Coronavirus and the Paradise Built on Hell
What we have is a paradise built on hell
“The market is a tool, not a religion”, says Alvin Toffler, “and no tool does every job.” Sadly, the flawed mantra of market made capitalism a dogmatic and monolithic creed that brooked no opposition. Once the West claimed ideological victory over socialism, capitalism became the reigning ideology. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, London Economist wrote rather pompously that capitalism’s “health will now determine the future of civilization”. Margaret Thatcher proclaimed society dead by saying that “there is no such thing as society”. Reaganian and Thatcherite worldviews solidified into orthodoxy.
The false prophets of free market capitalism boasted that “no other system has contributed as much to human advancement as capitalism” and that “the only way to remedy capitalism’s imperfections is to have more capitalism, not less.” It was further argued that a crisis in capitalism is not a crisis of capitalism. Greed became the creed. And yet, capitalism promised to put a song in our heart and a smile on our face.
We were told ad nauseam that the world has become a global village. Coronavirus has taken us several centuries back. Our home has become our office and work place . It has also become our world. The world has suddenly become flat.
The scourge of Coronavirus is a self-inflicted one. In our obsession with the GDP-centric growth, we have failed to heed the tyranny of GDP. Chopping and selling trees adds to GDP but planting them doesn’t. In capitalism, a good or a service that can’t be converted into merchandise has no value. GDP is seen as a glass of champagne and a cherry on the cake. Equity and sustainability bother none.
In the name of capitalist growth what we have seen is highly energy and carbon intensive growth leading to environmental, economic and social damage. We have turned our face away from the global environment crisis which threatens the very survival of our planet and the future of our civilization. We have found no time to worry about ‘today’s tomorrow’. What to talk of planet Earth, President Trump has gone to the extent of signing an executive order that authorizes private commercial uses of the Moon and other heavenly bodies. For some, everything is on sale.
Leading American scientist Thomas Lovejoy has taken the bull by its horns by saying that Coronavirus is “not nature’s revenge, we did it to ourselves”. Human infringement on the natural world has turned into the current pandemic. Covid-19 is inflicting unprecedented social and economic costs on countries and communities, with the poor and vulnerable hardest hit. We are witnessing the plight of migrant labourers. In the US, African Americans are bearing the brunt of the pandemics economic’s impact.
As millions have lost their jobs and sources of livelihood, the wealth of the world’s plutocrats is set to add more billions. Coronavirus is likely to light the fuse on a time bomb as far as world economy is concerned. The age of disruption is finally upon us. Time to adjust the clock of GDP-centric development is now. The current brand of development serves us no good. An Oxfam study tells us that the richest 85 people on the planet own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. Capitalism depends too much on trickle down which, in the words of J K Galbraith, “ is like feeding horses oats so that sparrows can eat the dung.”
The ecologists and indigenous groups have long been warning us of the impending catastrophe. It will be foolish to dismiss their cultures, lifestyles and their worldviews as quaint relics of outmoded cultures. Greed, arrogance and GDP-centric growth have led to an unprecedented environmental crisis. Western capitalist model is a great promoter of individual rights. Some indigenous groups have challenged this view and come out with an alternative paradigm which subjugates the rights of the individual to those of peoples, communities and nature. Buen vivir (loosely translated as good living) is one such paradigm from South American indigenous groups that emphasizes doing things that is community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive.
Gandhiji was also an exponent of a development model which saw man working in harmony with nature. He taught humanity the power of ‘No’, a symbol of resistance. ‘No’ implies a halt, a cessation and an insistence that enough is enough. Gandhiji once said that “Those who don’t know when enough is enough will never have enough, but those who know when enough is enough already have enough.” J C Kumarappa, Gandhian economic philosopher, summed up Gandhian ideas in a volume ‘Economy of Permanence’. Gandhiji saw the difference between mass production and production by the masses. As he said, “Mass production is only concerned with the product, whereas production by the masses is concerned with the product, the producers and the process.”
Gandhi was perhaps the greatest exponent of sustainable development. He was no philosopher of ecology. But he was definitely an ecological in thought and conduct. His social practices also reflected his ecological vision of life. Gandhi believed that a good life can be only in a small community. He gave a clarion call to “go to the villages, that is India, therein lives the soul of India”. He was a great votary of grama swaraj (village republics). Village life was Gandhi’s prescription for a good life. It is a life of peace and tranquility, a life of innate simplicity and a life in close proximity with nature.
The pandemic has exposed the fault lines between the rich and poor, between the protected and the vulnerable as also the flaws and inadequacies of the development model. The pre-pandemic world is gone with Coronavirus. The past is left far behind. There is a big question mark on the future of the past. We must be prepared to embrace the Gandhian philosophy of doing more with less. Tagore had warned us nearly 100 years ago in a lecture in China: “We have for over a century been dragged by the prosperous west behind its chariot….” We call it progress but as he asked, “progress towards what and progress for whom”. The world is yet to fully grasp the unprecedented scale of the pandemic’s consequences. Countries rich and poor face the deepest economic contraction in a century. Blaming China for all the ills will not take us anywhere. As Gurudev admonished us, “Who do you blame, brothers? Bow your heads down ! The sin has been yours and ours.” We will ignore Tagore’s admonition at our own peril.
Endless growth on a finite planet has led to ruination. Indigenous societies offer us much to learn from. What a western linear perception of history condemns as a turning back of the clock is, in the worldview of the indigenous, as the redemption of the future, a past that can yet turn the tables. It is time to adopt less consumerist lifestyles and think of alternative ways to organize societies and economies. A slower life is a happier life. As Ernest Hemingway has written, “This is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” He was not romanticizing penury but what Hemingway learnt the hard way was that wealth and fame lured him away from the simple good life.
What we have is a paradise built on hell. The pandemic is a strong indictment of our lop-sided priorities, callousness towards the poor and the indigent and pursuit of a disastrous development model. We are constantly devastating the planet we live in. And we call it development? As Brazilian indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, dubbed as the ‘Dalai Lama of the Rainforest,’ tells us, “there is only one sky and we must take care of it, for if it becomes sick, everything will come to an end.”
The author is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi