Aseem Shrivastava trained as an environmental economist at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught philosophy at the Nordic College of Norway and currently teaches courses in Ecosophy at Ashoka University. He devotes much of his time to working as an independent researcher and communicator of issues relating to ecology and modernity. He is co-author of Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India.
Adhishree: Let’s start off with ecosophy – can you please explain to our readers what it is and how you developed it?
Aseem: Maybe I should give you a little bit of background because my formal training is as an economist. I did all my degrees, my bachelors, masters, etc., in economics. And when I finished my doctorate from Massachusetts-Amherst, I was deeply disillusioned with economics as a discipline. And I thought that very important questions or concerns were actually side-stepped for the most part and, where they were addressed at all, they were being dealt with in an abstract way – on a superficial level where (because of opaque mathematics) you couldn't even tell what was happening a lot of the time. And this is true even if you are a professional and you understand a lot about the area of your study. Over my graduate school years I got more and more drawn to philosophy, to find the questions which were of interest to me. I read extensively, even if most of it was Western philosophy, in particular Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. I got intimately involved with it and gradually over the years, I think about 4 years after I finished my PhD, I got a chance to teach philosophy at an intermediate level.
And then my doctorate itself was in environmental economics, so nature and environment were always a constant concern in my life since I finished my master’s degree back in 1985 from Delhi School of Economics. So, since those days I always thought that economics was ironically very indifferent to the fate of nature and ‘natural resources’. And then that feeling grew over the years as I read philosophy and within philosophy I gradually veered towards ecological philosophy, discarding all philosophy which ignore the natural world ‘outside’ the human mind as irrelevant to our times. I got back to it in a serious way a year after I published my book, Churning the Earth, with Ashish Kothari in 2012. And then I was invited by Ashoka University to teach as a ‘visiting faculty’. They said I could teach anything I wished as long as it was within the broad rubric of ‘environmental studies’. What happened was this. In the course of pedagogical experimentation, my reading widened, and I was never happy with the way that environment was understood in the mainstream sense, I was convinced that that was not the right way to think about the issue. That’s when I came upon the writings of Raimon Panikkar, a Catalan-Malayali philosopher-theologian of exceptional wisdom and erudition. I read two of his books, Cultural Disarmament and The Rhythm of Being, and I was deeply impacted by the way he thought about ‘the environment’. It was he who actually introduced the word ecosophy into my vocabulary. I hadn’t really thought of ecosophy as a concept before that. He had thought about ecosophy most imaginatively. Then I gradually realised it for myself. The way that I think about it now is that it has always been a certain kind of vision. It is a worldview that can impact everything in your life, not just in your thought but even in the way you live. Panikkar defines it loosely as “wisdom of the earth” – and that sounds vague. But what he says thereupon, what is interesting, is not our wisdom about the earth, which would be something like the natural sciences, like physics, chemistry, biology, meteorology, all that. He says that it is not our wisdom about the earth but something which we must learn from the earth. Now if you believe that the earth is dead matter, then that is a very vague and silly thing to say. But what if the earth is not dead matter? What if the earth is actually a living organism that speaks multiple languages of which human language is only one family of languages? The trees have certain ‘languages’, botanists now tell us, animals of course, and birds chirp, babble, and tweet all the time; even the elements, air and water, earth and fire, for that matter, may have forms of communication, who knows, which science has just about begun discovering. So, there are various registers in nature, in the cosmos, and we have to be sensitive and receptive to them. Science itself, for instance, is trying for centuries to understand how nature ‘works’. What, after all, is a scientific experiment? It asks a certain question; you frame it in such a way that you leave it open for nature to offer an answer, yes, no, maybe, whatever. So there has to be a certain receptivity for some signal, some intelligence to come from outside the frame of the scientists’ minds. That’s the way science works.
What Panikkar says is that ecosophy is a different way of listening to nature, a different way of being receptive to the cosmos. In philosophical language, there is such a thing as “self-disclosure of the cosmos,” so the cosmos reveals itself to our consciousness in a multiplicity of ways and it is for us to learn to listen to it and to learn from it. Very broadly speaking that is where ecosophy comes from.
Alongside Panikkar, I was also reading a lot of Rabindranath Tagore. Back in 2014, I began exploring Tagore’s ecological vision. That’s when I realised that in a poetic language, Tagore was talking about ecosophy as a poet-philosopher and Panikkar was talking about it as a philosopher in prose. Gradually, I developed my own perspective of ecosophy and some of it I share with students in the courses I have been teaching at Ashoka.
That’s roughly where ‘ecosophy’ comes from. If I was to briefly distinguish it from environmentalism or ecology, which are two other perspectives in which the problems of nature and the environment are discussed, then I would say that ecology is a science and environmentalism is an outlook that springs from the ubiquitous culture of technocracy and the kind of economic system that thinks of nature and the environment as an outsider, as an afterthought to the economy. Ecosophy doesn’t do that. It is a realisation, a perspective; it’s an ecologically ethical approach. It is relevant to policy-making. Policy can sometimes be derived from ecosophy, but it is not in itself a policy. And it does not accept the cosmology of modernity, which is passively accepted by both ecology and environmentalism. Ecosophy’s outlook on life is very different from modernity. The whole perspective of modernity – ecosophy asks a lot of questions about it.
Adam: That is a great segue into what I wanted to touch on. As I understand it from what you just said, ecosophy – whether implicitly or explicitly – works as a critique of modernity. But I think that modernity is a term that not everyone has a firm grasp of. An example of what you are saying, for me, would be your critique of dualism. There is humanity and then there is the world. And what you are saying (I think) is that ecosophy tries to overcome that separation where we think of the world as an inanimate thing, a thing we occupy and can just mould however we want. But other than this dualism, what are some other ways that we can define modernity, what are we actually talking about when we talk about modernity in the context of ecosophy?
Aseem: It’s a huge question, and it has many complex strands and aspects to it. But I will try to answer it in the context of ecological crisis. Number one, it is terribly important to know that at the heart of modernity we learn the philosophical underpinnings of what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world.” Principally, what this means is that we are meant to be secular; the ‘sacred’ is a fiction. So, religion for the most part is something that mainstream modernity has tried to remove or ignore. While some people still hang on to it, modernity’s understanding is that it is largely not only a godless universe but a universe without soul or spirit. And there can be differences regarding whether it is humans too who are without a soul or spirit, but the belief is quite common in modernity that, all in all, it is a secular world. The saeclum - matter, space, and time - is all that reality consists of. As per secularity, but especially through the ideology of secularism, religion is by and large rejected as a mode of knowledge. There are of course some very powerful exceptions to this, like scientists who remain authentically religious till they die (Einstein is a notable example). But overall, the understanding of reality in mainstream modernity is secular. And with regard to what that means, Panikkar gives a very rigorous understanding – it refers largely to matters based on time, and not the dimension of the Eternal. Nothing else is quite as real as time, which is exclusively the realm that science studies, or is even capable of studying. That is one major aspect of modernity relevant to our discussion.
