The Problems of Progress – by J S Mathur

Conferment of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on Al Gore and Rajendra K Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has focused discussion on the calamity that the human race faces as a consequence of climate change. Dr Pachauri remarks:

“Something should be done immediately to mitigate the threats of global warming which are near and real”. Gordon Brown has observed: “Climate change poses an urgent challenge that threatens the environment but also international peace and security, prosperity and development.”

Global warming is only a symptom of the prevalent civilisation. We need to go to fundamentals and not be sidetracked by laying emphasis on various symptoms of the present ailment and trying to find a solution for these. Gandhiji, writing in Young India on 6 April 1921 said:

“We must refuse to wait for generations to furnish us with a patent solution of problems which are ever growing in seriousness. Nature knows no mercy in dealing with stern justice. If we do not wake up before long, we shall be wiped out of existence.”

It is high time we listen to the sane advice of Gandhiji and radically change concepts that are associated with growth, progress and development. His message is Universal for the whole of humanity. He made experiments in India and the people of India understood his simple language. Addressing himself to ‘American Friends’ he observed:

“The message of the spinning wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant. The message is naturally for all.”

The international conferences on climate change in recent years have ended in pious resolutions. It appears that those who attend these deliberations are high ranking politicians and bureaucrats who are far away from the realities and the shortcomings of the present system. As one looks at the welldressed and shining faces at conference tables one can understand the casualness in approaches to these problems. They are not prepared to change their lifestyles. Let me draw attention to what Gandhiji said several decades earlier:

“I do not believe that multiplication of wants and machinery contrived to supply them is taking the world a single step nearer its goal … I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites and go to the end of the world in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilisation stands for all this … I call it satanic.”

In Hind Swaraj he observed:

“This civilisation is such that one has to be patient and it will be self-destroyed.”

In the same book he remarked:

“Civilisation is like a mouse gnawing while it is soothing us. When its full effect is realised we shall realise that religious superstition is harmless compared to that of modern civilisation. I am not pleading for a continuance of religious superstitions. We shall certainly fight them tooth and nail …”

“In the evolution of civilisation needs created machines and simple technology. In modern civilisation this situation has reversed. In today’s world it is technology that creates wants (not needs) and that is the villain. Technology has created an age drunk, not merely with synthetic emotions and pleasures manufactured by entertainment factories, but dreams of power and of the conquest of outer space.”

The world faces a number of problems besides global warming: pollution, ecological imbalances, exhaustion of resources and the like. But far more important are the social and emotional problems that this unbridled development of technology has for the human race. One of these is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. Bertrand Russell said:

“We are perhaps living in the last age of man, and if so, it is to science that he will owe his extinction”. (The Impact of Science on Society, p33)

Albert Schweitzer observed:

“It is clear now to everyone that the suicide of civilisation is in progress. What yet remains of it is no longer safe”. (Decay and Restoration of Civilisation, p16)

Today technology is the domain of the specialist and a specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less. Relying on this technology which is beyond control we have all round centralisation with power concentrated in modern multinational corporations transcending national boundaries and which rely on competition, exploitation, coercion and manipulation. The remedy to the present ailments that the world and humanity faces is a thorough overhaul of our approach to life. Al Gore observed:

“We have also fallen a victim to a kind of technological hubris, which tempts us to believe that our new powers may be unlimited.” (Earth in Balance, p206)

One of the characteristics of technology is that there is no limit to its growth. Gandhiji remarked:

“Machinery is like a snake-hole which may contain one to a hundred snakes . . . . Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilisation … it represents a great sin”.

Other features of technology are that it not only displaces human and animal labour, it has a will or genius of its own and depends on creation of wants (not needs), which are insatiable. It puts enormous concentration of material power and wealth in the hands of the few. Another feature is ‘parasitism’. Man is made to obey the machine. Along with these characteristics is widespread irresponsibility.

These views were expressed to warn humankind of the danger that unbridled technology has in its womb. Gandhiji was not opposed to technology as such but to technology that masters us and is beyond human control. He was for technology that empowers individuals and small groups and is dependent on renewable sources of energy, non-polluting, that lead to peace, cooperation and universal brotherhood.

Every now and then we read or hear that the world is on the brink of annihilation. We must now clearly understand the traits of a healthy society. A few traits that Gandhiji suggested are:

“In a well-ordered society the securing of one’s livelihood should be and is found to be the easiest thing in the world. Indeed the test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it owns, but the absence of starvation amongst the millions”.

“Man’s triumph will consist in substituting the struggle for existence by the struggle for mutual service. The law of the brute will be replaced by the law of man.”

The socio-economic system should provide full employment. Unemployment is a sort of economic capital punishment. Unemployment and idleness of millions must lead to anti-social values and even bloody strife. Employment means that work should be pleasurable and satisfying. Gandhiji said:

“I should never be satisfied until all men had plenty of work, say eight hours a day …” He continued: “In a healthy society concentration of riches on a few people and unemployment amongst millions is a great social crime or disease which needs to be remedied.”

All this implies the wholesale repudiation of the current socio-economic political-technological system. There is nothing sacrosanct about the present order. Maurice Strong remarks:

“That economic growth in countries like physical growth in people is natural and healthy up to a point. After that it can become cancerous …. From that stage we should regard real growth as intellectual, moral and social”.

Two world wars and the nuclear bombing of Japan and ever-growing sophistication of the means of mass destruction and exploitation, the all-round exhaustion of resources, pollution and ecological imbalance, rivalry and competition amongst nations to go nuclear are warning signals.

Outmoded political structures, fossilised traditions, inflexible policies need to be abandoned at the earliest. Gandhiji’s advice:

“Civilisation, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment and increases the capacity for service”.

This demands almost savage asceticism. Gandhiji dressed like the dispossessed and Tagore said:

“He spoke to them in their own language; here was only living truth at last and not only quotations from books ….”.

Gandhiji’s advice:

“…begin with the first convert. If there is one such, you can add zeros to the one and the first zero will account for ten and every addition will account for ten times the previous number. If, however, the beginner is a zero, in other words no one makes the beginning multiplicity of zeros will also produce zero value”.

Let us hope that Al Gore and R K Pachauri and their like will start a movement and listen to the advice of Gandhiji that centralisation as a system is inconsistent with a peaceful, nonviolent structure of society. A beginning has to be made. Each day begins with a dawn and it is never too late to begin and retrace one’s steps if they go in the wrong direction. The longest journey begins with the first step. Someone has to take the step. One Gandhi giving all his time to peace made news all over the world. Many people giving some of their time for peace and a nonviolent socio-economic system can make history. The idealist of yesteryears has become the only realist today.

J S Mathur is Director of the Basant Bihari Jairani Foundation for Peace Studies, Allahabad.

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