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Environmental Ethics: 5 Forest Based Life Style

Author:  Image of S.M. JainS.M. Jain
Published: 20.02.2012
Updated: 30.07.2015

Plant kingdom and its benevolence:

It is estimated that there are about a million species of plants out of which two lakhs have been documented, classified and studied. Myriad of products, edible seeds, beans, leaves, flowers, fruits, tubers, various gums and resins, dyes, fibres, flosses, chemicals and medicines are available from natural plant world. Even as building material wood is best as wooden structures withstand earthquakes better. There are large varieties of products available from natural plant kingdom almost everything that is required for human needs of food, clothing, shelter, medicines and raw material for all sorts of industries. It offers unlimited opportunities for human ingenuity and spirit of invention and discovery for sustained development of present and future generations. Botanists have classified the known plants into orders, families and species according to their characteristics. Though not as systematically as in modern books of flora, there are old earlier texts giving classified description of plants. In the 2000 years old treatise “Tilloypannati” by Yati Vrishabhacharya plants and trees have been classified in 10 broad groups namely

  1. the plants yielding edible food products, seeds, fruits etc;
  2. plants producing drinks e.g. coconuts, palms;
  3. plants giving material for building houses etc.;
  4. plants yielding material used as light;
  5. plants giving fibres and flosses used for clothing;
  6. plants giving material for making utensils, pots etc;
  7. plants giving material for various chemicals, gums, colours etc.
  8. plants yielding decorative beads, flowers etc;
  9. medicinal plants and
  10. plants tall and shady capable of protecting from solar radiation.

In this treatise all plants have been termed as “Kalpavrikshas” meaning the benevolent trees capable of giving all that is required. The word Kalpavriksha was meant for all sorts of plants and trees. The epithet ‘Kalpavriksha’ was attributed to all plants because of their overwhelming benevolence in providing multitude of products to fulfil all sorts of needs of human beings, animals and other life forms. The green leaves of plants with their photosynthetic properties are the only agents in nature which harness sunlight to produce variety of products, edibles, drinks, chemicals and host of others. Human beings and animals depend on what plants produce and are thus totally dependent on plant kingdom. The argument of non vegetarians that they consume animal meat and not plant products is not correct because the animals they consume eat plants. As a matter of fact an animal stores hardly 10% of total calories he gets from plants because rest is consumed in its metabolism. If the animal has obtained 2000 calories from plants it stores only 200 calories as meat available to non-vegetarians who actually consume indirectly plants which if consumed directly would have given 2000 calories. Thus non-vegetarians consume 10 times more vegetarian food. Grains fed to animals for non-vegetarians can feed 10 times more number of people.

Apathy towards trees:

The term ‘Kalpavriksha’ also got distorted through passage of time because of superstition and instead of encompassing entire plant kingdom it got restricted to one particular tree Adansonia digitata. Some person by chance and in fact by his effort might have been benefited or his wishes fulfilled while watering or worshipping this tree. He must have spread his story and such superstitions fan out like wild fire. This one tree is being worshipped at many places by multitude of people for boons. It is not this one tree species alone that benefits mankind but all plants individually and collectively give all that we need. Unfortunately this is not realised and forests have been and are being destroyed mercilessly in spite of now established consequences viz. floods, droughts, storms, increasing green house effect, pollution of air, sinking water table etc. all of which will be checked and minimised if green forest cover is restored and protected. There is much talk, organised activity, rules and laws for human rights and prevention of cruelty against animals but there is no such effort for preventing cruelty against plants which too have life and cognitive perception or mentation for pain and pleasure. This has been proved by scientific experiments and observations. It has been observed that plants can even sense intentions of a person whether he intends to harm or tend the plant. It is a great irony that the plants which are most beneficial and which alone have the ability to produce food for all other living beings directly or indirectly are mercilessly treated. Their limbs, the leaves and branches are detached, mutilated sometimes without any purpose just for fun or idling time. Merciless cutting i.e. butchering of trees is continuing ever since the birth of agriculture. Trees are so benevolent that they drop their fruits, dry twigs, leaves and other products voluntarily for use by men and animals. Trees also have life spans like other animals and dry and fall down and if human beings are compassionate to trees the wood of tree should be utilised only after it has completed its life span, dried and fallen on ground and not while it is young and living.

