Senior Zoological Survey of India scientist Dhriti Banerjee has straddled two different worlds of research — physiology of drug abuse and working on the use of insects in forensic investigations — in her career spanning 24 years. She has also embraced research and administration with equal zeal. Now, as the first woman to helm India’s premier taxonomic research organisation in its 105-year-old history, Banerjee aims to scale up the organisation’s foray into transdisciplinary fields with enhanced funding and train a new generation of taxonomists, especially women, required to match the demand for its services.
“We need a lot more of us around,” says Banerjee in an interview with Mongabay-India referring to the “overload of identification and advisory services” at the organisation.
“Taxonomy is the mother science of discovery. Once you identify and systematise a species, only then can you start working on the rest of its attributes. As we say, it all starts with the name. The next step is identifying its role in nature and natural surroundings specifically in our ecosystems. Then and only then the underlying importance of the species can be determined.”
“Once that status is ascertained then we realise that it is under threat and hence it needs to be conserved. ZSI has been contributing to the science of taxonomy and systematics for over 100 years and will be doing so for another 100,” adds a confident Banerjee.
Speaking of her goals as the Survey’s director, Banerjee adds that taking the science from the lab to the field is key for the organisation’s work’s relevance and impact on society: “Increased funding is of utmost importance. High-end research today has become extremely expensive and we in ZSI are making our foray into several new fields which need to be funded.”
One such area is the application of genomic tools such as next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology and the collection of genomic data for species conservation. “Unpacking the biodiversity, including the species that we cannot see, in a Protected Area, using NGS can highlight the species richness in an area which could help our Protected Area managers and policymakers in framing better laws.”
“So far we have focused on a few charismatic species for conservation goals because they are visible to us. But there are so many species, such small insects to micro-organisms that are crucial to biodiversity, but need special tools to be seen and assessed,” said Banerjee, adding that the application of genomic tools can aid assessments, monitoring and managing efforts.
“It’s like seeing the glass as half full,” she shared.
Dhriti Banerjee in her office at ZSI headquarters in Kolkata. Photo from ZSI.
Banerjee, who pursued her doctorate studies in animal physiology at the Presidency University (earlier Presidency College), is also not afraid to take up thorny issues such as economic assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services in addition to biodiversity research in agriculturally important sectors to amplify the organisation’s role in science for society.
There has been a growing dialogue on addressing the “economic invisibility of nature”. The recent UK-government commissioned The Economics of Biodiversity: the Dasgupta Review argues that natural capital should be viewed as an asset, like produced and human capital. Between 1992 to 2014, globally produced capital per head doubled and human capital per head increased by about 13% but the value of the stock of natural capital per head declined by nearly 40%, according to the review.
“We, in our country, have been made aware of the value of biodiversity through culture, mythology and religion, but understanding the economic value of biodiversity will make people more aware of it and that we need to protect it,” shared Banerjee.
Better funding would aid such nuanced scientific work, argues Banerjee and would allow the survey organisation to take its science to the masses or “non-niche end-users”, which she likens to the transformative action of performance art from street theatre to films.
“Though we receive funding from several external agencies like the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Biotechnology and others, science can work a lot better with more funding. We are one of the very few institutes that work in the field, in dry lab, wet lab, computer and digital labs simultaneously to generate effective results. Increased funding would allow seamless transitions and make our outputs more effective and increase the penetration of our results to the non-niche end-users.”
For Banerjee, the confidence to blend multiple scientific domains and embark on collaborative work comes from her multifaceted professional experiences at the organisation. Since starting with the ZSI in 1998, Banerjee, the forensic entomologist specialising in species of the order Diptera, has amassed significant administrative and scientific work experience. She worked in finance for five years and another five years as head of office at ZSI which saw her juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, move out of her comfort zone and push the envelope.
An important milestone is the launch and steering of a suite of Digital ZSI initiatives including the ZSI Digital Library at faunaofindia.nic.in. One of the most important learning experiences in her career came from organising the centenary celebrations of the Survey in 2015 for which preparations began in 2012. She was involved in the compilation of The Glorious 100: Women’s Scientific Contribution in ZSI 1916-2015report with colleagues Debashree Dam and Nivedita Saha which documented the women’s career trajectory in the survey organisation.