One of the things that has frustrated people about the environmental crisis is that nature has become desacralized. You realise that it was not so in times when religion played a central part in human affairs. Nature was seen as more or less animate, as alive. So, secularity is one key aspect. The other important thing that Panikkar talks about is the notion of historicity. Historicity has to do with the fact that human existence is now historical existence. While modernity has a defined notion of time (that there is a past, a present, a future), time follows a linear path in most perspectives of modernity; it is not cyclical. It is not circular or spiral-like or spherical. Panikkar says that modern man lives in pursuit, unlike the pre-modern man – which makes all the difference. The pursuit of what is man-made is more important than what is not so. This is important. Because the way ecosophy looks at life in the universe, it points out how modernity leads to human suffering because of the belief that what is man-made is the most important thing.
The third thing is technology. There are three different notions involved here, what the Greeks called techne, which is a reference to arts and crafts and the technique of doing things in order to create things that can be useful to humanity as tools. And technology is when the word techne gets married to the word logos. Logos is the root of the word logic. It is the form of knowledge that is derived from human attempts to grasp the universe rationally. So when it gets systematised, gets tested by scientists and comes back into society in the form of some valid knowledge, it is technology and not before that. Technocracy is where you have techne plus kratos. And in Greek, kratos refers to power. So, the ones with power in society are the technocrats, people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. Technology has been essential to modernity and there has been a constant ascendancy of technocracy. These three are significant to Panikkar.
To these three key features of modernity that Panikkar underscores I would like to add something critical. I’ll draw attention to war, conquest and ongoing militarisation, which lie historically and contemporaneously at the foundations of modernity. Not only is competitive militarisation and rampant war premised on the destruction of the natural world, the idea of the conquest of nature, duly transposed from the world of human affairs to the universe itself, has been, since Francis Bacon in the 17th century, the underlying myth of modernity. So, our ecological estrangement in the modern world and the fact that the earth is ever more sharply divided into a man-made metropolis and the natural world – that separation means you are already, perhaps tragically, separated from something which you are umbilically bound to and cannot get away from. The trouble is that billions of educated people are living lives not just alienated from but completely at odds with the natural world. We don’t know any more what it would be like to live in a context where nature plays a larger and more meaningful part in our everyday lives in an undeniably living, tangible way. Such levels of ‘earth alienation’ were not present in pre-modern cultures - and, to a discernible degree, is not the case in several non-modern contexts even today.
So these are some of the defining markers of modernity from an ecosophical perspective.
Adam: It’s interesting, I remember reading – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the late Mark Fisher, who wrote Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? – I remember he wrote a piece where he commended Slavoj Zizek for observing that “the one good thing that capitalism did was destroy Mother Earth.” And it’s this kind of idea from Mark Fisher, as well as some working in the Accelerationist tradition, that we sort of need to let go of these conceptions and embrace modernist techno-futures. Because they argue that what lets the Left down is its fear of technology, and that if we really want to overcome capitalism we need to appropriate or take over – I guess in a Marxist sense – the technological sphere and organise it in a different way. Do you think this can ever be a valid conception of a just future? What’s your stance on this?
Aseem: If you are going to “de-sentimentalise” yourself by getting rid of the idea of Mother Earth (crediting capitalism with this “one good thing” that it has achieved!), as Zizek and others recommend, then you will very soon get rid of the idea of Mother itself – we’re on our way, by the way. If we’re not careful then that’s the way we are heading. We have excoriated and rejected traditions of the past - tout court - as though there was nothing there, it was just one long tale of human misery and stupidity. And I keep telling my students look at all our languages, our culture, music, dances, cuisines, dress – and ask yourselves, what has modernity contributed to any of this? And then what has modernity taken away from this? And you will know the answer. So, this is unfortunately the legacy of the ideology of progressives of various stripes who have bought into its prejudices wholesale. It turns out to be completely baseless upon close examination. The dimension along which there has been enormous progress is technology. That’s quite obvious; we are living it today; it doesn’t have to be debated. But the point is, everything else has been dumped to enable this. To make this happen, to be able to have this hi-tech synchronisation, you’ve gone five miles under the earth and the oceans, you’ve got all the coal, oil and natural gas, and you’re stressing all the animal, plant and human life around the planet in order to keep the show going. Isn’t the rapidly growing stress that humanity across the world been living under causatively, if absurdly, correlated with the enormous stress that all ecosystems on earth are being subjected to? Do the two great sites of stress in our time, humanity and the earth, not have everything to do with each other? Is the everyday stress of humanity not being generated by the same economic system and way of life and thought as the lasting stress that Mother Earth is suffering? Why can’t radical intellectuals see the common sense of this growing fact?
So, this kind of cornucopian, superstitious faith in technology I think misses the point altogether, which is that human beings – because we’re creatures of symbolic representation, and because we’ve all been raised with cognitive modernity (as I like to call it) – we are particularly prone to taking unnatural things to an extreme and being able to forget what is natural. After a while people will say, “You know, everything is made up, we just make it up as we go along.” There is a serious philosophical issue in believing that we are the sole authors of our lives from conception till demise. It is as though you filled in a form to ask to be born, your application was accepted, and you were given this birth. Life precedes the human will, you know, an empirical truism which cannot be argued with, even if you declare yourself an ‘atheist’. Will, and everything we are so proud of, comes later in the development of our consciousness, a point familiar to Oriental thought since the ancient Indians and the Chinese, and which Nietzsche makes quite clear in several books. Raimon Panikkar calls the will “the first dogma of modernity.” So, if you ask me, Zizek’s stance constitutes an evasion. It’s a refusal to think philosophically about life. It is a capitulation to a mode of thought which so much of the modern worldview suffers from, the idea that a ‘better’ system (than, say, capitalism) will help us find answers to what we face. That there is no need for a fundamental examination of modern “progressive” values. No change of heart - or discovery of soul - is necessary. The inevitable result of such a mode of thought is to repose uncritical faith in the goodness of technology. If you want to let technology take control (it already has, by the way), everything else is going to get thrown off the train so that the technocrats can get a golden ride (for a while), and wave from their speeding space-vehicle to people who fall by the wayside. So, if you want to let technology take control what you’re really saying is “I’m unable to think” – that you don’t have the awareness or the alertness to be able to think through to the suicidal dimensions of technology. And you’re quite happy to leave the matter to technocrats and succumb to all the forces which are causing the problem in the first place. So, you want to make lab-produced food, and lab-produced this and that. You make abstractions out of reality, you make abstractions out of people, relationships, and feelings and, dare I say it, you’ve actually fallen into complete nihilism once you accept a machine-cut humanity. This is consumer nihilism; this is at the heart of the matter. And Zizek is a very good example. He may call himself Hegelian or Marxist or some other thing, it doesn’t matter. But it’s a cop out. Because you’re not thinking philosophically, you’re not being even vaguely wise about where we’ve reached – and where we’ve reached is a very, very dangerous point. The Corona pause has just been a mild indicator of what we’re playing with.