Shramanik religious texts have correlated the good or evil attitude of persons by their behaviour towards trees equating with dark and light colours according to evil and good behaviour. It has been mentioned that a person gathering naturally fallen fruits is best and is attributed pure white colour to his intention and attitude as he does not harm the tree. Second person plucking only ripe fruits from branches is denoted by light pink colour of lotus flowers as he is good and his choice is limited to only ripe fruits yet it gives some pain though minimum to the tree so it is not pure and white but with slight tinge of pink denoting lowest intensity of evil. Third person breaking a small thin branch with ripe and unripe fruits is denoted by yellow colour that is he causes more harm and his intensity of evil is more than that of second person. Fourth person cuts away thicker and bigger branches causing still greater harm and is denoted by light blue colour. The fifth person cuts away very thick and big main branch and is denoted by deep blue colour. The sixth person cuts down the whole tree and is denoted by black colour and is most evil of all. If mankind is judged by above it will fall in last most evil category. Eating naturally fallen fruits is symbiotic interaction between man and tree. Plucking fruit is snatching from tree and is theft as it is not given by its free will. It causes pain to the tree and therefore it involves violence also.

Symbiotic polyculture:

In nature there are varieties of trees found growing together on particular extensive or limited stretches of land. The varieties of trees also vary according to climatic and edaphic factors. But there is hardly monoculture i.e. only one variety growing alone. There are one or more predominant species but there are always other associates in small or large proportions. Even a single species grows stratified as predominant, dominant, dominated and suppressed according to their vigour to attain height because of differences in the genetically inherent vitality of seeds of same species or even of same tree. Then there are other trees which are by nature strong light demanders which will grow taller even if younger in age say 10 years than others which are shade bearers of even 40-50 years age. There are different varieties in light demanders and shade bearers also strong to moderates and accordingly there are canopies of plants attaining varying heights. Underneath the trees are smaller shade tolerant shrubs and then small herbs. In good natural forest the ground is completely shaded with mix of trees, shrubs and herbs. The number of plants in such a polyculture (mixed) forest is many times more than in monoculture because of plants of lower and lower heights according to their light demanding and shade bearing capacities occupying intermediate spaces between higher and higher plants. Though the number of plants in polyculture natural forests is more yet there is no competition in roots or crowns because the depths of soil tapped by varying spread of roots are different and so also the heights of canopies are different according to varying light requirements. In a normal healthy forest eco-system there are essentially all age gradations of all constituent species. In contrast where there is monoculture i.e. one single species over an extensive stretch of land as is the case generally in artificial and man-made forest plantations, fruit orchards and agriculture crops, there is competition in roots and crowns because they tap the same depth of soil and occupy same height. The number of plants in monoculture has to be reduced periodically as they grow and occupy more and more root zone and crown space. The number of trees and plants are far less in monoculture than in polyculture and accordingly the availability of variety of products is also very limited. In monoculture plants are prone to extensive damage by insect pests which are generally gene specific i.e. a particular insect pest attacks a particular variety of plants. In polyculture since there are varieties of plants and so are the varieties of insect pests and one type of insect pest is predator on other type of pest and there is natural control without any damage to plants. There is no need of any sort of poisonous pesticides to protect the plants as in monoculture.

Benevolent Forests-Nature’s sentinels and shields:

