Anthropocene Age and Relevance of Tagore and Gandhi

The earth is today facing a critical ecological crisis. A few months back Dr. Sanmatha Nath Ghosh, the socialist leader of West Bengal, arranged a discussion on “21st Century Socialism”. Socialists and Marxists all over the world are today deeply engaged in discussions on the worsening environmental crisis and ecological socialism. Several articles have been published in the famous American Marxist journal “Analytical Monthly Review’ on the issue of Marx’s ecological vision. The time has come for humanity to engage in an all out struggle for an eco-socialist society if mankind has to save itself from extinction.

Even 20 years back the word Anthropocene was not known to us. In the Oxford Dictionary Thesaurus, the word has not appeared yet. But the word Anthropocene is now regularly used in environment and social science books and journals. On the geological time scale, the Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Though the new epoch has no agreed start-date, but one proposal, based on atmospheric evidence, is to fix the start with the Industrial Revolution ca. 1780, that is, with the invention of the steam engine.

The post Industrial Revolution society is the heyday of capitalism. The greed for maximisation of profit set in competition in the production of goods and gluttonous consumerism. During the early days of the Industrial Revolution, in 1800, when an American used to go to the market, he/she had a choice of 300 items in a market space of 150 sq.mt. Today, when an American living in a city having a population of only 0.1 million goes to a market, he/she has a choice of 1 million items in a market space of 1.5 million sq.mt. As Mark Twain said, “Civilisation is a limitless expansion of unnecessary necessities.”

This has brought in an epochal crisis in nature and society. So much so that recently, scientists from the universities of Stanford, Berkeley and Princeton issued a statement that the Sixth mass extinction is coming and the first species that will go out of the earth will be humans. The Fifth mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago, when Dinosaurs and millions of species became extinct. The late Dr. Frank Fenner, the famous microbiologist of the Australian National University, before his death a few years back, commented that humans will become extinct within 100 years because of consumerism and population growth. Though I agree with the first proposition of Dr. Fenner, I do not agree that population growth is the root cause for today’s environmental crisis. That is because the Third World, where the majority of population of the world lives, does not consume much. It is the consumerism of the small number of the rich of the world living mainly in the developed countries that is responsible for the epochal crisis in nature and society that we are witnessing today.

Ecological Footprint (EFP) is a new concept that has come in ecology. EFP is the space that is required by a person for his/her need for living. The average carrying capacity of the earth is 1.9 ha per person. But the average EFP of USA is 10 ha per person, of Australia 8 ha and Europe 5 ha, while that of Asia and Africa is only 1.4 to 1.5 ha per person. This is the reason why I say that the populous Third World is not responsible for the ongoing collapse of nature and society. 

Collapse of nature

Forest and biodiversity of earth are vanishing fast. Every one second of a day, 40 football fields equivalent of forest gets depleted. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the need for power to produce goods has kept on increasing. At present, the need for power is increasing at the rate of about 2.2% every year. Most of the power today is being produced from fossil fuels. The CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming, which in turn is causing climate change. A recent damning UN Report says that we have only about 12 years left to prevent climate change from wreaking havoc on the world. It also says that an assessment of how we got here lays the blame squarely at the feet of the 1% (that is, the world’s billionaires). Hurricanes, increased rainfall and droughts are happening in different places in the world. Sea water level is rising because of global warming, devouring low lying areas. Thermohaline circulation that keeps balance in the temperature around the world has started slowing down. Acidification of oceans, bleaching of coral reefs, ozone depletion, destruction of nitrogen and phosphorus cycle, air and water pollution, aerosol increase in the air, accumulation of hazardous waste, etc. are increasing. Scientists are predicting that there will be no soil left for crops to grow after about 60 years. Deserts are engulfing newer areas. Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing faster than ever, creating the danger of release of millions of tons of CH4 (methane) trapped underground—methane is 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. Moreover, when Arctic ice melts, Albedo (measure of reflection of sunlight from ice) reduces, the dark waters that replace the ice absorb more heat, thereby increasing global warming.

When we talk of the increase in GDP as a measure of development, we forget to take into account the environmental degradation cost. In 1992, two scientists of the World Bank calculated the environmental degradation cost of India. It was Rs 340 billion, which was 4.5% of the then GDP of India. Following the publication of this report, Delhi’s Centre for Science & Environment (that publishes the important environment journal Down to Earth) reviewed it and found that many costs of degradation had not been taken into account. Including all these costs, it found the environmental degradation cost of India to be between Rs 500 to 700 billion, which was 7 to 9 percent of the then GDP.

We may not fully feel the lethal impact of the impending environmental collapse but our future generations will, undoubtedly. The rich of the world are primarily responsible for this impending ecological disaster. It is their greed which is leading to the production of unnecessary necessities, for which huge amounts of energy and natural resources are being consumed, causing the climate crisis.