Percentage frequency of women scientists recruited at Zoological Survey of India between 1940 and 2015. Chart from ZSI report.
“Compiling the report was an eye-opening experience,” remarked Banerjee on the gumption displayed by women scientists who took on a male-dominated survey and exploration domain.
ZSI welcomed its first woman scientist in 1949 (late Mira Mansukhani), three decades after its inception in 1916. She continued to be the only woman scientist for three years, the ZSI report documents. In a hundred years of existence (1916 to 2015), women represented only 20 percent of the total scientific staff strength. But the percentage frequency of women scientist recruitment shows a marked increase from 3 percent in 1949-1960 to 40 percent in 2001-2015.
“What must have been for the women like Mira Mansukhani to work with men when women were seen as ‘burden’ on fieldwork,” Banerjee wonders.
According to a Department of Science and Technology (DST) report, as of April 2018, only 16.6 % out of the total 3.42 lakh research and development (R and D) personnel directly engaged in R and D activities in scientific research establishments in the country were women.
Shifting the needle to augment women’s leadership in a career in science administration and management calls for enhanced confidence-building measures and inspiring leadership that encourages women to push the envelope. “One way is to work (for scientists) in areas that you think are not related, for example, science administration and finance.”
Administration aside, the Kolkata-based Banerjee has had her fair share of thrills and spills in the lab and on the field. Watching maggots creep over the carcass of dead mice in the laboratory during her PhD days in animal physiology (at the Presidency University) tickled her fancy that eventually led her to explore forensic entomology.
“Since they were alive and growing I started recording their growth and maintained the maggots in the lab to see them pupate and hatch into small flies. When I started digging into the web for information, I learned about forensic flies and their role in postmortem interval assessment in criminal investigations,” she shared with enthusiasm. Additionally, the entomology lab next door was rearing biting midges from banana stalks which piqued her interest.
Scientists at ZSI and only another lab in Madhya Pradesh are working on forensic entomology, she says. “Forensic flies are a group of flies that you commonly encounter but do not notice as you are not aware of their importance. The shiny bluebottle flies and the grey checkered back flies are the notable ones. They are important nutrient recyclers of our environment. Their small white larvae feed on rotting decomposed organic matter and recycle the nutrients back to our ecosystems. Their role in assessing the time of death, cause of death and at times also localisation of death is enormous. But it is not very well studied in our country.”
*Biologist Dhriti Banerjee, who has straddled the realm of scientific administration and management, is the 105-year-old Zoological Survey of India’s first woman director.
Zoological Survey of India is the country’s premier taxonomic research organisation set up in 1916. In hundred years (1916 to 2015), women represented only 20 percent of the total scientific staff strength. But the percentage frequency of women scientists recruited has increased.
Sahana Ghosh is a science journalist and a LEDE fellow (2019-2020) based in Kolkata/Delhi. She is a Contributing Editor to Mongabay India.
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).
Derelict sand-dunes. Each layer of soil, damaged. Weeds spilling over plastic waste. This was Jaipur’s Kishan Bagh, until it drew naturalist Pradip Krishen.
Sandwiched between densely populated bastis, Kishan Bagh, is now a thoughtfully laid out trail of rock and Roee. Mini-island zones can engage the walker to sense what shrub life is natural to this desert topography. Then there’s the Dhok tree, informally known as the button fruit tree, a hardy survivor known to wrap itself around granite. With zero exotic species and a lake-view to take it all in.
Open to the public by Diwali, Rishita Chaudhary meets Pradip Krishen to find out how he did it. Excerpt from an Open Axis interview series, focussed on how path-breaking Indians are responding to the climate change challenge.
What has it been like working with the Jaipur development authority on this project?
Oops, it’s been awful. Alright, let me say to start with, on the one hand, it is quite unusual and amazing that a government department has, uh, supported something that is not within their sight. I give them full marks for doing that.
It has been quite a struggle to work within a system that is very rigid. I mean, a lot of their systems have been made to curb the possibility of easy corruption. It doesn’t really stop corruption, but it makes it very difficult to actually wade through it and just to do things.
You have to understand that what we set out to do really, was to basically restore a set of sand dunes, to create a shrub land. This is something they found very difficult to understand because they have a certain conception of what a park is like. They expect lawns and ornamental trees. No matter how much you said to them that look, this is about restoring dunes and the appropriate plants that exist on dunes are actually shrubs and grasses. These are not forests. These are not, uh, you know, that kind of biome. It didn’t sink in.
So the JDA horticulture people are basically foresters on deputation. If you scratch a forester in Rajasthan and you talk to them about the desert, they refer to grasslands as forest blanks, as if you have forests and then you have non forest and there’s no other. It is just a straight kind of dichotomy. So a grassland is of no consequence for them. And the desert is just a complete wasteland. So that’s what we were up against really.
Then also in terms of design, we were basically trying to use vernacular Thar desert architecture as a kind of language. You know, I had a very interesting architect working with me, Golak. We assembled a whole lot of pictures for him, of the way people use natural materials in their homes and their architecture and their boundaries in their fields and in their patching. He’s just done a lovely job. So most of what we have built there in terms of civil works, it’s not so much pucca buildings, but more like pavilions or open gazebo and things like that.
I mean, for us, it worked out very interestingly, but for JDA, I think they went around with a big question mark in the middle of the forest and they were saying, yeh kya banaa hai(What has been made)? So there was a lot of puzzlement. Yet they backed it all the way through. This project started in a previous political regime, so there was always the danger that when the regime changed, you know, the new political party would appoint somebody who would then question everything. Perhaps even, you know, the way a tiger destroys the cubs of a previous tiger’s sons, but that didn’t happen.
Image credit: Pradip Krishen
So, as I said on the one hand, unusual, wonderful to get that support. Quite difficult to navigate the whole thing with them. But it’s happened. I think the most difficult thing was working with contractors because in the government system, basically when you are asked to design something, you then have to write what’s called a BOQ, a bill of quantities that specifies everything that needs to be specified. Then they call in contractors, hire the lowest bidder. The lowest bidder is usually somebody who is kissing the floor in terms of prices quoted. Wanting to make the money by then cutting corners, doing stuff in a really shoddy way. So no matter how much you insist on a sample being approved, you will see the sample of whatever it is, whether it’s a wall or anything, you just see it getting worse and worse and worse, with every square foot. That is very, very difficult with them. The fact that we managed to do what we did despite this, is a miracle, but there was a visible sense in which, you know, you aim for something, but you’ve got something else.
This was the first time I’d worked with the government. Before this I’d worked for fifteen, sixteen years with the Mehrangarh museum trust in Jodhpur. That was just such a wonderful journey because we learned to trust each other implicitly. It is not that they didn’t sometimes say no to something I said, things were discussed and considered and there were always good reasons for saying either yes or no. But it was a huge contrast, in working with what the JDA called the private sector. You know, they use private sector almost like a pejorative category.
In mainstream media, Kishan Bagh was pitched as a way to understand the unique biodiversity of a desert park. For our readers, could you help us understand what this means?
When I was first asked to come to Jaipur in 2016 to design a park, I was taken around by the JDA in a white ambassador with white cloth on the seats and four gentlemen who were all in the horticulture department and they showed me all the best parks, central park and this park and that. I said, look, this is not what I do. I mean, please understand, I’m not a designer of ornamental parks. At the end of four or five hours, they eventually said, ‘Dekho humne aapko saare parks dikha diye hai’ (See, we have shown you all our parks).What else can we show you?
I said look, don’t you have some little corner of the city that is unraveling, that I can see because, what I like to do is work with degraded landscapes. Then one of them had this brainwave and they took me to a place I didn’t much like. Then they took me to what became Kishan Bagh. This is essentially a set of sand dunes formed with monsoon winds blowing in from the west, carrying sand particles and piling up at the base of a set of hills called Nahargarh because then they had, no, they couldn’t go any further. In the water flowing down, the hill had carved channels through the dunes, but the dunes, it looked a little bit like the Chambal ravines. When I saw this, I said, wow, this strikes a chord with me because one of the things I’ve been seeing in the desert for many, many years is a kind of desert shrub land that I felt is really important to announce to the world.
I wind back and tell you that story because it is completely relevant to what I am about to say. So when we would tour the desert quite often, we would do like four or five, six day trips, essentially looking for seeds, but slowly getting to know a fairly large tract of land between Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer. As our eyes became more and more accustomed to recognizing the plants, we started noticing that there’s a particular combination of a particular community of plants, three plants whose Marwari names were Seenio, Bui and Kheemp. So just as a short form, I’m calling it the SBK habitat. There was something very interesting, it looked extremely natural and extremely appropriate to this kind of sandy landscape.You were seeing the SBK only in small chunks, but always by mining or by farming or by plantations.
