Science Education and the pandemic of human/sciences
From an Indian Researcher trying to make sense of Science and Society
Original screenplay and Illustrations by the author
Departing spring. Light, unsettling breeze of the cruelest April bellows the curtains. It is some hour late in the afternoon. A room in an unnamed urban metropolis of India.
Unsettling it is too for the ‘image’ of India, which has been undergoing debilitating body blows in recent times. A pandemic scare, yes (with its effects to be felt more in the socioeconomic realm rather than perhaps medical) but not just that. The country’s Muslim communities, its largest religious minority population, are faced with the possibility of mass disenfranchisement and en masse lockup in detention centers. The national capital and a global cosmopolitan centre — New Delhi — saw in February one of the most brutal Muslim genocides the country has ever seen. It was designed to act as a crackdown on the ongoing Occupy Movement in the country against the National Register of Citizens and the mass disenfranchisement it promises. The threats of losing citizenship are so real that several protest sites initially refused to discontinue their protests even under the threat of pandemic, but gave in to brute force of police and state and an imposition of public medico-morality. Politico-religious leaders who have been consistently describing Muslims in the country as ‘virus’ and ‘termites’, are now to negotiate with a microorganism, against whom vilification does not work. Though they are trying desperately for a convergence. The rulers who claimed that border fences and armed forces will ‘protect’ their nations from ‘outsiders’ are now doubling down on their racist monologues in a desperate attempt to hide their incapability of dealing with an actual crisis like this. A nation state which prepared itself with elaborate arrangements to lock down its religious minority population inside detention centers, suddenly finds itself having to lock itself down. It is a cruel season, and a crueler irony.
But this play cannot possibly travel to the nooks and corners of the disheveled nation. Not just any nook or corner, it can not even visit the burnt mosques in the capital city itself, or such multiple minor inconveniences. Surely there are troubles in our modern societies and we are not allowed to digress. Else we won’t be doing science. Stick we must, to objectivity and hard-lipped lack of ‘sentiments’. The play chooses, instead, to show the mundane normal. Something which is without the vile, crass and paranoia. A stage is thus constructed. Beyond it lies troubled times which it will allude to, but not show. We close down on specifics.
This is the makeshift working space of the middle-aged man we find, who seemed to be dozing in his daydreams. Stacked on various pieces of furniture around him are students’ notebooks and unchecked examination scripts – there are heaps of them. There are teaching materials, charts showing the parts of the human digestive system and types of ores on earth; diagrams of molecules and the oscillating pendulum, students’ paper models of various forms and types. Curricular textbooks, exam guides and assessment worksheets strewn haywire. He is in the middle of preparations for an online lockdown class for the following day, for his high school Science students. Clearly, he is waddling in a sea of pedagogic burden.
His face reads as if bemused, his body wrought with inaction at the desk. His eyes are shut tight.
A stagnant silence pervades.
VOICE. [at a distance, from a yet-to-be visible form] Hey there, working from the confines of home—cozy, isn’t it?
MAN. [undisturbed, faintly murmurs] Um-hmm.
VOICE. Prepping for the upcoming pandemic session with students, sir? What are you going to teach — health, environment, microorganisms, plants, balanced diet? You plan to cover your biology syllabus through studying the pandemic?
TEACHER. [Continues dozing with his eyes shut, but keeps murmuring to himself] Yeah—who knows—all these seem— [yawns] so irrelevant—we just—need to—curb this—save lives—
VOICE. Sheesh, predictable! Isn’t it the right time to reassess the lesson plans for teaching science?
TEACHER. Huh, what? [Jolts up in his chair and adjusts his glasses. His dozing has missed a beat, and squints his eyes. He turns his head around to look suspiciously] Whose voice… was it my fever dream?
VOICES. Not really!
A big blob drops centerstage from the space above. It has a greyish greasy appearance, and some bright protruding red spikes. Like bright decorations. It lands gently, rolling and tumbling, with no care in the world.
TEACHER. [Stands up alert] What the — who are you?!
BLOB. Oh you need some ID? Do I look like a docile body that will submit to surveillance? Geez, you haven’t paid heed to the news lately!
Another blob drops from above, but quite sharply. It bounces off its bum, ricochets and then comes to a halt. The first blob helps to pull it up. And then drops in a third. They all look identical in their greasy dull greys and bright reds.
TEACHER. [stupent] Crap! That’s it! [shoots across the room towards the drawers]
Where are my masks, oh dear, my ol’ sanitizer! [haphazardly moving about in the further corner of the room]
BLOB 2. [In a suave tone] Easy mister, easy. That ain’t very rational of you — that isn’t social — [sniggers]
TEACHER. [Shell-shocked] Please come no near — please —
BLOB 3. [chuckling to his colleagues] Funny how they behave! [Turns to the teacher] We are supposed to distance ourselves physically [gesturing the space between them] — like we are doing — but not aggravate it to such panic!
TEACHER. [with mortified, bulged out eyes] But you are a vicious threat, a havoc, a global catastrophe, the great plague of many centuries — you have not only caused a planetary crisis affecting every single person, but also wrecked such havoc on the most vulnerable amongst us! Look at the number of people of colour, people without proper nutrition, that are dying – look at the impact on the people who are still having to go out to work on the frontlines –
BLOB 1. Aww, did I do all that? [Mimics a tone of self-pity] Poor, poor you. It surely must’ve been my folks who told you to ditch the notions of [throws up fingers as if to enumerate] universal public health, and economic equality, and unstratified class-less society, and anti-racist politics and a humane science —
The blobs have now positioned themselves comfortably in the space around. They surround the teacher on all sides, but maintain a cordial distance, as is socially sanctioned these days.
