these years, equalling the destruction wrought by the previous 500 generations of humans combined[2].

As a witness to this destruction, I can safely assert that our world is in a mess.

Except for the rarest among us, our lives are in a mess as well.

It is my thesis that the two are inextricably linked, that in order to fix our world’s mess, we must help each other fix the messes in our respective lives, while taking off the cultural blinders that drive us to be so destructive, to behave like Caterpillars. This is not a new insight as mystics from time immemorial have been steadfast in the belief that though everything is in a mess, all is well. The world doesn’t need to be changed, but it just needs to be understood. The world is behaving precisely as it should, generating consequences for all our actions and inaction without prejudice or judgement, and it is perfect. It is we who need to change. And, when our understanding improves, we will automatically change, effortlessly, and the world will react accordingly.

Though a young species that has barely been around for two hundred thousand years, and engaged in industrial activity for just over two hundred of those, human beings have been furiously transforming the planet on a vast scale. The statistics are stark. More than two-thirds of the ice-free land area of the planet has been converted into desert, pasture land, urbanized land or agricultural land. Half of the world’s forests have been destroyed. About 30 million acres of tropical forests are still being razed down each and every year, at a rate of 1 acre every second. On the flip side, around 10 million acres of agricultural land is being abandoned each year in temperate regions, which Nature does reclaim as forest land, but newly regenerated forest cannot begin to compensate for the diversity lost in the old growth forests that are being cut down by humans. In the ocean, around 90% of predatory fish stocks have disappeared. They were mostly eaten just in the past fifty years. More than three quarters of all marine fisheries have been overfished. In the history of Life, species have evolved and have become extinct at a fairly slow pace. There have been instances in the fossil record when species have gone extinct at a much accelerated pace and those have resulted in mass extinction events. Our present era rivals such instances. Overall, species are now going extinct at 100-1000 times the long term background rate. And the rate of extinction has been increasing by a factor of 10 roughly every 20 years. According to the American Museum of Natural History, we are now in the midst of the fastest mass extinction in the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history and unlike prior extinctions, this Sixth Great Mass Extinction event happening today is mainly the result of human actions and not of natural phenomena[3].

Our actions matter.

It does not take complex arithmetic to understand where all this will lead to and how much time we have to make the necessary changes. If half of the world’s forests were destroyed by humans mainly within the past fifty years, how many years do we need to destroy the rest if the rate of deforestation continues to grow at the same pace? If 90% of the predatory fish stocks were eaten mainly in the past fifty years, how many years do we need to eat the rest if our rate of consumption continues to grow at the same pace? If 97% of the tigers were killed off in the wild in the past 100 years, how many years do we need to kill off the remaining 3%?
So much for the carbon based life forms that presently inhabit the earth. In addition, billions of tons of fossilized life forms are being disinterred from the earth and burnt up annually, spewing toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the environment, turning it into a toxic soup. That toxic soup along with the radiation leaks from nuclear disasters such as Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, is now making its way up the food chain, ruining the health of the planet’s complex biota, including humans.

None of these facts are in dispute. Nor is it in dispute that humans have been doing all this destruction and creating all this pollution, and mostly over the past fifty years. Life is dying before our very eyes at such a pace that one of the leading biologists in the world, Prof. Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University, felt compelled to write an entire book, “The Creation[4],” with the subtitle, “An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.”

I found this absolutely shocking! Here’s this gentle, octogenarian human being appealing to his fellow human beings to save Life on Earth!

Now who among us, in their right minds, truly wants to destroy Life on Earth? That’s about as dumb as sawing off the tree limb that we’re sitting on. Yet we seem to be doing it collectively, as if that was the intended purpose of our modern industrial civilization, this global consumer culture that we are ensconced in.

This book is not about assigning blame to this generation or the previous or to this country or that for creating this mess. Billy Joel said it best when he sang: “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.” However, this book is about showing that we are certainly stoking the fire until it is threatening to engulf the whole planet and consume us all. That it is the responsibility of those alive today to start reversing the process, to halt the Holocaust on Life that we’ve triggered through our actions. And that it is no longer enough to excuse ourselves by singing that the fire has always been burning, but to pick up buckets and form brigades to bring it under control, beginning with the fire engulfing ourselves.


[1] The statistics on Life Expectancy was taken from an excellent visualization program called GapMinder which crunches on UN data and presents it beautifully. The program can be downloaded from http://www.gapminder.org/ .

[2] The environmental statistics are mainly taken from James Gustave Speth’s excellent book, “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability,” Yale University Press, March 2008. http://www.amazon.com/qBridge-Edge-World-Environment-Sustainability/dp/0300136110. See also, R. A. Myers and B. Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” Nature 423, 280-283, May 2003, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v423/n6937/full/nature01610.html and UN FAO State of the World’s Forests, http://www.fao.org/docrep/011/i0350e/i0350e00.HTM. The statistics on extinction can also be found in Wilson, E. O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press at http://www.amazon.com/Diversity-Life-Edward-Wilson/dp/0393319407 .

[3] See, for example, the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History at http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/hall_tour/extinct.html .

[4] Edward O. Wilson, “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth,” W. W. Norton and Company, 2006. http://www.amazon.com/Creation-Appeal-Save-Life-Earth/dp/0393062171 

2. Karma
2.2 The Strange Paradox
Sailesh Rao
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