The Modern Condition and the Wisdom of the Earth

There is little point in speaking of vacuous notions like ‘sustainability’ if you ignore the inevitable cycles of natural renewal

The current year, as soon as it began, amplified—or rather made more obvious and ‘visible’—the ecological crises that have become common news headlines for a few years now. The story of the Australian bushfires sparked the internet but was soon extinguished with the arrival of yet another protagonist, this time from China, which soon became a world-wide ‘sensation’. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to a new global normal now, stories of forest fires, arctic oil spills, exploding oil wells, and gas leakages continue to flood our timelines, but largely remain ignored as minor, localised accidents. Amidst the pandemic and these accidents, the development-desiring juggernauts have not halted their ‘explorations’ of biodiversity hotspots; dense, rich forests and indigenous lands are being given clearances by the concerned ministry to be cut and mined for ‘power’ — electrical, and definitely, economic and political.

Australian bushfires, 2019. Photo: Matthew Abbott/The New York Times/Flickr

“…due to the tectonic successes (and excesses) of modern technology in the last few centuries, virtually the entirety of the human imagination has come to be subjugated to its stupendously restless dynamic,” argues Writer and Ecological Thinker Aseem Shrivastava. “The result is the global hegemony of a hubristic technocracy all set to subjugate, conquer, and colonise the moon, other planets, and distant galaxies.” This has had far-reaching impact not only on the ecology, but also our critical and intellectual faculties. “…nobody seems to find the maturity, courage and integrity to realise that the competitive utilitarian aggression embodied in the modern adventure shapes the ecologically unruly hegemonic influence of the modern intellect.”

While the disastrous shortcomings of such “wisdom of the modern space adventure and the centuries-old attempt to domesticate the Earth” are getting exposed, he emphasises that “a far more balanced and mature understanding is needed to survive this ‘viral reversal’ of globalisation in the digital era.”

We unpack what this understanding might be, by going back to thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi who presented ideas for a harmonious existence with the planet and identify which of these might remain relevant today, while also discussing possible pedagogical practices to strategically implement the ‘wisdom of the earth’ in our contemporary ecological discourses.

LILA: One of the most pressing questions on everybody’s mind today is about the possibility of successfully responding to the impending/current environmental crisis. While some believe we still have time to reverse the effects of the anthropocene, others believe that the reversal would require such radical action that it has been rendered practically impossible. How would you situate yourself within this discourse? What is your assessment of our current situation with respect to the ecological crisis?

Aseem Shrivastava: Ironically, the Novel Coronavirus has given us the answer. Privileged, educated humanity – ‘the global cloud elite’ that decides for everyone, including for all organic life on Earth – was proving too inadequate for the bold measures required to meet the planetary ecological challenge. In the event, as those in charge dragged their feet from one farcical global conference to the next, the microbial kingdom (millennia older than humanity, incidentally) sent us a metropolitan ambassador, routed through the animal kingdom – from one of its primitive habitats disturbed by globalisation – to show us not only what is possible, but also necessary. A tragic pity that the poor and the underprivileged everywhere are suffering so much from ‘the Corona pause’, as part of the collateral damage of its lockdowns. It only goes to show how brutally unjust the socio-economic arrangements of the world are today. Only time will tell if such Corona punctuations will be ‘enough’ to finally reverse the blind, ecocidal juggernaut and keep our children breathing in the future. Failing this, ecological inevitability and Providence will decide, not ‘us’. On the abiding evidence, we are simply not alive enough to the perils.

LILA: While much of the current response to the ecological crisis has remained within the mainstream paradigm of technocratic or bureaucratic development, the perspective of “Ecosophy”, against “Ecology”, has been positioned as a meaningful alternative to this discourse. Could you elaborate on this perspective? What makes Ecosophy the ‘wisdom of the earth’, and how does it address our current situation?