TEACHER. [regaining] But, how come science isn’t huma—
BLOB 3. [Swiftly raising a pointed finger in excitement] Knew you would jump the gun at it — so predictable! Of all the other things I mentioned, you so instantly opted to defend science.
TEACHER. Well our science has helped save lives, improved longevity, dispelled harmful superstitions — our drugs have resisted against germs and diseases, except for — till now [gives an accusative look] you nasty buggers—
BLOB 2. — who brings a curtain down on the world order, right? [chortily lets out a full belly laughter, blobs 1 and 2 join him] Am I the vice-incarnate? The reason for all mayhem on earth currently? Am I also responsible for your rampant Islamophobia, class hatred, untouchability, your shameless racism? Funny how Science is the all do-gooder neutral God, but is so ready to collapse its high tower gates and feign ignorance and culpability when responsibility or crisis comes knocking!
TEACHER. It surely is powerful, and there are reasons for it. But [now, after regaining composure] why should I explain that you? You are an enemy, the major one that we can’t get our hands on — not that we would like to — virulent enemies. I can’t believe we are even having a conversation —
BLOB 1. But you must, my dear teacher of science — because I think — rather a hell lot of us in the nature thinks — that humans can actually do a lot better with some dollops of sane advice and reality check.
TEACHER. Ahh. [Recoiling back now and slightly more steady] Then open up your secrets! Tell us how we can tackle the pandemic — How to create a vaccine in no time — or [his face lights up with possibility] at least tell us how to trigger a mutiny amongst your ranks — is it possible to engineer a mutant that will neutralize you –
All the blobs break into splitting laughter. The teacher is dumbfounded.
BLOB 3. [Recovering from the dose of humour] Funny you are, with your sense of entitlement! I promise you that we intend nothing of that sorts. And as for mutinies and infighting, I trust the humans to be doing it sooner and killing themselves off than we do! [Another bout of laughter ensues]
TEACHER. [Quite crossed] That is insensitive!
BLOB 2. [Addressing Blob 1 and 3, in a hushed voice] Hey, isn’t this fun! Give me some silence. [Then sushes everyone up loudly. They all stop laughing].
[Turns to address the Teacher] Hey! You know what’s sensitive?
You can teach them mathematics of graphs and simulations through the body counts. You know, someone observed—a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. [They all burst into laughter again]
TEACHER. [His frustration now changes into a lack of proper words] Oh you’re dark!
BLOB 2. Not quite as dark as the smoked mosques of your cities!
The teacher goes silent at this, presumably out of shame. The blobs exchange smirks and glances with each other.
BLOB 1. [Still smirking] Relax Mr. Science Teacher, my friends are just being mischievous. [Gesturing the teacher to take a seat, without fear] Actually we thought we can also partake in a bit of the sciences that you teach, you know, for ourselves. It’s a nice, productive way to spend time working from home — right? [Allows the Teacher to cool himself down]. Maybe we can at least help you prepare for your online session tomorrow.
TEACHER. [Sitting down on his chair, looking drained, resigning to a conversation he now realizes he can not escape] How?
BLOB 2. Let’s see – you mind starting with your official texts? [gestures to a particular book lying on the desk]. As you were so quick to relegate us to your micro-foes, might you just help us read up from the textbook and say why exactly are we foes? We were quite curious, you see.
TEACHER. Is it so?
BLOB 1. Yes, absolutely.
TEACHER. [Slowly relaxes himself on the chair] Umm, well [looks for a particular book from the pile] I don’t think we need a textbook reference for this. But still, since you insist. I remember the chapter talking about some, erm, I don’t remember the exact words — but what the book says are ‘harmful’ bacteria and protozoa — [searching for the appropriate pages] can’t see any mention of any ‘beneficial’ virus! Yeah, right here – chapter titled “MICROORGANISMS: FRIEND AND FOE” – it says —
“common ailments like cold, influenza (flu) and most coughs are caused by viruses. Serious diseases like polio and chickenpox are also caused by viruses.”
There you go!
BLOB 3. Hahahaha! Demonization spares not even the tiniest of organisms! Funny how you guys have the same categorization for microorganisms that you use for your fellow humans! Why the sharp divide? I understand viruses are your foes, but who actually are your micro-friends?
TEACHER. Those would be the ones used in the preparation of medicines such as antibiotics, in fixing nitrogen for agriculture. Those that ‘are used in the preparation of curd, bread and cake,’ and also ‘for the production of alcohol’. And those that
“are also used in cleaning up the environment. For example, the organic wastes (vegetable peels, remains of animals, faeces, etc.) are broken down into harmless and usable substances by bacteria.”
BLOB 2. Oh hold there a bit. Folks [turning to his colleagues] I am a bit confused, what he just described are a series of unidirectional benefits. It isn’t friendship – maybe leeching? [Turns to the teacher] Don’t you think ‘collaborators’ is a better word?
TEACHER. [Only half resigned to it] Call whatever, what’s there in semantics?
BLOB 2. A hell lot! Semantics reflect world-views. [Stands up and paces down the carpet] Your ascribed friendliness is specifically meant for those microbes that help you make stuff that you consume — food, alcohol, medicines, crops — or kill other microbes that you don’t like. Friends are those that serve you benefits, easy gifts. What about those microbes that have got nothing to do with human productive activities? Or those types of bacteria that are the one of the world’s most numerous and crucial constituents of any living matter? Do your science texts even consider their existence in nature? For example, cyanobacteria — the blue-green algae?
