Lessons on Sustainability taken from a humble Neem tree

, , Leave a comment

“The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible”.

Albert Einstein

neme tree

A few months back I had the opportunity to attend a lecture to hear the Global Head of Sustainability for a major multi-national corporation speak on sustainability. The presentation was excellent – well framed, articulated and genuine to its objective to provide a solution-orientated methodology on implementing sustainability. However, what left me with a hollow feeling was the obvious difficulty to achieve a marked sustainability objective. The Corporates’ thirst for global outreach, expansion and dominance of its products on new frontier/emerging markets with a mission of exponential growth to build/sustain competition and stakeholders’ wealth was the key driver and from this current limiting paradigm – sustainability is near enough impossible!

Twenty-three years ago I made my first trip to India, travelling down from Delhi to Tiruvanantapuram.  I understand and speak Hindi, Punjabi and Urdhu; however, my communication was predominantly in English! That journey provided many a learning including dispelling my conditioning – thanks to the media coverage at that time oscillating between a romantic view of India’s rich cultural tapestry woven in its history and mythology enjoyed from the safe helm, to reconciling its third world and hence defined primitive status as compared to the Western world. I later enjoyed Amryta Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian,” which provided an interesting response to the narrative prevalent at the time. Wisdom and the Worldview were far from our western shores preferring instead that of the imperialist western narrative.

One such learning was on the morning when I lost my toothbrush and was introduced by a kind local villager, hearing of my aggrieved disposition, to the humble Neem tree. With reverence, he snapped off two twigs, one he gifted to me, with the other he showed me how to use the twig to clean his teeth.  I was aghast. I remembered his dispassionate temperament at my positively primitive and thoughtless response.  What emerged from that experience and my subsequent research was my surprise at the extraordinary properties of these nimble twigs.

I was about to express my contentment; however, his expression said it all. His genuine KINDNESS at my ignorance silenced and embarrassed me. I still carry the ghost of that expression, especially when I learned many years later of how a Western institution had tried to patent the Neem trees properties for commercial gain. How primitive can we be?

I later encountered a product “Fair and Lovely,” a skin whitening cream used by Indian women to lighten their skin. A tinge of guilt and sadness – why was a company selling products that were encouraging the age-old adage of fair skin imparts the impression of a women’s outer and therefore inner beauty. I needed a sun factor to protect my skin, not a cream to make me fair. Why was BEAUTY being defined from a primitive paradigm and encouraged? Surely beautiful women included the Arundhati Roy, Wangari Maathai, Aung San Suu Kyi – women who were making an impact in the East from an evolved paradigm.

As I drifted back to the lecture, my thoughts triggered a question to the speaker – from which I deliberately refrained articulating from a prescribed narrative, as I was too irritated. Why was toothpaste sold in tubes and packaging to consumers in a market, which had no need for this product prior?  If the Corporate was so consumed by its limiting paradigm – could it not use its branding to sustain age old products and wisdom from these markets which embraced sustainability, instead of homogenizing the planet with its products which did not take into account the local conditions, culture, physiology? Why could the brand then not be further localized so there were hubs and nodes of operation with shared and interdependent values embedded in the local community as Michael Porter of Harvard University discusses in his article “interdependent and shared values.” Anything else is continuing the madness, the disparity and polarization. Where was the TRUTH in all of this? These questions are the elephants in the room for the current generation to address, as they can no longer be ignored.

My own personal journey is not that dissimilar to that of the Corporate – I continue to try and synthesize the duality with which I am faced, the competing needs, desires and wants; consumerism, consumption, greed and gain where any satisfaction is short-lived – in reality, what we are faced with is a sense of disenchantment and a disillusionment with the current paradigm. However to make any sense of this we do need to be asking ourselves the questions and living with the high degree of uncertainty that this questioning brings with it, as instead of the comfort of our out of date culture and conditioning.