AS: Broadly, there are two prevailing paradigms of popular and scholarly understanding when it comes to grasping and acting on today’s unprecedented planetary crisis: ecology and environmentalism. They are distinct from each other in that the former is a (relatively) holistic science which justly emphasises the interdependence of all life on earth while the latter is the ruling technocrat’s reductionist grasp of the big question of human species survival. However, the two paradigms also share a profound fantasy, too much an element of the warp and weft of the entire cosmology of modernity: they not only have (varying levels of) confidence that technology will keep providing answers to emerging ecological perils (howsoever mortal), but they also have a more or less dogmatic faith in the modern imperative of space exploration (identifying this with human ‘progress’) – though it is true that the technocrat places far greater store by this than the ecologists.

Ecosophy places a huge question mark on the wisdom of the modern space adventure and the centuries-old attempt to domesticate the Earth (and the cosmos?), seeing this effectively as a red herring, as a vain attempt to conquer and colonise humanity, nature, and the cosmos, an enterprise as old as Bacon and Descartes, Columbus and Vasco. While citing science where it is valid, it also goes far beyond science in reaching for the wisdom, not merely of the Earth, but of the Cosmos too. It shares much with the wisdom of rooted indigenous cultures and never slights the infinite and infinitesimal subtlety of nature which it has often taken the humility of great poetry to appreciate, whether by the Romantics or Epic poets of Europe, or by Kalidasa, Nirala or Tagore in India. With myopic arrogance, the reigning paradigm of technocracy does not regard such invaluable insights as valid knowledge. This enduring cognitive blindness is not a small reason for the state we are now in. We forget that ever so often nowadays, knowledge diverges from wisdom.

LILA: It has been a common concern that limiting our engagement with various social, political, environmental, or economic issues to the intellectual level also limits our ability to understand their experience, and hence respond to them. However, without an intellectual practice, assessing and meaningfully responding to experiences can also become insufficient. What is your view of the relationship between our intellect and our sensory/emotional understanding? How would you situate the human intellect as we seek different ways of living?

AS: Due to the tectonic successes (and excesses) of modern technology in the last few centuries, virtually the entirety of the human imagination has come to be subjugated to its stupendously restless dynamic. The result is the global hegemony of a hubristic technocracy all set to subjugate, conquer, and colonise the moon, other planets, and distant galaxies. Watching Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’, glossing Elon Musk’s many boasts (which seem to materialise a tad in things like the ambitious SpaceX satellite launched last November), reading President Trump’s Executive Order to allow American companies to commercially mine the Moon, just two months ago (in the thick of America’s massive Covid crisis), or even reading Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Home Deus’, it would seem as though it is merely a matter of time before humanity is in full command both of the gigacosmos, and of the nanocosmos, assuming at last the envied position of the Gods of ancient mythology.

‘Interstellar’ by Christopher Nolan, which follows the story of finding a habitable planet in space

However, even as the masters of the Universe chart new territories and contemplate the human habitation of Mars, the Earth itself may be turning into Mars, under our shaken, uprooted feet. After all, a mere five-ten inches of topsoil stands in between. At present rates of erosion, we are heading for a red-hot martial destiny if competitive industrialism continues unabated for another half a generation.

None of the above has left human cognitive experience the same as it was before. This is a tragic pathology which has generated a surfeit of what one may justly describe as ‘cognitive corruption’, aptly summarised in Bacon’s oft-recycled old phrase: “knowledge is power.” It is corrupt and pathological because nobody seems to find the maturity, courage and integrity to realise that the competitive utilitarian aggression embodied in the modern adventure shapes the ecologically unruly hegemonic influence of the modern intellect. The ‘Earth Alienation’ implicated in such a project, as Hannah Arendt brilliantly pointed out three generations ago, is the foundational reason for mushrooming ecological disasters. Her ideas are ignored at our own lethal peril at this late hour now.

