Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
Everyone understands from one’s own experience that the current model of economic development has some cracks and faults, that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, the natural world is being destroyed, the air that we breathe is becoming toxic, the food that we eat contains poisonous chemicals, and access to materials to satisfy the basic needs of life are getting more and more expensive. Most recall the relatively cleaner environment and healthier food of the past, and accept that industrial development and the modern lifestyle have caused everything to deteriorate for good. Some do perceive that the benefits of development are inequitable. Nevertheless, everyone seems to consider all the discomfort and hazards of modern life as the necessary price to pay for GDP growth, which everyone accepts as the Greater Common Good. All the Biblical virtues – Hope, Faith and Love – are sacrificed at the altar of Development.
Yet it’s no secret that all over the world as well as in our country, all the life support systems of nature have been devastated, all natural resources are being exhaustively plundered, and wealth accumulates in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. According to Bloomberg Billionaire Index, Mukesh Ambani’s net worth stood at $83.2 billion (or Rs 6.07 lakh crore) on June 1, 2021. Adani’s net worth is estimated at $76.7 billion. These billionaires, comprising 1% of the Indian population, hold 53% of the country’s resources, while the country, amid all the brouhaha of development and prosperity, ranks 97th among 117 countries in Global Hunger Index. Regardless of a positive or negative rate of GDP growth, over 14% of the country’s children are stunted, although the food grain stock in government warehouses is enough to feed every citizen for about two years.
These prominent facts are not usually featured on TV channels and in newspapers of the World’s Largest Democracy; but when they are, people don’t care. The poor and the middle class and the not-so-rich have formed the habit of not minding the business of the mega-rich getting giga-rich, and of not asking the reason why they cannot become wealthier likewise. The few who know all these facts, are scarcely capable of connecting the dots. People seldom perceive this social order to be unfair, or the extreme skewness of wealth distribution to be unjust. Therefore, everyone continues to believe in several interconnected myths: (a) GDP growth is necessary at the cost of the natural world; (b) more wealth is more happiness; (c) the poor are dumb and the super-rich are super intelligent; (d) industrial growth will create more wage employment and make everyone rich; and so on. All are trapped, collectively, in the worldview of Dr. Pangloss, the optimist professor in Voltaire’s Candide, who firmly believed, ‘What exists is what must be the best of all possible worlds’.
Twelve years ago, I wrote an analysis of why any serious discourse on an alternative model of economy has not built up in this part of the world:
Thus, that prospect of a sustainable, more just society is unacceptable to the common consumer –from the taxi driver to the bank clerk to the Finance Minister. The general electorate – “the Mob” – is incapable of thinking of any alternative system, primarily because it is indoctrinated by the education system into conformity to what David Harvey (1996) calls the ‘standard view’ of development.
The country needs a widespread environmental literacy to emancipate from this developmentality. The utter lack of environmental literacy of “the Mob” is reflected in the general apathy toward the environmental issues among the politicians and bureaucrats. No political party in the subcontinent ever seems to be aware that poisoning of air, water and soil and decimation of biodiversity mean destabilization of the life support system and increasing distress to the poor. While ministries of industry, finance and economic planning remain profoundly ignorant of the life support functions of environmental components, industrial activities continue to change the global climate, endanger food security, and take a severe toll on public health.
Environmental literacy involves, in addition to understanding the ecological impacts of economic growth, a direct understanding of the impacts of development on peoples’ lifestyles and local traditions. However, the environmental literacy and entrenched commitment of individuals and institutions are not enough to protect the environment. It requires a vibrant Community to protect the commons from individual appropriation. A community that has evolved its ‘land ethic,’ that is, connects its roots of culture and livelihoods to the land, is likely to eschew urban and industrial development that generates more solid waste, more sewer problems negatively affecting water quality… more cars, more expressways, greater air pollution. In all civic allegiances opposing development pressures, citizens perceive development as
In several parts of Europe, North America and South America, this environmental literacy has now created an upheaval of citizens’ actions against the ‘standard view’ of development. New communities have emerged, comprising highly conscious and motivated citizens; they have created La Via Campesina in several countries of South America, several Transition Towns in Europe, and several pockets of ‘direct democracy’ in the hands of the people, such as the Willapa Alliance in Washington State, the Twin Rivers urban community in Jew Jersey, and community trusts in Scotland. In all these instances, the people form a user Community, and frame the rules and norms of using their own resources. In all these instances, ‘the Mob’ that conforms to the authoritarian rules, has disappeared. Ashish Kothari gives a delectable account of the rise of different Communities in different parts of the globe, in the recent issue of Scientific American.
Developmentality operates by disintegrating the community. Once the community disappears, the communitarian bond among the people and the communitarian ethos of sharing (material and intellectual) resources disappear. As a result, all the commons – forests, wetlands, grasslands, crop seeds, and the knowledge systems – are replaced with industrial, commercial monocultures of exotic species and exotic knowledge systems that facilitate accumulation in fewer and fewer hands. Communities were the most important element in the polity of all indigenous societies until they were swept into the domain of industrial civilization. In all native societies – from the Cholanaiken of Kerala to the Ogoni of Nigeria to the Menominee of Wisconsin – the community shaped and governed the resource use norms, and obviated the free-rider behaviour of individuals. Wherever the community – the COLLECTIVE SELF – is strong – in the Amish society, in the Menominee Nation, on the islands of Jarwa and Sentineli, the Kibbutzim of Israel – private profit motive is subjugated by the interest of the whole community; and in each of these communities, consumerism as well as technophilia remains absent.
The old communities were disrupted two centuries back in England, and then in other parts of Europe, when the woodlands and pastures were brought under either state or private ownership. The history of this destruction is given most lucidly, in Marx’s Capital. He described how the enclosure of the commons had become a state policy in Europe, as a result of which peasants were “first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system” (Marx 1887: 688). Derek Wall’s The Commons in History (2014) is a wonderful depiction of this history. In India, this ‘Fissured Land’ (sensu Madhav Gadgil ), the community was annihilated in the land use legislation and juridical parlance, has been systematically destroyed by the institutional Left, and is beyond the ambit of mainstream political thinking. [The concept of community, and the importance of the community is masterfully described in Suzanne Keller’s ‘Community’ (2003), which could be an important text for the “commun-ists”, but is ignored by the institutional Left as well as the grassroots activists.] The revival and reassertion of the Community and the commons are essential to emancipation of humanity and the earth. We are witnessing the fragmentary evidence of this revival of communities and the consequent restoration of the earth systems. I am waiting to see in my lifetime the transmogrification of ‘the Mob’ to the Community in all parts of this fissured land.
Bender, Tim (1986). ‘New values,’ in David E Shi (ed.), In Search of the Simple Life. Gibbs M Smith, Inc.: Salt Lake City: Utah. 304–10.
Deb, Debal (2009). Beyond Developmentality. Earthscan/Routledge: London.
Gadgil, Madhav and Ramachandra Guha (1992). This Fissured Land. Oxford University Press: Delhi.
Harvey, David (1996). Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. London: Blackwell.
Kothari, Ashish (2021). ‘These alternative economies are inspirations for a sustainable world.’ Scientific American (June 2021), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/these-alternative-economies-are-inspirations-for-a-sustainable-world/
Marx, Karl (1887 ). The Capital, Vol. I. Progress Publishers: Moscow.
Wall, Derek (2014). The Commons in History. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Weber, Edward P. (2003). Bringing Society Back In. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
White, Rob (2002). ‘Environmental harm and the political economy of consumption,’ Social Justice 29: 82–102, https://www.jstor.org/stable/29768120
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