So, that’s been the problem with Marxism. Less so with Marx, I would say – more with Marxists. I think the problem has been a certain kind of overconfidence in formulaic thinking and the inability to re-examine your cognitively modern premises philosophically. And so, you’re falling into all the defaults that the managers of the present system are actually setting for you – and these are the technocrats. They’re the ones designing things, they’re the ones laying the ground rules. And you fall for it without even realising you’re walking into that trap. So, yes, I would be quite critical of that sort of thing, with all due respect and a lot of regard for a good bit of Marxist work in history and elsewhere which I’ve studied (I went to a radical political economy department to do my PhD, so I’ve read plenty of Marx and I don’t think I’m ill-informed about what they’re talking about). But I do think that their despair is shown in the way that they capitulate to some of the dominant modes of thought, and they’re not able to get out of the default cognitive world that the so-called European Enlightenment bequeathed.
Adhishree: You mentioned modernity and secularism, and how modernity has led us into kind of this godless world. Like Nietzsche very famously said “God is dead” and we’re living in the aftermath of that. And you also mentioned that the point that we are at is this nihilistic, almost “point of no return” kind of thing. How do you juxtapose this thinking with ecosophy? In ecosophy, you think of Nietzsche as a guiding influence, but what is the role of religion? How does that fit into the scheme of things with ecosophy? Is it more a way of life or can it be translated into concrete policies, for example?
Aseem: Those are two questions and let me start with the first one. The first one is a big, important question. Let’s look at Nietzsche for a while. One of the things that I did in my graduate school when I had decided to abandon the Economics profession was to study and spend a whole year reading Nietzsche. So, the entire year all I did was read through all of Nietzsche’s works that are available in English. I even thought of learning German in order to comprehend him better. My own understanding of that passage “God is dead” is that he is actually declaring the death of the Christian god and of a particular kind of faith, which he himself espoused as a Lutheran protestant. (He was raised in Germany and his father was a pastor and so on). Yet, just after that, he worries about the onset of nihilism, and what is likely to happen to Europe and the West in the wake of nihilism knocking at the door. When he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra (which he wrote the year after publishing The Gay Science in 1883), he talks about the ubermensch (the over-man, or the higher man) being the meaning of the earth, and he draws an intimate link between the body and the earth. He claims that this body is actually the means through which we are of this earth, and we are to keep faith with this body and through that we keep faith with the earth. So the roots of ecosophy are already here. Nobody who understands even one percent of Nietzsche can say that he rejects the idea of the spirit or the soul. All of Nietzsche is about the spirit and the soul, there is no Nietzsche without the soul. So, what does he think of the soul and what is the relationship between the body and the soul? Well, the soul is always embodied for Nietzsche, it is always acting through the body. The soul is all too real, and the body is the medium or the form through which the soul acts. All of this for what purpose? Well, the idea of life, as far as he can tell, is to go on creating. In the same way in which the earth is created and everything on earth is created, human beings are meant to be creators.
Nietzsche was not the literal atheist that people often take him to be. He did not believe in the Christian god, which is to say that he did not believe in God as emperor – which is the dominant notion of God in the semitic faith for most part. That is the idea of God which he rejected. But God as the immanent god, which is present across creation, which is present across all things alive and dead, that’s not an idea which Nietzsche rejects at all – on the contrary he embraces that. He says at one point: “If our senses were fine enough we would experience the slumbering cliff like a dancing chaos.” You wouldn’t say that if you were a complete atheist, or if you believed in a god separate from humanity. So, what he is really saying is: you are not sharp enough, your senses are not sharp enough, you are too dull to apprehend adequately what is living around us. Please look at a mountain again, please go swim in a river again to know that there is a soul which breathes us. So, there is a very animist, pagan Nietzsche which is there. In my book I quote a passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra where he talks about keeping faith with the earth. You cannot talk like that as an atheist. What is this business of keeping faith with the earth? If Descartes is right, it is just a dead inanimate entity, dead matter, just molecules. Why worry about it?
So, if one takes this interpretation seriously, then you already have the foundations of what I think of as ecosophy. So, in other words, there is a soul there, there is wisdom there to access, we are being spoken to, we are being talked to. In an article I wrote when the coronavirus first arrived two years ago, I called it ‘a time for ecosophy,’ and I had a quotation from Raina Maria Rilke’s Ninth Elegy where he talks about how the earth may have dreams for us – and what then? How are we to live then? How are we to interpret that? What is our place in the scheme of things…should the earth have dreams for us? This is the importance of the mythology of Mother Earth. Just like a mother for her children, if the earth has dreams for us, they must be very powerful things, much more powerful than a mother’s wish for her children. So, you see, people like Zizek will never get this and they should read Rilke’s Ninth Elegy because there is something very, very big being said there. So, what all this is leading to is a worldview in which everything is participating in our lives all the time. You are not just this body; you are much more than this body that you claim is yours or others think of as you. A lot more is being lived through you than you are aware of.
We belong to much larger wholes, much larger entities than ourselves. And I don’t mean nations or corporations or entities like that – I mean in cosmic terms. I mean in natural or ecological terms. We belong to much larger wholes than we are aware of. And there is an intelligence that is working in and through them. If you read Tagore’s Sadhana, which I teach in one of my courses at Ashoka University, he talks about this. He talks about how the central thing which distinguishes most of Western thought from Oriental thought is that in Western thought either there is no such thing as the soul or if there is a soul then only human beings have it, not animals, not rocks, not plants, nor mountains. But in Oriental traditions, water and the ocean have a soul. So, anybody who has actually swum in the ocean will know something about this from their own experience. If you have lived through a fire or a flood or an earthquake, none of these so-called natural disasters are neutral incidents which leave our assumptions and beliefs undisturbed. They challenge every major modern belief. So, it is very important to have a vision in which all these possibilities exist. What science knows and has demonstrated to the satisfaction of a handful of knowledgeable scientists is a small part of the larger thing and even there if you look at quantum physicists and if you read what Schrödinger is writing, or Bohr is writing, or Heisenberg – they all talk about this. They are talking about consciousness, about souls, about the Vedas and the Upanishads. Schrödinger in particular is worth reading, I have been reading a lot of him, and he says that Western thought needs a “blood transfusion” from Oriental philosophy. It’s not some kind of mysticism or exoticisation. These are not intellectuals in despair. These are people who have worked hard, who are working through the problems of their sciences and have arrived at certain questions and conclusions based on what they have learnt from nature. And they realised that we are missing something which is perhaps ourselves – we forgot that we ourselves are in nature and part of nature, and we are unable to see ourselves as we should, and so we need something more than just science.
