Recalibrating the way we live

PETER RONALD DESOUZA

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Dr Jekyll, experimenting in his laboratory with the new tools of science, produced a mysterious potion of chemicals which, when ingested, could transform him into Mr Hyde. He changed from being a sociable and respectable gentleman of the community into an ugly and aggressive psychopath who killed and destroyed. But this transformation was reversible, as the optimistic beginnings of stories often suggest. By taking another potion Mr Hyde could reverse the change and become Dr Jekyll again. As the plot progresses, however, in the well known book by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, while the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde begins with it first being induced by the potion, it soon becomes self-generating and unanticipated. It also becomes more frequent. Dr Jekyll’s free will to manage the transformation soon disappears. Fearing that his capacity to move back from Hyde to Jekyll was diminishing, and that Hyde would soon define his permanent state of being, Dr Jekyll, in a last act as a free man, finally takes his own life. The body found was that of Mr Hyde.

The COP 21 meeting in Paris produced what is regarded by those concerned with the climate change crises as a welcome set of global agreements on containing, and perhaps reversing, the destruction that threatens our living planet. Adaptation and mitigation are two key concepts that anchor much of the thinking on how we should respond to climate change. Across the world, in scientific communities, the causal processes that have led us to this stage have been studied and documented, in turn resulting in a large number of policy documents. They recommend ways to meet the dangers that face our living planet from the waste and pollutants of our anthropocentric cosmologies and lifestyles.

It is now generally agreed (except by a few climate sceptics) that the way we live is toxic to the living planet. While nature can be accommodative of excess, restoring balance in its own time, a quality which has been demonstrated through the aeons as life on earth has evolved, we now appear, in spite of this flexibility, to have reached a stage where nature, with all its inner adaptive mechanisms, appears unable to cope with the excesses of our consumption lifestyle. Life on earth is threatened. This is not just to its diversity, or its interdependence, or its interlinkages within the intricate systems of the biosphere, but in its very survivability. Human beings in spite of their high thinking and capacity for complex abstractions, with their treatises on beauty and goodness, which have produced the Taj Mahal and Dante’s Commedia, the city of Timbuktu and the settlement of Machu Picchu, have now, in a twist of irony, become the vandals of nature’s bounty and beauty.

 

We have entered what geologists and ecologists, somewhat hesitantly, accept as the Anthropocene epoch in the earth’s evolution, a stage when human activities are altering our atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric, and other earth systems. The science describing what is happening is extensive and voluminous. The transformations on our living planet being produced by human activity were first reported in scientific journals and seminars where they were presented to peers for contestation and then acceptance; then to policy committees where possible responses to the changes were debated; later at large public events such as COP 21 where collective actions by nations were proposed; then in newspaper columns such that the details of what is happening could infiltrate the public discourse; then in school textbooks to change young minds; and finally, in chai shops to produce public anxiety. This was a long chain of public education. Climate change has now become the common sense on the street. It is something we have begun to worry about. Cloudbursts in Kedarnath and a failed monsoon in Marathwada are both explained as climate change. The holy Ganga drying up is attributed to climate change. Unusual changes in the weather, for the person on the street, are seen as signs of ‘global warming’.

 

I recall, some years ago, when I was living in Shimla, that we had an unusually warm winter when the rhododendrons, which bloom in early April to announce the onset of spring, bloomed in late January. I asked the gardeners at the institute where I worked about this unusual flowering. I believed that it would hurt the trees because winter was not yet over, particularly since another spell of cold was expected in February which would result in the flowers dying before they had fully drawn from the earth, before the bees could pollinate them, before the birds of the air could drink of their nectar, and before the human mind could, on seeing a hillside bathed in red rhododendrons, give praise to the creator.

Before any of this was possible, I remember thinking, the flash of colour would end as the cold earth would realize that it had been deceived by the unusually warm atmosphere. The flowers would die of the deception. I wanted the gardener’s view of what was happening. It was a gup occasion. I did not expect the firm explanation I got. ‘Sir, yeh global warming se hota hai’, they said, conveying in their certainty both the entry of modern science into colloquial Pahari and also that the phenomenon of climate change had now become a commonsense among the hill communities of the Himalayas. Common folk everywhere seem to have accepted the many consequences of climate change impacting their lives. Since it is now threatening their livelihood and their communities, they need to be involved in actions and measures to reverse it. But, apart from the public education and changed public discourse, how can this be done? Are these communities willing to deal with the causes and face the truth that something needs to give?