TEACHER. Yes, they are the nitrogen fixing ones that help us produce crops—
BLOB 3. Look at the association that you just made, my Einstein! [Slaps its own forehead] Oh lord — I bet the chapter does not mention that it is the same blue-green algae that produced the first oxygen for the Earth’s atmosphere? That, over time, most of the oxygen produced in the planet’s history has been done by this family of bacteria? That they can change oceans? The fact that these are responsible for the earliest photosynthesis? Hell, humans would not even exist if there were no cyanobacteria. Do you reveal this aspect of the natural world to the readers of the text, at least to be grateful about it?
TEACHER. No, erm, it doesn’t. But see, ultimately this is a book written by humans, for other humans. You should expect it to be human-centric, talking about things they can relate to.
BLOB 1. [In a more earnest, imploring voice] But science is about nature, right? It squarely rests on the locus of viewpoint. You can be at the center and grab and derive things from nature’s reserve; or place yourself at the periphery and gather what nature lets you have. Truth is, humans don’t think they are a part of, or a product of, nature. You think you own nature. [Picks up a textbook and casually flickers through the pages] Your Science textbook chapters can’t think beyond terms such as ‘resource’ or ‘management’ or ‘production’ or ‘conservation’ in the chapter headings. Semantics, you see!
TEACHER. Are you angry because viruses have not been emphasized much in the textbooks?
BLOB 2. Yes, but not in the way you think. We are angry not because ‘we’ haven’t been given the kind of attention that we deserve, but because how glaring these omissions are in totality. [Blob 1 and 3 nod in unison] Did you mention the cowpox virus? The one used to make vaccines for your kids against smallpox – the virus sequence that regulates the amylase gene cluster, enabling humans and other primates to eat starchy foods you otherwise couldn’t? Your immune system is in large parts a gift of microorganisms — the ones you inherit through your mother’s milk, the ones that you find in your gut. By the way, good luck explaining that to your formula foods industry and the ‘scientists’ who work there! But anyway, these should have made it to your list of ‘friendly’ microbes, even by your own standards.
TEACHER. So you would be okay if this missing piece of information gets added, right? To perhaps paint a more true and balanced description of microorganisms —
BLOB 3. [In a deep angry tone] You precisely miss the point. Textbook science must work to reveal Nature, not place value judgments on its functional outcomes! Why don’t you trust the young minds to do it for themselves? They’ll make their own judgment by relating to what they experience in the world around them. [Earnestly] I mean, they’re reflective, right? Or would you rather not have them exercise that rationality — dictating bluntly what they must infer and think out of facts? [It is for the blob a clear moment of terrible realization] Or — is it — that you do not trust them — Maybe that’s why your species is this messed up? Because you don’t trust your young ones intellectually? [The more it goes on, the more furious it gets with the indignation] Or — is it that — you are scared that they might ask too many uncomfortable questions? About your Science, about your Society — your project of using the mask of Science for hiding the scandal you call Social will be torn off you think —
At this point, Blob 1 rushes to pacify Blob 3, who is clearly taken aback by its own afterthought. Blob 1 lets out a deep exhalation and turns towards the teacher with a what-have-you-done gesture. The teacher is lost.
BLOB 2. [Clears his throat and recomposes himself] Well, keep that as something for later — you’ll surely understand. [Pauses and breathes deeply] But, what we were saying is, erm — what must be revealed in science books — is that transmitting foreign genomes into your cells, which causes the disease in you — is exactly what we are supposed to do! Reveal the true nature, that’s it. You may hate us for it currently because it serves you in no productive way. But did you consider thinking of us as just biological ferries that carry genes between different organisms and even different species? Tch tch! Do you realize that viruses keep doing this all the time between species, contributing to the creation of this wonderfully complex body called Nature that you are ultimately a tiny part of? In such contexts, do your theories really matter then, whether we came from fish, or from bats, or snakes, or all of these through multiple transfers and such —
BLOB 3. [Chuckles half-heartedly to Blob 2] I think it matters for them to keep alive tales. Not like stories meant for young kids in junior classes, not like that. But tales which are juvenile. Juvenile ideas which short-change biodiversity as if some kind of pristine alchemy, magic — and proceeds casually to criminalize diversity based on use-value. No wonder their kids trained with such ‘Science’ education grow up to become such believers!
BLOB 1. And what was supposed to be the fundamental difference between them (humans) and other constituent beings of nature has now fueled the runaway system that is beyond attainable control – even for themselves!
TEACHER. Err, what would that be — arms race, unsustainable growth, technology?
BLOB 1. Yes, the building instinct — to make and manufacture — the constant drive to engineer and produce — generate and layer on top of the other and keep on making.
But this itself [pauses for a bit] is fundamentally driven by something more crucial to you guys — a much more primal act of making and manufacturing, as ancient as your first spoken languages.
TEACHER. And what’s that?
BLOB 2. — your making of myths and stories! Your manufacturing of consent! Layers upon layers of them, like an onion. Layers of myths that are frozen through time, till they begin to look like hard truths. God-given in some cases, Science-given in others.
TEACHER. Ah — [Pondering] So you are not just referring to human religions, cultural myths –
BLOB 1. No we’re not. We are not just talking about beasts and demons, all-powerful Gods and their miracles, heavens and the netherworld. We are basically talking about everything that you do — everything that is ‘human’ – what you call the ‘society’ or ‘law’ or ‘economy’ — or even ‘science.’
