Reclaiming Nature and the Planet for All

Sustainable development has for some time animated discussions on growth, development and the future of the mankind in many quarters. Yet, for all its thrust and parry it has received little attention in policy formulations. The stranglehold of neo-liberal economics and their protagonists is too strong within the corridors of power for alternative arguments to find space outside seminar halls.

M Nadarajah shifts the focus of alter-native thinking—from sustainable development to sustainable cultures of living and uses Asia as his field of study. Nadarajah examines in this book the Asian obsession with acquiring “developed nation” status that is in reality a copy of the West and the corporate agenda of putting profit first and consumption as the most important marker of happiness and development. In the critique that he mounts against this neo-liberal doctrine, Nadarajah falls back upon the wisdom and lifestyle of those whom modernity has marginalised in the developed world and brings onto the forefront several aspects of life that have been suppressed, forgotten and con-signed to a hoary past. Such wisdoms are seen as belonging to an archaic past that must be transcended for modernity to deliver a better life.  Nadarajah finds a treasure trove of stories of wisdom that have been made “redundant” by a life-style that premises itself on science and technology. This lifestyle, Nadarajah would argue, is antithetical to good living.

Thus we have a two-pronged approach in this book— one that is a trenchant critique of an overtly consumptive lifestyle underpinned by neo-liberal assumptions of economy and “good life” and the other that is essentially an alternative space where one would retreat to escape the ravages of civilisation and the rapaciousness of development. The book is made resplendent by some wonderful photographs that the author has taken on his many field trips. These uncaptioned photographs beckon the reader to lands that are green, hydrological and apparently peaceful.

Underpinning these spaces of retreat and potential rejuvenation of human kind is a deep sense of spiritualism that the several communities have produced over time. Nadarajah claims encounters of a wide range in Asia—from the “animists, Buddhists, Shintoists, Catholics, Muslims and Hindus” by way of religious persuasion and the “Karen, Lanna, Kankanaey, Henanga, Ainu, Japanese, Thai, Balinese, Filipino” people who reorient perceptions about life and living, individual and the collective. He asks us to join him in seeking answers from these encounters.

Sociological Imagination

Nadarajah begins this tour de force or rather invites us to it by first providing us a compelling account of his own “intellectual and emotional journey” in the past 35 years. While no two journeys are isomorphic, many are similar and most scholars and students who have studied social sciences in the latter half of the 20th century in India and indeed across the world would find similarities and resonances with Nadarajah’s account. Social science students then dreamt of large-scale transformations and saw their study as opening up vistas of knowledge that would help them to achieve radical changes for the betterment of their com-patriots and fellow human beings. Thus, it is no surprise that the author had come to study at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to further his skills as an activist and to fortify his practice with theory for “greater insight into social structures and dynamics.”

At this stage, like many hundreds of fellow travellers, the author felt that answers lay in historical materialism, class-based explanations and the alien-ating processes of capitalist development. Then again like many who were so convinced, the shortcomings became acute and material. He confesses “…for me, a class reductionist explanation was not very useful in understanding the non-class aspects of my experience.” From an obvious   Marxist   analytical position Nadarajah charts his drift through “a tough intellectual, emotional and social journey” with the help of friends, yoga, travel and meditation. The immediate reason was perhaps to propose a “non-workerist” model of historical materialism for the completion of the doctoral work at hand and one suspects that this work under review is a long drawn but natural conclusion of that stance. The author claims that a close examination of the then USSR and People’s Re-public of China (PRC) performance “in relation to their impact on their respective environments” convinced him that in “reality socialist societies were doing exactly what capitalist societies were doing—dominating, senselessly, exploiting and destroying Nature for the needs of a productivist-oriented system.” This disenchantment is the point of departure for the author and it takes him through a range of  experiences to meditations, spirituality and sustainable development, or as Nadarajah says, “the path and prac-tice of spiritually-engaged sustainability found me.” This path, he claims, is one that encourages non-materialism and “non-materialistic development.”

A Template

Such journeys from a material under-standing of history to its antithesis have many precedents and perhaps this is not as novel as one would think. The question however is this—can a very personal understanding, that is, spirituality become a template? Or more critically, when would the consciousness of spirituality dawn on the majority of the population to become engaged in the project that is being envisaged? Do ideas emerge nomothetically from a non-material space or are ideas shaped and understood in the context of history itself? Is spiritualism a corollary of metaphysics? And then if so, can we share this spirituality in sufficiently large number to become a common consciousness? Action on the scale needed to combat the problems that Nadarajah has identified would require more than individuals or small groups of dedicated people. For the discourses sought to be critiqued and indeed changed are all well entrenched. So how does one go about get-ting that critical mass of people who would usher in the changes? How would they come to band together in solidarities of action? Let us return to Nadarajah and see if these are the issues he addresses.