That’s when they go towards poetry or philosophy and they find that there is a harvest to be reaped there. If you read Alfred North Whitehead, who is possibly the finest philosopher of cosmology in the last 100 years and one of the great mathematicians, Whitehead says very clearly that the Romantics were right. He keeps quoting Wordsworth and he keeps saying that they were right because Wordsworth was constantly worried that the industrial revolution and the advancement in science and technology are actually robbing us of the whole. That we are no longer able to see the world as a whole, that our world is getting fragmented, our cognition is getting damaged and so on. Whitehead says that these poets had a point. If you read William Blake, his attack on Newton and Locke and his poems with quotes like “Newton sheath’d in dismal steel” are quite harsh. He is deeply critical of where science is taking western society, and Blake is a proper seer, one of the few great seers of the last two centuries, a modern-day oracle, a very rare figure. If you do not allow the imagination to flower in that direction then you will eventually go towards nihilism; this is my sense. If you believe that science is all there is, technology is all there is, and that there is progress and that progress consists of this, then you are actually walking away from yourself in a deep sense and that is very much a part and parcel of what it means to be a nihilist. And Nietzsche worried about this. He worried about the Zizeks of the world. He pities those who would be living at their mercy. There is a despair about such people, and I think there is no reason for despair if you look in the right way and this gets at another part of your question which is – how are we to think about the future and what is the role of nature in that? The way I see it is that, very crudely speaking, if you just look at western societies or Europe, before the industrial revolution, nature was dominant. After the industrial revolution humanity became dominant for a while and now the question is – can this continue? The answer to that is no. Therefore, there is a third thing which one needs to think of – instead of conquest can we think of a dialogue? The quantum physicists have also been trying to say this. They are saying that we are in a universe in which everything participates in the life of everything else and whether we like it or not – it’s not our choice – we are in dialogue with each other. The question is whether we see that or we want to fight that condition and turn it into a situation where there is an ongoing war with nature…Then the writing is on the wall for us if we go that route. So, dialogue is the way it is meant to be and the sooner we wake up to that reality as a possibility, the wiser we will be and the happier our children and grandchildren will be.
I think the will to power is what is causing the problem here. The more you think of domination as the model and carry that over from human culture to our relations with the natural world, you will keep going wrong. And the more you think in terms of dialogue, then I think nature is a very beautiful context in which to live. This doesn’t mean that nature will always be gentle and tender and so on, it will occasionally be ruthless and merciless, all those things are true but that’s not all, there is also harmony, and beauty, and peace. All those things are also in nature and there is inspiration that you can draw from the stars at night. But people will say, “Oh, don’t disappear into poetry” – well, poetry has a place here and science knows very little about the cosmos. It is still learning and exploring so much. There is a lot more that has to be explored and I think that ecosophy is to be learnt with a spirit of adventure.
To answer another part of your question, it is as much a practice as it is a way of thinking. So, for instance, we recently ran a course here in Uttarakhand where 10 of us lived in a village which is 2 kilometres away from the road, a very remote village. And from morning to night, we were doing things like fetching water, collecting firewood, using axes to cut wood from the forest so as to light a wood fire, cooking on it, cutting grass to feed the cows so that we can get milk. We had a whole routine of very elementary rural life, what it is like. If I show you some of the things that students wrote after the course, they said stuff like they have never lived so much before. One of them wrote “I’ve never felt so much love in my life before.” We worked all the time, without ever feeling busy – there was always time for each other. Ecosophy in practice is learning not only from nature but learning with nature. It is not just blind imitation of becoming wild again, or re-wilding in some fashion we want to adopt. It’s not that. It’s that you engage and you don’t run away, that you understand the conditions on which life is given to humanity with wisdom, rather than with knee-jerk impatience saying, “It’s in my way, I’m going to get rid of it, this mountain is blocking my expressway and I am going to cut through it and build it anyway.” This is not very intelligent and we are learning that in many dimensions.
There is another notion which we work with in ecosophy which I learnt from Panikkar. It is the idea of what he calls “arrhythmia”. It is a term from cardiology, and basically the idea is that everything in nature, everything in the universe, works at a certain rhythm, in a certain tempo and is meant to work in that way – whether it is the periodicity of the earth’s movement around sun, or the moon around the earth, or the cycle of the seasons. Or – to use micro examples – the ovulation cycles of female bodies. All these things work in a certain rhythm. When things get out of rhythm because of a certain artifice or certain interferences or impositions, then things get arrhythmic. Panikkar tries to say that a lot of our ecosystems are in a condition of arrhythmia today. Because we didn’t even stop at trying to split the atom. So, without even realising, we have been treating the earth like a laboratory – and the earth is not a laboratory. A laboratory is a subset of the earth, but if you treat the earth itself as a laboratory, then what you are saying is that the universe is your larger set or your home and the earth is one little part of it – the blue dot in the distance, as it were. But that is just trying to stand outside yourself (which you actually cannot), so this whole Archimedean dream of “give me a place to stand and I will move the earth,” as though you are a child in a geography lesson and you have been given a globe to twirl around your fingers, the earth is not like that, so there is a similarity between the earth and the globe, in that they both rotate and revolve, but the analogy ends with the fact that you can move a globe with your hands, but not the actual earth! Arrhythmia comes about on account of the disruption of natural rhythms, and then you get very strange things. I asked my students in one of my early classes: if a new technology arrives which allows a woman to have a baby in just one month instead of nine, should we have this technology? I received a lot of interesting answers and a lot of them were very happy with it. They said stuff like it would reduce human suffering, and things like that. But some women said that the intimacy of the mammalian relationship between the mother and child, what about that, are we now violating that? Who are we to come in the middle of mother-child relations? So you see, unless we keep a distinction between the natural and the artificial, we will go wrong. We don’t always know exactly where that distinction lies, but it would be foolish to deny that there is such a distinction, somewhere along the spectrum from the natural to the artificial. And we pretend like we don’t, or we are educated to pretend like we don’t care about it. But it is a very important distinction and I think that a lot of the impulse of ecosophy is to understand this deeper and better, and to be able to align ourselves in a way that we are more in rhythm with life, and more in rhythm with nature. And we can hope for harmony with that way of living, rather than believing that we are in a race, or in a competition, or in this survival of the fittest kind of a world – not only within human society, but also between humanity and other species (“nature is red in tooth and claw,” etc.) What they don’t quote is the next line that Tennyson writes. He says, “But love is creation’s ultimate law.” That nobody quotes, nobody dare quote that. They stop before that because it does not chime with our aggressive propensities.
Adhishree: You mentioned the earth has a dream for us, but it is easy to go from a sense of cosmic determinism to hopelessness. Is it not too easy, especially against the backdrop of covid and all the suffering that it brought with it, to just give up and accept that this will be our reality – global warming is going to kill us all, the earth has a plan, etc. How do you combat this?