TEACHER. But myths help us survive, don’t they? Stories that rock us to sleep while containing us safe in the imaginaries. They aren’t necessarily a problem.
BLOB 3. [Chuckling at this point] Hey, don’t tell your academic bosses that you discussed science and society issues with a ‘microbe’! They will cancel your pay-check and you will have to “stay back at home”, rather than “working from home”! Not that you are an “Essential service provider” in any case.
TEACHER. [With a half grin] Huh. It’s not even clear anymore if they would need jobs such as mine anymore, even when all this is over – if at all. You go on –
BLOB 2. Hmmmm. [Trying to pick up the conversation from where it got paused] So we were talking about – erm – yeah, necessary myths. Yes, quite rightly so. You probably do need myths to survive. But you see, the problem is elsewhere. The problem is when you forget so easily that myths are myths, and start believing in them as the ‘objective reality’. For example, Nature’s other societies — migrating birds, hardworking ants, patient bees — do not create myths about themselves or others. There exists laws, like natural selection, prey-predator relations, division of labour in bee colonies. These exist as phenomena. But humans, who can create stories, picked up selectively from what they observed. And to what end? To use, for example, something like the system of queen, worker and drone bees as a model to justify your brutally oppressive construct of the caste system — and that’s a shame.
BLOB 1. There are the million minute balancing acts, and rope tricks, that keep Nature in furtive motion. Symbiosis which exists in Nature, or mutualisms — are fine lessons to be ingrained in your society — to make no distinction between the weakest and fragile and those that have. You would have worshiped diversity instead of morally panicking about it. You would have learned to celebrate differences within your own species, instead of using my excuse to pour out racist venom against specific biological features or religious identities.
BLOB 3. You failed to interpret the detailed notes that your scientists gathered in their field visits. You failed to interpret them as social commentaries. And therefore, my friend, you failed to interpret them as even scientific commentaries. Else you would’ve noticed how other fishes treat the ‘cleaner fish’ — the ones that clean other predators by feeding off their dead cells. Not only do the predators respect and protect the cleaner fish, but they are also known to reduce their aggression towards even other prey species, while at the cleaning stations. Is there something to be noted? [advances menacingly towards the Teacher] How does your society treat those people who clean your wastes?
Well, this is a crucial juncture. The play did warn, when it started, that troubled times outside of what is visible on the stage would be referred to — here and there. Who would have thought that it would make mention of all things mundane, picking up things from the streets. Should the daily commonplace be the focus of the quarantine? Surely that was not meant to be. When it took a sharp turn towards the dingy by-lanes of wastes and sanitations, it was probably the time that footnotes could only do so much.
As required, the audience would be, for cogency, shuffling through the handouts to find the relevant subtexts, or would google furiously on their smartphones for brief summaries. They might buy time for more thoughts, and embarrassingly excuse themselves. Or they might choose to sit back, they would like to see an end to this — with clenched jaws and slitted eyes resonating with the Teacher — they would make their own questions the Teacher’s questions, own doubts the Teacher’s doubts. We think the latter possibility is ripe, though the reasons are feeble. The play continues with its tattered set pieces. The confines of discussion have opened up. The world outside has moved within.
TEACHER. It feels we humans are too detached today for any contemplation. We are so torn between our biological, or perhaps ‘natural’ existence, and our economic existence. Tell me, does Nature also have an ‘economy’ of sorts, that it has to manage?
BLOB 2. What do you think? What is the etymological origin of the word ‘economy’?
TEACHER. I think it means management of household resources. But I have my doubts — can nature at all be likened to a household — and is there any need to manage its ‘household’? What would be the finances — is it not more like regulation of biotic substances — exchanges of sorts —
BLOB 1. [Imploring] Oh you mean — like money? Like bartering of commodities?
TEACHER. Umm — yes, I think so.
BLOB 1. Ah — [throwing up his arms] that’s again one of the myths humans have created for themselves.
TEACHER. What do you mean?
BLOB 3. I mean the myth of equating the idea of ‘economy’ with ‘money’, or ‘market economy’. [A gentle smile plays on its lips] Money was only created to manage your debts. But you have lived inside the money-driven market economy for so long now that you yourselves have forgotten all that it ever was [clicks his fingers] — just a myth!
BLOB 2. Well, only if you need some recap, the first currencies—in the form of sea shells and other stuff — were constructed in order to keep track of IOUs. Now does nature have IOUs? Yes! Just look at the mutualism between different species in a niche — a household, as nature sees it — like say the one between the clown-fish and the sea-anemone. If this feels too basic and not-so-complex as human monetary exchange relations, look at entire ecosystems. All that different organisms are doing there is a complex interconnected net of IOUs. There are complex practices of saving for the future as well – just peep into an ants’ colony, or a termites’ fortress. Everyone is putting in their labor all the time, and at the same time, no one appropriates anyone else’s labor. That’s an entire complex economy in action — yes economy, in the ‘household management’ sense of the term. But there is no ‘money’ or currency of exchange! There is no private property, there is no accumulation of ‘resources’, there is no ‘owning’ of Nature by anyone, there are no Wall Streets, there is no class war.
TEACHER. But there are parasites in Nature, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you say they are examples of appropriating the host’s labor?