For the author the question of emancipation must be followed up through a “practice of development that is sustain-able in an all-round sense.” Further, he asks, can there be a limit to development and growth or a “non-materialistic development and de-growth?” Nadarajah argues that these tremendously critical and important questions have led him onto “pathways of spiritually-engaged sustainability” that is essentially informed by indigenous knowledge and wisdom and warns us that “existential arrogance or a dismissive attitude towards the role of emancipatory politics in sustainability, will lead us nowhere.” Can there be a politics which deals in here and now and predicated upon a path that is quintessentially materialist be impelled by a “non-materialist” project of emancipation?

Can emancipation be a non-class-based affair as we have known so far from a Marxist viewpoint? That, one feels, is what Nadarajah has set out to find for himself. Nadarajah’s quest is mediated by the material at hand. Nation states in Asia bent on acquiring a developed-nation status characterised by “high material growth and higher consumption.” These efforts at mimicry have become an obses-sion, feels Nadarajah, and they have aggressively exhausted resources “without regard for future generations” and by being careless in polluting the environment. Such growth frenzy does not in-clude compassion and spirituality. All this is not perhaps new as a critique of the times in which we live. What we possibly are not aware of are the alternatives. For long now the refrain from the capitalist economy and its ardent fans has been the tired cliché that there is no alternative (TINA).

Alternatives from Margins

Nadarajah would like us to see a plethora of alternatives that are real and existent but not really centred in the manner that both capitalism and socialism were for the most part in the 20th century. These alternatives emanate from the margins, from people who hold out the promises for sustainable futures.

Alternatives are  substitutes  to  the  mainstream ideas of living and thinking and they are not merely products of thought but are responses to crises within the lived condition of humanity. For the author the immediate and material condition that turns him to seek such marginalised alternatives is the anticipated deep crises of the Asian development story. The success has come at a cost. That cost is partly visible for it is about a “crisis of ecology, a crisis of justice, a crisis of compassion and a crisis of spirituality.” These factors are mostly “invisible,” hidden from view as it were by the patina of urban-industrial gloss and the seductive consumerist appeal.

The lack of these values and replacement of them by “hedonism” has of late become routinised and part of everyday living. Nadarajah may well have added that with the advent of globalisation these routines have created “non-spaces”— architectures of conformity where one domain moves onto the other by losing its diacriticals and replicates a model of living where cartographical boundaries no longer assure diversity of cultural tastes and values. All shopping malls and air-ports look the same and it becomes meaningless then to ask about geographical coordinates or specific mores and norms. To overcome this “non-space” Nadarajah embarks upon a journey seeking diversity—both ethnic as well as religious—in the belief that the myriad people and their lifestyle would provide answers to the crises that he sees looming over the horizon.

There is a methodological problem that is to be addressed here—how does one step outside one’s own history, one’s own embedded moorings in a particular culture, here urbanism and the industrial complex, to be able to appreciate even the possibility of recognising the alternative as one that is worth considering? Nadarajah in a footnote (and this could very well have been in the body of the text, given the importance) makes a very significant point. For him the awareness about the alternative begins with “confronting the unconscious routine of every-day life and re-adjusting…the level of conscious awareness.” One has to “look but see differently, to hear but listen to the meanings embedded in the cultural territories that were hidden or marginalised.” He goes on to say that he had to use even his olfactory perceptions differently, “resisting the temptation to judge un familiar odours by ow n cultura l standard or to think of communities as savage as because of these ‘offensive’ smells.” This qualitative turn in method where one tries to dismantle the inherent self-oriented world of commonly accepted wisdom and thereby remove the hierarchy of values on to a more horizontal plane is not an easy task. It took a long time in the history of academic anthropology to come to the conclusion that the “savage can think” as well as the “civilised.”

‘Micro’ Happenings

Bronislaw Malinowski had, in his lecture at the Royal Anthropological Society, exhorted students of anthropology to see fieldwork as an exercise where one observes not merely the structured performances in the public but also the minutiae of everyday life, those micro “happenings” that easily escape the observer for being of little or no conse-quence. Nadarajah in the course of his study stumbles upon such a “minor” fact—the observation of a Thai professor on the importance and elision of silences, those “short refl ective pauses” that were part of Buddhist culture. These “lost silences and pauses induce immense complications in…personal, professional and social lives, in the forms of stress, depression, general malaise” caught as we are in the maelstrom of urban living. Yet, the life of speed, of unilinear time and competition, of ever expanding wants and desire are not things that can be taken lightly. Entire communities have been drawn into the vortex of living life fashioned by consumerist dreams and there it would seem the pauses lose out. What was once a middle-class dream in many Asian countries has become true for other classes as well with the accompanying thin veneer of social Darwinism that sees cultures as superior and inferior and the “scientific” rationalisation of the inevitability of success of the fittest. Thus is born an arrogance that puts aside the wisdom that is traditionally available.

Nadarajah estimates that “we would need anywhere between two to six Earths if each of us consumed as much as the average American.” On a comparative scale, Americans (per capita basis) as compared to Indians “produce 27 times as much carbon dioxide…and consume 35 times as much energy” and more frightfully speaking where the global “20% of the world’s population in the highest income countries account for 86% of the total private consumption expenditures—the poorest 20% account for a miniscule 1.3%.” Is this model the one Asia is about to adopt as its own and can it sustain this inequity? The question is of course rhetorical for we know the answer. But what is the way out?

