Humanity’s Greatest Opportunity


In all species, the physical senses are tuned towards the outside world. The bodies and intellect are designed largely for survival, and act upon this information. Firstly, and for the most part, all of this is hugely oriented towards self-preservation. Without the individual, obviously, there can be no collective. A part of individual survival is the family. Family units form a larger whole. Clusters, colonies, cultures, and societies. The smaller an individual becomes in the larger scheme of things, attention and intellect is also, likewise, divided. And finally, almost subliminally, subconsciously, there is the orientation towards the survival of the species as a whole. At each level, there is significantly less focus by an individual. Society is, equally, a highly complex, multicellular organism, not so very different from its each individual cell. It thinks for itself, and for the individuals within it.

Humans are unique. With humans, things go far beyond just self-preservation. We don’t just need. We want. We desire. And we consume. We stand on the shoulders of giants and don’t care to see from whence we come. Our cultures and societies, formed in our own image, are in awe of those who stand tallest, and consume the most. We are masters of all we survey. I watched a TED talk by Frans Lanting, titled ‘The story of life in photographs’. In it he says, “life needs a membrane to contain itself.” So do humans. The more consumed, the stronger the membrane and taller the walls needed. Ivory towers. Boundaries emerge. Ideological. Political. Even religious, because there are things such as God-given rights.

Over the past two weeks, I have been conducting Instagram Live sessions with several photographers, many of whom are deeply involved with wildlife and environment conservation. All of them seem to reflect a similar mindset, also mirrored by me over the past few years—the pandemic, and everything that comes from it, because of it, is nature’s way of sending out a terrible warning. At the very least, it shows us, rather, it forces us to see, that there are indeed ways to correct the course towards an otherwise untenable future.

In just a few weeks of a forced lockdown, a very visible outcome was that nature, our physical environment, and wildlife, recuperated and healed quickly and resplendently. In cities, you feel the difference when you breathe. The air is now clear and unpolluted. The dust has radically reduced. Rivers and water bodies are clean, free of effluents from industries, with life returning to its banks. Listen carefully and you can hear dozens of species of birds around you. There are reports from all over India, from the interiors to the coasts, of wildlife coming forward, stepping out, and in some places, reclaiming what was originally theirs. This was an unexpected and incredible outcome, especially in a country where the human burden on the land is now huge and only bound to get worse.

For a decade now, environmental agencies, researchers and scientists have been crying hoarse, forecasting massive, calamitous changes. Every model and projection predicts extremely serious consequences in the not-so-distant future. Climate change, permanent glaciers melting away by fractions, rise in ocean levels, coastal landmasses going underwater. Imagine this scenario in our condition… At the moment, every human in India has just 1.5m² of land, for life, for food, air and water, for shelter, livelihood, and all our wants and desires, that must also be shared with the mountains and forests, with all creatures large or small, to sustain the living biosphere that keeps us alive. And yet, apart from a few, rare noises of agreement from the powers that be, significant measures are equally few and far in between. But, if there is anything to be proven by this lockdown, it is that there is a modicum of hope, that things can improve if we want it to.

Of course, lockdowns for the sake of wildlife and environment conservation alone are unreal, because there are other very negative effects, from unemployment to migrant labourers walking back home across states, to terrible economic repercussions. I personally do not endorse an extremist view. Nature and humanity, as a part of a larger equation, must find that balance. But a balance is yet to be found. I find it quite disconcerting that none of the television media, or very few on the internet, have gotten around to discussing this in depth, or in any manner or form. In any case, what the lockdown does prove, is that we are capable of collective undertaking, if we put our souls and minds to it, with measures that can have a lasting impact. Besides, technologies today are reaching a point where they can be designed and deployed for the greater good. If this does not happen, we have only ourselves to blame. Giving an example of fire, Roger Bacon (1220–1292) had written, “Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience.” Francis Bacon (1561–1626), known as the father of empiricism and the scientific method, had studied Roger Bacon, and also argued for careful observations of events in nature. Both philosophers would have loved to study the impact of COVID-19.

It was Francis Bacon who famously said, “For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures…”

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issues of Better Photography.