We started asking local people.What do you call this kind of shrub land?When your camel goes wandering through there, do you have a name? They would tell us geographic name is called so-and-so and we said no, no, we are not asking the name of the place. We want to know whether you have like a generic? They didn’t understand what we were saying. They thought we were nutters, you know, so they would sort of roll their eyes. Finally, we met a guy and he said we call that Thal and we realized that Thal is actually probably the original word for Thar. We call it the Thar Desert, right? Probably just based on the fact, the British heard the word thal, didn’t know how to pronounce it or spell it and wrote T H A R, because the thal is actually midway between an L and an R in terms of the said sound.
Interestingly in Pakistan, they spell it T H U L L you know, but here it’s Thar. We then looked it up on Google. It said that Colonel James Todd traveling on camel back from Sind to Jaisalmer in 1829, out in the natural jungle of the desert. Calls it the Roee. We said, my god, we have discovered a local Marwari word for the natural shrub land of the desert, which is now severely threatened by all the stuff that’s going on.
We thought to ourselves, we ought to write about it. We need to get this word out into the vocabulary people use, when they think and talk about the desert. We also realized that my god, there are shrub lands in other parts of the world, they all have names. You have the Chaparral in California, you have the Fynbos in South Africa, the Maga in Western Australia, you have the Gehrig in the Mediterranean, they all have names and they are all beautifully, carefully conserved. They are all visited by tourists. People photograph these places, but we have one in Rajasthan and nobody cares what it is.
So when Kishan Bagh was happening, I thought that my god, this is my opportunity to try and sort of smuggle in the idea, the notion of the Roee and to try and insert it into the brains of people who visit the park. So in a sense, the notional center of Kishan Bagh is all about the Roee. It’s all about what a Roee is. Why a Roee happens? What are the different kinds of landforms on which Roee takes place? How does Roee change when the minerals change? How do the plants change?
Why is it important? Why is it important to actually value this land? So that’s why we have a whole section of the park, which is all about this. That’s what we mean about interpreting the desert and trying to get people to understand it. When we started doing that for the Roee we said, we can also do this for the rocks.
So we have another long section, which is all about rocks made of horst, basically of sand. Because these are all sandy dunes, let’s just stick to sandy. We don’t want to do all the rocks in the desert, because that would become much too voluminous, but let’s just take quartz as a substance and look at all the rocks, they are all made of quartz in one way or the other, including some of the igneous rocks. So there is a whole section that explains what all these rocks are about.
Image credit: Pradip Krishen
I think if there’s one thing that I am very proud of in the park, it is how we have managed to write our science, because science can go very wrong. They can be very scientific and very hard to understand, you know, uninviting. But we have tried really hard and really consciously to do these signs in a way that engage people. That sort of hooks a little bit of interest and hopefully will spur people to want to go further and go back maybe, and perhaps dial up aunty Google and say, Hey, you want to know more about this? All of these signs read in Hindi and English, a dual language thing. We have tried very hard to make these signs fun and easy to understand. That’s really what we meant by interpreting the desert and helping people to understand it now.
How do you think through a project while planting native species in an urban Indian landscape?
Oh I don’t know if I have any general principles to tell you how to, how one does that. I mean, it depends entirely on the landform, right? It depends a fair amount on instinct. But a lot of it depends, and this is something that I’m becoming more and more aware of. It is really important to find what they call a reference site, as your template. So for example, there are places in Delhi, where people have created diversity parks, parks with native plants, and they often make the mistake of planting too densely. When the actual native forest type is actually an open forest and not a dense woodland. It is very easy to plant density.
All you have to do is just stick things like a Milwaukee, you know, horrible Milwaukee forest. But if you have good sense, then it is very useful to then try and use that reference site. To look at what are the communities that you plant together? How do plants relate to each other? How do plants, you know, what are they like in physical relationship with each other, how close do they grow? It would be very easy for us, for example, in the kitchen, to grow things much too close to each other, but these are shrub lands and grassland. They are not forest. I haven’t worked with that many urban situations. I mean Jodhpur and Jaipur are the only two that I worked with. I’m now working with several other projects that are not particularly urban.
