Our self-isolation and connection

Early in 2020, for millions of humans the concept of social distancing during a pandemic wasn’t conceivable.  In fact, it’s still hard to visualize this in populous cities. But now, this reality has set in for the whole world!   Our self-isolation stretched out, will take its toll.   

Our relationship to the environment, describes our sense of space.  Humans have their sense of space. But a sense of space or territory is felt by a leopard and a dog too.  

Today, all planetary citizens are experiencing what it means to live in a constricted (sense of) space.  At this poignant time, can we think about our impacts on the other living species?

It’s not my intention for my dear reader to wallow in this thought.  But, I think this is a good time to weigh our sense of space with other species, and our role in the Universe. Let’s look at our bodies and then the relationship we have with the environment. 

Donna Haraway in her work, “When species exist” clearly states this fact – that any living thing is a composite of multiple other living things.  She says, “I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates.”

What if we can think like Donna Haraway?  And really know for ourselves that we need others (human and non-human alike) to survive!?  Not to only feel secure, but to thrive. 

We depend on so many biological systems to function well and flourish as humans.  This is at the human scale. At the public scale, our environmental ecosystems similarly, are composed of thousands of other species, each with their biological systems – all contributing to the equilibrium of the soil, atmosphere and water of the larger ecosystem in which all live. Let’s just think about the waste that humans create: plastic, chemical run-off, carbon emissions, garbage, oil spills, slag, and livestock waste (often filled with food material not natural to their bodies, antibiotics and hormones).  This kind of waste is so hard to dispose of without sullying the Earth. Going on to something more dangerous – nuclear waste! Everyone born after 1963 has radioactive matter in their teeth.  A fourth of a million tonnes of radioactive need storage and annually, 12,000 tonnes are added to this. If we bury it deep, future generations curious like us, are bound to excavate it, no matter how many warnings are put up in as many languages as possible.  Dumping this in the deep ocean is a worse idea. 

Contrast waste created in nature.  All waste in nature is some other living being’s habitat/growth enhancer/food.  Waste isn’t wasted in nature!   And natural habitats remain ever-fresh for all species to thrive.  

The point I am getting at is, human-animals need other species within us and without us, to flourish. 

We seek respite from our perfect, hygienic, hyperactive, human-filled cities and head off on vacation – to nature that is more “whole.”  We get our recreation, our unwind and our inspiration from nature. 

The more a thing is maintained whole, the more it flourishes and helps others to flourish.  This is why we seek out nature, untouched, whole and pristine! We must attempt to contemplate what this flourishing implies. We cannot treat Mother Nature like a garbage bin; nor can we only take from Her. 

Restoring and preserving nature is our most fundamental goal.  Without all the species that make up an ecosystem, the ecosystem isn’t restored and it isn’t nature.

I ask us all to share these thoughts with young children, as we ourselves contemplate how we might be better ancestors.  Let our children grow up understanding that humans are indeed mighty; but, all individual species have might and each has an important role to play in human and non-human ecosystems. 

I work with and for animals.  My ask is this, let our children observe ants…. and rodents too!  These are amazing creatures that can surpass human achievements.  They have social constructs and emotions and power – all of which come into play in their societies.  Allow children to spend their time observing all big and small creatures. Little spiders have a lot to teach us all.  Iconic creatures like elephants and rhinos and sharks do not make up the planet. 

Let’s help our children observe just about any other species.  Observing just one group of species, will teach them about our/human connection to nature.  The importance of butterflies and bees and bugs and larger creatures will simply be revealed without formal education.    More importantly, our children will incrementally comprehend our profound dependence on nature for human flourishing.  When they gain this understanding, they will begin to care and then do their parts to protect Mother Nature in Her Glory!   

In future write-ups, I’ll share more on hands-on education and humane gardens and deterrence of pesky critters non-lethally.  

Let’s all take this time as an opportunity to connect with Mother Nature – not in some far away place, but from within our own backyards.

Priya Tallam is a Geographic Information Systems specialist, wife and mom of two young adults. She is trained as an Architect and Urban Planner and at local government analyzed data to develop and apply sound policy for the health of the environment and people. In 2018, she established a non-profit centered on species and habitat conservation- vspca.org. She is an animal activist and advocate who encourages a plant-based lifestyle. Priya is currently researching the intersection of animals and design, aiming to demonstrate safe co-existence of humans and animals. One of the goals of this endeavor is to further human-animal flourishing in an urbanized world. Another goal is to encourage the stewardship of the planet. To this end, she promotes pedagogy to encourage ‘cosmic education,’ – working from the universe to the parts– genes, life-forms, ecosystems, individual cultures, history, geography. This is principally based on Maria Montessori’s work, but prepares young kids to learn by being inserted into real-life scientific research or natural living.

Wrapping Air in Cloth

“Wrapping Air in Cloth” uses a universal form of wrapping one’s belongings in a piece of cloth. Except these are empty shells that allude to the innumerable lives lost at the border when people flee danger and poverty. I am in search of forms that have multiple meanings.  This one in particular has many – on a physical level, it could stand in for the body and breath, on a metaphysical level, it could stand in for transience and how nothing belongs to us. On a global level it is the universal and ancient form of carrying one’s belongings and on a political level, it could symbolize all the lives lost when refugees risk life and limb in the hope of a better life.

 Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee. She approaches her practice as a process of sifting and communicating sensations and ideas with varied materials and processes. Conceptually driven and thematic, her work straddles the personal and the political and is a response to lived experiences that are distilled and strengthened by research in the studio and through reading. She examines notions of memory, identity, place and belonging. Performative collaborations with other artists and the larger community have recently become part of her practice. Occasionally, she curates exhibitions and organizes and facilitates situations that articulate moments of connection and empathy.

What motivates me to fight for clean air in India

I have practiced clinical medicine and public health in India for over 20 years in a number of roles, including academic researcher, educator, corporate medical director, and patient-centered clinician.  In 2015, after six years of living and working full-time in New Delhi, I thought I had undertaken every precaution to keep my family healthy: pesticide- and hormone-free food, purified water, mosquito protection… you name it, I had probably investigated it and figured it out.

The one thing I completely neglected to protect against was the air pollution. In fact I was oblivious to India’s air pollution until, in our final month in New Delhi, my then 9-year old daughter required emergency room care for sudden-onset asthma attacks. Coincidentally, in that same month, the World Health Organization announced that New Delhi was the most air polluted city in the world.  We had no choice but to move away, not just for an upcoming job transfer, but simply to protect our children.

I was grateful that we were moving to live in clean air, but both professionally and personally, I felt I had left behind a huge problem, affecting everyone I knew and loved there. I could not let it go. I now travel to India every few months, in part to support a non-governmental organization that raises awareness and advocates to mitigate India’s air pollution crisis.

A few days ago, a young New Delhi-based reporter asked me for my “expert opinion” on how air pollution harms children in India. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:

“Children born in air pollution face shorter life expectancies compared to their counterparts born in cleaner air… Children suffer physical health harms, including diminished lung growth and development, and increased prevalence and severity of pneumonia and asthma… [they] risk functional health harms including suboptimal cognitive development and sports performance. Air pollution is associated with depression, anxiety… and contributes to cancer and lifelong chronic diseases in adulthood including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia…”

These health facts are easy to summarize, but they do not convey the whole story.  What is more difficult to articulate is the stress and suffering that air pollution has created for millions of Indian people.  Including me.

I hate all the coughing. It starts within three days of my landing in New Delhi. Every friend is coughing or suffering some respiratory symptom. The plane is full of coughing passengers when I depart.

I cannot fully enjoy Diwali anymore.  I dread the futile arguments my friends and family will have with neighbors who insist it is their “right” to set off illegal firecrackers.  I dread the off the charts toxic air my friends and family will breathe in the subsequent weeks. I mourn the loss of elderly neighbors and relatives who have died of respiratory illness in the post-Diwali smog.

I hate that I discouraged my 75-year old father from visiting India for his elementary school reunion last November, because I was worried that the toxic air and ill-equipped health care system would seriously harm him.  

I feel sad for scheduling my children’s India visits only during the monsoon season, when the heavy rain reduces the air pollution. I feel guilty for limiting if and how long my children can play outside for those few weeks, knowing that their friends practice sports in worse air, every day.

Air pollution is not just a health problem harming our bodies. Air pollution compromises our moods, how we celebrate weddings and holidays, and how we live, work, play and travel. It is a crisis, affecting families just like mine, every single day.

Ultimately, for me, the only marker of success in this fight is India achieving clean air, for every person, every day.

I now know many of the experts and activists in India engaged in this fight, and I join forces with them.  We lack a sure path to clean air. Yet, we know that solving this crisis is entirely possible. Other countries have successfully cleaned up their air.  And Indian history has proven the country’s will and capacity to dramatically change.

India can and must overcome its air pollution crisis.  We have to believe it is possible, bring our skills to it, and keep at it. Not just life, but more importantly quality of life, is at stake, and worth fighting for.

Gita Sinha MD MPH is a physician specialist in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases and an independent consultant in clinical medicine and public health. She currently serves as a member of the executive team leading strategy and evaluation for a non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting India’s air pollution crisis.  

Gita completed her undergraduate and medical degrees at Stanford University, Internal Medicine residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, and Infectious Diseases fellowship and Masters of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she served as Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine/Infectious Diseases for over 10 years.  Throughout her career, Dr. Sinha has led programs in clinical and public health education, and health services delivery for rural and urban populations in India as well as other South and Southeast Asian countries. Her roles have included Principal Investigator for an NIH-funded community clinical trial of HIV clinical services in rural Maharashtra, Visiting Faculty and Research Director in clinical medicine and public health in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and co-Medical Director for a New Delhi-based primary health care start up company.

Her work-life motto is a quote by MLK Jr. which is present on her refrigerator as a reminder, “Never, ever be afraid to do what’s right, specially if the well-being of a human or an animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”  Born and raised in the United States, she divides her time between New Delhi and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she lives with her family.