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Friday, October 02, 2009

Counterculture, postscript

Some serious readers might have been curious about why I was taking so long to write that third part I had promised, the part where I was going to talk about the kind of positive spin-offs that could arise out of mankind abjuring the high life in favour of what I – and a lot of other people – call the ‘good’ life.

Well, the fact is, I have been thinking, and reading those last two blogposts again, and I have begun to have the feeling that it’s not much use talking in this vein for much longer, really. Those who have already been persuaded do not need more persuasion; those who have not will never really be persuaded – much greater men than I have tried and failed – because they are determined not to be, so more talk will be a serious waste of breath.

However, since I promised something, and I do not like to renege on promises, here are a few bits and pieces:

1. There are some hints in the last posts already. There will be an end to (or at least a great amelioration of) problems like poverty and environmental degradation and corruption and excessively-stressed lifestyles and war only when mankind decides once and for all that it is essential to abjure the high life. Without that major global change in tastes and outlook, all talk of solving such problems is futile, and all time spent on criticizing or lamenting over them is a waste. Once upon a time, not too long ago, a global cataclysm called the Second World War forced a lot of people in high places to agree on this: that is why the UNO was founded (tellingly, the UNESCO Charter says that ‘since war begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences against war must be constructed’). The world has since forgotten, and gone back to its old ways. I belong to those who worry that another titanic cataclysm might be necessary – and looming – to jerk mankind back to its senses. History certainly tends to repeat itself if we don’t learn lessons from it: the current worldwide recession brought back eerie echoes of the Great Depression of the 1930s (and the Great Depression played a very provocative role in causing the World War!)

2. All mankind’s problems do not have technical fixes. This is because, among other things, every new technology throws up a host of new problems even as it ‘solves’ some older ones. Those who depend on technology to see us through all our woes are fundamentally childish, no matter how clever they may be with words and numbers. We have to change our ways. I am writing this on the birthday of a man who never tired of insisting that the world has enough for man’s needs, but not enough for man’s greed. Again, uncannily enough, a lot of very clever people who never called themselves Gandhian, such as Albert Einstein and T. S. Eliot and Charlie Chaplin and G.K. Chesterton and Ernest Hemingway and Erich Fromm and J.K. Galbraith and E. F. Schumacher have agreed on this. That is why I keep saying that those who refuse to listen are living in denial… the biggest problems of this century do not belong to the realm of physics or mathematics or even biology any more.

3. The greatest economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, who was an economist only by accident (as geniuses usually are), had dreamt wistfully in a little essay called Economic prospects for our grandchildren (that meant my father’s generation, actually!) that a time might come when ‘the economic problem would be solved’, meaning that thanks to the progress of skill, technology and organization, the world would soon be producing enough material goods to satisfy the basic needs of all human beings (assuming the world’s produce were fairly distributed), and then men could turn their attention to living the good life at last – the kind of life that the sanest and best of men have always wanted to live, the life lived in pursuit of all the higher things that only humans are capable of pursuing, knowledge for its own sake (rather than knowledge for power, or merely making a living), art, music, justice, good health both physical and mental, friendship and willing cooperation among all men and nations to achieve such ends that cannot be accomplished by men single-handedly, and cultivating the highest faculties of the mind, which are necessarily not just intellectual and aesthetic but ultimately spiritual. That is the kind of pursuit that only the bravest of men have been able to aspire to in the world so far, only those who were willing not only to live the hardest of lives but even to die ghastly and untimely deaths, such as being nailed to the cross. Sadly, brilliant as he was, Keynes did not anticipate two utterly horrible developments in the post-war world that have nearly put paid to his dream and set the clock back: the population explosion and the greed explosion. Either of them could be disastrous yet; combined, they are guaranteed to lead us to our doom.