The problematic posed is sought to be answered by finding pathways that are subterranean but existing in the world views of Asian cultures. But to get to them, Nadarajah suggests that we step outside our recent past, our history, to have a dispassionate look at the key questions. The prescription is provocative intellectually  and complex in terms of execution. “We need to withdraw from the material sociocultural world into the more intangible sociocultural world of ideas, world views/worldfeels and ‘meta-views’ so that we “step into another reality and explore our predicament” exhorts Nadarajah.

He states that in the course of his research and encounters with the Karen, Balinese, Kankanaey, Henanga, Japanese and Ainu people he learnt that the true critique of the present cannot be mounted from the spatial portals of sustainable development and that it must be replaced with a search for sustainability. The difference between sustainable development and sustainability is in its approach to the problem—a moving away from the anthropocentric to what is called “bio-centric egalitarianism” emphasis and thereby acknowledging the presence of Nature and the limits that it imposes on human behaviour. Nadarajah is of the opinion—and this really needs to be examined more carefully and critically—that development of “this indigenous orientation to limit and its practical realisation would aid in dematerialising the economy.” Such limits, he argues, would bring to the fore the finiteness of resources and those in turn would galvanise the government, in say, the creation of a mass public transport system and wean away people from using more cars. It would also then allow those that cannot af ford cars to access this transport system.

Cosmovision

While recognising the limits and bringing the reality of the finiteness of resources to the fore of the debate over our future, it is important that we do not create a new dichotomy of the indigenous and the non-indigenous, mimicking thereby the earlier dichotomy of the modern and the traditional. Emphasising and privileging the indigenous knowledge as a way out for us is highly problematic, especially when the indigenous also becomes the political and state-sponsored. Nadarajah is mindful of this and does engage with this fear at the theoretical level by positing the notion of “cosmovision.” Cosmovision for the author is “the most global in spirit, perspective and practice” and he backs up this with his field notes from across Asia, the “spiritual core of Asia” as he puts it. This vision is heavily dependent upon religion, as Nadarajah himself admits and spirituality follows such religiosity.

A quibble here: all the ethnography or field notes on the religion–spirituality–sustainable axis come from cultures that are essentially monolithic in nature and spirituality is woven into the religion that is dominant. While this may pose no problems for Thailand, Japan or Laos, the South Asian experience is quite different, especially for India where all major religions are practised. Religions in India as well as in other parts of the world are in competition with each other for adherents and each lays claim to wisdom higher than the other and therefore greater spirituality. Since at the everyday level it is very difficult to separate the two, it is always possible for one (religion) to permeate the other (spirituality) as much as the sacred (religion) is permeated by the profane (for example, politics). Spiritualities are essentially personal in nature whereas religion based on such spiritualities is public code and identifies itself through practices that set it apart from the other religions. Values that Nadarajah privileges—sacredness, compassion, love, respect, balance, empathy, etc—are indeed essential in creating a just world. The problem is that religions that are supposedly based on such values have shown none of these in practice. The history of genocide, ethnocide, riots and mass killings are also part of the religious legacy in the world that we live.

Legitimising the Political

To further complicate the issues, the political has always turned to the sacred to legitimise it and the sacred has always been a fellow traveller of the politically powerful. The symbiosis is by now well established and the rise of the far right in many countries of the world including those in Asia is reinforcing this relationship. In this context the spirituality that Nadarajah seeks must be perforce private, addressing personal concerns and thus glossing over the class solidarities that must be forged across community lines despite the several boundaries that cultures would draw for distinction. The question of sustainability when inter-twined with that of spirituality would be forced to answer the central question— whose spirituality is to be the centrepiece of this movement? That question is perhaps not to be answered by theory alone. The practice of spirituality-driven sustainable community life would on its own find a peg to get along with the reimagining of the state of our lives. That there are crises and that these are driven by greed and unsustainable consumptive habits fostered by a system that breeds inequality is not debatable. But to see solutions in the past may not be the best way forward.

India has struggled with tradition-based discrimination and despite the many pitfalls and imperfections have progressed over time. Traditions would not have helped in caste-based discrimination, widow remarriage, education of the girl child and the integration of the many within the idea of India. The fight to regain what is lost and stop what may be lost in the capitalist frenzy must be joined by linking several  pathways  including those that are agnostic or atheistic. The idea of progress is to be re-evaluated and the dangers sharply brought to focus for people to decide.

To this end this book serves us with a lot of ideas to chew on and highlights the gems of wisdom that may be lost irrevocably for humankind. Nadarajah makes sure through the clarity of his language that the arguments and propositions are not confined to the “specialist” only.

Surajit Mukhopadhyay (surajit62@gmail.com) is a sociologist based in Kolkata.

This essay first appeared in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 10, 05 Mar, 2016