Aseem: I don’t think it is fair to the earth to say that it has a plan. To have a dream and to have a plan are two different things. Whether it is global warming or the coronavirus, these are things which we have brought upon ourselves by actually misunderstanding the nature of our relationship to earth. In other words, what are they doing right now? They are sending 25-ton trucks to the bottom of the oceans, to the seabed, to plough for rare earth metals that they have run out of in Mongolia and Bolivia. They are trying to get these rare earth metals to fire our batteries for smartphones, so that we can have these Zoom conversations. Now, is this according to the earth’s plan or is this according to human ambition and stupidity. We are not willing to listen to the earth, to what possibilities or proposals might be lying there for us. Instead we are imposing our own dreams and ambitions on the earth, expecting it to fulfil them. Then when we get the blowback, like the primitive pathogens that are lying on the seabed that will take aeons to map and do the gene coding, you disturb them from their habitat, they will go somewhere and at some point they will arrive in your metropolis. Then you will say, “Well, nature is hostile.” But I mean, who went there first? Who went to the seabed first? Just like the fossil fuels and all the other excesses of industrial modernity that we have gotten used to as consumers… I mean the big success of the 20th century was to turn people into consumers, that’s been the big story, especially after 1945 and the triumph of America. When we are interfering so massively in the conversation with nature, we have no basis to begin to perceive what dreams might be lying there for us. If there is determinism, then that is as a consequence of our own follies, that is what the Greeks called tragedy. Tragedy, if you break that word down, trage is in reference to the horn of the ram and the ram is an obstinate animal. So, all tragedies have their roots in human obstinacy, in human inability to watch, learn, adapt, and then act. If you cling to a certain mode of action because you are stuck in a mode of thought, and regardless of consequence you want to impose your will on the world, then you will meet your fate. That is what hubris is. Nemesis is not the same as determinism. Nemesis is what you get out of human folly, and all the ancient myths, whether in India or Greece, are stories about what happens to hubris and how the natural world responds.
Nature acts in very subtle ways and you don’t even realise that human society has been completely cornered by its own cumulative follies of competitive consumption and you don’t know where to go from there. But I’m saying that if we give nature a chance, which is to say that we have the humility to acknowledge that we will step back, we will retreat a little, we will take another view, we will experiment and if we are wrong, we will try to learn from our mistakes. If you actually live in a scientific way, which is to say that you actually experiment in a way which allows for the possibility that you were initially wrong, then the story changes. Then it is not deterministic at all, it is very open. It could go anywhere and it is entirely up to us whether we are imaginative or creative in a way where we imagine a different kind of relationship with nature. But it requires a certain respect because you engage in a relationship with someone when you respect the person. If you don’t respect the person, you can’t have a relationship. It is the same with nature. Respect is elementary and that itself is not available at the moment because we have been taught to convince ourselves that we are superior as a species, that we have the right to dominate all the other species in the natural world. And that we will decide the terms on which we will live on earth. Dominion is our goal, not dialogue. That will inevitably backfire, there is no question about that. We live in the era of compulsory consumption and this constitutes the prevailing definition of freedom the world over. We are not in a position then to even begin to see what nature is trying to say. So, there is a lot of white noise here, which first has to be meditated out of our brains. A lot more inner silence and mental space is needed to be able to perceive where we are and what we have become. Without this prior step no step in the right direction is possible.
Adam: Yeah, I guess what a lot of critics, particularly in the West would say is “Look, listen – technology is here to stay, it’s done a lot of good for us, and we just need to roll with that.” And I feel like a lot of the time, the logics of modernity, and also the logics of consumer capitalism, have maybe made the convenience that is offered through consumer capitalism seem like an acceptable trade-off for all of the damages caused “out of sight” in other parts of the world. And I think that these logics are so ingrained that even people who do question them in some way – including myself – are ultimately still complicit. So, it feels almost like a Sisyphean struggle to break free from this situation. How do we re-calibrate our mindsets so that we can actually conceive of a world where we’re not dominated by these logics of convenience, consumerism, and technocracy which have been sold to us our entire lives? How can we go about that, practically speaking?
Aseem: The way the designers of the system work is like playing a game of chess. If you play chess, what is your goal? Your goal is to leave your opponent in frequent double binds, between a rock and a hard place, to let them self-destruct in the process. So, that is the sort of eliminationist logic of capitalist modernity – that’s the way it works. So that’s why it’s war – they don’t always call it that though sometimes they’re quite unabashed about it and they say it’s a war on drugs or on poverty or something or the other. But the basic sort of way of thinking in modernity is, in fact, that of elimination. You’re used to this competitive mindset, your entire thinking is about being better, faster, smarter than the next guy, and that’s about it. Now, in psychological terms, this is a sure-fire route to mediocrity. But that’s not how it’s understood, because it’s understood as a sure-shot route to excellence. And there is a mythology at work wherein somebody between a rock star and a conqueror is going to redeem us, that’s the sort of implicit faith that the people are bred with in a system like this. So, you get everybody into this sort of… well, to put it bluntly and crudely – into some sort of an S&M mindset. Where power works on all of us and convinces us that this is in fact what freedom is. So, the confusion between power and freedom runs very deep in the modern Western and Westernised mind. The confusion that power is freedom. So, we talk of empowerment as though it’s freedom. But guess what, when you get empowered, you don’t feel free all the same! Margaret Atwood has a very nice line in one of her interviews where she says, “Feminists should be careful particularly when they win a victory.” There is a sort of chilling wisdom about this which people have to keep sight of.
So, the way they set you up is they anticipate. First of all, they study each one of us. Not individually, but as a herd. And they have plans for every herd possible. They study anthropologically, typologies of herds in the marketing divisions of the corporations. You know, these people now raise children the world over – it’s no longer parents or teachers, it’s marketing divisions who basically raise children now. So, they have plans for everybody – they study you, they do their homework very carefully and they figure that they can buy you out with a few temptations, with a few seductive items of consumer delight or something. If not that, then they will think of some threat – you might lose your job, you might get this, you might have that, anxiety, neurosis – those syndromes. And if even that doesn’t work, then outright violence. These are basically the methods through which a system like this works. So, what they set you up for is to try to solve larger social, structural, institutional problems at an individual level, knowing full well in advance that you will fail. Because social problems do not have individual solutions. And once you fail obviously you will fall in line or you will fall out of the pack and become irrelevant, and that’s the idea.
Take for instance what I call environmental guilt. A vast amount of emotional and intellectual energy is spent by a huge number of sensitive people all around the world feeling guilty about environmental problems of which they’re a part or in which they’re complicit, but about which they are in a position to do precious little as individuals. Their decisions come at the tail end of the pipe while the bigger decisions are already being made on their behalf by much larger players. And that’s the idea: you keep the guilt and the consumer goods, and we’ll quietly walk away with the profit. So, this sort of reverse psychology is rarely done, and certainly not done publicly, and no one really picks it up at a public level. Not that the goal is to get these guys to assume guilt themselves, because you won’t succeed in that either – these are very, very hard-nosed players. But I think that a vast amount of creative energy will be released in people when they realise that these are not problems you can solve at this level, that these are structural problems which require structural answers. And for those structural answers to emerge you need a different approach. You cannot go with the environmentalism approach and things like carbon offsets and so on. Deals that go on at the UN and talk about sustainability – what are you trying to sustain? I mean this is not a sustainable system, it’s kind of obvious! Sustainability sustains one important thing, which is your structurally sustained greed – what can we go on taking from the earth and from each other, and get away with? Instead of asking the real question which is, “How are we to live?” Is it not also our part to give back – how are we to think in terms of a relationship to invisible others in which there is reciprocity. How are we to think of the future? I think of ecological reciprocity as something very important to think about, and as something very different from exchange.