Am I hopeful that things will change for the better? Well, yes and no. I want to believe that they can; what I see all around me, barring little sparks of light in the engulfing dark, prevents me from being too optimistic. Right now, indeed, the tide of global culture is strong in the opposite direction – China and India, which between them account for forty percent of the world’s population, are hell-bent on achieving per-capita consumption levels equal to that of the US, convinced beyond all persuasion that that is the only meaning of progress, and praying that it can be achieved without blowing up the whole world! Men in the mass do not learn easily, even if that learning is good for them, and these days there are lots of clever and ‘educated’ men around to keep assuring them that whatever they are doing is all right, and even good and necessary (such as a particular – common – brand of economist justifying every ill of the consumerist culture by claiming that it is indispensable for the world economy). I keep telling my daughter it is a very nasty world she is growing up in, much nastier in many ways, in fact, than the world I was born into despite all the vaunted ‘progress’ made in these nearly five decades, so like everybody else, she’ll have to learn to cope. But she, too, cannot afford to lose hope, or stop trying to contribute her mite to making things ever so slightly better.


Shilpi said...

Suvro da,
I’ll try not to ramble but I've been reading and re-reading this post of yours and the connected others.
1. It sort of horrifies me, astounds me and sometimes amuses me as to how many scientists and so-called clever people really believe that technology can fix all our problems. In relation to the environment specifically – William Catton and Riley Dunlap (neither of them explicitly Gandhian...) noted that that was the fundamental problem with the Human Exemptionalist Paradigm (and they have been saying the same for a little more than the last three decades, and nobody’s been listening to them either even though they have been cited some 300 times), although I still thank the day that you asked me to read ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ by Schumacher. Some years ago I went through many issues of the National Geographic from the late 70s, and there too one sees the great belief reflected: the belief that technology would solve the world’s food problem - that HYV seeds and mechanized farming would take care of the burgeoning population, and that industrialized animal farming (meaning keeping hundreds of cows, chickens, pigs – you name it, in tiny pens or coops with no room to move around) was a brilliant idea, although the National Geographic did start singing a slightly different tune by the late 80s for sure. There are some voices that have always questioned the uncritical belief in growth and consumption patterns….but they do seem to be just lone voices.

2. Sometimes I think that the reason for this insane culture of buying and spending and consuming and living the high life is because people can’t see that there are things apart from just material objects that make life really meaningful – and I completely agree with what you’re saying, they don’t see any alternatives because they don’t want to see them.

3. I wonder whether a cataclysmic change may leave m/any on the planet. Maybe the whole world might be wiped out given the equipment we have now.

4. I’ve been feeling very uncomfortable about both India and China for the reasons that you highlight in this essay of yours. No matter how many articles appear in The New York Times stating that India and China are all set to take the centre-stage – I am awfully skeptical, and I don’t really feel any better about China (I’ve been wondering about your older post on China though…).

I’ll stop writing for now. This comment has also gotten longer than I’d anticipated. I’ll put in another comment some time later with questions.
Thank you for this post.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I'll reply to other parts of your comment a while later, Shilpi, but as for China and India's so-called growing economic 'prowess', do note that they are doing it merely by becoming the sweatshop and back-office of the world respectively, which is nothing very glorious. And, no matter what growth rates and gross domestic products show, their per-capita incomes/consumption levels are not likely to come remotely near the American in less than a hundred years, given their gargantuan (and ever-growing) populations. And if they tried to achieve that with the kind of power-generating technology we have been heavily relying upon all through the last century (namely, burning fossil fuels), then, as a learned wag said long ago, there would be so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that you couldn't light a match anywhere on the planet any more. That's what I meant by saying their current trajectory is a recipe for global disaster...

Shilpi said...

I can see/understand (given my limits) what you're saying in your essay and your comment Suvro da, but that's why I've been wondering about your previous essay on China for more than a year....I don't believe that either India and China is headed towards economic betterment (and even though I am no economist I know that growth rates and GDPs alone don't really reflect the real lives of living human beings).

And that's the other thing I've been so frustrated about: we don't seem to have found any other path of development for ourselves and we are aping the U.S without aping things that would be well worth aping.
And a hundred 'yesses' about what you say about sweatshops and backoffices. No, there is nothing glorious about the way India and China are apparently 'moving ahead'. Well we're moving ahead for sure. I don't dispute that. Moving ahead towards some sort of a disaster more like it.

And then you have these post-colonial experts and the neo-Marxists ranting that there is not much wrong with our bursting population but that it is only the western nations that need to be careful about using up too many resources...
Who said that bit on carbon dioxide? That is a rather priceless one.
I'll end this one for now.
Thanks for writing in with your comment.