Ecosophy – as, for instance, practised by so many indigenous peoples (regarded uniformly across mainstream modernity as ‘backward’), as well as by thinkers like Raimon Panikkar and Rabindranath Tagore, Mary Midgley and Hans Jonas – is a renewed attempt to draw attention to this Earth Alienation. And you do it even more through a direct experience of the natural world (down to our very own intimate experience of our bodies), than through the restless churning of a misled intellect. The intellect is a good slave – of an awakened, sentient conscience – but a terrible master, a point noted by Einstein no less than by philosophers like Wittgenstein, or poets like Rabindranath.

LILA: How do you see intellect and/or wisdom with regard to Tagore’s expressions in ‘Sadhana’ and Gandhi’s ideas in ‘Hind Swaraj’?

AS: Gandhi and Tagore are excellent illustrations of the balance between intellect and wisdom needed to face the modern predicament. Neither believed in dispensing with reason. But the other side of their living practices is scarcely remarked upon – neither allowed reason to hegemonise the human conscience and its inevitably ethical foundations in the Spirit. As a result, nor would they allow science and its achievements to subjugate ethics. Unlike what so much of the European Enlightenment held, Truth was inevitably bound up with value for both thinkers. It came first, and reason was there to serve it. Religion and faith were utterly central to their vision of human life.

“Shantam, Shivam, Advaitam” was Rabindranath’s inspirational cry. The fearless realisation of the Infinite and its harmonisation with the finitudes of existence is what he regarded, following the Ishavasya Upanishad, as the central goal of human existence. It is utterly obvious from even a casual perusal of his legacy that love – as Truth – was foundational to Rabindranath’s perennial vision. It is the very inspiration for all his intellectual inquiry and his aesthetic, pedagogical and other explorations. In ‘Sadhana’ and many other texts, Tagore gives numerous illustrations of how differently the world is experienced by the scientist and the man of faith.

Gandhi and Tagore at Santiniketan, 1940. Image courtesy: Rishi Barua

On matters of religion and the spirit, it was no different with Gandhi. The two seers may have had significant differences when it came to their relationship to mass politics. But they held firmly to a trans-intellectual experience of ethical truth. In ‘Hind Swaraj’, Gandhi expresses regret that India is “turning away from God”, a sentiment rarely remarked upon even by many of his followers today. It is misleading for Gandhi and Tagore’s secular followers today to omit to speak of their unswerving commitment to a spiritual experience of Truth, something which sits at the very heart of their view of human life and the Universe.

LILA: Ecosophy has been heavily inspired by the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore. While those influencing policies and ways of living have been moving away from their ideals for the last few decades, what ways do you see of reconnecting with their ideas now? What are the strategies to “decolonise” our consciousness, our thinking, especially in an increasingly globalising world?

AS: These are big questions, with much to cover. But the most urgent task is of pedagogical decolonisation. I was told by friends and teachers alike to read ‘The Communist Manifesto’ when I was 17. Over the following decade of my youth I read thousands of pages of Marx. Nobody asked me to read our very own Gandhi or Tagore. Ghar ki murgi daal baraabar. I chanced upon ‘Hind Swaraj’ on my own only when I was already 34. Outside Bengal, Tagore is read and understood even less. And till very recently, his influence has waned even in his homeland. And these are not the only figures ignored or laid waste by our curricula. Kabir, Rahim, Ghalib, Lalon Fakir, Aurobindo, Premchand, Faiz, Jaishankar, Subramaniam Bharti, Kuvempu, Narayana Guru, Ramana Maharishi, Lalleshwari, Anandamayi Ma, just to name some more unforgivable omissions. They have all been steadfastly ignored in India’s pyrrhic attempt to modernise its mind. Is this a coincidence? When I look around my generation of friends, the story is the same. And this is the reason why they all seem so bewildered and lost today.

The result is not only the surrender of ecological and spiritual wisdom, and the dulling metropolitan mimicry of the worst blunders of the White Man, but the enormously costly triumph of an irreligious Hindu nationalism, a violent, bastardised expression of nihilist modernity. But that is a theme for another day.

