Scientist makes a Socrates at St Thomas College

By Rosamma Thomas*
“So how many of you have swum in the Meenachil?” Dr TV Sajeev, a scientist at the Kerala Forest Research Institute, asked the more than 100 undergraduates who had gathered for a lecture on climate change and nature conservation at St Thomas College, Pala , Kottayam District, Wednesday. None of the students had gotten their feet wet in the river that runs just behind the college.

Dr. Sajeev explained that after all these years, the memories he had left from his time as a student were the days when he went swimming in the nearby river. “I don’t remember my exams, how much I scored,” he said.
Asking students to question authority, he mentioned that the most important and revered figures in history were those who went against the grain – Socrates, the Christ, Buddha. They were not people who conformed to society’s expectations. “If you comply, you will study, marry, have children and die – this is the life trajectory that society and your parents want for you.”
How, you might ask, do these observations fit into a discourse on climate change? Dr. Sajeev is a lecturer with a vast canvas, and in painting the big picture for students, he draws on a range of topics. Two lectures he gave in college were titled: “The climate has changed; so what?” and, “The Black Spot on Fish Eggs and Other Stories from Our Rivers”.
Dr Sajeev began by telling the students that when he went to school, the first day of school, June 1, was expected to bring the monsoon to Kerala – so every year the first day after summer break would mean arriving at school soaked. This rhythm no longer exists in nature, and we cannot predict monsoon rainfall patterns as accurately.

Even though scientists warned about 10 years ago that Kerala would be hit with heavier rains than before, during the droughts of 2016 and 2017, the state government set to digging earth to retain rainwater in anticipation of a prolonged period of lack of rain. . These trenches for rainwater harvesting proved disastrous during the heavy rains of 2018, when sand was more easily washed away from being disturbed first.
The scientist went on to show that governance mechanisms often operate without a scientific basis, which further aggravates a bad situation. He mentioned the sacred groves, sarpa kaavu, which previously dotted the state. These were densely forested patches of space, left undisturbed to protect moulting snakes.

There was a reverence for nature and the recognition that the time the snake shed its skin was a time of stress – so the snakes had to be able to find a space that was undisturbed. Society’s belief system offered protection.

However, as land became scarce, arrangements were made for a special puja, after which this land could be converted and taken care of. Faith, the scientist said, can be fickle. It is not a reliable or rational basis for nature conservation – that is why science is all the more important.
Representing the warming of the earth, Dr Sajeev spoke of Thomas Newcomen’s 18th century invention of the atmospheric steam engine, which was used to power the pump that extracted water from coal mines. It was the first time that we used energy that was neither human nor animal – today we have petrol, diesel, natural gas. Life without these fossil fuels is now inconceivable.
The earth’s average temperature, at 14-15 degrees Celsius (students were asked to guess how much the average temperate was and they found grossly incorrect answers) – has now increased since the first industrial revolution by 1.2 degrees C .
Why is life unique to planet Earth? Water, in its liquid form, is only available on this planet, thanks to its distance from the Sun – closer, and the water may have evaporated; further, it would be ice. It is what sustains all life on earth. There are greenhouse gases blanketing the Earth – carbon dioxide and methane, for example, which trap heat from the Sun.

Governance mechanisms often operate without a scientific basis, further aggravating a bad situation

The thicker this layer becomes, the warmer the planet will be. If the ice at the north and south poles melts – as it does – sea levels will rise and islands like the Maldives, which are only about four meters above sea level, will be lost. People are now migrating from these islands elsewhere.
Asking the students if they knew how the Maldives was formed, the scientist explained that when the supercontinent Pangea began to fall apart, what is now the Indian subcontinent broke away from Africa and shifted, moving over formations left by volcanic action.

When the plates collided, the Himalayas rose up as a mountainous formation. The Western and Eastern Ghats emerged from the sea, remnants of volcanic action pushed by the collision of the plates. This also explains the unique quality of the soil of the Deccan plateau.
Kerala is a land rich in a variety of forests – from humid broadleaf to tropical rainforests and shola forests, patches that are in the valleys where there is less fog and mist, and the trees are not very big. There are grassland forests, where the neelakurinji blooms once every 12 years. Despite all this great diversity, however, the state’s young people are flocking to foreign shores. Why is that, the scientist asked.
“Unemployment,” came a response, louder and bolder than usual.
“Yes, unemployment, but not only,” explained Dr. Sajeev. “If you were born in Kerala, you lost your freedom at birth. You are bound by caste, and one way to experience freedom is to leave. To reach one’s full potential, to experience the true dignity of being human, it may be imperative to start from scratch,” he said.
When a student asked what could be done to conserve nature, Dr Sajeev replied that annual tree-planting campaigns and ritual cleaning of plastic were not the solution. We each have a carbon footprint, and living mindfully, without conforming to societal pressure to buy bigger, sleeker vehicles, was part of the solution.

As a society, we must calculate not only the economic costs of what we do, but also the ecological costs – if you tile your porch, you leave no space for water to seep into the earth. And it could dry up the local well.
Construction is going at a blistering pace in the state, he said, and said more than 10 lakh homes by one estimate were uninhabited in the state; even so, new buildings are constantly being constructed. And an important building material is sand – when a fish lays eggs, it rolls on sand.

It is the rolling that keeps the fish egg alive, since all sides can breathe. When the sand is removed and the eggs fall into the earth, they can no longer roll. And the fish egg will show you a dark spot – this black spot indicates that the egg is dead.

Independent journalist. The conference was sponsored by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and moderated by the author

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