BLOB 2. [Snaps fingers] Parasites? [Shares quick glances with its colleagues] I suppose you mean things like us? [Menacing look threatening to make a comeback]
TEACHER. [Embarrassed, apprehensive of the reactions] No no, didn’t specifically have you all in mind.
BLOB 1. But that’s how your books classify us, don’t they? Parasites! Tell me, if on the one hand you have us as agents in the ‘Natural economy’ let’s say, on the other hand you have your capitalist class who can’t be accused of putting in any labour in your mythical ‘Money economy’ – which of these are ‘parasites’ in the true sense you think?
BLOB 3. And to talk about how fragile your myths about money are. The myth lost its clothes for instance, when the populace of your own country was told overnight that your five hundred rupee paper notes had no value any more! It just took a strongman at the center of power, backed up by a xenophobic populist mass politics to create a myth to supercede from earlier. That is amazing by all standards! An entire country’s currencies gets invalid overnight, or gets blown up, like what happened in Venezuela, and that kind of seems okay with all!
BLOB 2. Tomorrow if everyone in your country starts believing that for whatever reason, the currency notes lying right now in your wallets is of no value, it will actually lose all its value. You will then realise that all that note really is – a piece of printed paper with someone’s face on it. It is a fabulous construct that shifts shapes, and assumes value, as required. Like now, in South Korea, where it is deemed useless — because they think that the cash reserves are infected and will carry the pandemic. So they burn it — poof!
BLOB 1. Like [turning to the other two blobs while trying to hide his laughter] like — pfft — believing in the myth that the pandemic can be tackled ‘scientifically’ while maintaining the dominant economic model — hahahaha! [All the blobs burst out into laughter] And your governments — they are conducting triages to determine whose life is more important, whose to save, and whose to let go! Such is the glorious dawn over your mass graves — that you, you treat not the older people — because your health set-up and economics would not be able to afford it!
BLOB 2. Well, they do conduct triages in ordinary times as well. Till now, the pandemic deaths cumulatively in the country are lesser than the number of children who died in Bihar last year from Acute Encephalitis Syndrome. They were all malnourished, belonging to working class families. Within a month’s time hundreds of them died! What was your nation’s response? Zilch! What happened to the doctor who blew the whistle on the state of public health infrastructure, in the state that was responsible for the children just allowed to die like that? Is he out of prison yet?.
There have been abrupt sequences of entries and exits — mostly curious entries — of similar looking blobs in the stage, through various wings, orifices, vents of the hall. They have dropped and rolled in the scene, scrawled and squealed across the stage floor. They have been taking up space around — sitting on top of racks, the steel wardrobe, behind the refrigerator. When we began, we thought the play could very well be in a closed contained space, undisturbed. But not quite so. These movements of these blobs have been too random — they have been in a flurry, in packs, in pairs, at random. We could not follow up with that. Do we know who orchestrated such movements, or was it meant to happen? Their invasion in this play is sudden, the outbreak is blurry. Nothing is quite clear.
TEACHER. [Sheepishly in a tone of admission] Yes, I understand the fallacy, but why would you conflate science thus? Isn’t it a pursuit of facts — truth — isn’t it more than just being convincing stories and believable fables —
BLOB 2. [Hits back with a defiant tone] Yet it maintains a garb of nonchalance. Of being a noncommittal bystander. Surely, if textbooks can relegate viruses to being the perennial foe, science can do something to annihilate it completely? [Flips through a few pages of the textbook at hand] Pray tell me, why do your school-level science textbooks not discuss the possibilities of designing a Universal anti-Influenza vaccine?
TEACHER. From my experience, well, I can tell that it might be — erm, because it is too complicated to explain such things to school students.
BLOB 2. Oh, really? [Zeroing in on one particular page of the textbook] Is it more complicated than, say, explaining the design of a universally non-biodegradable building material? The one that you call ‘plastics’ — which merits a dedicated chapter in the textbook. Let me read out what it says:
“Plastic is also a polymer like the synthetic fibre. All plastics do not have the same type of arrangement of units. In some it is linear, whereas in others it is cross-linked... Plastic articles are available in all possible shapes and sizes as you can see in Fig.... Have you ever wondered how this is possible?”
Jeez, it doesn’t look very simple to me! Does it to you guys? [Other blobs shake their heads in denial] Look at the emphasis it creates and the optics it produces — it comes as the 3rd chapter in the book, whereas something as vital as pollution in the study of nature is relegated to the 18th chapter slot. You also know most of your classrooms may not even make it to the end of the book in an academic year.
BLOB 3. [Turning to Blob 2] I think I know what it is. The narrative of highlighting pollution and downgrading plastics do not quite make a good saleable myth, do they? Public discussions about anti-Influenza vaccines either through textbooks or medical journals are perhaps a threat to the future profits of the patent-based medicine industry? On the other hand, it seems much more economically profitable to motivate children to work for industries, which unquestioningly manufacture and use plastics, one form or the other.
[Turns towards the Teacher] And you would still say the myth of your money economy is not connected with your science? There is no attempt to raise such questions in your Science education, and thus the ‘scientists’ you produce are far less likely to think of concerns about a universal vaccine as concerns of Science. [Moves closer to the Teacher and leans forward with a sharp whisper] The body of science research you collectively construct is skewed, cherry-picked, filled with half-truths, and therefore — a myth.
