OH EARTH! EARTH’S ACT OF FAITH AND SOCIETY
By Meera Chakravorty, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Cultural Studies, Jain University, Bangalore)
Earth is in need of a little redemption if we set out to provide it, making it a moral and civic obligation since we ought to know how unique an investor Earth is in peoples’ lives, the references to which frequently return to her act of faith in the indigenous literature of India. She is called ‘Dharitri’ (the term is in feminine gender) suggesting that she ‘is the core power’ of anything to support life be it the sentient or apparently non-sentient beings, since this is the ‘intrinsic value’ inherent in Earth. Although the concept of an inherent, non-market value may appear a metaphysical wraith, a ‘semantic relic to ward off the evil eye of commodity,’ it is nevertheless useful when it comes to applying value theory to Earth’s many acts. The concern here is the extent to which the ethical and technical value of Earth’s acts can support life by “repudiating a culture of commodity, a-historicism and pseudo-egalitarian complacency.” (Batchelor 2012) ‘Intrinsic value’ is interestingly defined by John Ruskin as the “absolute power of anything to support life,” whether it be a sheaf of wheat, air or a cluster of flowers (1872, Chapter 1, definition 13). Understood in this way, Earth is emblematic of intrinsic value.
Mention also must be made of an enormously important work, Vikram Seth’s Rivered Earth (2011), in which the poet, using multiple-timeframes, offers an ode to Earth. He does not demand anything from her, rather he invites creative imitation. That Earth is to be revered does not come from the poet’s satirical or didactic impulses or from any kind of rueful parody, but from conviction itself which is exemplary. This reverence which is the fury at the core demonstrated in early Indian literature is relevant today to denounce our dependence on high finance or capital. The question is how we are to set about reconstructing a cognitive world when such dependence is taken as such an undisturbing assumption that it can be listed with distinction alongside the more basic fact that Earth is the emblem of intrinsic value. One of the Creation –Hymns of the Rigveda says,
Who really knows?
Who can declare?
From where this creation came?
The Gods themselves came later,
So who can tell from where it rose. (Trans. Seth 2011)
The rhetoric of ‘ignorance’ is invoked here to show sincerity, that not being aware of material existence does not negate the identifiable antecedent which is Earth herself.
All this indicates a sense of urgency which is lacking in our perception of Earth in modern times. That there is an intensity with which Earth must be viewed is an assertion of her intrinsic value. The imperative bound in that intensity brings about the theory and practice of this value, and, in fact, it must also be a part of civil constitution. When a society is “moving towards an almost claustrophobic cohesion” (Robin 2012) destroying peoples’ space of interaction it becomes a non-existent space, a world of totalitarianism in which intelligent patience vanishes from the civic sphere—a condition which shall ultimately be intolerable. In terms of the investment that Earth has made for us, our constrained understanding influenced by “greedonomics,” the term used by Sharma (1996) to reflect the greedy behavior of markets, does not allow us to understand this startling relevance.
As Corey Robin wrote in her review of Daniel Rodgers Age of Fracture (discussed below):
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the dominant tropes in economics were institutional even among conservatives. Right-wing critics of the welfare state and state-managed economics did not extend their critiques to markets, they spoke of corporations and banks and ‘championed the rights of management and the productive powers of the free enterprise “system”.’ [(Rodgers 2012, 42)] The idea of markets that emerged in 1960s and 1970s—‘self-equilibrating, instantaneous in its sensitivities and global in its reach, gathering the wants of myriad individuals into its system of price signals in a perpetual plebiscite of desires’ [(Rodgers 2012, 42)]—dispensed with constraints. It also dismantled the ‘troubling collective presence and demands’ [(Rodgers 2012, 41)] of social democracy, turning unions, workers and the unemployed “into an array of consenting, voluntarily acting individual pieces” [(Rodgers 2012, 41)]. Everyone became a buyer or seller, everything from kidneys to pollution was bought and sold. The only thing holding it all together was the magnetic energy of these individual acts of exchange. (Robin 2012)
One must admit that there is no room for idealization when we draw attention to the risk of these forms of dependency and the regression in social and human rights.