I wish it was as simple as educating people about causes, enlightening them about essential responses and, as a result of this learning, expecting that they will act in an enlightened way to contain and reverse the damage. I wish it was so easy. I wish collective action in the interest of the living planet could come from such enlightenment. But it does not. All the scientific papers and all the public debates, and all the common sense on climate change, has at best only a marginal impact on the way we live. We want a sustainable planet but we also want to consume the goods of modernity. We seek the glories of a living planet but we desire the pleasures of capitalism’s enticements. We are both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

 

Knowing the dangers why do we continue to become Mr Hyde, one may legitimately ask? We appear to have passed the stage when Dr Jekyll could control the transformation to Mr Hyde, when he had the power of managing the reversal. Mr Hyde is appearing more frequently, in spite of our anxieties. And herein lies the paradox that we have to address. While we campaign to build public awareness about the nature of climate change, we also build economies that seduce the aspiring classes – note the 1.2 billion dollar Hotel 13 and all its excesses, built especially for the high roller gamblers who go to Macau or the attractions of the diamond studded smartphone – and one gets a sense of the temptations of a life of consumption and an economic system that promises to satisfy it and fulfil our innermost and infinite desires.

If the left brain worries about the anxieties of climate change, the right brain dreams of being able to own a yacht and sail in the Mediterranean. The ‘good life’ is inevitably portrayed as a materialistic one where science, technology and markets would continue to produce the products and the signals that satisfy these desires. In this model, tomorrow promises more than what is consumed today. There is, however, another model of the ‘good life’ that is in contention here. In terms of the history of public utopias, it is a late starter, the tortoise to the hare. As an idea it has only now come to us from the cave of the ascetics and presented itself as a possible answer to the growing reality of climate change. It advocates a life of diminished consumption, of living in harmony with the rhythms and sustainable systems of the biosphere. It wants us to produce less waste, to be less toxic to the living planet, to stop being the vandals in the evolutionary play.

 

Today we are living the paradox of pursuing both models of the good life, one materially, the other normatively; one producing the waste, the other recognizing its toxicity; one consuming intensely in the present, the other recognizing diminished consumption as the basis for a hopeful future. But the law on the impossibility of contradictions cohabiting will not allow us to be both simultaneously. We need to find the ‘magic potion’ that will help us reverse the direction in which we are moving. We may not succeed in becoming Dr Jekyll but can avoid becoming Mr Hyde.

There are four steps that seem available to us. Let me list them now. The first is to continue educating the public on the fate that awaits us if we do not act decisively. We have an ally in the recent book, Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet by Vikram Soni, which discusses in accessible language, for a non-scientist like me, the perils faced by our living planet because of human activity. It is a book easy to read at a bus stop, or in a chai shop, or while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. There are many fascinating processes described, of how our living planet evolved, of the inter-dependencies between the various living systems. The descriptions of what we human beings are doing to the wonder that is nature are so convincing that it would even cause an atheist to be hesitant.

 

Let me mention just two facts that have stuck in my mind. The first is that life exists in a narrow envelope between the sky and a few kilometres below the surface of the earth. Above and below this envelope is only a lifeless planet. So when we refer to the living planet we are not talking about the whole planet but just a slice of it in which interdependencies and diversity of life forms, adaptation and survival, all take place as myriad living species with their special ecological functions compete and struggle to occupy a niche for themselves within this narrow envelope.

The second fact is the zero waste produced by these interdependencies, with the waste produced by one life form constituting food for another. The result when this is all aggregated is a chain of zero toxicity. This, however, begins to change with the arrival of the Anthropocene epoch. Waste now begins to accumulate and is toxic to other life forms. This toxic waste begins to destabilize the systems of interdependency that nature has so carefully nurtured. As a result species begin to disappear and the throbbing diversity starts diminishing, threatening the sustainability of the ecosystem that has gotten accustomed to their ecosystem services. Pesticides begin to kill the bees that are so vital for the cross pollination of fruit trees. Himalayan glaciers begin to melt faster than usual, threatening the vibrancy of the riverine system that sustains the human communities along its banks. As the waste increases the peril increases.

Although there are some interesting and innovative experiments that are discussed, such as using the plains of the Yamuna river as a natural aquifer to provide water for Delhi, ‘Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet’ paints a grim picture of the gathering storm that lies ahead unless we change our desires and the concomitant lifestyles that emerge from them. School and college children should read it as part of their curricula. If they want the future to belong to them they must take notice of what it describes.