So, exchange relationships are the sort that our times have gotten us used to: I’ll do something for you, if I’m sure that you will do something for me in return which is equivalent to it. But ecological reciprocity is about reciprocity across time. There’s so much that was given to me for free, which I inherited from parents or forefathers or elders, wider society, the natural world, and I got it for free. Am I going to pass on something to others for free also or am I going to try to keep everything for myself and take it with me when I die? So, the idea that we belong to a larger continuum of life across time – not only human life, but all life. And perhaps we have, as Panikkar says, this cosmic responsibility to keep this lonely planet hospitable for life in the future. And that we should have some ethics about it, that this could give life new meaning. And this is partly an answer to your earlier question Adhishree, that part of what needs to be restored is the meaning of life as belonging to a larger continuum of existence. I have certain duties towards the future. And that future is not just about me, myself, and I – or us – it’s about people still unborn, it’s about animals and plants, it’s about keeping the earth beautiful. Many things like that which are hardly intangible. Just because you do not see the results of your actions does not mean that things are not tangible. It just means that you belong to a larger stream of life, and you should feel proud and happy about it instead of feeling like, “What’s in it for me?”
So, I planted a Deodar sapling. Deodar is cedar, and in the upper Himalayas it grows quite well. Not an easy tree to bring to maturity but we planted two of them three years ago. And one of them is now taller than me, and it’s asking me uncomfortable questions about why I’m taking so long to write my next book! Because look I take so long to grow and I’m here and taller than you! But that’s what I mean about having some sort of a dialogue with something which is not entirely in your control, but you are still responsible for bringing it to some level of maturity and fruition.
So, in answer to your question Adam, I think a lot of work needs to be done to actually help people unlearn the habit of trying to solve structural problems at the individual level, and to get people accustomed once more to a structural analysis. And through that take them to a larger vision together, and then to let that vision work through everyone’s lives individually and collectively in ways that will pose the right questions in public discourse. Then that connects with what you were saying earlier about policy – what sort of a policy do we need? For instance, one fallout of it might be to ask whether we need a policy for ‘sustainable development’ or a policy for ‘sustainable shrinkage’? Because development would mean that these bloated, cancerous cities in which we live in India now will become twice as large in another generation or less. And which means a lot of people are going to die merciless deaths. It’s pretty much on the cards – I don’t see how we will not have it if we go down this development trajectory. Whereas there is another way. It would mean, of course, having the courage and the boldness to collectively decide to opt out of this path and go in another direction. And then people will ask all sorts of redundant questions about “how do we scale this up, it’s a good strategy at a micro-level, but how do we scale this up?” – without realising something simple, which is that the problems have arisen precisely because of scale and speed. You need to slow down, you need to think more small-scale, you need to get more local with food and everything else and, instead, you’re thinking about enlarging and moving faster and faster down the same spiral which has brought you here. So, in that sense I feel a huge amount of work needs to be done in unlearning a lot of bad mental habits which have been somehow induced in us. And then learning together a set of new approaches which would be unpredictably different – and they should be, and there should be diversity because there are so many different kinds of people and approaches. And each location, each context, each ecosystem, will throw up its own challenges. You can keep constant some of the basic values and principles, but you can’t keep constant all of the other things which are different in diverse contexts. And so, cultures will address the same questions in sometimes very different ways and that is how it should be in a culturally democratic world.
That’s roughly the way I think. Some people get frustrated and impatient, they want quicker answers in terms of solutions, and I try to knock them down and say “Look, you’re being solutionist” – which is to say, you’re going to create a new generation of problems with these solutions. And you’re going to fall exactly into the market logic which has brought you here. See, what does the market do? There’s a whole battery of industries that are creating problems. Junk food, fast food, pesticides, synthetics, etc. And there’s another battery of industries that are providing solutions. Medical/pharmaceutical industries, psychiatric drugs etc. Both ways the GDP goes up, both ways government tax collections rise, so everyone in high office is happy. If people are healthier, what’s going to happen to these drug and pharma companies? If people don’t quarrel as much what’s going to happen to these law firms. If systemic issues actually got permanently addressed what would happen to corporate charities? So, they’re stuck with serious problems should people have less problems in real life. Basically, we’ve created a world of perverse incentives. Or rather, we’ve allowed a world of perverse incentives to be created on our backs. And that has to be undone. The question is, a lot of the time, not what has to be done, but what has to be undone. How do we dismantle this machine? And don’t think too quickly about what sort of machine you want to replace it with. Let that emerge from the living of the answer. That’s where I think we need a different inner approach and a different inner pace and tempo in which to live and be and so on.
Adhishree: For this issue in particular, food, farming, and the issues related to farming are important to us. So, how would you apply ecosophy to food production. You mentioned junk food, you mentioned lab-grown food – how do we move ahead with food in light of the constant increase in demand that we have?
Aseem: It’s a very complex topic, and I can’t claim to have any expertise on it. But what I’ve learned from watching myself and others around me, and by watching the messaging in the advertising of food and so on, is that virtually all the food is being eaten by the mind now. It’s not about nourishment of the body, it is not about health, it is not even about beauty – because all the food that we are encouraged to consume is making us uglier and unnecessarily obese and so on. The first thing for us to understand is that there is a whole psychological challenge that everyone has been given now with respect to food. Hence you have a number of diseases which are directly food-related – even something seemingly minor like acidity. An uncle of mine who recently turned 100 has been seeing patients for the last 75 years. He lives in a small town in Madhya Pradesh, and he is one of the best diagnosticians I know – really good clinical skills. He will examine you, ask you a few questions, then he will say, “OK, you don’t need to take any medicine – you just need to get rid of this from your diet,” or something like that. You’ll go away disappointed, but then if you actually take his prescription seriously then two weeks later you will have solved the problem. He says that 95% of the problems that patients are coming to him with nowadays are rooted directly and indirectly in acidity. The more processed food you have, the faster you eat, the more irregular your eating times – all this adds to acidity, flatulence, and so on. And a niece of mine who’s now about 40, she had serious back pain a few years back. And he attributed it – believe it or not – to acidity. He said that her whole gastro-intestinal system was getting bloated because of acidity, which was putting more pressure on her back than it could handle. He recommended she should change her diet. Get rid of the acidity first, and the back pain would recede. And in a month or so, she was actually fine. She hasn’t had the back problem again. So, our eating habits, our lifestyles, the rhythm of our daily lives – all of this is being controlled by the very powerful, organised marketing of food these days. This needs to be addressed both on an individual level as well as on a broader social scale, where greater social intelligence needs to be generated around it, so that we come to feel that this is the wisdom – as opposed to what we are being told by experts, etc.
