A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on August 14 2011
Bishop Heber laboured indefatigably – not only for the good of his own diocese, but for the spread of Christianity throughout the East. He toured India, consecrating churches, founding schools and discharging other Christian duties. His devotion to his work in a trying climate told severely on his health. At Trichy, he had an apoplectic fit in his bath, and died. He wrote many hymns. “From Greenland’s icy mountains” was the missionary hymn most frequently printed in 19th century American hymnals.
Was Bishop Heber being a little unfair on this country when he wrote: “What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle/ Where every prospect pleases and only man is vile”? It is true that whenever I venture out from my mountain retreat to do a little shopping I have to beware of looking up at the magnificent scenery lest I tread in something nasty or be hit by foul matter coming from a bus window. It is certainly not gold with which our streets are paved.
Is Sri Lanka worse than other countries in this regard? Is man more vile here than elsewhere? Reg Heber’s home county of Cheshire is rather posh generally, but it also includes Macclesfield, whence came the gloomy band Joy Division, chroniclers of the laying waste of Britain wreaked by the Thatcher government. Have a look at Control ,Anton Corbijn’s film about the band, if you want see bleak and vile prospects. In her novel The Radiant Way (1987) Margaret Drabble saw Britain in the Thatcher years as “mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out, post-imperial, post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons”.
It used to be difficult to walk the streets of London without getting stuck to the pavement with discarded chewing gum. Many of we goodie-goodies were raised not to drop even a piece of paper on the pavement but the feral lumpenproletariat were not so refined.
In his book Ireland and the Irish, John Ardagh (1995) noted: “the Irish lack of any strong visual sense or concern with tidiness”. The Irish landscape is beautiful but it is marred by the intrusion of humanity. Most Irish small towns are ugly and depressing. The Irish countryside is sparsely populated but despoiled by the phenomenon of “bungalowitis” – the economic boom led to many ugly houses being built. With the collapse of the economy, the country is littered with ghost housing developments. Ireland’s saving grace is that, although it is the same size as Sri Lanka, the population is less than four million and falling as foreigners lose their jobs and natives look for work abroad. So it is possible to avoid vile man while enjoying the scenery. Will the last one to leave please switch off the lights!
I would venture to say that Sri Lankans also lack a strong visual sense or concern with tidiness. Affluent suburbanites dump their effluent on the street and then complain that they are infested with stray dogs and mosquitoes. Dropping litter on the streets seems to be acceptable to many in Sri Lanka. Part of the problem is food vendors who dispense even liquid comestibles in polythene, tiny portions of lunu miris are dispensed in little condom-like packages which are then tossed on the ground. Stray dogs and cattle choke on plastic bags in urban areas as do deer and fish in rural surroundings.
Ireland took a global lead on the plastic bags issue. I was somewhat disconcerted to be told on 4th March 2002 by an Irish retailer that I would have to pay 15 cents for a plastic bag. My first thought was that this was profiteering. I later learnt that this was a levy imposed by the Irish government to limit the use of plastic bags and encourage the use of re-usable bags. All levies are remitted into the Environment Fund to develop schemes to promote awareness of the need to protect the environment.
Buddhist philosophy posits a particular way of looking at the environment based on living in harmony with nature. In Buddhism and the Natural World, Irish Buddhist, PD Ryan, contrasts the Baconian or Thomist view of man’s dominance and stewardship over nature with the Buddhist world view: “It has to be remarked that the Christian missionary has often more in common with the white hunter than with his counterpart in religion, the Buddhist monk, even in these stewardship-conscious times”. Looking around the towns and villages of Sri Lanka one does not notice a strong desire to be in harmony with nature.
Many Sri Lanka environmental groups run educational programmes to raise public awareness of the dangers of waste and of the general need to care for the environment. The evidence presented to one’s eyes and nose as one moves about the country suggest there is much work still to be done.
The Environmental Foundation Ltd celebrates its 30th birthday this August. They have achieved much. I asked two of the founding members of EFL how they saw the next 30 years. Both were pessimistic. EFL fought hard to ensure that environmental regulations were observed but now these are ignored and roads are built inside national parks. EFL saved Galle Face Green from commercial violation but now it may be lost altogether to hotel development. Ravi Algama said: “I sometimes wonder if the rationale for setting up EFL is now gone – whether there is anything that a public interest law group or anyone else for that matter can do to turn things around”. When EFL started he thought the adversaries would be “influential individuals and errant corporations and companies”. Now it is “successive governments that we have had to take on”.
Lalanath de Silva has not given up the fight but he is anxious. As the Director of The Access Initiative (TAI) he has helped over 150 civil society groups in over 40 countries assess the status of access to information, public participation and access to justice in their countries. Today he is worried that the need for economic growth and foreign investment following the victory over terrorism will endanger the environment. Politicians do not have long-term vision. Lalanath says: “Good developmental policies include strong environmental and social safeguards. That is a principle well-settled all over the world. To abandon environmental and social safeguards is to court social unrest and environmental devastation in the long term. But these officials and politicians bet on the fact that they may no longer be in office when the troubles come!”
There is still work for groups like EFL to do: “Eternal vigilance by civil society and the public is our only assurance that bad policies can be reversed or corrected. “
It may be difficult to fight against government and big business but let’s all do our small bit towards making the prospect less vile. Take your rubbish home. Don’t leave your rotting garbage in the street. Most important of all – don’t spit betel juice on my shoes!