In addition to providing all sorts of products for human needs forests play a vital role in maintaining climatic and overall environmental balance. It offers an effective protective shield to earth and its inhabitants from harmful ultraviolet radiation, floods, drought, storms, epidemics, earthquakes and other vagaries of nature and ensuing calamities. Forests are most effective for soil and moisture conservation. Rains of highest intensity and velocity do not fall directly on ground in a good forest area. In natural polyculture mixed forest there are numerous canopies of different light demanding and shade bearing species. Rains fall on top canopy and then on lower and lower canopies. The force and velocity is reduced and by the time it reaches ground it just touches it softly and force of impact is so low that it cannot dislodge the soil particles and there is no erosion of soil. The forest floor is covered by layers of decayed (humus), decaying and freshly fallen dry leaves and it is spongy. The rainwater is absorbed and infiltrate down in the ground through porous and tunnelled strata of root systems of big and small trees taping varying depths. Roots of some trees e.g. Prosopis cineraria have been found to reach up to 50 and more metres depth. In forested areas more than 99% of rain water is trapped in underground reservoir from which it flows gradually all the year round into rivers, lakes, tanks and wells. In a good forest area streams and rivers are perennial, do not overflow during rains and then dry for rest of the year. As only less than 0.1% of water escapes as run off there are no floods and consequent catastrophic destruction of life and property as is recurring year after year with increasing fury in denuded naked landscapes. Water is trapped and stored and released gradually from where it falls. Every tree is thus a most effective and efficient dam than any earthen, masonry or concrete structure. Water in streams is pure and crystal clear as it comes filtered through strata of soil and rocks and is rich in nutrients and minerals. It also imbibes medicinal properties from leaves, flowers, fruits and roots of various plants. In hilly areas with dense polyculture forests moisture regime is so good that water will start flowing through a pipe or any such object when it is pushed inside the soil anywhere on slopes. Many such areas are now dry as a result of destruction of forest.

The rows of trees along sea costs and else where work as shelter belts against storms and high velocity winds. The wind blowing with great velocity is subdued and its velocity is broken and reduced to less than 30%. There is little or no impact and damage. Trees growing densely absorb and reduce the impact of earthquakes. If sea shores and riverbanks are kept under forest cover in sufficient width (along rivers about their width and at least 10 kilometres along seashores) without human encroachments then disastrous consequences of storms, earthquakes and floods and loss of life and property will not be there. It will be interesting to note that during recent Tsunami disaster (26th December 2004) the aboriginal tribes Jarwas, Onges, Shompen, Sentenelese and Great Adamanies in Andaman and Nikobar islands did not suffer being inhabitant of forest as they shifted to higher areas after biological warning signals from birds, wild animals, marine life forms and also having enough to feed on forest products, nuts, beans, tubers etc. and coconuts providing good substitute for good drinking water. The light house watchman saw that black bucks about 1700 in number were running away from the wildlife sanctuary (380 km from Chennai) to safer higher reaches before Tsunami struck the areas. It has been scientifically shown that several animals are superior to humans in their sensory abilities to sound, temperature, touch, vibration and to electrostatic, chemical and magnetic changes in their environment. The occurrence of such calamities as Tsunami, earthquakes, volcanic eruption, storm etc. are preceded by minute disturbances in environment including low intensity ground vibration, low frequency sounds and changes in magnetism etc. and animals detect these and respond to them before humans can. Traditional knowledge particularly amongst forest dwelling tribes about changes in the behaviour of animals and birds preceding the calamities can gainfully be utilised to avoid and at least minimize the loss of property and life. The Corals, trees and mangrove forest wherever left and saved from human encroachments proved strong barriers against Tsunami waves. Governments in the countries affected by Tsunami, are now realising the importance of forest and wild animals and preparing plans to recreate mangrove forests and bio-shields of trees along sea-coasts. Houses built of wood have elasticity and are least damaged by tremors as compared to masonry and concrete structures. In a good forest area the moist and humid conditions prevent natural fires. It is an established fact that forest fires are man-made either deliberate or by carelessness. The intensity of blazing sun is completely subdued, absorbed by layers of canopies of mixed dense forest. There is no damage by harmful ultraviolet rays. Trees have a wonderful capacity to absorb all sorts of obnoxious gases, Carbondioxide, Carbon-mono-oxide, Nitrogen oxide, Sulphur dioxide, and then convert them into useful products, edible seeds, oil seeds, flowers, fruits, dyes, gums, resins, medicinal constituents in leaves, flowers, fruits, bark, wood and roots and host of other chemicals. Green leaves of trees are most efficient in utilising solar energy. They are highly organised, well managed factories producing all sorts of products free of cost and human labour.

