Thursday, March 8, 2012

Learning Societies Unconference ( LSU )- its valuable lessons in ecological sensitivity

Wow..somehow I can't stop thinking of the LSU..I guess it was so unique in so many ways that my brain can't seem to flush out the memories and move on!! I wanna record everything that impressed me then for my own memories..I'm categorizing my impressions only for the sake of not missing anything out..It was deeply meaningful for me from the point of view of my own learning..There was so much of it here I go!

1. Ecological sensitivity: I swear by God I've never seen anything like this. When I first heard that the LSU was gonna be held in an organic farm, the organic & the farm part of it struck me but not the logistics. When I read the conference's topic "Healthy Lifestyles Healthy Communities" it didn't do me much..After all we talk a lot about all this but kuch hota hai kya?When only I saw how things were managed there from the point of ecological sensitivity did I realize how much planning & work must have gone into this. The LSU really did live up to its theme.
Its very easy to go to a place, admire it , enjoy it , destroy it and then leave thinking that "I can't do anything about it or I don't live here or Its not practical"..This happens ALL THE TIME!!In all these supposedly eco-farms & resorts we see so much of consumption & waste that it doesn't somehow suit the surroundings. You are in the middle of a forest but are sipping Pepsi & throwing the bottle and moving on... We talk a lot about recycling, ecological awareness, less consumption etc etc but can somehow never get it right especially when we meet in large numbers. The LSU was indeed an eye-opener ..some of the things that impressed the HELL out of me are as follows:

1. Vessel Washing: Wow this one truly truly TOPS the list. They couldn't have got it better. Whoever devised this method is truly a genius..its very simple actually but since we are so used to washing our vessels from the EVER-FLOWING tap=water it never strikes us. The LSU devised a very smart method to reduce the huge amount of water that would have got consumed had all the 350 odd folks washed their utensils from the tap every day..
So the system was that @ 5 containers of water were kept next to each other. Once you are done eating you immerse your vessels in the first one ( this removes all the remaining food), then you scrub them clean with ash ( from the choola cooking) & coconut hair , then progressively keep using the other containers to get your plate absolutely clean. The containers would be refilled from time to time. I'm sure this simple method has saved GALLONS of water. Wow!!

2. Wedding card name-tags: This was another huge one..Everyone was requested to get old wedding cards which would be used as name-tags..what a brilliant way of saving card-board & paper!!

3. Steel utensils- Yes as mentioned earlier they used steel utensils to serve food..People were responsible for washing their own vessels & that too with chool ka ash & not soap. Imagine how much of plastic they saved and how much soap was prevented from contaminating the soil!!

4. Choola- One of the volunteers had built a choola which he had learnt from Rajasthan..I would have to investigate into its specialty.

5. Request to get no plastic utensils- We were all requested prior to the conference to not get plastic water-bottles or containers keeping in tandem with the philosophy of the farm. And I saw VERY FEW PEOPLE with plastic bottles..that's when it struck me that sometimes people just need a friendly reminder to not do certain things and they don't!!

6. Dry compost toilets for pee and poop- Wow!!! This was truly unique..I've never seen something like this. It perfectly went with the surroundings. I am guessing that a lot of people who lived in the tents in the fruit forest of Hide-Out used these toilets..I wasn't aware of it till the girls had to poop one day during the conference.We decided to investigate the toilets..they refused initially..And then we had this long talk on how this is the natural way to defecate, about how much wastage happens in our urban toilets etc..and they agreed. The little one being scared of falling into the hole chose to do it near a tree. Shruthkirti later commented that the toilets never smelled and in fact she enjoyed the breeze while pooping!!! And then it was my turn-frankly speaking I was a bit freaked out.I had done all this lengthy lecturing but a part of me was very reluctant to use the natural toilet.I had to really push myself to WALK THE TALK and I did. But going through the procedure made me realize that in a natural setting biological processes are taken of in a circular manner as against a linear manner in our urban lives. What came from the earth goes back to the earth with minimum usage of resources like water, space, paper etc.. Just because we have a running tap we consume so much more water than we actually need. Before proceeding to the toilet when I collected water in my container I made a mental check that I've got to use it sparingly . Otherwise I would have to get up , wear my clothes again go to the water tank and sit at the toilet again..but inspite of the mental check I wasted the water in like 2 secs & had to go through the process some 3 times much to my disgust & discomfort!!
I also realized another thing- In my urban home I use SO MANY resources to keep the toilet thing going on- like washing it every other day with lotsa water, chemicals & equipment, man hours ( my maid) etc...And all the drainage systems that we need to build to take the water to the sea and the also the humongous contamination of the sea itself. And then I also remembered as to how STUPIDLY LAVISH toilets in American homes can be. I was also part of that stupidity ..with decorating the walls in the toilet , keeping flower-vases , beautiful artifacts like looking objects for storing my tooth-brushes & soaps, scented flowers etc etc...some of the toilets I've seen in American single home families can accommodate 2 families in them!! That's the amount of wastage for a simple biological process that JUST REQUIRES A DAMN HOLE & a little water !!! My goodness ! Humanity has really become a victim of materialism that goes hand in hand with urbanization & modern , so-called "developed" societies where everything is a show-off!!

7. Rural folks are not activists- I will always remember this. Hemant Chaabra ( the owner of the farm) had made this statement " We have a lot to learn from rural folks". Their ecological sensitivity is a way of life done very innocently ..They don't do it as activists like us." And we ( urban, educated , modern) folks look upon villagers as ignorant, "tribal", " uncultured", "dumb" etc etc...We have so much to learn from them. In the US & urban India recycling & environment protection is a huge science, a proud badge to wear , a big tamaashaa of sorts..But these villagers are doing it so naturally. There is no such thing as waste..Jinan mentioned in his talks that the attitude of waste comes in when you keep a waste basket! and there is no such thing as a waste basket in the rural homes. They hardly use anything that is non-biodegradable & if anything comes in their hand they always reuse it. Another person ( he is a farmer in Kerala) had mentioned during one of the sessions that when he initially returned from the US to Kerala to do farming, he always thought he needed to go to the store to fulfill any need of his. But at the village where he lives he observed that if someone wanted something all that they would do is just look around RIGHT where they are located and ALWAYS find something to fulfill their need.