LILA: What could be the best potential strategies to pin the Ecosophical approach to the centre of contemporary nature-oriented discourse?

AS: This is a vast question to which I can do only nominal justice here. One can, however, offer a modest list. First, if you reflect for even a fleeting moment, there is no such thing as ‘going to nature’, as is cognitively assumed by virtually everyone nowadays. Nature is where we live, in our very own bodies, pulsating with the life of the Universe, whether or not we are aware of more than a vanishing fraction of it. It may sound a tad uncharitable, but one ontologically accurate definition of modern man is that he is ‘mangled nature’. When the cyclones strike our metros, they do not pay much heed to our modern prejudices or public vanities. Nor do viruses fail to write or travel back to us when our eager, aggressive globalisation displaces them from their primitive habitats on the oceans seabeds and under the polar icecaps. We only betray our scientific ignorance (of molecular biology) when we fail to remember that not only have microbes been the basis of all life in the youthful days of Planet Earth, they continue to remain the foundations of healthy human biology even in these days of nano-modernity. Without the right bacteria, human digestion itself is an iffy affair. An enlightened ecology will never go after viruses with nationalistic rifles. It is mindlessly foolish to go on a Corona war, even if it is critical to grasp the epidemiological dynamics of COVID-19 and understand the relationship we have to these constantly evolving, intelligently adapting microbes and their latest mutants. A far more balanced and mature understanding is needed to survive this ‘viral reversal’ of globalisation in the digital era.

So, from a very tender age, children have to have ever greater exposure to nature, both within their own bodies, and around themselves. Their experience of life must be immersed in Nature, not in mere screen-mediated technology, their ruling habitat for the time being. Experience teaches things the intellect cannot ever ignore or forget. You must see, smell, and touch a real elephant before you see one on Youtube. Or else we will render these wonderful creatures, so necessary to our own freedom and survival, extinct. When it comes to cognitive maturity, the stakes are extremely high.

Secondly, children, young people, and where possible, full-grown adults must also be made to awaken to the infinite wonder of the cosmos. Darkness is as important as light, a truth all but forgotten today in a world which chooses between them, mistaking choice for freedom itself. The hegemony of the halogens must yield to the glory of the stars once more, for the loss otherwise is our own. Science has not only not answered every question; it cannot answer most questions. To any thinking being, the Universe shall mostly remain a mystery forever. What this means is that we cannot allow the mathematised abstractions of modern science and technology to rule the human mind. Recall Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And also, science is a candle in the dark, “a drop of knowledge in the ocean of our ignorance.”

Thirdly, creative expressions of the experience of nature are absolutely essential to the realisation of human freedom and species survival. Only a greedily restless consumer society can think of choice as freedom. Choice is about power. And power is surely not freedom! Freedom is not about choice; it is about creative expression. Music and dance, drama and film, poetry and literature must all evoke not only the aesthetic, but the metaphysical significance of such experience. There is little point in speaking of vacuous notions like ‘sustainability’ if you ignore the inevitable cycles of natural renewal which modernity (in the name of a vain ‘freedom’) promises to exempt humanity from. Sustainability hides a thinly disguised ugly secret about us: it makes us ask what we can go on taking from Nature and the Earth without giving anything back in return. But the whole point of a mature ecology is to understand the enormity of our cosmic responsibility in returning much more to Mother Nature than we extract ruthlessly from Her. Gardeners live closer to the Creator than horticultural experts who grasp and pluck roses from the pictures and drawings in their books and manuals. In some illiterate adivasi cultures, the belief and practice has been that if someone can plant seedlings of a banyan, a peepul and a neem tree and bring them to maturity by the end of their days in this world, their life stands redeemed. Unfortunately, Macaulay (and his living bastards), both within and outside government, both within and outside India, continue to intervene and pre-empt such necessary and urgent wisdom.

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015