That’s one aspect of it. And the other aspect of it has to do with understanding food in its ecological context. And understanding the intimacy of the links between farming and food. People don’t think about it. There’s a story where someone took their 8-year-old son to a farm in France many years ago and in the morning a cow was being slaughtered on the farm. And this kid started screaming, and when his parents enquired as to why he was so upset they found out that he was under the impression that cows gave meat the same way they give milk. So, cognitively there is an issue. When meat and milk are coming from the supermarket, you don’t see the real. You are locked into this world which can be described in ecosophical language as trans-nature. Which is a world of supermarkets, restaurants, consumers – the whole human artifice in which we live. And then you internalise that cognitively and you just see the last steps in that long chain, so you don’t know where things come from. Therefore, you grow up with a cognitive distortion, with some kind of ecological myopia, and that needs to change again. So, in terms of education, including ecological education, I think a lot of work needs to be done on how to make people see, in the big cities and the metros, the link between food and farming and the whole route through which things come to our dining tables.
The third thing is: there’s nothing quite like practical experience. Actually sowing a seed and seeing it come to maturity and then eating it gives you meaning and satisfaction in a way that very few other things do. I personally think it should be part of all school education now – that children grow with the idea that there are other organisms which thrive alongside us, and we cannot live without them. That our lives are about interdependence, and this is what it means to sow something and let it come to maturity and then to harvest it. That gets you accustomed to a very different rhythm which is natural, and which is in its own way miraculous. And it gets you out of this adhesive addiction of smartphones and the fake rhythm which is generated in the mind through that (because there’s a kind of impatience which that breeds which is quite violent, I feel – and which blinds you to natural rhythms and the pace at which nature does things).
Finally, I think the full, integrated understanding of human life in the context of the natural world, that our bodies belong to nature, that we must respect our bodies in the same way in which we respect trees and plants and animals around us – that sort of thing needs to come in. And again, modernity has gone terribly wrong on basics like sanitation. The entire sanitation system of the modern world is flawed, because it’s mixing up the water cycles and the soil cycles – which it never should have. Our human waste which should go directly into the soil and which should, after decomposition, become a source of fertility for the soil, doesn’t go into the soil. Instead, it goes and pollutes some river system. Or some lake or ocean. Or becomes a source of illness in exposed areas of the city. Why has this happened? Because from the beginning modernity has not been sensitive to ecology, and has not been sensitive to the fact that our bodies do belong to nature, and they work at a certain rhythm and belong to a certain place in nature. And nature works according to certain cycles which our bodes will naturally understand and adhere to provided we let them. But that’s not the order of things throughout the world – and this is where fossil fuels and those who exploit them are to blame, because they’ve gotten everybody used to an artificially accelerated rhythm of life. A pace which is completely inconsistent with the pace at which nature produces things. Those fossil fuels which have taken millennia to form are being burnt up in decades or years. That’s the reason why there’s no sustainability possible in such a world. So, these are things which children should learn by the time they are ten years old. And then ask all the difficult questions of the adults, and tell them how stupid they were to do these things! The Greta Thunberg kind of thing needs to grow into a much larger movement. One of the most effective ways to bring about sustained change in ecological thinking is to conspire wisely with the children in all families. Because it’s them who stand to lose and the elders who will get away with their sins and crimes. So, if you can create some internal question marks within each family, then I think that’s a peaceful way to bring about the change which is necessary. So, ecological education has a big part to play. As a teacher I’ve come to understand the importance of education.
Ultimately, yes, things are bad and times are tough. But I still feel a sense of excitement and adventure, because I’m pretty damn sure that the larger system is collapsing rather rapidly. And it cannot answer the problems it is creating. And so this is the time to actually work at the perspectives and approaches through which answers will ultimately be found. One just has to pace oneself properly, keep one’s patience and faith, and keep thinking and creating alongside. And work with people, don’t go at it alone. That’s very important.
Adam: I would just like to mention something related to COP 26 which went on last November. A commonly heard refrain, at least in the UK, is something like “Oh well, environmental issues are a great problem, and we do need to do something about them… but what about India and China!” The discourse is often all about these countries, and I think it gains quite a lot of traction in certain quarters and is essentially trying to foist the blame onto someone else. How would you comment on this take in the context of colonialism, development narratives, and so on?
Aseem: Well, there are two aspects to it. One is what’s wrong with the way the Western world approaches these things. And the other is what’s wrong with the way non-Western elites face these things – or rather refuse to face these things. Let’s talk about the second thing first. Have you heard the expression “hiding behind the poor”? Which is what elites in our countries are doing when it comes to reductions of emissions. And they’re enriching themselves in the name of development and the poor, when the actual condition of the poor is getting worse by the day. Especially after Covid but even before. So, there’s a lot of cowardice and hypocrisy and double-speak – and getting away with shoddy thinking and poor policy-making. And all of this needs to be exposed and criticised. But, consider the counterfactual that elites in India or Pakistan or Indonesia actually become somewhat enlightened (there’s 0.001% chance of that, but let’s imagine…) and they stop carbon-intensive economic growth. What do you think is going to happen? What’s going to happen is – if these countries actually adopt a different strategy for their economies (and I wouldn’t call it a development strategy – it would be something else, perhaps something closer to what we’re talking about through ecosophy), then they would be boycotted by the West. There would be sanctions of a hundred kinds, and America and Europe would find it rather unacceptable to live in a world that is unwilling to (do carbon-intensive) trade with them.
So, now let me get to the first half of your question. Which is the responsibility of the West. What does the West want from the rest? Does it want the rest to become developed and have a lot of anxious, greedy consumers like them? Or does it want the rest to actually withhold consumption, reduce growth, handle poverty via redistribution and other welfare measures, and actually move to a sustainable world? Which of the two things does the West want? The schizophrenia is quite remarkable, especially when you remember that there are thousands of American multinationals doing business out of China. And who are they serving? They’re serving American consumers. So, America needs to ask itself the question. What do we want China to do? It’s shown no evidence that it’s willing to face that question.
So, I think there are problems on both sides (as you will get from my answer). So, the West and especially the Americans I think need to do a lot of honest soul-searching and ask themselves – what do they want from the rest of the world? And for us, in India or elsewhere, I think the question the elites need to answer is: how long are we going to continue to tell lies to each other about where we want to take our countries and what we want for our people (when actually we are benefitting so much by hiding behind their backs)? Both those things I think need to be addressed. And what is obvious now after all these decades is that modernity – the way it works in real world contexts – is actually a colonising form of development, that’s how it works. If you don’t have actual external, official colonialism, you will still have internal colonialism. You will have New Delhi colonising Jharkhand and Odisha. Those are the coal mines for the growth of metropolitan India. If you do a thought experiment and draw a transversal which cuts across India, let’s say from Kashmir to Chennai - if you draw such a line, you will find that most industrialisation has happened on the south-west side of the transversal and most of the exploited areas are on the north-east side. So, you set up all your sweatshops and your coal mines with cheap labour and exploitation in one part, and another part is deriving all the benefits. And that’s quite normal for capitalist development. That’s how it works around the world. Whether you look at east and west, north and south, or one part of India versus another – the story is the same. And every time there’s a justification needed for more growth or development, it’s the poor who are brought up as that justification. But the benefits are happening to the rich. The poor never asked for economic growth, for instance. They are not the ones asking for economic growth. The rich want economic growth because then the returns in the financial markets (which is where the investors have put their money) are much higher. So, if there’s five or six percent growth then you get fifteen or twenty percent returns. If growth falls to three percent, then your returns fall to eight or nine percent. That’s not good enough, so you want more growth. Why don’t you say it’s your greed which is the reason for all your growth and development? But that’s not in the rhetoric. Even Amartya Sen dare not talk about it. So, a lot of – in fact, all of – the discourse in economics and development economics takes all of this for granted and doesn’t really investigate it or criticise it too much.