 

Another ally in this struggle to reverse the process is the Pope. Listening to him constitutes the second step of what I propose. Pope Francis, a man of God, by drawing on global experts, also offers an account of the causes and consequences of climate change. In his encyclical Laudito Si: Our Care for our Common Home – a brilliant little book, the full text of which is available on the net – he laments the fact that by our lifestyles we will threaten ‘thousands of species (who) will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.’ Pope Francis introduces into the discussion of causes of climate change a moral dimension. By taking moral-political stands on many issues, on which we have adopted only an instrumentalist attitude, he invites us to bring into the search for futures an ethical perspective. What right do we have to deny thousands of species the ability to give ‘glory to God’? is a question that we cannot dismiss even if we replace the idea of God with the idea of nature. Within Advaita cosmology this ‘giving glory’ argument makes eminent sense. I would recommend reading ‘Laudito Si’ since it presents us with many moral issues that we need to debate. That it comes from a man of religion does not, and should not, exclude it from the secular debate.

In a slim book of four chapters Pope Francis restates the principle of common good and common home, an idea that is being severely undermined by a neo-liberal philosophy that stresses only individualism and the incentive system that can maximize the benefits for such an individual. He talks about the disproportionate distribution of environmental burdens, about global inequality, about a decline in the quality of human life for large populations, about breakdown of society and social relations, about the globalization of the technocratic paradigm which has produced a technocratic mindset, about the throwaway culture, about the loss of biodiversity and about ‘widespread indifference and selfishness that worsens the environmental problem’ (p. 91).

 

He combines a sociology of the present with a political economy (both local and international) to detail what he regards as the human roots of the ecological crises. In a strong political statement, he asks that the foreign debt of poor countries be written off. He talks about environmental refugees who, in a moving phrase, are described as ‘having to bear the loss they have left behind’ (p. 26). For Pope Francis we need to work towards global dialogue and solidarity (p. 186). A ‘change of heart is required’ (p. 49). Challenging us, he writes: ‘We have only one heart and the same wretchedness which sometimes leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people.’ To reverse the depredations that we have imposed on our living planet we need bold ideas. ‘Laudito Si’ offers many.

 

If Vikram Soni discusses the impact of the Anthropocene epoch on the global ecosystem, and Pope Francis adds to this account an ethical and political dimension, Elaben Bhatt, in her Anubandh: Building Hundred Mile Communities, offers solutions that are local and sustainable. Thinking with her is my third step. In a brilliant critique of the development framework imposed by the Bretton Woods economic order on countries in the global South that has disrupted local economies and communities, causing greater livelihood insecurity and environmental devastation, Elaben offers a set of radical solutions to reverse the journey from Mr Hyde to Dr Jekyll.

She proposes that we stop thinking in terms of hundred thousand mile economies and think creatively of hundred mile economies and communities that we must support. In her framework, power and resources need to be decentralized so that goods are produced locally and the distance between producer and consumer is reduced to the 100 mile principle. This produces livelihood security since cash, foods and assets are in the hands of local people. She believes that if asset ownership is in the hands of women, it would be safer and better. Lok Shakti is the way forward.

‘Anubandh’ develops an economy that is ecologically sustainable. She begins her little book by describing the embodied knowledges in the broom, of how local knowledge of the grasses that grow in the locality help produce brooms that can be crafted for different purposes – from sweeping the house to sweeping the lanes. Each grass has its own thickness and its own coarseness. These different qualities have a different utility. Because these grasses grow according to the cycle of the seasons – monsoon, summer, winter, monsoon – they provide a perennial source of supply and are sustainable.

If one sits in Washington, in the air-conditioned offices of the World Bank and reads this book, it will seem quaint and be judged as belonging to a period two centuries earlier. But if one sits in Ahmedabad and sees the growing pile of plastic waste and the inability of our municipal corporations to collect and recycle it, the book seems very futuristic. Where one sits is important to determine where one stands. Three hundred years of capitalism has not given us the promised land but instead brought us to the verge of destruction. Fifty years of neoliberalism has disrupted and devastated local economies by offering unscientific propositions like ‘it will rain tomorrow’. Neoliberalism cannot be allowed to make more excuses of why the promised land has not appeared. Davos WEF has to reply to Paris COP 21.

