In the preceding article we argued that for the first time in the last three centuries, a dramatic shift is taking place in the center of gravity of the global economy, from the countries of the West to those of South Asia and China. As South Asia acquires a leadership position in the global economy over the next two decades, a change is required in the policy paradigm of nation states: from competition to cooperation, from the production of new weapons as the emblem of state power to the nurturing of a new sensibility that can sustain life on earth.
In this article we will suggest that if sustainable development is to take place in the global economy, indeed if life itself is to survive on the planet, a new relationship will have to be sought between human beings, nature and economic growth. South Asia with its living folk tradition of pursuing human needs within the framework of human solidarity and harmony with nature may be uniquely equipped to face this challenge.
The Global Ecological Crisis
In perhaps the largest collaborative scientific effort in the world, some of the leading environmental scientists and international institutions have recently come together to conduct the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of planet earth. The report will be published in September this year, but the preliminary results indicate an ecological crisis. The results show that over the past fifty years, humans in the process of economic growth have caused “substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth”. The crisis is made even more grave by the fact that “60% of the ecosystem services that were examined in the study are being degraded…. including fresh water…. air and the regulation of regional and local climate”.
The existing process of production and consumption of goods involves generating toxic gases and materials into the air, land and water systems. Since the earth's ecology has a maximum loading capacity, it is clear therefore that the present consumerist culture, patterns of economic growth, and the underlying institutional structure, cannot be sustained indefinitely into the future without undermining the life support systems of the planet. For sustaining life on earth, a new relationship will have to be sought between human beings, nature and economic growth. Thus we may be either on the threshold of ecological disaster or the construction of a new human civilization. In this situation, for South Asia to lead the world means introducing new forms of social production, new institutions and a new consciousness that can sustain life on earth.
The New Sensibility
Today the market is being apotheosized as the mythical space in which the individual can be free and yet provided with plenty by the hidden hand of the market. Yet, inherent to the capitalist accumulation process is the systematic inculcation of an insatiable desire to possess goods. The subliminal language of advertisement does not represent goods, but rather fantasizes goods such that they appear to us not in terms of their material attributes, but as magical receptacles of such qualities as beauty, efficacy and power. Thus, qualities, which we actually possess as human beings are transposed into goods, and the individual gets locked into an endless pursuit of acquisition.
The sensibility of consumerism, which the market systematically inculcates, is inconsistent with conserving the environment. The life support systems of our planet cannot be sustained beyond a certain limit in output levels inspite of any foreseeable technological change towards an environmentally gentle direction. As Mahatama Gandhi put it, “There is enough in the world for everybody's need but not for everybody's greed”.
Contemporary market culture is marked by the atomization of society, the inculcation of greed, egotism and the estrangement of the individual from his humanity. A new more humane sensibility must form the basis of a sustainable relationship between man, nature and economic growth. Perhaps South Asia can contribute to the contemporary world by weaving from the golden threads of its folk cultures the tapestry of a 21 st century sensibility.
In South Asia the interaction of diverse civilizations across millennia has brought to the surface certain fundamental features of each civilization, which while being rooted in its specific linguistic, religious and cultural form are essentially of a universal nature. Three characteristics of a South Asian sensibility can be articulated:
The other constitutes the essential fertilizing force for the growth of the self. The other when brought into a dynamic counter-position to the self , helps to transcend the ego and thereby enlarge the experience of the self . To recall the words of Shah Hussain, the Punjabi Sufi poet. “You are the woof and you the warp, you are in every pore, says Shah Hussain Faqir, I am not, all is you”.
In the South Asian tradition, (whether the muslim Sufis, or the Bhaktis or the Buddhists) there is a detachment from the desire for commodities, which are seen as merely useful . Of course the Greek philosopher Aristotle, held a similar view when he observed in his Nichomachean Ethics, that “goods cannot have value since they are merely useful. It is human functioning that is of value.” However this proposition is no more part of the contemporary Western culture. Unlike the West however the voice of the Sufis still echoes in contemporary South Asian folk culture: “Those who have accumulated millions, that too is mere dust.” (Shah Hussain); and the Tamil poet Kambar in describing a good society says, “There was no one who did not have enough, there was no one who had more than enough.”
Nature in the South Asian tradition is treated not as an exploitable resource but as a reference point to our own human nature. Nature is the context within which we experience our connection with the eternal, and sustain economic and social life. The Bishnoi community in Rajasthan and the peasants of Bhutan still conduct their production and social life in harmony with nature, as part of their spiritual beliefs. Najam Hussain Syed, the contemporary Sufi poet of the Punjab writes, “Plant the moonlit tree in your courtyard, nurture it, and thereby remain true to the beloved.”
Amidst its diversity South Asia has shared civilizational propensities of transcending the ego as a means of fulfillment, of locating the need for goods in the context of human responsibility and of harmonizing economic and social life with nature. It is this South Asian sensibility and the associated human values that could be brought to bear in building a new relationship between humans, nature and production to sustain life in the 21 st century world.