So, I think that in the whole climate discussion there’s a huge amount of confusion. And people are constantly waiting for somebody else to take the initiative and do the right thing. But nobody’s thinking it through. If they do the right thing – you’re not going to be happy with it. Other than the fact that the West is going to be exposed all over again for its excessive consumption. If India and China were to behave, then once again America and Germany and Britain would look like they’re really the main climate criminals in the world. Which they have been in the past, but they’ll get the honour again. So, you don’t really want the other guy to do the right thing. And all this energy is being wasted in the meantime – having this COP 21 and 26 and so on. You can keep going, it will lead nowhere. And from 1.5 they’re now talking 2 degrees, then 2.5 – it will go on. Nothing will change on this trajectory of discussions.
Adhishree: To wrap up: based on your readings and your understandings, do you have any recommendations of books or articles or any media for us and our readers?
Aseem: I think for ecosophy I would say four or five key authors are critical to my learning. For me Tagore has proved very important – particularly the text of Sadhana which I teach from. But there are also very important essays he has written. One of them is called “Robbery of the Soil”, which is possibly the best thing written on the whole discussion of town and country – what goes wrong between the city and the countryside and what are the ecological ramifications of that. There are other things that Tagore has written which are very important. Along similar lines there is an essay of his called “Religion of the Forest”, where he talks about ancient India and its legacy for ecological thought in modern India. Tagore has quite a lot of writing and he was very prolific, so there’s a lot in Tagore. There’s a lot of poetry and music too, of course, which people might be interested in listening to. So, Tagore is an important author. Then, Panikkar is the other one. Cultural Disarmament is a short book and a lot of my understanding of modernity in relation to the ecological crisis is directly from there. This is a highly readable text and it sort of links the whole peace movement with ecology movements and tries to see why they are to be understood as two sides of the same basic problem in modernity. His other books are also very good though they’re somewhat difficult. The Rhythm of Being is his magnum opus which was published posthumously. A four-hundred-page classic, a very erudite work of philosophy. And parts of it, which I assign to my students as reading – just a few pages (pp. 353-55) – are very good.
Other than Panikkar and Tagore I would say Wendell Berry. And there’s a lot of different writings from Berry which are fantastic. One of my favourite books, which is particularly good on seeing the connection between the body and the earth, is called The Unsettling of America. Then there are essays he has written, like “What Are People For?” which is excellent on community. There are essays on economics, where he’s critical of mainstream economics and policies built from it – contrasting it with the sort of economics that is good for farming at a small-scale level. So, Berry is, in my opinion, one of the finest American writers spanning fiction, poetry and non-fiction. And so I teach a lot from his work. Then there is a Czech writer called Erazim Kohák who wrote a book called The Embers and the Stars. This book influenced me a lot and I teach a lot from it. He’s actually very much a Christian in some ways, but extraordinarily sensitive and perceptive about the natural world, our place in it, and what has gone wrong in modernity’s relationship to nature. He’s extremely astute and perceptive. He develops the idea of what he calls “species solipsism”. In philosophy, solipsism is the idea that the self is the most real thing – the thing I’m most certain of is myself. And everything and everybody else is just a figment of my imagination, so to speak. So, species solipsism is the same idea carried over to the whole human species. A little more extreme than anthropocentrism. In other words, animals and plants and the rest of the natural world – these are things we make up as we go along and we can do whatever we wish with them because, after all, we are the real thing. Kohák develops that beautifully in this book, and he writes beautifully too.
Two more authors who I will mention. One is Hannah Arendt. Her book, The Human Condition, possibly has the best discussion on earth alienation, which is a notion that is very important for ecosophy – for people to understand exactly what goes wrong in our relationship to the earth and the natural world. The last chapter of the book has a lot of material on earth alienation where she goes into modern cosmology. She shows how once the journey was made into space and you began to see the earth from the outside as it were, then you start imagining in all of science that your feet were actually off the earth when you were analysing on earth. As soon as you started treating the earth like a laboratory you started carrying out experiments on earth as though it was dispensable. Your relationship to the earth changed the moment you made your first journeys into space. This idea of Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the earth” – people actually did find that place to stand (in that space station or space vehicle or the moon). And from there it looks like you can do whatever you wish with this “blue dot”. You feel a sense of power, in the same way you feel a sense of power inside an aircraft and you see the ground below you. She goes into all of that – what does it mean and how does it change our relationship to nature on earth. That I find very, very insightful. She’s brilliant.
And finally, an absolutely brilliant Jewish philosopher called Hans Jonas. He has a number of books but I teach from a couple of his articles. There’s one essay of his called “Toward a Philosophy of Technology” where he argues that – given the scale and speed of technological progress and development – we need a new ethics; we need a new way to think about all of this. That is, we need a philosophy of technology. And he develops a very important notion which he calls “trans-nature”. Basically, the idea is that human beings – out of their own innovative genius – have created a whole artificial world of inventions. Machines and gadgets; satellites and telescopes; trains, planes, and cars – it’s so much that it has become a world unto itself. And it has persuaded us of its enormous power. We’re so taken in by this power that we forget that all this is actually rooted in something that is coming from nature. So, it leads to a kind of ecological amnesia, if you will. And he gives very simple examples which when you think about them it turns out they’re not so simple – like electricity. He says that nothing of the sort actually existed before it was invented in the 19th century. Then suddenly, a lightbulb, fans, then you have aircon and a million other things happening built upon something which is manmade – so, trans-nature. Once you get used to viewing life through trans-nature as your main physical context, that changes your relationship to the natural world. It also changes your relationship to your body because you start thinking in terms of, “You know, if I was to get sick or injured, I can get a hip replacement or an artificial knee or organ transplant,” – whatever. So, you start thinking in ways that completely change your relationship to your own body as well as to the natural world. Therefore, I find that very useful.
These are principally the authors who I rely on, these four or five people. I also teach Gandhi quite a bit – particularly swaraj. We have very interesting debates about Gandhi because a lot of controversial things come up. There’s also Lewis Mumford – an American architect and one of the architects of New York City. He has some very good writing on modernity and I feel that he is one of the sharpest observers on modernity and an excellent historian of technology. His book, The Pentagon of Power, I use a lot of in my teaching.
So, these are the authors I rely on. But their ideas are not so easy. Part of the problem is that their ideas are fairly new and unfamiliar to us – and our intellectual conditioning is along a very different track.
This interview was featured in Catharsis Issue 29.