The twentieth century has seen unparalleled economic growth, with global per capita GDP increasing almost five-fold. Between 1950 and 1990, world’s industrial round wood harvesting doubled, water use tripled and oil production increased six fold. As recently as in 1950, the world manufactured one-seventh of the goods that it produces today, and extracted one-third of the minerals. But these average figures hide the underlying reality that most of this growth and increase in production has been cornered by the rich, which has resulted in a widening gap in the distribution of income and resources.

 

Collapse of society

 

Society, be it the Third World or First World, is crumbling. We live in the populous Third World. We know our situation. In India, 1% of the richest population cornered 73% of the wealth generated in 2017. During the last 20 years, about 100 to 120 million people entered the workforce. But, only 0.3 million have got jobs. On the other hand, in the last 15 years the wealth of the billionaires has increased 112 times. According to the World Happiness Report of 2017 published by the UN that bases its rankings on per capita GDP, social support, healthy life expectancy and freedom to make life choices and trust, India ranks 122 among 155 countries.

 

But what about the United States, the acme of the First World? In 1989, in the triennial international conference of International Council of Museums held at den Hague in Holland that I attended, the keynote speaker Dr. Neil Postman spoke about American society thus, “We have already organised our society to accommodate every possible technological innovation. We have deliriously, willingly, mindlessly ignored all consequences of our actions and have, because technology seemed to require it, turned our backs on religion, family, children, history and education. As a result, American civilisation is collapsing. Everyone knows this but seems powerless in the face of it. Here is a partial account of our technological dream. By 1995, 85% of our children will live in one parent homes. In our large cities, fewer than 50% of the students graduate from high school. This from the culture that invented the idea of education for the masses. . . . One fourth of our population—sixty million people—is illiterate. Every year, forty million people change residences and several million have no residences at all, living in the streets and subways. From 1959 to the present, the incidence of violent crime has increased by 11,000 percent. And two out of every ten Americans will spend some part of their life in a mental institution. Our cities are choked with traffic, our water supply is poisoned with lead and medical debris; our rain’s acid; our people consume more aspirin per capita than any other population in the world; our infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the Western world and our teenagers are frying their brains with drugs.” 

 

Both Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhiji understood that the industrialised urban civilisation will result in collapse of nature and society. In the year of his death in 1941, Tagore wrote the famous essay “Crisis in Civilisation”. He wrote, “I had at one time believed that the springs of civilisation would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether.” In 1940, in a letter to the Bengali poet, Dr. Amiya Chakrabarty, then teaching in USA, Tagore wrote, “Exploiting the brahmin’s knowledge, the kshatriya’s arms and the shudra’s service today’s commercially-minded Europe has grown irresistible. But I can see its feet resting on the downward slope—towards extinction.” In 1930, at a meeting of villagers in Santiniketan, Tagore said, “I never could imagine that I shall witness so much of distress in different countries of the West. They are not in happiness. There is no doubt that huge loads of goods have been accumulated, but there is deep distress all around. People cannot remain connected to each other in cities. You don’t have to go far—in Calcutta, where we live and the place we know, there is no relation between the neighbours, whether in their happiness and sadness, or during some mishappening.” Tagore wrote four articles on cooperatives. In 1928, in the article “Rules of Cooperative”, Tagore writes, “Socialisation is the heart of the village. This socialisation can never be achieved in a town. One reason for this is that, as town is large, society becomes loose. Another reason is that because of business and other special needs and opportunities, population becomes large. There people primarily want to satisfy their own essential needs, not of each other. Due to this, even when people are living in the same locality, they don’t feel ashamed if they don’t know each other. With the complication of our lives this alienation is gradually growing”.

 

The famous English poet T.S. Eliot expresses this alienation thus, “The desert is not remote in southern tropics; The desert is not only around the corner; The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you; The desert is in the heart of your brother.”

 

Gandhiji warned about the effects of industrialisation of India. He wrote, “God forbid India should ever take to industrialisation in the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [UK] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 30 crore took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Tagore in a lecture in China in 1924 said, “We have for over a century been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot, choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our own helplessness, and overwhelmed by the speed. We agreed to acknowledge that this chariot-drive was progress, and that progress was civilisation. If we ever ventured to ask, ‘Progress towards what, and progress for whom’, it was considered to be peculiarly and ridiculously oriental to entertain such doubts about the absoluteness of progress. Of late, a voice has come to us bidding us to take count not only of the scientific perfection of the chariot but also of the depth of the ditches lying across its path.” 

 

What are these metaphors of ‘Chariot’ and ‘Depth of ditches’ of Tagore and ‘Locust’ of Gandhiji? If an Indian or Chinese attains an EFP like that of an American, then the earth will be stripped ‘bare like locusts’ in a few decades, as Gandhiji said. Both Gandhiji and Tagore were completely disillusioned by the city and industrial civilisation.