TEACHER. [Trying to put up one last desperate wall of defence] But scientists are curious about Nature. [Paces down the room, troubled, bruised — more with self-doubts, than from the Blobs] There are sincere biologists who consider science as the literature of Nature; and Nature as something more real than Science. They do work hard to reveal its wonders I think —
BLOB 1. It matters not what a few good-willed researchers do, my dear. Because sporadic efforts fall far short of the global rhizome of the industrial complex trying to rein in and govern ecological networks, with evidenced scientific knowledge in its hands. Particularly when the salaries of your scientists come from this very industrial complex! Look how the lungs of the Earth — the Amazonian rainforests — are being devoured in sustained spurts of fire — snatching away swathes of Brazil, parts of Peru, gnawing down Paraguay and Bolivia. From outer space, they are such ghastly perforations on the body of the globe. Years of weakened environmental protection, human profit-making and prolonged arid seasons from human-engineered global warming did it! Is your global science — the entirety of it from various disciplines — sincere in this cause? Does it rally otherwise, washing up the wounds? No. The respiratory ecological network of the earth is being injured and inflamed, cut up in pieces, and sold off. It is going up in the air in bloody smoke! I heard the current pneumonic attacks on human lungs do the same — create hazy patches on the outer edges of the lungs. Can’t help but comment that it is perhaps a tremendously sad poetic justice?
TEACHER. [Taken aback] Oh — this is — devastating. This is – oh – a very sharp stab in the heart. But I am sure — there will be — [stutters] there are ongoing — efforts — from the governments — agencies — people —
BLOB 1. Sorry, who? If the forest fires were a distant event, look what your governments are doing to the forests right now, when entire countries are shut down — giving approvals to wildlife clearance for strings of developmental project proposals, lifting already ritual limits on carbon emissions, bailing out fossil fuel industries – all under the excuse of ‘turbo charging’ an economy that is right now collapsing like a house of cards. This is nothing short of ecocide! What is the fate of the environment when such guile pervades human systems throughout?
TEACHER. Oh the sheer audacity! [Clenches his head and bows down in despair]
BLOB 3. And even those who wish to do good are silenced so easily by authorities. Even a human health tragedy falls short of the pride of a nation. In any case your Government and Scientific community have outsourced the responsibility and costs of the pandemic to the most vulnerable people in your midst, through locking them down instead of spending on testing, and health services. They used the technologies of your ‘value neutral’ Mathematics and Science to formulate and justify these policy decisions. Not to mention the kind of all-pervasive surveillance technologies your Governments are institutionalizing, taking this opportunity. Like we said before, more than the virus itself, harm would be due to panic, xenophobia, authoritarianism and lies that humans will bring upon themselves. You need Science not because you are in love with Nature. But because you need to control and govern Nature—which is a blasphemy for me, because the same humans are only a tiny part of the same Nature. How can you guys ever dream of governing it? You are not even capable of governing yourselves!
TEACHER. I get it, I realize it now. [A blank stare in the wide open] This is all a cyclic loop — Science feeds the myth which then sustains the nations and their ploys —
BLOB 3. That is true.
TEACHER. [In a long drawn pause of contemplation] I think I can see the craftily built myth that you are referring to — in science education as well. [With a deep breath] Stories that crumble — because we are detached from Nature — we treat Nature with a certain fear, of staying away, staying put, replete with metaphors of containment. Oh yes — [Hurriedly returns back to his desk] I remember this [Pulls out a textbook page]
“We live in an environment that is full of many other creatures apart from us. It is inevitable that many diseases will be transmitted by other animals.”
This is a fallout of the project of colonising the Nature, isn’t it?
BLOB 2. Yes. [Solemnly] Colonialism, with the classical mix of deep fear of the ‘wild other’. This fear necessitates your need to create myths for yourself to feel safe – you had begun with simple myths about Gods and Demons, and now over thousand years, you have graduated to more complex ones such as your economic measures, your quarantine measures, your border walls and transport bans, your insurance policies, for-profit medicine industry and private health-care, your detention centers and prisons, your corporate bail-outs, your army and surveillance-capitalism, your biopolitics, your governmentality, your “work from home”s and your pathetic “social distancing”, your medico-social population registers, your “War on Viruses”.
BLOB 1. Look for yourself if you can make out this ‘othering’ of Nature from the chapter titled ‘OUR ENVIRONMENT’ here. [Sifts through the textbook again] It attributes increased amounts of waste material to “improvements in our life-style” and “changes in attitude”, such as the use of “more disposable” things and increased “packaging”. And the one on ‘POLLUTION’ tells an untrue fact when Delhi is shared as a “success story” in the “fight against pollution”. Neither does not mention that New Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world, nor the fact that twenty-one Indian cities are among the world’s most polluted. Hell, we have done more in just a few months to clean up the air of your cities than all the glorious efforts you mention in your propaganda material here! [throws away the book in disgust]
BLOB 2. [Makes a gesture towards BLOB 1 to calm down. Then addresses the teacher] Point is, this is the integrity with which substantial facts about our immediate Nature and anthropogenic presence is being reported in your textbooks. What attitude does it demand from the users of such text? Look at the recommendations it lists! Switching over from fossil fuels to alternative fuels such as “solar energy, hydropower and wind energy”, without any serious discussion about how to effect such a change in the current global economy, without any critical analysis of really how environmentally ‘friendly’ these sources of energy are after all. There is no mention of the need to cut down on human energy consumption. Or a shift in the entire premise of the human activity and political economy. Statements like “small contributions [that] can make a huge difference”, such as planting trees and nurturing “the ones already present in the neighbourhood” fails to address the massive elephants in the room — global MNCs, hand-in-gloves governments, crony think-tanks. Yet somehow places the individual man as the likely saviour — in whose hand the salvation of the planet rests! It fails to comment that the natural forests on this planet didn’t come into being because humans planted those trees. Majority of science texts talk about pollution in Nature, while keeping Nature completely out of the picture. It feels like a doctor talking about a disease while keeping the body itself out of the discussion. Doesn’t work that way — that is patronising and colonising attitude — of looking down beneath —
And people in the audience, among those who stayed back, are looking all around. Why are they hovering and closing in with one another with each passing minute. Why are they disobeying the unsaid rule to maintain silence and distance — as always? They must sit at their designated places, do as they are commanded to — as always. There are murmurs of the actors being too provocative. What, these monologues are unscripted? Who said so? Who allowed them? Who conducted the auditions for these roles? Various possibilities are ripe, but the play barely notices any such trivialities.
