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Chinese fishing net in Cochin, Kerala

Chinese fishing net in Cochin, Kerala

 

 

At first glance they look like trebuchets, slingshots the size of a house that were used before the days of gunpowder to launch boulders over medieval city walls. Hardly meant for war, the Chinese fishing nets stock the wooden stalls that hug Cochin’s concrete walkway along the Arabian Sea. Fishermen here have relied on the large wooden levers to bring in fish, and their source of livelihood, for hundreds of years.

When it’s time to raise the nets and bring in a catch, four men each grab onto a vertically hanging rope and wrench them down toward the ground, their arms moving as fast as a sprinter’s legs. Once the net is up, one of the men runs along the trebuchet, past the stony fringe where land meets sea, and dips a hand net into the bigger one. He keeps his arm steady against the eight or ten hand-sized dancing fish.
After reading so many news stories about the oceans’ fish population rapidly depleting, I had to ask one of the vendors if he noticed less fish coming in. Panjeer, whose display sported the small silver fish and the pink ones with eyes the size of peacoat buttons, told me that he caught the large fish out at sea, from a canoe-like fishing boat. Only the smaller fish came from the nets on the shore. I asked Panjeer whether or not he was catching less fish than usual, and he nodded as if he’d been asked the question many times before.
His explanation was not that commercial fishing vessels were gobbling up too many fish for them to repopulate themselves. He said that there were less fish after the Tsunami of 2005. It didn’t actually hit the western coast of India, he said, but Cochin was still affected. I was about to mention that I’d read over fishing was the reason that fish supplies are dropping, but instead I thanked him and moved along.
Maybe every story has many truths. Panjeer’s truth is that the Tsunami is to blame for the fish dying out. Another truth is that bad commercial fishing practices are wrecking an important source of food for millions of people. It could be that both are true. Or it could be that Panjeer is simply an uneducated fisherman who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. My instinct is to put more faith in the man who has been fishing for his entire life, who is using a technique that has been used for years. And after all, so long as Panjeer holds his truth to be a fact, then so it is. We have a tendency to find scapegoats for all of our problems–bad corporations are to blame for killing off our piscine food source. But what if it’s not that simple? To complicate things further, what if it is that simple and commercialized fishing is the real reason that Panjeer has less fish to sell?  When not only a tradition that spans generations, but also a truly sustainable way of fishing (the boats they use aren’t even motorized) is at stake, who is it up to to tell Panjeer that maybe his truth is the one that needs to be questioned? 

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In the US, it seems like we do all that we can to separate ourselves from nature.  Apples don’t come from a tree, but from a bin in the supermarket.  Milk comes from a carton, and no one ever has to think about the cow in Wisconsin that produced it.  The shirt on your back?  It was made by a young woman in China, whom you will never meet or speak to.  It’s not only nature that we’re removed from.  But this isn’t something we do consciously. We do not grow apple trees along suburbian streets, nor do cows roam in Central Park.  We do not know the parts of nature that we depend on to live any more than we know the people whose labor supports our lifestyles. 

In Auroville, things are slightly different. 

cows roam freely

cows roam freely

 on a practical level, this also reduces the need for lawnmowers.  There’s a little trouble when the cows decide they want to cross a road, but I haven’t seen any serious problems.

bugs are a part of everyday life

Admittedly, not every part of being so close to the natural world is appealing.  Bugs are a part of everyday life here, both inside and outside.

my friend Lea, from London, stopped to say hi to this baby goat on our bike ride to the beach

my friend Lea, from London, stopped to say hi to this baby goat on our bike ride to the beach

Nowhere is perfect.  Auroville has a lot of blind consumption too. But maybe we can learn from the little things that they might be doing right.  If we live near our apple trees, will we make sure that the ground they’re growing in isn’t polluted?  If we see the cows that give us milk every day, will we make sure that they’re not tortured or abused?  If we know the people who make our things, will we start to care about them?  We won’t know until we try…

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A shared vision

One of the best things about being here at Auroville is all of the interesting people that I’m meeting.  Today I was hanging out at La Terrace (the place that feeds my espresso addiction) and started to talk to my friend Diana from Germany about the evil of globalization, how we both hated Starbucks, etc etc.  We complained about lack of youth activism for a little while, and compared how the U.S. addresses the problem versus how Germany does.  Eventually we got to the place where all conversations like this tend to lead, to the point of,  “Yeah, globalization (or global warming, or hyperconsumption, or whatever else) is horrible.  But what can we really do about it?” 

But then Diana started to talk about how she wanted to open up a restuarant in the city in Germany where she was raised.  It would serve food grown on farms surrounding the city and be a place where people have healthy, delecious meals without having to worry about whether they were contributing to water pollution from pesticides or to global warming from transporting the food halfway across the world.  As soon as Diana started to talk about the restauraunt, she lit up.  The sighs against the impossibility of facing huge social problems were long forgotten as she started to explain the type of food she wants to serve and how she’d let local artists display their work there.  She never said that this would be her way of fighting globalization.  While she was talking about it, it didn’t even sound like a fight. 

It was great for me to hear her talk about this, because it reminded me why I’m so interested in ecovillages.  A lot of people assume that it’s impossible to do anything about the things that they know are wrong with the world.  But maybe we’re assuming we have to fight when fighting isn’t called for.  The first step is figuring out where you fit into the picture.  For Diana, it’s providing people with local food.  For one of my roommates, it’s designing ”eco-friendly” clothes.  For someone else it could be converting their car to biodiesel, or putting solar panels on their roof.  We can shape the world that we live in, but first we have to imagine it.

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