 

In a letter on 5th October 1945 to Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhiji wrote, “I am convinced that if India has to attend true freedom and through India the world also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognised that people will have to live in villages, not in towns, in huts, not in palaces. Crores of people will never be able to live at peace with each other in towns and palaces. They will then have no recourse but to resort to both violence and untruth. . . . You must not imagine that I am envisaging our village life as it is today. The village of my dreams is still in my mind. After all, every man lives in the world of his dreams. My ideal village will contain intelligent human beings. They will not live in dirt and darkness like animals. Men and women will be free and  able to hold their own against anyone in the world.” Nehruji replied on 9th October, “It is 38 years since Hind Swaraj was written. The world has completely changed since then, possibly in a wrong direction. . . . You are right in saying that the world, or a large part of it, appears to be bent on committing suicide. That may be an inevitable consequence of an evil seed in civilisation that has grown.” Nehruji writes in his autobiography, “We cannot stop the river of change, or cut ourselves adrift from it, and psychologically, we who have eaten the apple of Eden cannot forget the taste and go back to primitiveness.” So, by eating the apple of the industrial garden after 73 years of our freedom, the hungriest people of the whole world live here in India. Every 3 seconds a child dies of malnutrition. The divide between the rich and poor is rapidly widening; 1% of India’s rich own 60% of the wealth of the country.

 

Both Rabindranath & Gandhiji not only talked about village reconstruction, but also attempted to actually put their ideas into practice. Tagore started Santiniketan and Sriniketan to begin work in alternative education and village reconstruction. In 1922, in an article on cooperatives, Tagore wrote, “We have to reconstruct our villages to satisfy all our needs. It is necessary to form a zone. If the heads of the zones can organise all works and redress the deficiencies by themselves, only then will the cultivation of self rule become true all over the country. It is necessary to help and inspire the villages to start their own school, cooperative and bank. By this way if the villages become self-reliant and united, only then we will be saved. Our greatest problem is how to reconstruct our village society.” Tagore sent his son, son-in-law and one of his trusted lieutenants Santosh Chandra Majumdar to the USA to learn agriculture and dairy farming, so that they could demonstrate to the local peasants the techniques they had learnt. Tagore worked in many villages around Santiniketan.                                        

 

Gandhiji said, “The capacity of the Congress to take political power has increased in exact proportion to its ability to achieve success in the constructive effort—that is to me the substance of political power.” Gandhiji believed that revolution could be completed through nation building efforts. Gandhiji influenced the whole of India through his constructive program.

 

Nature of alternative society

 

Basing ourselves on the crisis that modern day civilisation has led us into, and its analysis and description of its alternate in the writings of Tagore and Gandhi, we can visualise an alternative nature-friendly society to have the following elements:

 

  • Establish equity in society not only for the present generation but also ensure inter-generational equity by preserving the health of land, soil, water, air, forest, river, ocean, mountains, etc.
  • Ensure adequate, healthy and varied food for everybody.
  • All food materials have to be organically produced, abandoning chemical and industrial agriculture.
  • Abandon urbanisation and establish self-reliant simple living village society. Everybody will live in small ecologically sustainable houses. The houses will be such that the people themselves can make and maintain it. The houses have to be energy efficient. Some houses may have to be broken. But, all broken materials have to be reused.
  • Adequate health services have to be introduced.
  • Production of all unnecessary materials that everybody cannot use has to be abandoned. If this is done then the need for energy and ores of various kinds will be reduced.
  • All old and discarded materials have to be recycled.
  • All production has to be through cooperatives. Most of the useable materials have to be locally produced and used. It will reduce the need of transportation of goods from one place to another. It will in turn reduce energy use, need of transport equipment, roads, bridges etc.
  • Majority of people have to be engaged in various works in the village. This will reduce the need for urbanisation.
  • In such a village-based society where everyone is engaged in productive labour, a new kind of education has to be introduced right from childhood so that people become self-reliant and remain connected with each other.
  • Right from childhood a child has to be enthused to a new enriched culture that develops amity between self and others and a feeling of oneness with nature, and that encourages him to shun consumerism and develops in him a desire for simple living. All this will make labour enjoyable, and a part of life.
  • Establish gender equality
  • Arrange social security for the old and the infirm.

 

Struggle and construction

 

The society that is envisaged will not come by itself. To bring it into reality, struggle and constructive work have to be undertaken simultaneously. Uniting all the working people of our country, a relentless struggle has to be started to establish ecological socialism.

 

Along with the struggle constructive work has to be undertaken by the people in different fields like education, agriculture, village industry, water harvesting, regeneration of forests, etc. In India, constructive work is going on at different places, like that of Timbuktu Collective of Andhra Pradesh, the efforts of Bunker Roy and Tarun Bharat Sangha in Rajasthan and of various Gandhian organisations all over the country. I have myself witnessed and taken part in such constructive works in the country. I firmly believe that we can establish our cherished society. Majority of people of India live a very simple life. It will be difficult for the affluent people to change. Considering that the world is collapsing due to global warming and climate change, I hope that they also will have to change their lifestyle. Otherwise, by Natural Selection they will become extinct. Tagore wrote, “To lose faith in man is a sin.” I am an optimist and I am sure that humans will rise up to change the world for better.

 

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Samar Bagchi is a scientist and former Director, Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, Kolkata. He is famed  for his work on taking science to the masses.

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