8. Last but not the least, the farm itself really impressed me. Hemant's farm is an organic fruit forest..Its about 5 acres of land that was barren some 23 years ago & now thanks to Hemant & his family's dedication , that land is lush green with all sorts of fruit trees. Hemant took us on a walk through the fruit forest and we realized that he & his family had taken so much of efforts to build this small piece of heaven. Hemant told us that it took some 20 odd years for the birds to come..Hemant makes his own organic compost in the farm itself. We were talking about it later on & Shankar commented that it takes like probably 1/2 hour to raze down 5 acres of forest but 23 LONG years to build it again. I got goose-bumps when I realized it. We were deeply touched by our conversation with Hemant. From a completely urban lifestyle his family has made a huge shift towards rural , meaningful, responsible living ...Shankar & I were very impressed & motivated too. On the last day we got to stay in Hide-Out ( in the middle of the fruit forest) for the night. We slept in a room whose windows where simply huge empty spaces in the wall covered with sack material for curtains. I remember going to sleep with the sound of a 1000 insects around me & waking up the beautiful symphony of a 1000 birds ..The air felt so fresh & inviting. When we returned back to our apt in Pune the contradiction was too obvious. I really miss the farm..and hope to make one my home sometime during this lifetime. I believe heart of hearts that it will certainly happen. All it requires is my intention to be really strong. The universe will send me all the energy to make my dream come true- I truly believe that the LSU was the first step in that direction.

Our lives are simply not justified the way it is right now. This over consumption & linear lifestyle is simply crazy. We cannot continue like this forever & each of us owes a huge debt to be repaid to Mother Nature. I remember reading somewhere that " Our earth has not been passed on to us by our ancestors but has been loaned to us by our children!!"

I've always believed deep down that rural India has so much to teach the world when it comes to ecological sensitivity ..the LSU has deepened my faith & motivated me to do more. Right now we are not in a stage to clear our bowels or bladder in a hole in the mud but in our urban lives itself we can do more of what we already do to be ecologically sensitive & add on a few things. Some of the things that immediately came to my mind during the conference were:

1. Separate dry & wet garbage more effectively.
2. Put away every piece of vegetable & fruit waste in our vermi-compost of our urban permaculture experiment.
3. Always use cloth bags during any shopping ( maybe put a reminder on the door?) & try to reduce drastically & eventually banish plastic bags from our lives.
4. Start using rita for washing our clothes ( A friend has been doing it for 2 years now in her washing m/c & swears by it)- This will reduce the chemical waste that goes down our drains.
5. Investigate into using non-chemical stuff for washing vessels & cleaning. Same for bath soaps & toothpaste. I came across a couple who do the same in their Banglore home.
6. Use coconut hair as brushes for washing vessels (We have lotsa them usually since we are Palghat Iyers & thus consume a lot of coconut!! ;)))
7. Never throw any plastic container & recycle whatever is in the house for any usage. We do this already but can improve a lot more.
8. Try the container system used in the LSU for washing our vessels. Would have to convince the maid ..they use a crazy amount of water for washing the vessels. Also try keeping a vessel in the kitchen basin to collect water from the tap & use it in our permaculture experiment???
9. Shift completely to organic for our kirana needs & fruits & veggies. I learned from Shammi that organic food is not as expensive if bought directly from the source. Also that Pune has a lot of organic farmers who are ready to supply...will investigate further.
10. Consciously switch off the lights if we are not in a room..We do this but can improve .
11. Reduce consumption of processed food..We cook twice a day at home but can try making cookies, pickles & such other stuff that is typically bought in the stores ( This is going to be the tuffest one! ;))) )

The LSU taught me one very important lesson. That ecological sensitivity requires being responsible which in turn means working hard.If we look at the villager's life we can see so much of hard-work. That's why their carbon footprint is so low..We can't have a take-it easy policy & also be ecologically sensitive. Hemant Chaabra taught us this very nicely. He put his foot down & thus made us realize that a LOT OF WORK needs to be done to maintain an organic farm. Hats-off to him!!

I just remembered a logo on someone's T-shirt in the LSU- "If not me then who???"


  1. Sangeeta, You guys must go to KART TECHNOLOGIES In Karnataka!!! It is a must! I gave the phone no. before you left from US!!! This is exactly what that place is about!! You will find many ways of conservation in you home in a similar manor, how to change the taps out of recycled materials and only used 60 ml of water to wash your hands!! You will love it! Very inexpensive and best place I visited was Santosh's farm and Kart Technologies!!!

  2. Hi Sangeeta, thanks for sharing. Very interesting read.

  3. hi Sangeeta,

    By the way u were the only couple who wanted to know our story,im so happy after reading yrs,u are in sink with what u are doing,u are walking the talk,looking fwd to having yr fly over for some quality time,i assure u the kids will have a blast.We have stared the gift culture after LSC. This is an invite.

  4. Very true Sangeetha, I too felt the cultural shock when returning to Mumbai and even taking out cash, having nearly forgotten what it felt like. I like your to-do list. One way to reduce water in dishwashing is to scrape the cooked food off right away, with just a small layer of water on the bottom (rather than running water), and do all the soaping without running water. One can then rinse them in running water without using much more than one would use from a bucket, if at all.