What role do you think this plays in addressing climate change, especially as cities and towns continue to experience water shortages and heat waves?
I don’t know whether it plays any particular role in terms of climate change. I think that, what, what we hope will happen is that, we are not a particularly aware society in terms of nature. I’ll give you one stark example. We have something like 2,600 species of native trees in this country. That’s a pretty staggering number, you know, especially when you consider that the whole of the United States, which is much larger than India, has about 1300 species or half of us. The whole of Europe excluding Russia, has about a thousand species. Britain, including Scotland and Ireland has something like 30 species. England alone, it’s something like 11 or 12 species. So 2,600 is almost an embarrassingly rich amount of species. Of course, China has more, Indonesia has more, the Amazon basin has more, but do you know how many species of trees we actually use? In, in our parks and in our gardens and on our roadsides, it’s less than a hundred.It’s less than a hundred species out of 2,600.
It’s as if, as a civilization, we are not interested, you know, they are out there somewhere. You know, when I did my book about the trees of central India, I kept coming across these gorgeous trees, and they have never been used, for a park or a street. When I go to Rajasthan, you see these wonderful roads, between say, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The reason these roads are beautiful is these are border roads and the army needs to move on them really broad, beautifully tarmac roads.
There is some nutcase from Bali who has said, I’m going to plant two crore neem trees and that’s his way of ensuring he goes to heaven. So he has got these miserable neem trees growing inside tight little jaalis. He has these watering tankers come and water them every week. These trees are miserable. Why not plant native trees? When you drive through these places, you see such beauty, you see the Royda, the Jahl and the Kankero. Gorgeous trees and you can’t help but exclaim about them. Why not plant them on the road side?
The answer is, Bas milta nahi hai nursery mein, but what is the problem in growing these things? Why do you need a nursery? You are the forest department, you know? So it is very weird that we are as blind and as insensitive to nature all around us.
When I wrote my first book about the trees of Delhi, that’s what I felt after it came out, people were so grateful to be given a little bit of help to understand these things that they saw around them, that were opaque to them. They didn’t know what they were. They were there, you know? So when I do a park, I’m not consciously trying to do something in terms of either climate change or education or anything? My primary purpose is I think partly aesthetic. I’ve never seen beauty, natural beauty, like I see in a forest.
I spent three years traveling through central India for my book on the jungle trees of central India. I’ve never seen things as beautiful as I’ve seen in, you know, in the jungle. So it just makes sense that if you are creating a park or an assemblage of trees or bushes or grass or whatever, you imitate nature, you try and imitate nature.
Image credit: Pradip Krishen
Maybe you can never be as good as what you see out there. I’ll give you an example. Maybe as much as 80 or 85% of all the trees that you get in a dry deciduous jungle in central India, when they first come into new leaf, the new leaf is in some part of the, the red part of the spectrum. A zillion different kinds of reds, from dusty red to a bright vermilion. I would travel from late March through April and May, I would just see this amazing sight of all these trees in the new flush of leaves.
I thought, how interesting, I mean, this is what we read about when we read about autumn and fall in a temperate forest. We know what happens, we know why leaves turn red. Now in a temperate forest, what’s happening is that basically when you have a leaf there, the chlorophyll is masking the other pigments that exist in a leaf, right? So there are pigments like carotene and xanthophyll to fill in other pigments, browns and yellows and reds that exist in a leaf. But they are masked by the green of the chlorophyll. So when it’s time for the leaf to fall, the chlorophyll is withdrawn by the tree. Therefore these colors are unmasked and that’s why you get the reds of the maples and so on.
Here the same thing seems to be happening in reverse. Instead of happening at the end of a tree’s life or the end of the leaf’s life, it is happening when the leaf is first being produced. That is to say that the chlorophyll is not entering the leaf in the very beginning. And I began to wonder why this? Why would nature make this happen? Nature always works for a reason. It’s never completely random.
And I started chasing this idea and trying to read up and there were various theories. One theory was that, look, it’s really hot when these trees are producing new leaves. April and May, maybe the red is like a sunblock? Blocking, the UV rays or something like that. Then there was a theory that, well maybe the tree is waiting for the leaves to grow older, before they become palatable to browsers. But then that doesn’t explain why all the leaves turn red. Why not just the lower leaves, right?