It may appear shocking to describe today’s prevailing economic condition in many countries as the ‘holocaust of economic culture’ that is responsible for making millions of people destitute and homeless. People have been experiencing under such conditions, as if it were their historical fate, endless humiliation, all kinds of abuse and demoralizing poverty. Imre Kertész, a Hungarian Holocaust concentration camp survivor and the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, in his book Liquidation (2003) explored banality and the role of individuals caught in the crush of such historical fate. Yet, surprisingly, in a lecture Kertész also said “The Holocaust is a value because through immeasurable sufferings it has led to immeasurable knowledge and therefore it encompasses an immeasurable moral reserves” (Kertész 2011). Much like the Bible and Greek tragedy, post-Holocaust literature draws on barbarism to give rise to redemption, the spirit, catharsis, yet for Kertész there is no redemption or catharsis related to the Holocaust. The Holocaust casts a continuing shadow on European civilization past and future, “an event that casts all our ideas about ethics and morality in a different light.” (Kertész 2011). The immediacy of the experiences about which Holocaust authors write is intense and when we perceive Earth today we should also experience such intensity. It is a more persuasive index of intrinsic value than the statistics of figures and numbers. We, however, exclude from our awareness that Earth continuously suffers loss which is delineated in the ancient texts by referring to Earth as ‘Sarvamsaha,’ the one who endures all pain, or one who has absolute enduring power.
This experience of profound loss stands at the center of these descriptions of the exterminations of peoples, and these events find a proliferation of correlatives in the authors’ many allusions. Important it is to note that while our oral traditions are rich with the idea of Earth’s intrinsic value and of this intensity, these traditions well emphasize that detachment is often a compelling manifestation of it. One example from Kabir, the peoples’ poet (15th century), explores the onslaught of pride that comes from the riches or wealth and the consequences of its barbarity in the following lines:
Swollen with Pride
swollen, swollen, swollen with pride, you wonder
On your ten months in the womb, why have you ceased to ponder?
Bees store honey, you store gold, but for all you gain here,
once you are dead, they will shout, ‘Away! Don’t let his ghost remain here.’
Your wife will follow to the door, your friends to your last station.
Then your soul is alone once more—no friend and no relation.
Burned, your body will turn to ash; buried, you will lie rotten—
an unbaked water-swollen pot, you will fall apart, forgotten.
Into the trap the parrot walks, lost in its own confusion,
Into the well of death falls Man, drunk with the world’s delusion (trans. Seth 2011).
Hedged by such rude realities, the poet appears to ask the people for assurance that redemption is possible. There is a sense of longing for restoration or reconciliation with Earth that is possible when the dignity is restored to Earth through trust and reverence which can check actions that harm her. A welcome trend in Indian literature is the exemplary language that is used with references to Earth. Traditional Indian literature, as mentioned earlier, visualizes Earth as a female divine which provides a way for such restitution in language suggesting trust in her ‘act of faith’ towards humanity. Without this approach Earth will be perceived as a material being preoccupied with only the physical effects of gain and loss. The enduring power of Earth, like that of the mother, is a recurring theme in the traditional texts and is the subject of fascinating stories in both early and subsequent literatures.
A way of speaking of this in management studies is that of Earth as ‘unique investor.’ Management studies must re-think ‘culture in economics.’ This requires a survey of a vast literature in economics, sociology and political studies with analysis of entrepreneurial culture, the concept of trust and its management, culture in international business, and regional and national differences in regimes of corporate governance. It is important to see that by humanizing our portrayal of Earth, these literatures have explored and identified Earth’s behavior as the catalyst that can turn hatred and violence into benign culture, because as the supporter of all, Earth is spontaneously non-exclusionist.
With pain and satire, the intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers calls the present dehumanizing era the “Age of Fracture” (2011). The last quarter of the 20th century was scarcely more fractious than the first quarter of the 17th century with its 30 years war. “One heard less about society, history and power, and more about individuals, contingency and choice.”(Rodgers 2011, 5). In his 1972 presidential address to the American Economic Association, J. Kenneth Galbraith accused economists of “eliding power” contributing to “an arrangement by which the citizen or student is kept from seeing how he is, or will be governed.” (Galbraith 2001, 136) But with market exchange now praised as the definition of social life and sociability, power as it had been traditionally understood—an unequal relationship between individuals and classes in which someone dominates, rules, constrains or otherwise determines the fate of someone else—has become ever more, embedded, hidden and elusive (Robin 2012).
Taking this discussion further, it is important that the economy be viewed in the light of peoples’ relationship to it. This is something that the corporate leaders in modern times fail to comprehend. Indeed it is for them a bizarre idea. They bury the people and go ahead with economy. Yet, even very powerful corporate bodies will not be able to maintain this course. Most ordinary people have boundless admiration of Earth because of the way Earth contributes to and supports all life, hence their attribution of divinity to her. This devotion to Earth, whose properties cannot be challenged, counters the power of CEOs and their policies and requires economic reconstruction. The real economic hero to be taken seriously is Earth, a unique capitalist with a difference. She possesses remarkable wisdom and resources and has maneuvers that no CEO can equal. Earth has invested in each individual’s life ensuring that everyone lives a decent life as long as people do not exploit her rich resources, yet now she is overcome by grief because these resources are not for the trivial in a world of greed. The absurd acrobatics that market economists and corporate elites perform do not quell the unrest caused by the socio-political isolation of people in many countries, rather they evoke strikes and occupy movements or even the rise of Arab spring recently. A mature, thoughtful and well-informed person will know how uncertain our economic future is. Those who sing of the victory of globalization must doubt their own perceptions and sense that the day of real accounting is coming. The true economist knows the relationships among economy, Earth and ordinary people must be re-addressed properly.
