Posted by: lrrp | October 28, 2004

Is our future in the past? by S. Pathiravitana

This seemingly paradoxical query is from a theme that came up for discussion at a conference of environmentalists who met in Perth a few years back to talk about what we should do when building towards the future. We were represented by Mr. C.G. Weeramantry who was the Vice-President once of the Court of International Justice at The Hague . He refers to this Perth conference in the preface he wrote to a little booklet where he published his separate opinion (while agreeing with the conclusions of the Court) on this very interesting case that came up before the Court around 1997.

The litigants who appeared in this case were two states, Hungary and Slovakia. Their grievance was over a dam that was being built on the river Danube, which also happened to be their common frontier. Slovakia had spent several billion dollars on the initial investment and Hungary was now complaining that the dam was going to create a lot of environmental damage to its country. We didn’t hear of this dispute earlier, if there was one, because the two countries were then under the Soviet grip. The treaty that was signed by these two countries then was now coming apart.

What was before the Court, however, was a dispute over development and environment – the development of one country in this case being disastrous to the other. How was the Court going to resolve this problem? Mr Weeramantry tells us that his mind took him at once towards his childhood memories when he accompanied his parents on their visits to the historic cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and the sight of those huge reservoirs has remained in his memory ever since. That experience soon became relevant to the understanding of the problem now before the Court.

Legal issues

Faced with similar problems, how did our kings set about damming the rivers and the waterways without damaging the environment too much and also improving the welfare of the land and its people? After studying the question at some depth he gathered a lot of useful information on how traditional wisdom helped the conservation of the environment which he has now included in a little booklet. This will soon become a useful little compendium of traditional wisdom to jurists interested in what is now becoming a subject of great importance – sustainable development.

“One of the legal issues before the court,” writes Mr Weeramantry, “was the concept of sustainable development which is so much in the forefront of modern international environment law. I realized that our ancient irrigation heritage was an example par excellence of the practical application of this concept. In fact it offered one of the best examples in world history of the implementation of this concept. Its relevance to the legal question before the Court struck me as inescapable.”

Another reason for his effort to draw wider attention to this subject was when he circulated some statistics among his colleagues in the panel of judges “concerning the scale and duration of the Sri Lankan operation…(which) neither the bench nor the bar, as far as I could detect, had the slightest awareness of this phenomenal Sri Lankan contribution to universal culture.” Since this is a rare feature in the equipment of the Sri Lankan academic, who often is aware only of the negative side of the Sri Lankan landscape, he deserves a special word of thanks for displaying to the world the genius of the people of this country.

You gather from the information he provides that the Sri Lankan civilization was not an isolated case, but one which had diplomatic relations with Rome in the first century A.D., with Byzantium in the 4th century A.D. and that the presence of Sri Lankan ambassadors in Rome was recorded by Pliny (lib. vi, c 24) and the detailed knowledge Rome had of this country was noted by Grotius in his Mare Liberum and how Lanka was known to the Greeks as Taprobane, to the Arabs as Serendib, to the Portuguese as Ceilao and to the Dutch as Zeylan. Gibbon, too, noted that Lanka had trade relations with the Far East and the Roman Empire,

Arnold Toynbee also refers to our tank civilization as an ‘amazing system of water works’ and goes on to describe how the hill streams were trapped and the water guided into giant storage tanks ‘some of them four thousand acres in extent.’ Mr. Weeramantry also quotes extensively from a modern day campaigner for the environment, Edward Goldsmith, as in the following quote:

High degree of sophistication

Sri Lanka is covered with a network of thousands of man-made lakes and ponds known as tanks (after tanque, the Portuguese word for reservoir). Some are truly massive, many are thousands of years old, and almost all show a high degree of sophistication in their construction and design. Sir James Emerson Tennent, the nineteenth century historian, marvelled in particular at numerous channels that were dug underneath each bed of the lake in order to ensure that the flow of water was constant and equal as long as any water that remained in the tank.

The quotations cited by Weeramantry range from Pliny to Arthur C Clarke and may be sufficient to impress a read
er from the West, but the one he quotes from the Mahawamsa may strike this same reader as being ‘quaint’ but, nonetheless, startling. In the modern West the role of Man is conceived as that of a conqueror of Nature.

But here in the East he plays only a secondary role as pointed out by Arahat Mahinda, when he surprised King Devanampiya Tissa in the middle of his hunt with the following words:

O great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have as equal a right to live and move about in any part of the land as thou. The land belongs to the people and all living beings; thou art only the guardian of it.

It is difficult to imagine that the West will ever come to grant a secondary role to Man in the scheme of things. The way the modern scientific age stands now, dreaming of building cities on remote planets and satellites, it is hard to dissuade it from spending billions of dollars on such projects. Here on earth he is unable to live barely in peace among his fellow men, how is this same Man going to build a better future over there?

No doubt there were voices in the West, too, that cautioned those who wanted to rush headlong into the future with words of warning such as this:

Why has not man a microscopic eye? It is Alexander Pope who asks this question and goes on to supply the answer:

For this reason, man is not a fly.

And he goes on to ask a second question:

Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n

T’inspect a mite, or comprehend the heav’n’

Alexander Pope

In this traditional scheme of things man is not on the top of the pile, says Alexander Pope but somewhere in the middle alongside ‘Beast, bird, fish, insect’ in what he calls the ‘Vast chain of Being’ extending from microbes to God. But then who reads Pope these days? From Alexander Pope to T.S. Eliot and Wendell Berry in our time, they are all voices crying in the wilderness.

That is why I am beginning to wonder whether the term ‘sustainable development’ is the most appropriate to apply here. ‘Development’ has several meanings, the one that comes most to mind readily is a state of change of state from worse to better. And striving towards a better state means for people today a desperate yearning to go to the Middle East or Italy, only to come back loaded with all the gadgetry in the world and to find that they are unsuited for our style of doing things.

Some people in the West are now realizing that over consumption is all wrong and wasteful and harmful to the environment. They are recommending now, like E.F.Schumakar, a Buddhist economics that can observe a proper balance of economic, environmental and social needs to reduce the tension between development and environment. Schumakar sums it all up in one sentence – A maximum of welfare with a minimum of consumption.

If you like to see how this worked read Robert Knox:

Eat to live

‘Thus plentifully has Nature stored this island that they neither need nor have many manual operations, except making tools to till the ground to sow Cotton for Clothing and for rice; for they reach not for more than food and raiment and drink the water of the brookes.

Thus with these naturall helpes they live with little labour; having less riches and Care than we in England, but are healthful, Chefull and Carelesse and so live with their wives and children tell worned out with old age.

‘Thus they eate to live (not for wantonnesse) and live to eate, for they use not sports for recreations when grown up, but their Chief diversion is to sett and talk with their friends and neighbours.

‘This kind of life have I had many years experience of having but little and wanting less – I mean such things as are absolutely necessary for mans subsistence – and so could very well have Continued myself to have Continued…’

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