Then I found this very interesting theory. I think I believe it, what actually happens is that the greatest predators of leaves in a wild area are beetles, insects? Insects don’t see in the long wavelengths, in the reds.
So to be red is to be invisible to your greatest predators. So nature has worked so brilliantly that all the reds are a way of actually evading predation. Once I realized this, I’ve been waiting to write a book about how to plant trees in ways that imitate things, effects that you see in nature. For me, this is just one of the most brilliant things, but there isn’t a single landscape architect in India, who says, hey, let’s use the reds for a wonderful effect in May or in April. Why not? I mean, it’s ridiculous. So, these are the things I bear in mind when I’m doing, when I am doing a scheme.
Somebody might ask me to create a screen along a particular wall. I’m not looking then at the flowers, which are ephemeral and short-term. But I am looking at canopies, textures, colors and I am looking at how they interact with each other.
Climate change is a very complicated and a very interesting thing. You know, for me, the most important aspect of what I’m doing and what I’ve learned in the desert, is to try and be sustainable. But the sustainability is about water. It’s all about trying to create planting schemes that require absolutely no looking at.
So when I, when I first started working in Jodhpur, I did what I read about and what everybody seems to do, which is you do your gully, do your contour, trenching, plugging, you try and stop water from running off the land quickly.You try and hope it’s going to infiltrate the ground. It didn’t seem to have much effect, but we did it anyway. Then suddenly one day I thought, why am I doing this?
When I travel in the desert, I’m picking up seeds and I’m looking at the way things grow. This is a rocky desert, in Jodhpur, whereas it’s a sandy desert in Jaipur. Totally rocky and rhyolite volcanic rock in Jodhpur, you can look at a rocky hill and you find things growing at the very top, but there’s no soil at all. Forget about water. There’s no soil. They are growing in cracks. So why are we bothering about water when there are plants that can actually survive on their own, in these hideous conditions.
So maybe it is just a matter of actually understanding what the plants need. If you go to scientific flora, there is a lovely book called the Flora of the Indian desert by Dr. M.M Bhandari. It doesn’t tell you about ecology. It is basically just an arrangement of the plants, in the way that people assume they have evolved. It’s a taxonomic list.
So for me, what was very interesting was actually beginning to learn about what it is that a particular species needs and where it will grow. If it is suffering for want of water, then it’s the wrong plant in the wrong place. It must be allowed to die and be replaced by something else that’s going to be hardier. That was really what the whole sixteen years of working in Jodhpur was about, actually learning how these plants work, so that nothing gets watered, nothing has to be given any nutrients. They just grow on their own. And that was for me, the most wonderful thing.
A few questions and all answers have been shortened, while keeping the tone and tense of the recorded conversation intact.
Author bio: Rishita Chaudhary is a second-year student studying political science, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University.
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).
The rusted insignia of the hammer and the sickle. Walls rotting, cracking into pieces like soil during a drought. Chairs sitting in abandonment. Among a sea of tattered books and a room of shattered glass, emerges the 94-year old naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Fredrick Attenborough in his new documentary A Life on Our Planet. Standing in the ghost town of Pripyat, abandoned by civilization almost 60-years ago as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, David Attenborough begins an intimate address of his witness statement.
He reminds us that while the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, “a result of bad planning and human error”, was a disastrous event in human history, it is only one tragic example from a long list of errors made by us. Human mistakes, perhaps no less harmful, continuously occur across the globe. These errors have overrun the natural world and led to a steep decline in the planet’s biodiversity. Just as Chernobyl did, is the Earth too heading towards becoming uninhabitable?
Though Attenborough humbly appreciates how extraordinary his life spent exploring the wild has been, his experiences through time have taught him that the wild is finite and needs protecting. He describes how centuries ago humans had arrived at a stage where their “predators were eliminated and diseases were controlled.” Once we felt that there was nothing left to stop us, our wants grew endlessly and we kept exhausting the Earth in an unsustainable manner.
The documentary highlights a trajectory of instances where the growing demand of our species has led to the ruin of the non-human world: deforestation of the Borneo rainforest, the decline of Orangutans, animals pursued to extinction, overfishing, warming of the Arctic summers, depleting freshwater and the turning of coral reefs to white. While the bleaching of coral reefs is mistaken to many as a beautiful phenomenon, it is a tragedy draped in white as it signifies the dying of the reefs. But there’s more to the documentary. It isn’t just another story about the global decline of nature.
