Death and Biodegradability

Photo illustration by Rebecca Katzman

While speaking to a class of fifth graders in a school in Pune about the need to switch to eco friendly materials and products, our conversation veered toward the word ‘Biodegradability’. Discussing how things to come to an end, we started talking about death. Even human beings are biodegradable … they realised!
Is Death a bad thing? Do we really need everything to be permanent forever? What would happen if nobody died? Questions like these helped us address what would be otherwise a difficult subject and eventually bring it back to our focus on the need for biodegradability.
While Nature has completely integrated degradation into the life cycle of all the materials she designs, the human psyche has been in the pursuit of permanence and endurance without realising the costs it comes with. This attachment to life is seen very evidently in medical sciences that prolong life at any cost and is also seen in the physical worlds we have created around us that resist decay and degradation and glorify endurance.
But do we really need a plastic bottle to last for thousands of years when each one of us will barely make it to a hundred?
Is the idea of ‘forever’ the source of all the waste we have generated?
Statistics on how long it takes materials like plastic thermocol and aluminium foil to degrade are probably based on technical studies and projections. The laymans answer to this question is – A very long time !  Definitely more than it would take you or me to find our way back into the soil and the trees!
Further more in some cases the material simply breaks down to smaller particles of the same substance and doesn’t ever get broken up into the original components that made it. It enters the food chains, for eg. through fish that injest minute pieces of plastic into their bodies and we are then eating the very same material we had thrown away.
Our bodies are unable to assimilate these plastics and cancers result.
The science of Biomimicry looks at learning from Nature and scientists, engineers and designers are now reviewing their understandings from the perspective of reducing waste.  The beauty of recycling in Nature is that all materials have an inbuilt ability to degrade, be absorbed and reconstituted into a whole new material or thing. In recent years in human design, the emphasis that has been on ‘creating’ new materials and products is now also starting to taking cognizance of a way of ‘destroying’ these materials in an ecofriendly manner.
Yet all of this will only fundamentally change when humanity accepts death and and is respectful of degradation as natural processes. Those world views that imbibe this acceptance will probably lead the way in creating physical worlds that can genuinely be in harmony with the ways of Nature.
In Hindu philosophy, the triad of dieties Brahma Vishnu and Mahesh are said to rule all of the created world. Of this Brahma is the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer and Mahesh the Destroyer.  Mahesh in the form of Shiva is probably the most revered of the three as the need for dissolution is recognised as the first step for creation itself.
Similarly, female dieties such as Kali and Durga in their fierce personas celebrate the destructive forces.
The key point here is that death, degradation and dissolution are not seen as endings. Rather they are all key steps in a process of Transformation.
Biodegradability too is the process of transformation and reabsorption and has to be recognised and celebrated as key to the protection and health of our environment.
How do we bring this understanding into our daily lives? How do we become conscious of the need for endings and welcome them?
The Indian culture developed rituals and activities that celebrate endings – the tradition of rangoli is one such daily ritual where beauty is created through painstaking and laborious effort only to be swept away the next morning. The immersion of the Ganesh idol at the end of a ten day festival is one more practise of letting go and offering back to the earth.
Modern Indian life needs to design rituals such as these to help people appreciate the need to offer back and let go. Festivals like the Joy of Giving, encourage people to share and give away what can be reused easily by others.
Here are a few thoughts on what we could do in our daily lives :

  1. Every time you buy something new give something older away.
  2. Choose natural materials over synthetic materials – even if you know they may not last as long. The natural dyed fabric may fade faster than the synthetics for eg but is much less harmful to the environment.
  3. Encourage sharing among children – this enables them to find joy in each other rather than in objects.
  4. Watch how kitchen waste slowly becomes soil in your home gardens – simply seeing how nature reabsorbs materials brings a deeper understanding.
  5. Observe animals and they way they cope with death – there is a certain detachment in animals that comes much faster than in humanity.

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