The sociology of eco-mourning: saving Suhrawardy Udyan
Eight years ago, in May, a large crowd staged a sit-in at Gezi Park, next to Taksim Square, Istanbul’s bustling public square in downtown on its European side. People wanted to save the 600 trees in the park that would soon be cut down to free up space for a huge “Ottoman-style” shopping center. What started as a local environmental movement quickly turned into a national unrest against the government’s authoritarian tactics.
The Gezi Park demonstration also revealed something fundamental and even universal: the ecopsychology of people – the emotional connection between humans and nature. When this connection is broken, humans experience pain. A growing body of research indicates that contact with natural environments contributes to the improvement of health and psychological well-being. This is especially evident in dense urban areas.
Trees are nature’s most common signifier. They are our most intimate connection with nature. Khalil Gibran wrote: “Trees are poems that the earth writes on the sky.” When we see a familiar tree in our neighborhood or in our downed park, we feel anguish. Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls this melancholy feeling “solastalgia” – a kind of eco-heartbreak experienced by a community when it feels its environmental umbilical cord has been severed.
Almost a hundred years ago, in 1928, Rabindranath Tagore poignantly foreshadowed the solastalgic crisis in our cities with what one might call a “Bolai effect”. Tagore’s character Bolai is an introverted, motherless, nature-loving boy who used to stare at trees for hours and talk to them without uttering a word. He would flinch at the thought of cutting down a tree. In one Debdaru forest, Bolai would feel at home and communicate silently with large trees, as if they were people – his uncles, his grandparents, his friends. Bolai’s story reveals Tagore’s deep commitment to a spiritual dimension of environmental ethics. In a deltaic country with a fragile ecology, we are all supposed to be Bolais.
Suhrawardy Udyan’s ecological disaster inspired a large Bolai effect. It is heartwarming that people are protesting against this “ecocide”. But it is also tragic that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh, the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs and the Ministry of Housing and Public Works are carrying out a misguided development project in Suhrawardy Udyan. which would desecrate the glorious stories of the war of liberation. Why cut down trees that are an integral part of the city’s cultural ecology? Who needs restaurants in a historic park? Could a civilized society today build a gigantic parking lot inside an emblematic park?
There is no restaurant inside Washington DC’s National Mall – the two-mile-long expanse of open space that serves as a symbol of democracy in the heart of the US capital. Dhaka has no shortage of restaurants, and Suhrawardy Udyan is the latest place in need of seven more restaurants. We don’t have to market every square inch of Dhaka and other cities. There are certain areas that should be protected as sacred land, without the blasphemy of eating and partying. The purpose of going to Suhrawardy Udyan should be to understand historical heritages, learn the names of trees, hear birdsong, experience solitude, heal the mind, breathe fresh air and to meditate, not to eat burgers and to organize noisy picnics! A park is where people learn to develop an empathy and an understanding of the biology of how nature feeds us. Any development project for Suhrawardy Udyan should include a mission to educate the public on the history of 1971, as well as horticulture.
A petition has been filed with the High Court to challenge the felling of historic trees in Suhrawardy Udyan, and tree clearing has meanwhile been halted. The other day a little girl came to the park with her mother to protest. His sign read, “Give me oxygen. I want to live.” Ironically, the slogan is eerily similar to that of Covid-19 patients in hospitals. Perhaps the little girl reminds us that trees are humanity’s best defense against pandemics. I don’t think I’ve seen a brighter idea of activism than this: To save the remaining trees in Suhrawardy Udyan, environmental activists named them after different muktijoddhas (freedom fighters). It is their symbolic resistance: cutting down trees is killing freedom fighters. Deeply moving.
But is this romantic environmentalism enough to stop the kind of ill-conceived development that is mutating Suhrawardy Udyan’s ecological and historical DNA? While we need activism to raise awareness of environmental responsibility, it is no longer effective as a deterrent, primarily because it is primarily responsive and resilient. It does not anticipate potential environmental disasters and helps create preventative policies to prevent them from happening in the first place. Furthermore, current activism does not offer acceptable alternatives to poor development, nor does it form a broad political coalition that could counterbalance the bad practice of top-down planning. It is time to rethink the very idea of activism against environmental injustice.
Development is not the problem. On the contrary. Development is necessary. But land grabbing, crony capitalism, the nefarious arrangements of bhag-batoaraand political expediency in the name of development is the problem. The problem is to stifle the public interest to maximize personal gain.
What environmental activists need now are new types of coalition building and strategic advocacy. A coalition of like-minded politicians, administrators, bureaucrats, professionals, academics, civil society and activists would prevent a reckless minister or president from making unilateral decisions to transform a national park or site heritage. Evidence and knowledge-based strategic advocacy should focus on building public consensus on environmentally responsible development is the greatest good in the long run. Strategic advocacy should empower responsible and empathetic leaders by encouraging them to commit to an ethical view of environmental stewardship rather than relying exclusively on legislative measures. Strategic advocacy should help put in place policies that ensure accountability in public works.
No one reminds me of better strategic advocacy than Rachel Carson, the acclaimed author of Silent spring (1963), a book that galvanized the environmental movement in the United States in the 1960s. In Bangladesh, this is Dwijen Sharma, the eminent botanist whose study of nature struck a chord with the public.
Suhrawardy Udyan is too important a historic place to be the playground of a ministry or two. That an architect from the public works department could single-handedly redesign Suhrawardy Udyan without any national oversight and without expert scrutiny is absurd and infuriating. A redevelopment of the park that requires the cutting of existing trees which are closely linked to the history of Bangabandhu should be rejected. Any development of this sacred ground where many historic political events have taken place – from the Bangabandhu speech on March 7 to the surrender of the Pakistani army on December 16, 1971 – must be considered by a high-level commission comprising officials, politicians, experts and members of civil society. The Commission of Fine Arts, a federal agency in Washington, DC, is “responsible for providing expert advice to the President, Congress, and the Federal and District of Columbia governments on matters of design and aesthetics, as they affect the federal interest and preserve the dignity of the nation’s capital. “
The idea of historical preservation should not only include TSC, Kamalapur station, Ruplal House and Kantaji Mondir. It should also include trees, water bodies and biodiversity that bear witness to national stories. Development which has an enormous environmental cost is not development at all. The consensus that in a socially mature society it is not acceptable to replace trees with restaurants must become a vigorous political force.
According to some news media, at least 150 trees were felled in Suhrawardy Udyan. Is it time to discover the Bolai in all of us? We should all go to Suhrawardy Udyan and hug the remaining trees. I don’t know how to deal with my own hypocrisy that I’m preaching biophilia on the other side of the planet. In times of doubt, I draw my strength from the belief that trees not only provide us with abundant oxygen, but also forgive, like mothers. Or Mother Nature?
Adnan Zillur Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, town planner and educator. He teaches in Washington, DC, and is Executive Director of the Center for Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism (Ci + AU) at BRAC University. [email protected]