Although the documentary begins by acknowledging how we have threatened the stability of our planet, it goes further to show that there is still hope for us. We stand a chance against our own mistakes if we find ways to live sustainably and reintegrate back with nature. Using the comfort of Attenborough’s voice to intimately describe his experiences in the wild, the documentary seems to invite its viewers to be concerned about the environment not out of guilt, but perhaps out of responsibility. The documentary attempts to evoke a sense of collective consciousness toward our planet’s climate crisis.
Throughout history, collective consciousness has played a role in bringing about change in different realms of society. In the environmental realm, such an instance of change is mentioned in the documentary when Attenborough describes how people’s perception towards the killing of whales was changed in the 1970s. Many environmental groups pushed the agenda against the whaling industry which sparked widespread public discussion on the issue. The harvest of whales was eventually made a crime as a result of the formation of shared consciousness revolving around the issue of whaling.
Since the development of collective consciousness can have such a profound impact, it is natural to question how such consciousness is created in the first place. What unites people to form similar beliefs? Are there particular sources that help in the creation of collective consciousness? Have these sources transformed over time? How can we create a collective consciousness in today’s world?
Before attempting to answer these questions, let us first look at the origin of the concept. The French theorist and sociologist Emile Durkheim was one of the first to coin the term. He recognised that while people had individual moral principles, they were often bound to one another by culture and shared a sense of solidarity with each other.
According to Durkheim, the phenomenon resulted in a set of beliefs, ideas and principles which was shared collectively by many individuals in society. One of the biggest driving forces for the development of collective consciousness was the fact that it created a sense of belonging among people.
Over time, the source of collective consciousness changed. In his book The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim suggests that primitive and modern societies followed different models of solidarity. Primitive societies followed a “mechanical model”. People in such societies were united by shared beliefs, religious practices and ideas. This was a time when people’s attributes were homogeneous in nature, they didn’t work in different economic branches. Thus, people in primitive societies were mainly similar to one another. They shared unifying experiences.
The forms of collective consciousness we see today have been influenced by the attributes of modern society. Durkheim terms the social integration of such societies as “organic solidarity”. Modern economies are based on the division of labour and this creates a whole range of classes. People now have different jobs, believe in different gods, practise different religions and in general have very different experiences. However, since people have specialised roles in society, they are bound to be dependent on each other. The dissimilarity, the heterogeneity among people has created solidarity as a result of a high level of interdependence.
Even in the case of whaling, radio, television and print media were widely used to create the collective consciousness. Songs, films and literature on Whales grew to such an extent that Whales became popular personalities. People started viewing whales as creatures that needed to be protected. Thus, the media played an important role in building collective consciousness against whaling. This eventually led to the growth of anti-whaling activism.
As technology progressed, we experienced a shift in the source responsible for the expression of ideas. In today’s world, that source is the internet. In the past, collective consciousness emerged from sources such as holy scriptures, traditional beliefs or big media houses. Now, with the power of the internet, all those with access to the internet have the ability to influence and shape the collective consciousness with varying degrees. Every element on the internet exists with the possibility of being a part of the collective consciousness.
David Attenborough’s documentary A Life on Our Planet, has come out in times where the internet is perhaps the most important source for shaping the collective consciousness. But he started imparting his influence much before the advent of the internet.
Back in the 1950s, people didn’t know what Pythons, Pangolins and most other animals looked like. He was one of the first people to bring documentaries of the wild and the natural world to television screens. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to have regular access to television, we have grown up watching Attenborough’s documentaries and listening to voice. His appreciation of the natural world has been contagious and has inspired many. Thus, when a personality like Attenborough publicly immerses himself in ecological activism, he comes with the powerful ability to push the collective consciousness to care about the planet.
Along with changing times, Attenborough too has updated by taking some of his activism online. He now uses Instagram to raise awareness about climate change. His latest documentary landed on Netflix, a popular streaming platform especially among the youth. Although his activism through these different platforms contributes towards the creation of collective consciousness towards the environment, it is up to us to manifest our consciousness in a way that can bring about change.
Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.
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