Forests-an ideal symbiotic eco-system:

In natural forest areas all life forms live in harmony and are symbiotic with mutually cooperative relationship among themselves and also in relation to inanimate constituents. The bigger trees with deeper root system help provide moisture and nutrients to younger and smaller companions. Men, animals and birds eat flowers, fruits, get necessary food and simultaneously help the plants in dispersal of their seeds. Butterflies and other insects suck nectar from flowers of plants but are agents of pollination. It has been proved by experiments that production of fruits increase by more than 25% in orchards where honey bee farming is also done. There are different species of pest and predator insects on different plants in perfect natural balance and there is no insects damage. Many insects living symbiotically on trees produce useful products like lacquer, silk, honey etc. The burrowers like rats etc., which cause extensive damage in agriculture, are useful in forests as they work as tillers of land by burrowing and turning up the soil. There are carnivorous animals, birds, insects and micro-organism which work as scavengers in nature by consuming naturally dead bodies, disintegrating all sorts of dead and waste material and converting it into products like manure directly or through their excreta. There is hardly any waste or dirty things left in good forests. There is no problem of waste disposal in these natural conditions. There is no predation of any sort. Even the carnivores like tigers were initially scavengers and consumed only naturally dead bodies which were plentiful when entire earth surface was covered with good forests before the onset of agriculture. It was only when forests and wild animals were destroyed and naturally dead bodies became scarce then these carnivores started killing animals for food. It is well known that when number of wild animals decline then such carnivores kill domestic animals and even become man eaters when extremely hungry or while protecting off-springs or when injured by hunters. It has been observed that wolves, hyenas, jackals and others generally feed on leftovers of tigers etc., but when these are not available they too start killing smaller animals and birds and even domestic cattle, sometimes children also. The most significant aspect of forest eco-systems is that populations of all life forms remain optimum according to availability of food. There is no population explosion or increase of any species. The meticulous interactions between the species, their inherent genetic characteristics and the environment are mutually reinforcing. All work and cooperate with each other within optimised capacities. There is no over-exploitation of any one of constituents by another. The renewable natural resources are utilised within their renewable and resilience capacities, reinforced by each other. Forest eco-system ensure symbiotic relationship between members of a species including humans, species to species and other physical constituents of environment. There will be no aberrations. All will co-operate with each other. All life forms will be mutually beneficial including bacteria and viruses which will not mutate to harmful mutations. Human social environment will also be amiable and situations triggering mental disorders, psychic as well as neurotic and cognitive depression, hysteria, schizophrenia, will be non-existent. Likewise it will steer clear of physical ailments also. Such is an most efficient and organised symbiotic system of management in nature which mankind has not been able to achieve in spite of astonishing scientific and technological advances.

Stabilising progression and retrogression at sustainable level:

The mutually sustaining eco-systems were damaged and degraded mainly because of anthropocentric approach of mankind that human beings are centre of the universe and all resources are for him. The hedonistic greed of men overexploited the nature beyond its carrying and rejuvenating capacity. If natural resources are utilised within their carrying capacities they are self-sustaining. Even the degraded eco-systems start rejuvenating as soon as the biotic pressure mainly of man and his domestic animals is taken off and balanced to the carrying capacity. The process of succession or progression as a result of controlling biotic pressure and also of retrogression by increasing it in forest eco-systems have been well studied and documented. One simple example will illustrate it. On a vacant land created by change of course of a river, the natural agents, birds, animals etc. bring in seeds of various species but only colonisers like Acacia arabica, grasses germinate and occupy the land. Species which are suitable in initial conditions of soil, moisture, strong light etc. can only germinate and survive. These colonisers after time varying according to edaphic and climatic conditions modify the soil conditions by leaf fall and also intensity of light. As a result other species like Dalbergia sissoo and their associates are able to germinate and survive. This process of biological evolution continues till a mix of species of plants and animals occupy the land and perpetuate in mutual collaboration. This is called climax stage. The intermediate stages are succession stages. If the balance in climax stage is disturbed by over exploitation and biotic pressure the process of retrogression sets in and species of higher climax stage are replaced by lower and lower ones of succession stages according to the intensity of biotic pressure which if continues the original stage of barren land is reached. It has been possible by human endeavour to maintain a particular succession stage of economically valuable species. Tectona grandis (Teak), the paragon of tree species is the tree of succession stage in tropical and subtropical forest eco-systems in India, Burma and other countries. If biological evolution is allowed by removing the required biotic pressure then teak will be replaced by biologically higher but economically less valuable species like Syzigium cumunii etc. The system of manipulating biotic pressure of thinning, grazing, control burning is being adopted to maintain succession stage suitable for teak. But this is also selfish concept of man. The best is climax stage which is self sustaining and mutually reinforcing.