Globalization has gone out of the way to encourage a peculiar view of Earth as the ‘Other,’ as the alien. In treating Earth as the ‘Other’ which metaphor is also applied to women, there is the suggestion of the erotic, a recurring theme in both these contexts, as Earth is seen as for consumption as a consequence of male desirability. Attempts to establish any workable order will not succeed without changing this view. Overemphasis on individual rights in a democracy has alienated the person from the concerns like the ‘Rights of Earth.’ The so-called worldly wise individual who appears to be under no obligation to heed them, nevertheless, wants a peaceful existence on Earth while all the time creating a state of war in as many places as possible. This is one extreme which reminds us continuously of, to borrow the title of a magnificent book by the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis, The Encyclopedia of the Dead (1988), how the Iron Curtain was in many respects exactly that, rendering painfully clear what totalitarian ideas can do. The renowned philosopher of science, Karl Popper believed that his two-volume work, The Open Society and its Enemies (1971a, 1971b) was an effort to denounce such authoritarianism, though his critics argue that his vision obscured the reality that democracies are competitive systems in which voters elect leaders for the so-called elite (Forrester, 2012).
One can convincingly argue that this has intensified of late as is evident from the repeated disruption of Earth’s resources and ecosystems. This broken relationship results in far greater loss than people realize as the choices that are being made are irrevocable. A prime example is the Alberta Tar Sands project, Canada, for production of unconventional oil. This has endangered the life of local population, the Chipewyan community, so much that there are increased rates of cancer among the people and their lands, birds, and cattle succumb to the arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and other metals polluting their water, lakes and rivers. In India, the Bhopal Gas disaster is an equally chilling reminder of such tragedies. These tragedies and many other like tragedies should compel people to reflect deeply on their stark reality and relate to Earth anew with a deep personal focus. Otherwise their profound messages pass us by. As Andrew Motion said, with reference to the tragic poetry of the First World War: “We slip off their surfaces when we want to penetrate their depths” (2014). We must explore the ability to transform the unattractive characteristics in human behavior to make everyday life livable and not agonizing. We should not view this undertaking as a wishful way to resolve the tension that is acutely felt today between the social complexities of life and human choices. A no-nonsense appeal to Nature and Earth, which is discursive and incisive, is implicated if we are to reform notions of identity and heritage.
Therefore, there is an urgent necessity to think of Earth, people and economy in a considerably different way. In regard to economy, in 2010 Adair Turner gave a brilliant set of lectures at the London School of Economics and then in 2012 published a book based on them titled Economics after the Crisis: Objectives and Means. Robert Skidelsy, in his review of the book, wrote that it challenges the three main planks of what [Turner] calls “instrumental conventional wisdom.” “The first is that the object of policy should be to maximize Gross Domestic Product per head; the second, that the primary means of doing this is to create freer markets; the third, that increased inequality is acceptable as long as it delivers superior growth. [Turner’s] attack is devastating, leaving little of the policy edifice of the past thirty years standing.”
The case for not making growth in GDP per capita the primary policy objective is that it doesn’t deliver the increase in happiness and welfare it promises. Skidelsy notes Richard Easterlin’s well-known 1974 paper “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” and Easterlin’s conclusion that it probably does not. People in poor countries are often happier than those in rich countries. This must be because after reaching a certain level of wealth dissatisfactions related to wealth must offset its benefits. “Turner discusses some of the ills of wealth. The richer societies are, the more ‘status’ goods people want, but because status is relative there is never, so to speak, enough of it to go round. The same is true of ‘positional’ goods. . . . Growth in wealth also worsens the environment, thus degrading the benefits it seems to make more generally available.” (Skidelsy 2012). Further, GDP measures increases in quantity not quality. And large sources of increase in GDP in law, finance and marketing are redistributive not “creative transactions” that provide net additions to income.
Turner continues by critiquing the planks of free markets and the inequality in the service of growth. His core message is that after exploring the likely consequences of the financial crisis, including social breakdown, an alternative economic culture and understanding becomes imperative.