 

We need to take seriously the thinking about alternative economies and lifestyles. There is a value to the idea of a 100 mile economy where meeting needs locally, from local materials, is emphasized so that the ecosystem and economy return to being in harmony. It is time for us to look again at a way of thinking that produces sustainable local economies. We need to collect and document local innovations. Let us not devalue the ingenuity of the local artisan and the local communities whose creativity is something to be marvelled at. I believe the economies of the North are again drawing on the knowledge ecosystems of these local communities to produce the high value products in the designer shops on Champs Elysees. The varieties of cheese in France, the range of chocolates in Brussels, the single malt whiskeys in Scotland, or the designer spectacles in Milan, are all products of artisanal skills meeting modern marketing. These are early signs of the future direction of the world of consumption – niche products with high designer content, which are organic, aesthetic, and not mass produced. This is the way to go.

I recently saw a video on edible cutlery. The link is www.bakeys.com. Here cutlery is produced using a mixture of edible grains; so it is healthy. It is also offered in different flavours – from rock salt to ajwain. When the meal is over the spoons can be eaten, adding to one’s nutrition since jowar is one constituent. Making the cutlery helps the farmer (because of increased demand), the environment, the small craft producer, the local economy. Such an interesting and innovative idea. We need to find more such products that are disposable, that decompose without damage to the environment, that provide livelihood opportunities, that are manufactured locally, that emerge from local knowledge ecologies, and that do not produce toxic waste. Human innovativeness and ingenuity is infinite.

 

What I have outlined so far are three steps that we must take to deal with the problem. Describe the ecological crises, read it through an ethical and political frame, and search for innovative local solutions within a 100 mile economy. I had earlier, however, suggested four steps as a way to begin the reversal of the destructive path that we are currently treading, but I have only described three. Let me now come to the fourth. It is the search for a better metaphor to replace the Jekyll and Hyde one I have used. Metaphors are valuable because they help make complex arguments simpler, because they enable ordinary folk to see linkages and appreciate angles to an argument that words alone would not convey.

We need another metaphor to describe the tension between the two aspirations that are within us; of wanting to consume as if there is no tomorrow, on the one hand, and of wanting to live sustainably as if there is only a tomorrow, on the other. In the way they have been presently articulated, the two models of the good life cannot cohabit. They constitute a zero-sum game with the consumption model winning over the sustainable one. They are Jekyll and Hyde, a zero-sum situation where one’s gain is the other’s loss. We need to find a new metaphor that better combines the two aspirations which are producing the tension within us, one where complementarity replaces mutual exclusion so that the materially sensuous being and the ecologically moral being can coexist within us.

 

The metaphor of Ardhanarishwara seems to meet this requirement. It professes the union of Shiva and Parvati, of Purusha, the passive force of the universe, and Prakriti or Shakti, the active force. I do not want to present the two metaphors, Jekyll and Hyde, in the one case and Ardhanarishwara, in the other, as representing a contrast between two cultures. Europe is not being presented as a culture based upon binaries, versus the culture of India which thinks in terms of unities. This is both caricature and misleading and must not be read as such by my shift in metaphors for it is a false contrast.

I have, in fact, adopted a more eclectic approach drawing from relevant resources to develop my argument of first describing the independent aspirations that motivate us and then finding ways to combine them. So my drawing on the symbolism of Ardhanarishwara has a distinct motivation and is in no way akin to the vulgar nativist position of cultural nationalism which sees all things Hindu as culturally superior. It is useful here, before I proceed any further, to remind the reader that I have drawn on English literature, Papal encyclicals, Gandhian thinking, and western science to build my argument. I favour an eclectic approach.

 

There are many interpretations of this symbolism of Ardhanarishwara. The union between the male and the female is seen as equal by some. In others the male half being on the right takes precedence over the female on the left. In still others the many hands on the right of Shiva, as different from the single hand on the left of Parvati, (although there are variations to this), suggest an inequality in the union where the female half dissolves into the male as can be seen in the posture of the two, etc. This field of interpreting the image is for semioticians and cultural historians. I have chosen it because it has a presence in our public culture and can, therefore, be deployed to make a contemporary point – because it signals a comfortable union of opposites, because it suggests a complementarity between contrasting forces, and because it recognizes both the material and the ethical. Ardhanarishwara refers to both the constructive and destructive forces. But they can be reconciled. In the ecological crises today that is what we have. We want a reconciliation between the two aspirations.

These four steps may constitute the beginning of the rollback. They require a concerted effort of describing the crises, arguing for a new moral and political vision, rebuilding production systems that are sustainable, and presenting it in the language of the folk through a symbolism that is admired. The task is enormous. We will have to undertake it. There is no water on Mars.

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