BLOB 3. [Trying to pacify the Teacher] Look, as we said before, we do not consider ourselves to be friends of humans. You are not an enemy either, you are just another host on whom we can latch on to. And we learn from our pasts, unlike you do. The past gene transfers, through cats, bats, camels and others, resulting in Ebola, SARS, MERS, H1N1, and the ongoing one. We are a far smoother and benign foreign body for humans than our earlier versions which were more destructive on your bodies — therefore in turn more self-destructive and less successful. But we navigated and produced more virulent genotypes. We did not create myths to fool ourselves, we just became more successful. Don’t you think you have something to learn from us?
TEACHER. I am not even sure anymore about our learning capabilities –
BLOB 1. Touche! Not just us, even History itself seems to have failed on you and your learning abilities. Host immune systems and foreign bodies like viruses have always co-evolved as long as life has existed, following the mechanism of evolution by natural selection. But the time and the nature of such unfolding must be questioned. 1918’s Spanish Flu eradicated anywhere between 50 to 100 million humans from the world, approximately 18 million were from your own country. How could it kill so many people? Because your rulers were busy fighting a global war, and thought of accepting the reality of the pandemic as an inconvenience to their war-time ‘national interests’! What has led to the gigantic scales of the current one? Heady mix of chemical and biological production processes, your industrial scale food industry, never-seen-before environmental destruction. hyper-connections within human societies due to economies of scale, and to top it off – yet again – the reluctance of your political rulers to accept the reality. You have essentially no public health infrastructure, no creation of healthy jobs, no way to provide adequate food for most of your species members, and a broken society where no one is equal to anyone else, where healthcare is a business, and doctors’ jobs are being done by the police force. Be sure that gene transfers from across the diverse ecosystems are going to keep happening, and COVIDs-20, 21 and 22s would keep manifesting because of cumulative human faults. Be ready my friend!
BLOB 2. [Steps in to chilling whisper] And just to add — we have no idea what kind of micro-organisms lie latent inside those ice sheets in the melting poles. I don’t think anyone in the past several generations has met them — but what I hear the stories — they sure are scary as hell!
TEACHER. [Quite visibly slipping into a bout of depression at this point] We’ve messed up!
BLOB 2. Pretty much. Look at what you have done to the climate! You are at war not with any so-called virus, you are at war with the planet itself. You have converted the entire planet into a furnace because of your greed. Your inane words like ‘Friends’ and ‘Foes’ are going to be fried when those microorganisms wake up!
Eerie. Something quite eerie has happened over the past stretches of time. One cannot be certain what is being said, and being said by whom. Words are echoing off from the theatre floor to the stage and back, from the parapets onto the heavy curtains. It is a miscellany of voices. There are ruptures from the darkness and silhouettes. Words are indistinguishable from the porous light. Who is it that speaks and who listens? The phrases distant and utterances are incoherent — they recede and overlap among multitudes. Can we really sift through what is happening around? The play has now recruited its themes from those who gather around to see (and read). Some of them are crawling from the margins, others from the streets below the hall, some from wide, some far. The cast has multiplied and faces may not have names. Yet the play proceeds, and follows convention — of assigning words to known accomplices.
BLOB 3. But you know what, the script is already known. Humans will again take refuge in yet another favorite myth of theirs — that everything’s gonna be alright. That they somehow own the almighty Time as well, that they can buy and sell time, while taking refuge in ‘flattening the curve’ — the war cry, the savior slogan! You will quarantine yourself and shut down all economic activities in such crisis times thinking that you are ‘buying’ time, hoping that that you will earn ‘herd immunity’ for free, at the dirt-cheap cost of working-class bodybags. When things get better you will come out of your caves, get back onto the floors of your Stock Exchanges and factories, start selling and betting on time again — like a bull on steroids — and think that you will make up for the losses. You will be faced with relentless waves of health epidemics, economic epidemics — like you have been having since 2008 — climate epidemics and refugee epidemics. But remember brother, Time is on our side – not yours!
[A grandfather clock chimes its bell at a distance at this point, and then another, and another – as if to announce their unanimous agreement with the Blob. It’s midnight. The sound of the bell echoes across the stage. The eeriness has never been so loud, yet so freezing silent]
BLOB 1. [Once the echoing bells fade out] What a tragedy you guys are! Look at the irony of the situation now: those very hands that were the evolutionary miracle that made you who you are today from your primate stages – have now turned into your biggest enemies. If you are to survive the epidemic, you essentially need to treat your own hands—your building instinct—as your nemesis! A small micro-organism was enough to wreck the myths of the liberal establishment that you have built with those hands over the ages—all your Gods, social customs, priests, economies, medicines, leaders, everything and everyone has either left you in the middle of this crisis, or are useless, or worse, are out there making profits off the crisis. Your rulers are using this opportunity to map you to the minutest of details. Your Government’s public health advisories read as if everyone in your society belong to your arrogant urban ivory towers. You guys don’t even have an idea of how to compensate the daily-wage earners in your economy in the midst of a global shutdown—this after being an economy-driven species for 3000 years! You say ‘social distancing’ but you are not willing to provide unconditional basic income and ration to every citizen irrespective of what work they do. ‘Social distancing’ has been your social organising principle even when there were no ‘virus attacks’!
BLOB 2. There is no one or no object that you can really trust anymore. Your investors can not trust your economy anymore. Your citizens don’t really trust your Governments anymore. Your neighbors can’t trust each other anymore. Your students can not trust your school systems anymore. You thought schools and colleges were next to your temples; but the pandemic has proved that you don’t really need any of those institutions when it comes to the question of basic survival. All your own manufactured products have become potential careers of infection for you. Humans are such a tragedy! Can your ‘Science Education’ handle these truths? Does it even come into cognizance with these as truths? Both you and me know the answer to that!
The teacher at this point has given up all attempts to even answer back at anything.
BLOB 1. [Realizes the drain on the poor human body in front of them, and perhaps as an act of pity, says – ] Ok, maybe one last question, before we leave. What is the definition of a ‘VIRUS’, what do you mean by a ‘PANDEMIC’, and what is the meaning of ‘DISEASE’?
TEACHER. [His throat is dry from exhaustion at this point. Gulps some water, either to wet it, or to buy some time to gather the strength to speak, we will never know] Well, I can give you the definitions from Science text books, but I know that is not what you are looking for…
BLOB 1. Yes, I mean the literal, etymological definition. The word ‘VIRUS’ in Latin literally means “poisonous substance”. ‘PANDEMIC’ means “pertaining to all people; public, common”. ‘DISEASE’ is derived from the old French word ‘desaise’ which means “lack, want; discomfort, distress; trouble, misfortune; disease, sickness”. In your textbook chapter on health and diseases, there is no talk about the health of Nature itself – the point that your health is inseparable from the health of Nature and Environment as a whole. The only context in which the ‘Environment’ is even mentioned in that chapter is when it is portrayed as a Petri dish of health hazards that humans should be wary of:
"The health of all organisms will depend on their surroundings or their environment. The environment includes the physical environment. So, for example, health is at risk in a cyclone in many ways ... For vector-borne infections, we can provide clean environments. This would not, for example, allow mosquito breeding. In other words, public hygiene is one basic key to the prevention of infectious diseases."
But what about the health of the Environment? What if it is fatally sick, suffering from several ‘DISEASES’? Not just that it is sick, what our Nature is faced with today is nothing less than a grave ‘PANDEMIC’—a disease that pertains to all constituents in Nature, across the globe and across all ecosystems. One million species of plants and animals are at the brink of the greatest ever mass extinction in the history of the planet, and it’s all due to human activity. One million species!! YOU are the poison as far as Nature is concerned! What if YOU, my brother, are the VIRUS for all of us? If anything, if me or my successors and other family members are successful in either wiping you guys out, or at least in putting you in your place, then shouldn’t we be treated as the ‘ANTI-VIRUS’ for mother Nature? I am not the villain you are looking for, just get a mirror for yourselves!
BLOB 3: But you know what? I think we are going to fail in this. Even we are not capable of leveling the kind of hierarchies you have built over the ages!Your own constructed family of Race, Caste, Capitalism viruses are possibly still going to win this time. In all likelihood, it is in fact going to become a much more unequal world of humans, post this pandemic. But we can also tell you that this is not the end my friend. The battle, if at all, has only just begun.
Eerie silence at this point. A sense of all pervasive failure droops down on the stage like a thick mushroom cloud. The teacher is seen stooping down on his desk, covering his face with his hands, clearly with no energy to pay heed to the non-stop advisories of “avoid touching your face”.
Finally he lifts his face. A look of utter helplessness and plea in his eyes.
TEACHER. But we must think of some refuge, for the kids at least — for the learners — they have not played any role in any of this isn’t it – they should not have to inherit this catastrophe –
BLOB 2. Begin with apologizing to them! Overhaul the attitudes of your education — first teach yourselves to acknowledge the truths as they are, before you go on the preaching mode. When you meet your students the next time , ask them to physically distance themselves from each other, but also remind them the difference between physical distancing and social distancing. Teach them to talk to each other, to differ with each other, to ask questions. Teach them that the only truth is that which is meant for the good of every human being on earth. You can’t give up the locus of the human subject. You must strengthen it — through sense and empathy —
BLOB 1. — and solidarity against oppression. Teach them to rally against colonization of other humans, and colonization of Nature! Teach them about those who fought such struggles. Teach them the history of common people. Remember Chief Seattle’s letter to the US President? Why not start with that – Remember that he wrote without a shred of doubt –
“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you sell them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.”
He also talked about Education of children —
“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our Mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.”
How about realizing a science curriculum that The Chief envisioned so long back —
“This we know: The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Teach them, teach them to teach themselves. Teach them to free up knowledge for all. Can your science, your science education reconstruct itself like that? Can you humans adapt to it?
Maybe time will tell.
[Takes a long pause]
Perhaps, only time will tell.
Curtains, as if there were any.
*The author is a Mathematician and Education Researcher and can be reached at tathagataletters[at]riseup[dot]net