Typically Earth’s resources have been built over eons. Space, time, civilizations: Earth goes ‘spiraling over all these boundaries, uncontainable in its energy, unlimited in its horizons, a continuing spectacle before our eyes.’ The boundaries broken here are not just those between one civilization and the next but also between Earth, her environment and people. Earth has been uninterruptedly investing its resources or ‘capital’ if one likes to term it in purely economic context, in a variety of ways in peoples’ lives, not only in the societies when the way of life was simple relatively but also in modern times in a hopelessly complicated societies. If Earth would ever speak to us, she would mention her frustration over her unwise investments in the modern age and context. Earth is the richest and equally a unique ‘capitalist’ so far to have invested not wishing any profit in return and would remain thus unparalleled for ever. We are compelled to express our admiration for her and to focus on our confessional distinctions within the human world. Whether Earth has suffered for all and will continue to do so, and whether our actions influence our chances of redemption, may not be questions that contemporary scholars feel qualified to consider, but they are a matter of serious concerns nevertheless.
Instead of asking conventional questions like what is Earth, what is its true nature, its real meaning, we may ask what do we do for Earth, how do we want to pay her for her investments in our lives? The silver lining is how individual poets, artists, writers and others have offered Odes in honor of Nature. Keats’s poem “To Autumn” written in praise of the season is one exemplary reflection of sensitivity, subtlety and vividness towards Earth, the people of the local area and a reflection on agricultural economy specific to the area.
The language of faith is finally the only language appropriate for speaking honestly of loss. This is true of Earth who is wonderfully well resourced and must have the benefit of co-operation from people for her great act of faith.
Batchelor, Paul. 2012. Geoffrey Hill’s Measured Words. Times Literary Supplement (November 2, 2012) http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1157646.ece(accessed September 6, 2014).
Beugelsdijk, S and Robbert Maseland. 2012. Culture in Economics: History, Methodological Reflections, and Contemporary Applications. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Cooper, Thomas. 2011. A Conversation with Imre Kertész. http://seagullbooks.org/blog/2011/05/ (accessed September 7, 2014).
den Eeden, Mare Van. 2013. Voices from Central Europe: Bauman, Kertész and Žižek in Search of Europe. In Philosophy Society and the Cunning of History Eastern Europe, ed. Costica Bradatan. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
Easterlin, Richard. 1974. Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence. In Paul A. David and Melvin W. Reder, eds., Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of Moses Abramovitz. New York: Academic Press,
Forrester, Katrina. 2012. Tocqueville Anticipated Me. London Review of Books 34, no. 8 (April 26, 2012). RB. UK. April, 2012. Review of The Open Society: Selected Social and Political Writings by Karl Popper. Eds. Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner. Cambridge, UK: Routledge.
Galbraith, John Kenneth. 2001. Power and the Useful Economist. In The Essential Galbraith selected and edited by Andrea D. Williams, 134-52. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Kertész, Imre. 2012. Holocaust as Culture. Trans. Thomas Cooper. Seagull Books.
Kis, Danilo. 1998. Encyclopedia of the Dead. Trans. Michael Henry Heim.Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Motion, Andrew. 2014. “The Poetry of the First World War.” The Telegraph September 5, 2014)
Popper, Karl R. 1971A. The Spell of Plato. Vol. 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Popper, Karl R. 1971B. Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath. Vol. 2 of The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Robin, Corey. 2012. Achieving Disunity. Review of Age of Fracture by Daniel Rodgers. London Review of Books 34, no. 20 (October 25, 2012). http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n20/corey-robin/achieving-disunity (accessed September 6, 2014).
Rodgers, Daniel. 2011. Age of Fracture. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
Ruskin, John. 1872. Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy. Published online by University of Adelaide, Australia. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/ruskin/john/munera/ (accessed September 6, 2014).
Seth, Vikram. 2011. The Rivered Earth. India: Penguin.
Sharma, Subhash. 1996. Western Windows Eastern Doors. Delhi: New Age International Publications. 1996.
——-. 2012. New Earth Sastra. Bangalore: IBA Publications.
Sharma, Subhash and Daniel Albuquerque. 2012. Consciousness in Corporate Corridors. Bangalore: IBA Publications.
Skidelsky, Robert. 2012. Does Economic Growth Make You Happy? Review of Economics after the Crisis: Objectives and Means by Adair Turner. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Throsby, David. 2012. Fashion weeks. Times Literary Supplement (November 16, 2012). Review of Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries: Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events edited by Brin Moeran and Jesper Strandgaard Pederson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, Adair. 2010. Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures. London School of Economics (available at http://cep.lse.ac.uk/_new/events/event.asp?id=111 (accessed September 6, 2014)). Published in 2012 as Economics after the Crisis: Objectives and Means. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.