The other day I was going from Chattogram to my ancestral village in the Chandanish upazila, located about 40km southeast from the city centre. As soon as I crossed the Karnafuli River a common scene along the road began to haunt me. Felled trees were stacked up on both sides of the road, to be processed locally or transported to lumber mills on the outskirts of cities. The continuity of the spectacle revealed the enormity of scale in tree cutting. It felt as if a full-scale war on nature—a kind of “ecocide”—was going on.
Unfortunately, this war is raging all over Bangladesh (and in other countries). Every day in newspapers one would find the news of illegal cutting of trees, some are 200 years old, in this district or that district, to clear land for building a regional government office or expanding an existing college. A common news: in the dead of night, the local land mafia cut trees to facilitate some “development.”
The road that I travelled on in rural Chattogram appeared to be a micro-theatre of the age of Anthropocene. Anthropocene, derived from anthropo for “man,” and cene, for “new,” signifies an age in which the humankind has transformed the geographic DNA of planet Earth by causing mass extinctions of plant and species, altering the atmosphere, and polluting the oceans (plastic?).
In Chattogram it was hard not to be struck by a “Bolai effect.” Rabindranath Tagore’s character Bolai is a motherless, nature-loving boy who had the habit of staring at trees for hours and speaking to them without uttering a word, or who would flinch at the mere thought of cutting a tree. Back in 1928, Tagore poignantly foreshadowed the environmental crisis that would plague Mother Nature in our fragile delta today.
In Bangladesh, population growth, economic boom, urbanisation, and the need for energy are clearly taking their toll on nature and, in particular, the green coverage of the country. This by no means is Bangladesh’s problem alone. Cities, particularly in developing countries, are expanding into farmlands, wetlands, and forests. Every week cities worldwide are taking in 1.4 million new inhabitants. Researchers estimate that global urbanisation typically results in the loss of up to 7.4 million acres of agricultural land each year and tropical deforestation accounts for 17 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
At the heart of the environmental debate today is the very idea of development. We need to ask a few broader questions with a view to understanding the environmental crisis that we face today: what is the environmental cost of development? Given this deltaic country’s delicate ecosystem, what would be an optimal intersection between development and environment? Does the ill intention behind indiscriminate tree-cutting, land-grabbing, and river-filling originate from the same crisis of environmental ethics that lay at the centre of profiteering development mentality?
Environmental problems today require a bit of philosophical thinking on how the very notion of nature was framed within western Enlightenment ideals at the beginning of the modern era. The preservationist attitude toward nature that propels contemporary environmental consciousness didn’t exist as such 200 years ago. Wilderness was viewed as the terrifying other of man and clearing it was considered progress. The English philosopher John Locke asserted that nature without man is worthless and if any man employs his labour to harvest a piece of land then he should be allowed to own it as his private property. Another English philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill argued that dominating and controlling the “irrational” nature would be the most “rational” enterprise of man.
In the west, the framing of nature as an object of control through property relationship has been the bedrock of the ordering of the natural environment and, ultimately, creating the capitalist world system. Materialistic progress and market economy took precedence over the wellbeing of environment. The anthropocentric doctrines of progress, based on an “exploit the nature” ethos, continued through the mid-20th century.
But many thinkers began to question those notions of progress that hubristically placed humankind at the very centre of the natural world. The German philosopher and a member of the Frankfurt School of social research Max Horkheimer wrote: “The disease of reason is that reason was born from man’s urge to dominate nature.” The rational thinking that justified clearing the forest as human development was increasingly criticised as self-centred, exploitative, and unsympathetic human intervention in nature.
In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote, Silent Spring (1962), a book many consider the harbinger of the modern environmental movement. The book explained how nature was poisoned by synthetic pesticides, especially DDT. Pesticides were used to enhance agricultural production but when they entered the biosphere, they not only exterminated insects, but also compromised the natural food chain to threaten bird and fish populations and eventually humans. In 1970, eight years after its publication, Americans ranked environmental pollution as the country’s most severe problem.
On January 1 of that year, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, attracting over 20 million people across America. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined “sustainable development” as a “development which meets present needs without compromising the ability of the future generations to achieve their needs and aspirations.”
All of these good initiatives of course didn’t mean everybody agreed or all environmental movements succeeded. This is because profit-centric market economies continued to view nature as a vast resource that would be harnessed for material growth. For example, if mining coal can generate economic prosperity, then that activity is more important than some presumed environmental costs. About two decades ago in Brazil, the Amazon witnessed a dangerous rise in deforestation as a result of the expansion of pasture and soybean croplands in response to international market demand.
The Canadian filmmaker James Cameron’s futuristic and environment-conscious blockbuster, Avatar (2009), sought to protest the development-at-any-cost mindset. The film is about the machinations of a greedy corporation from planet Earth, about to steal a rare mineral from a distant planet, found at the centre of a tropical forest, under a gigantic tree, the spiritual home to the planet’s native population. Reaching the mineral would require driving away the aboriginal inhabitants by uprooting the symbolic tree they venerate. Although the story is set in a faraway world, Avatar made a powerful argument against environmental injustice in our own planet.
In many ways, Tagore’s Bolai and Cameron’s Avatar make the same pro-environment argument—focusing on a symbolic tree—that offers intellectual resistance to predatory capitalism.
Bangladesh’s future is urban. Meeting the demands of a burgeoning urban population will drive the rampant appropriation of land for development. In the context of this reality, ultra-protectionist environmental activism would be counterproductive. What the country needs is a new generation of fact-based and science-minded environmental movements. If development is not balanced with data-driven and people-centric environmental policies and regulated in the court of law, the country will continue to lose its agricultural lands, canals, rivers, wetlands, trees, forests, hills, wildlife, ecosystems, deltaic character, environmental DNA, and, ultimately, the very essence of Bengal that inspired Tagore, Jibananando, Jashimuddin, and many others.
Seeing an indiscriminate culture of tree cutting across the country, I wondered what it would take to bring about changes to the ways we consider and ignore the environment question within development planning. The melancholic story of Bolai seemed like a necessary antidote to the failed culture of environmental protection. Bolai should be a mandatory reading for all age groups, at all levels of education. It should be an essential reading for all officials inside city corporations, municipalities, and environmental agencies. Rajuk officials should memorise it, word for word. Perhaps the “Bolai effect” can humanise our developmental aspirations and sensitise us to the environmental plight that threatens the Bengal delta.
Adnan Zillur Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist. He teaches at the Catholic University of America in Washington, and serves as executive director of the Centre of Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism at BRAC University. He is an alumnus of Faujdarhat Cadet College, BUET, and MIT. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.