Unbridled development and its downsides

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In Indian tradition there is a parable known as that of the Wish-Fulfilling tree or Kalpa-taru, often referred to simply as the Wishing Tree. It is a magical cosmic tree, a grand wonderful tree with branches that reach to the heavens and roots that encompass the whole world. It has awesome power, yet it is terrible, for whoever stands under this tree eventually gets what they desire.

In a book bearing the title ‘The Wishing Tree’, well-known British author late Christopher Isherwood – who turned to Vedanta (Hindu Spiritual Knowledge) after being mentored by Swami Prabhavananda – explores in depth this metaphor which the parable illustrates in the story that is narrated in Indian villages.

It is about children who are told by the proverbial visiting uncle about this magic tree which grants all their wishes, which they don’t believe. But as soon as the uncle leaves, they all go under the tree and make their wishes which are fulfilled to the brim. So much so that they get tummy ache from eating too many sweets, and soon become bored with their unending supply of toys.

Then they grow up into young adults who behave like overgrown kids. Instead of sweets and toys, they now crave for sex, fame, money and power – four fruits that dangle from the tree, which they enjoy to the full until disillusion and disappointment set in: they realise that the fruits are bittersweet. As they become old, cynicism sets in, they think that they have made the wrong wishes and now wish for death.

That also they are given – only to be reborn and find themselves again under the Wishing Tree!

As Prof P Lal, who taught English at St Xavier’s College in Kolkata, writes in his introduction to his translation of the Indian epic Mahabharata, ‘the tragedy of the world is not that we don’t get what we want, but we always get exactly what we want – and its built-in opposite!’

This parable is an apt metaphor for what has happened to the world in the course of its accelerated development after the Industrial Revolution was set in motion. It began in England with breakthrough inventions and discoveries such as the steam engine which led to the locomotive and trains that could carry people and goods over long distances more efficiently and economically.

With the discovery of electricity, its production itself generated an entire industry which led to the expansion of lighting, and gradually to generate heat (e.g. ovens), cold (the fridge), or motion (engines). Machines running on electric power were invented to meet growing population needs through the manufacture of textiles, processing of food and scaling up production of other commodities.

Then came cars and aeroplanes, which ran on petrol, leading to the further exploitation of fossil fuels to meet the new energy needs that coal couldn’t provide; it was burnt for use in other sectors. With the clearing of land for agriculture and housing came other specific requirements such as fertilizers, and pesticides, and cement and other building materials such as iron and steel for infrastructural projects.

Soon the Industrial Revolution spread to the rest of Europe and North America, and with colonisation ‘productivity, growth and development’ became the ruling model across the continents: every country and all peoples wanted to benefit by the advances being made in science and technology, which impacted the health and medical fields too in ways that changed the face of medicine and the way it is practised. It was almost a foregone conclusion that the term ‘healthcare industry’ began to be applied to the pharmaceutical and health-medical sectors.

All these improvements in hygiene and sanitation with the provision of potable water, control of infectious diseases and more effective treatment along with the spread of education contributed to increase life expectancy. The population of the world kept on growing, and by the 1960s experts in population studies started to talk about a ‘population explosion’. There were more and more people, and being better educated their expectations and aspirations to social mobility rose in parallel, and therefore there had to be more growth and development. This was done with almost ‘gay abandon’ as it were, in an ever-increasing number of countries, because they didn’t want to miss the boat.

This goes on to this date, despite the wake-up call that came at the first international conference on the environment in 1992, the Rio Conference in Brazil. For the first time the expression ‘sustainable development’ was used, and over the years it has become the buzzword until it is now an absolute imperative for the survival of humanity. And of saving the planet – so we say pretentiously, as if Mother Earth needs us to save her!

The resultant of this unbridled development that we have inflicted on ourselves is the greatest urgency we collectively face today: Climate Change, firmly established by the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as being caused by the sum total of human activities taking place in the world in a manner that is not sustainable. In other words, the model of development that we have been following has, hard-wired in it, our own destruction if not annihilation if we persist in pursuing it and refuse to change course – because there are climate deniers too. But this adverse unintended consequence is not only because of the physical changes taking place – the collaterals include our greed and other misbehaviours such as corruption which have a heavy cost that adds to the burden.

Along with the periodic follow-up gatherings post the 1992 Rio Conference, there are other forums that have been taking up the issue of sustainable development. One such is the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Last year its main theme was ‘Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World,’ and the website gave some highlights about the concerns then: ‘There are two kinds of capitalism: shareholder capitalism and stakeholder capitalism… a more just and sustainable economic system is possible. For too long, humanity took away resources from the environment and in exchange produced waste and pollution…we can reconcile our economy with our planet, human development with the protection of our home. But we can only do it together,” said von der Leyen’. (italics added)

As for Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of WEF, this was his view: ‘The World Economic Forum is releasing a new Davos Economic Manifesto, which says that companies should pay their fair share of taxes, show zero tolerance for corruption, uphold human rights throughout their global supply chains, and advocate for a competitive level playing field.’

And then came the Covid-19 pandemic, deemed to be even worse in its global impact than the financial crisis of 2008/9. Disruptions of supply chains, fiercer competitions and trade wars, further widening of inequality gaps across all countries and societies with consequent impoverishment, job losses and contractions across the board affecting lower and middle classes equally but sparing the oligarchic elites (who went on making profits according to analysts), and the inevitable: humongous rise in the cost of the average consumer’s basket – which is about sheer survival. This is currently the most concerning issue for Mr & Mrs Average after the seemingly unstoppable spread of Covid locally.

Not the kind of development we asked for, surely?

* Published in print edition on 9 July 2021

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