This phenomena of succession (progression) and retrogression now well studied and scientifically established has been described in vivid details in 2000 years old treatise “Tilloypannati” by Yati Vrishabhacharya. The swinging time cycle and stages from climax to retrogratory degeneration and then again to progressive succession up to climax have been termed a complete cycle or an era. It has two swings one from best to worse known as Avasarpini i.e. down-wards retrogression like from mouth to tail of a serpent (snake) and other Utsarpini i.e. upwards progression from tail to mouth of a serpent. Each half era of Avasarpini and Utsarpini have been divided in six successive stages. The first stage is climax stage ‘Happy-Happy’ (“Sukhma-Sukhma”) which is perfectly symbiotic, when even carnivora works as a scavanger of naturally dead and is not a killer. No species of plants or animals cause harm to others. The air, water and soil are in purest form without contamination of any sort. When the balance is disturbed by greed and increased population next slightly degraded stage is ‘Happy’ (Sukhma). The greed and population continues to increase resulting in further deterioration of environment and third stage is ‘Happy-Unhappy’ (Sukhma-Dukhma) and people are partially happy because kalpvrikshas (forests) providing requirements are there though in reduced numbers but unhappy because species start attacking each other as there is a competition for decreasing available resources, the stronger like man, carnivore even annihilate many humbler ones which too become agressive like symbiotic bacteria, virus, insects becoming pests and harmful, causing ailments. The degradation continues and fourth stage is ‘unhappy-happy’ ‘(Dukhma-Sukhma)’ i.e. people are more unhappy then happy as the ‘Kalpavriksha’ (Forests) suffer concerted onslaught because of expanding agriculture. The fifth stage is ‘unhappy’ when people are by and large unhappy. The present one according to ‘Tilloypannati’ is this fifth ‘Unhappy’ stage in which people are unhappy in spite of phenomenal advance in science and technology because natural resources are being over-exploited many times more than carrying capacity and have been polluted to the extent that even life sustaining air (Oxygen) has to be manufactured artificially and inhaled from time to time by people in densely populated and polluted cities. Water in most of the natural sources is highly polluted and cannot be used for drinking and even bathing without costly purification treatment. The fourth stage had pressure from agriculture but in present fifth stage it is both from still extending agriculture and multiplying industries.

As a result of increasing consumerism, more and more exploitation and pollution of nature, the conditions will gradually deteriorate to worse when most of natural resources will be completely exhausted and environment will be so much polluted that life will become most miserable and a few numbers of a few species will be able to survive. Tilloypannati predicts sixth stage ‘Unhappy-Unhappy’ (Dukhma-Dukhma). The predictions seems to come true as things stand and are unfolding. With fewer numbers and reduced biotic pressure the progression will start. First the sixth stage will replicate, then the fifth, fourth, third, second and finally the first climax stage ‘Happy-Happy’. It will complete the full era and again the retrogratory swing and the process continues. Hopefully the same treatise Tilloypannati describes some areas may be planets, some where in some galaxies which do not have successive swings of retrogression and progression and swing is arrested, maintained at a particular stage in some areas at stage one Happy-Happy, at some at second or third or fourth stage. This description is tenable as at some place people or such life-form may be wise not to allow degradation and balance their demands at stage one. At other places realisation might have come after stage one, two, third or fourth and conditions were stabilised and maintained at particular stage by commensurate balancing of consumption and carrying capacity of environment. The logical inference is that we on planet earth can check degradation, restore it, initiate progression to fourth, third, second and even first ‘Happy-Happy’ stage from the present fifth stage. This is not a science fiction but a practical possibility in view of our experience and knowledge about progression and retrogression in forest eco-systems.

