We need to ponder seriously about our future and what we want it to be like – liveable and sustainable, or unliveable and potentially unsustainable
In the wake of the notorious financial crisis, a letter in the The Economist of August 2008, which carried a special 8-page section on ‘The credit crunch, one year on,’ pointed out that ‘greed overcrowded our senses and sound judgement was thrown to the wind.’ Around that time, a friend who was as concerned as many others about what the future had in store for us as individuals and for humanity at large sent me copies of two articles written by Sri Aurobindo about 90 years ago. In them, he had predicted that the economic age, after experiencing considerable success, would come crashing under its own mass – which is what seemed to have happened then. He was not against materialism per se, but he emphasized that it was not sufficient if we wanted to lead a truly beautiful life.
Indeed, when we think about it carefully, we realize that we must not deny that it is material well-being that allows us the comfort to think of things beyond immediate physical needs once they have been satisfied. So the issue is not that of denying the necessity of material comforts – it is about us learning to draw the line between need and greed in line with Mahatma Gandhi’s adage that ‘the earth has enough for our needs but not enough for our greed.’
As we will all see for ourselves on a little reflection, this is more easily said than done.
The global economy thrives on the production of the basic goods and services for the increasing population of the world – the hitch, if we may call it so, is that the ‘basic’ is a moving line: who would deny today that a smartphone is not ‘basic’ to most people’s needs, and that includes those in the developing world as well. In Kenya, for example, where this facility allows for banking transactions that never used to be possible for a large segment of the population. Likewise in India, farmers and fishermen now have that very useful, practical, portable tool that allows them to access information in real time, which impacts on their efficiency and productivity.
Nevertheless, though, Sri Aurobindo was surely prescient and correct when he warned against both physical and economic barbarism, countless examples of which we are witnessing all the time. For him, the physical barbarian makes the excellence of the body and the development of physical force, health and prowess his standard and aim. Again, at a certain level, this is not to be denied, but when the aim is perverted, this is where things turn bad. Think of doping in sports, for example, a widespread phenomenon in our times, especially amongst top athletes, even Olympian icons. At the other end of the spectrum is the modern health professional’s conundrum, of the physical man who indulges so much that he is prey to what are known as the diseases of affluence and which are driving the health costs to unsustainable extremes.
As for the ‘vitalistic or economic barbarian,’ as Sri Aurobindo defined him, the exclusive satisfaction of wants and the accumulation of possessions is his standard and aim. Under economic barbarism, the ideal man is not the cultured, noble, thoughtful or moral man. Rather, it is the successful man who concentrates on the accumulation of wealth and more wealth, the adding of possessions to possessions, opulence, show, pleasure, cumbrous luxury, a plethora of conveniences, life devoid of beauty and nobility.
In such a situation, politics and government are turned into a trade and profession and enjoyment itself is made a business. To such a natural unredeemed economic man, beauty is a nuisance, art and poetry are an ostentation and a means of advertisement. His idea of civilisation is comfort, of moral social respectability, and of a politics of exploitation. Once again, Sri Aurobindo is prescient in his warning that the opulent plutocrat and the successful mammoth capitalist and organizer of industry are the supermen of the commercial age and the true, if occult, rulers of its society. But nowadays, they do not care about being occult, so strong and protected they feel themselves to be.
But along with helping us to understand what is happening, the sage’s teachings also make an appeal for rethinking our way of life and give guidance for what to do in this situation. He advises that the vital or economic part of the life of man is undoubtedly an important element in the integral human existence, as much as the physical part – but must not exceed its place. A full and well-appointed life is desirable for man living in society, but on condition that it is also a true and beautiful life. And what is that true and beautiful life? That neither the life nor the body exist for their own sake, but as vehicle and instrument of a good higher than their own – subordinated to the superior needs of the mental being, chastened and purified by a greater law of truth, good and beauty before they can take their place in the integrality of human perfection.
We will recall that the core message from the recent Paris Summit on Climate Change has been a call to rethink our excessive consumerist lifestyle, whose consequences are currently being felt severely in Beijing and New Delhi, where the Air Quality Index (AQI) is nearly ten times the permissible level. But they are only two among the many cities that too have unacceptably high AQIs. They are the most visible and felt signs of what awaits us if we stay the course. We therefore need to ponder seriously about our future and what we want it to be like – liveable and sustainable, or unliveable and potentially unsustainable.
* Published in print edition on 11 December 2015