Writing at Sea Contest: Banking on Trust: Gandhi’s Trusteeship as Environmental Strategy

Editor’s note: A few months back we let you know about a Writing at Sea excursion with Pangaea Exploration, and that we were partnering with them to host a writing contest, encouraging participants to submit pieces for publication on our blog regarding the theme of trust and reflective environmental practice. This week and last week we share pieces by the two contest winners.

by Melanie P. Kumar
Writing at Sea Contest Winner

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Pangaea Exploration’s “Sea Dragon,” photo by Melanie P. Kumar

A recent sailboat trip from the Dominican Republic to West Palm Beach, Florida, touching several islands in the Bahamas, provided many occasions for musing on the theme of trust. I learned from the immediate experience of having to trust the sea, sailboat, crew, and other writers-turned-new-sailors, and thought about deeper meanings of “trust” in my country, India. 

Sitting in front of the computer and looking at an email requesting applicants for a “Writing at Sea” expedition whetted my curiosity enough to make a bid for a scholarship to get on board the Sea Dragon. The opportunity to interact with fellow writers and also enhance my knowledge of the environment—and the human-caused damages to it—seemed like a dream. I sent in my application for the voyage, and when I received a reply saying that I was on for the sailboat trip, I had to pinch myself to understand that this was really happening. After a flurry of paperwork, I travelled from India through three other countries on a sailboat: the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and the United States. My first lesson in trust came when I boarded the Sea Dragon. I had signed a Guest Crew form, but until I arrived on board, I had simply no idea what it meant. I thought the trip would mostly be about writing and learning about threats to marine life. Those aspects were present, and I also found myself functioning as a crew member. Tasks were assigned for everyone on a daily basis and I did my share of cooking, washing, drying, and cleaning, besides assisting with sailing duties, including actually steering the boat. We engaged in environmental activities like beach clean-up, and spent time doing writing exercises and sharing four-hour day and night watches, along with one member from the regular crew.

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Beach clean-up. Photo credit: Elizabeth Claire Alberts

My second lesson in trust deepened my need for trust in the near-strangers around me: I learned the meaning of sea-sickness. My body was wracked with unbelievably unpleasant reactions, including vomiting bouts. I can never forget the kindness of Captain Eric, First Mate Shanley, and Deck Hand Megan, who reached out to me with compassion. They provided reassurance, putting me on anti-seasickness medicine and monitoring my condition. What’s most touching was that they cleaned up after me so matter-of-factly after I was sick all over their lovely boat.  What could be more caring than that?

Within a short space of time, I realized that being on a boat as part of a crew, or even as a passenger, means that you have to believe that the captain and crew know their job and will get you through safely. The most common question I heard when I returned was, “Were you scared?” The answer was always, “No!” The three main crew members exuded a palpable air of confidence throughout our journey, as well as a sense of selflessness. Team spirit and the need for co-operation also required us to trust one another as we dealt with the elements. I also realized that there was a need to trust myself to pull together ably with the crew on board the Sea Dragon.

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Writing at Sea adventurers aboard the “Sea Dragon.” Photo credit: Captain Eric Loss

Trust also blossomed amongst my fellow writers, who reached out to me with warmth and friendship. After some initial hesitation, I realized that there is a thread binding humanity, which transcends superficialities like race and ethnicity. We established an unbelievable level of camaraderie on our journey of nine nights, which perhaps stemmed from a sense of interdependence less visible in “plastic societies.”  Musing on these newly formed relationships containing a remarkable depth of trust, not to mention the innumerable plastic items we encountered floating in the sea and strewn on tropical beaches during our voyage, I began thinking about plastic societies. Though versatile, with the ability to be strong or flexible, plastic societies celebrate independence and individualism at the cost of community welfare. This single-minded focus on the rights of an individual encourages a disposable “use and throw” culture that could likely breed a sense of disconnectedness about the larger picture, including the environment.

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“Sea Dragon” from above. Photo credit: Megan Evans

In contrast, trust generally involves a minimum of two people: one who trusts and another who is trustworthy. Mahatma Gandhi put forth this concept of Trusteeship, which far surpasses the basic idea of trust and perhaps turns it on its head. Gandhi took this concept from the first verse of the Hindu spiritual text, the Isopanishad: “Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for oneself which are set aside as one’s quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.” The whole concept works on the idea that what one possesses is to be used only within reasonable limits and the rest used for the good of humankind and the world. We serve as Trustees for those resources we possess that exceed our own needs.

Gandhi’s idea of Trusteeship evolved from his belief in the law of non-possession, which was founded on religious principles that encompassed ideas like detachment and service. If individuals accepted and lived by the principle of Trusteeship, it could probably become legalized. Gandhi wished this very noble concept to be India’s gift to the world.

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Melanie P. Kumar on the Writing at Sea expedition

I belong to the post-colonial generation. We received stories of the struggle for India’s Independence from our parents. Without it really being spelt out, we imbibed lessons in the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. It was part of the Indian ethos, strongly influenced by Gandhiji’s views on Trusteeship. Resources are finite and need to be conserved, and so our consumption was limited to the essentials whilst things like school books and clothes were passed down to younger siblings or neighbours.

Though steeped in idealism, Gandhi’s concept of Trusteeship attempted to non-violently solve the problem of economic inequities resulting from ownership and income. Gandhi put forth a spiritual concept of economics where the dignity of humanity served as the centre of human activity rather than economic prosperity. Gandhi felt that Trusteeship, which involved a combination of morality and economics, was the only solution to creating an equitable world. 

At the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy is the best of India’s spiritual tradition of detachment and selfless service, exemplified by the oft-misinterpreted term, Karma. These ideals may call to mind Marxism’s common ownership of property, Marxist Socialism advocates a violent destruction of the capitalist class, whilst the Gandhian way aims instead to reform and distill capitalism into its purest form. The rich are not destroyed, but are connected to the rest of society so they feel a sense of responsibility toward others. The common people place implicit trust in the custodians of wealth for their shared well-being. 

I began thinking of what it might look like if we extended the concept of Trusteeship to our relationship with the natural environment. People might look at the bounties of nature in a different light. Instead of an anthropocentric view of the world, the Gandhian concept can segue with the religious and cultural beliefs of Native Americans, who believe that you cannot own nature but need to hold it in trust for future generations.

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Writing at Sea participants snorkeling. Photo credit: Megan Evans

Back on board the Sea Dragon, I was privileged to experience snorkeling for the first time. Gazing down at the myriad-hued live corals, the colourful fish, and the active marine life was like taking a peek at a secret, magical universe under the waters. Our team learned about threats posed to marine life by human activities, especially plastic pollution. As an environmental exercise, a short beach-combing excursion resulted in the collection of two large bags of debris, a lot of it made from plastic. 

My mind took me back to my beginnings in a plastic-free world. I wonder about the insidiousness of this item that has pervaded every aspect of human life to the great detriment of the natural world. I developed trust with individuals on this voyage, but putting my faith and trust in human institutions, especially governments, is another matter. In the name of “progress,” many such human institutions deny the negative effects of fossil fuels and permit mining and tapping of our commons, like the privatization of our water resources. Whether these entities call themselves Centrist or Rightist, on one point they are on the same sheet and that is liberalization and the throwing open of our markets.

The “disposable” culture has also become more evident in India. Order-in food arrives in plastic containers, adding to the plastic pollution, not to speak of the plastic carry bags which dot the landscape across the length and breadth of the country, leading to the degradation of the Earth, besides being swallowed by grazing animals.

In my own lifetime, I have witnessed the changing times. Multinational companies have entered the developing countries, including my own, and more and more of them are being wooed by our governments.  Coke and Pepsi have made huge inroads into India and are the biggest sponsors of our sporting events, most of all cricket matches in a cricket-mad country. Though American schools have become conscious about the availability of these unhealthy sugared drinks on their premises, slogans like “the choice of a new generation” are part of India’s mantra for the promotion of these bubbly drinks.

Alongside the health drawbacks, their production in India requires the privatization of our water resources. In a small village called Plachimada in the state of Kerala in India, the villagers took Coke to court because the Coke plant’s ground-water tapping resulted in toxic sludge that contaminated the remaining water. The Adivasis, tribal people of the surrounding lands, began a struggle in April 2002. After many hardships and trumped-up charges they won the case to stop the plant’s operations. Significantly, whilst the battle was on, the World Water Council organized its meeting in Pudussery, near Plachimada, in January 2004. On Day 3 they adopted the Plachimada Declaration with the following claims: “It is our fundamental obligation to prevent water scarcity and pollution and to preserve it for generations…. Water is not a commodity. We should resist all criminal attempts to marketize, privatize, and corporatize water. Only through these means can we ensure the fundamental and inalienable right to water for people all over the world.” Here again, Gandhiji’s notion of Trusteeship is visible in the need to conserve water and preserve it for the generations that follow. Whilst the Coke Company had to stop operations, the people of the village are still struggling to get their lives back to normal after the destruction of their commons and the hazardous effects on their health, with tests proving the effluents to be carcinogenic.

The Plachimada case brought to light the importance of people’s movements and civil society groups to secure justice, as governments are often incapable of doing so. The Plachimada episode is a case in point that exposes the lack of political will in addressing the weaknesses in law and governance. It adds grist to my argument that whilst corporate institutions and governments can prove to be undependable, individuals and civil society can act in trustworthy and good ways to bring about positive change with regard to the environment and other ills that beset the world. 

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Sunset at sea. Photo courtesy of Pangaea Exploration, www.panexplore.com

Perhaps the only solution is enacting Trusteeship, where, as Gandhi put it, the Earth can supply each of our needs, but cannot fulfill all our greed. A beautiful Sanskrit phrase states, “Udara charitanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” which loosely translates as, “To the broad of vision, the whole world is one family.” Aboard the Sea Dragon, we caught a glimpse of that one-world family, developing trust in ourselves, one another, and the elements of nature enveloping our small ship in the vastness of the ocean and sky. I’m working to see myself always as a member of a small, trustworthy crew, tasked with steering the planet safely into the next port as a Trustee, and handing her over intact to the next generation.

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MPK_PHOTOBioMelanie P. Kumar is a Bangalore-based independent writer who has been writing for the last 16 years. Ever since she can recall, Melanie has been fascinated by the magic of words and their power to make a difference in the world. She holds an honours degree in English and a second one in mass communications. Melanie’s writings encompass literature, gender, culture, politics, and observations on life, travel, and the environment. Melanie is a bit of an activist, too, and is ready to do battle when it comes to matters like plastic pollution, garbage disposal, and consumer rights. During the Writing at Sea voyage she wrote two pieces for their blog, Impressions of Sailing & Being on Sea and The Wonders of an Expedition. To read more of her work, see the following links: Bear with Us, Bowing to Logo Gods, and Humanity is threatened by information overload.

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