Forest based model - a viable and sustainable solution:

The present generation should pause, ponder and decide whether it wants to restore the environment to its pristine purity of Happy-Happy era for its own benefit as well as for the welfare of future generations or to degrade it further to the utmost ‘Unhappy-Unhappy’ stage. The most important pre-requisite for the swing to better environment is adoption of forest based life style. This would provide symbiotic model and eliminate most of the pollution of soil and water by eliminating use of chemical fertilisers and poisonous pesticides. The organic chemicals and materials available from forest plant species will replace artificial synthetic chemicals and material used in industries. The harmless cottage industries will replace large polluting industries. Agricultural and industrial model can be replaced by forest based model within a span of ten years. Trees yielding edible seeds, fruits can be planted at 5 metres spacing in agricultural fields and till trees attain height, maturity and start yielding edible products agricultural crops can be raised as a intercrop between the rows of trees as mentioned earlier under ‘Taungya’ system of agro-forestry. There are wastelands because of degradation of soil by water logging, salination, erosion etc. which can be suitably planted with suitable tree species. There are plants suitable for all sorts of areas waterlogged, marshes, saline, alkaline and degraded. Whereas agricultural crop can be raised on hardly one-tenth of surface of the planet, trees can be raised all over on all types of land. Forests once raised and maintained scientifically are self rejuvenating by mutual interactions of man, animals, birds and other life forms, the burrowers ploughing the land, men, animals and birds working as agents for dispersal of seed, carnivores etc. maintaining the sanitation and insects ensuring the health and immunity from diseases by providing natural balance of pests and predators. Forests do not require drudgery of tilling, sowing, manuring, watering, poisonous pesticides over and over again, crop after crop and year after year. Forests conserve rainwater in situ and there is no need for costly dams. Forests are self-watering. The humus from falling leaves and decay of naturally dead organisms provide adequate manure. The micro-organisms in forest soils maintain organic productivity of soil by synthesising, breaking various materials into useful minerals. Nitrogen fixing bacteria and micorrhiza fungus in symbiotic relationship with roots of trees enable the trees to fix much needed nitrogen from atmosphere. Forests are thus self-manuring.

The author prepared a project ‘Food from Forests’ which was sanctioned by Department of Science and Technology (Rajasthan, India). The seeds of forest tree species were analysed for nutritional contents proteins, carbohydrates, fat, minerals, fibres etc. and it was found that the forest seeds are far more nutritious than most of cereals. The average yield of edible seeds is 2-5 tonnes per hectare per year without any recurring cost as in agriculture which is not at all cost-effective because of sky-rocketing cost of inputs and is being sustained by huge subsidies. Yield of forest seeds and edible products is not affected substantially by vagaries of nature drought, heat, frost etc. firstly because the climate is also conditioned suitably by forests and secondly because the root systems of plants in polyculture mixed forests tap deeper and varying depth of soil. Forests work as sinks of harmful gases and keep atmosphere free from pollution. The filtered water going deep down in underground reservoirs and then percolating in streams is pure and clear and also has medicinal properties as various medicinal constituents in leaves, flowers, roots of trees get dissolved in water. Forests comprise most diverse varieties of species of plants, animals and minerals which provide myriad products for direct consumption and use as well as vast variety of raw materials for cottage, small and big industries which will open up avenues and immense opportunities for gainful employment to almost entire work force. Forestry practices like collection of seeds, nursery work, sowing, planting, weeding and hoeing, tending operations etc. are such that even the old, infirm and disabled can be engaged fruitfully. In forest based model there will not be any unemployment problem. Mankind will not lose any of its pleasures and will be able to avail better food, water and air by adopting forest based life-style, sooner the better.

Environmental Ethics
Prakrit Bharati Academy, Jaipur
Society for Scientific & Ethical Living, Jaipur
1st edition 2006
HN4U Online edition:
Dr. Rudi Jansma


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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Avasarpini
  2. Chennai
  3. Consumerism
  4. Environment
  5. Gene
  6. Greed
  7. Kalpavriksha
  8. Rajasthan
  9. Science
  10. Space
  11. Tap
  12. Time Cycle
  13. Utsarpini
  14. Violence
  15. Yati
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