Informal review of ‘Asking the Earth’ in Halley’s blog

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A 2011 post on Halley’s blog focussed on his reading of the book Asking the earth – The spread of unsustainable development by Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook.

He writes:

I got to know about this book from Arvind Gupta book gallery here. Before i talk about the stuff from the book. a bit about Winin Pereira.

Winin Pereira3Winin Pereira was trained as an atomic physicist, and worked at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and with Homi Bhabha at the Atomic Energy Establishment. Increasingly perturbed by the danger posed by India’s uncritical assimilation of Western science and technology, he resigned. He then set up the ‘Centre for Holistic Studies’ (CHS) in Mumbai. This was devoted to an analysis of the impact of 500 years of colonialism, and to the recovery of alternative, indigenous social and economic values.

So that is that.

Excerpts from the book (Published first in 1990 & can be downloaded here.)

Firstly i liked the coinage “Two-Thirds World” in lieu of the Third world because “Two thirds of the world live in what is commonly misnamed the Third World“. Nice 🙂

The author says that most of the two-thirds world had sustainable systems in place before the advent of colonialism and he thinks that a retrieval of those sustainable practices is the most urgent task facing humanity. I agree. But only today in the papers i read about someone sayingonly way to regain India’s past glory is through rapid industrialisation and modernisation”. So if we assume that this is the line toed by the government as well. then i don’t think we are anywhere close to the “sustainable system” spoken of here.

The wonder that was India

 Halley's blog wootz

The book starts off with a lot of stuff i think inspired from Dharampal‘s Beautiful tree (as i understand from the references). This is more on the lines of how the pre-colonial India was not as “backward” as it is thought of today. It has references to some quotes by British officials which make an interesting read and also touches upon the by-now famous Macaulay Minute on Indian education discourse.

The advances of ancient indian science and technology, astronomy, medicine etc are also discussed in detail next. I particularly liked the section on “Iron and Steel”. I didn’t know about India’s legendary Wootz Steel before (btw this is a thoroughly enjoyable 90page pdf. i havent yet finished it. but i can pass judgement … coz this is my blog: D). The pic above is that of Tipu Sword made of Wootz steel and has been taken from this article where a nobel laureate claims india was well aware of nano technology 2000 years ago!!

The first chapter ends with a statement … “while the british can be held responsible for much of our poverty, we can only hold ourselves responsible if we allow that poverty to remain and increase“. True. The solution as per the author is to look back at our past and work out our own solutions rather than continue being cultural and technological slaves to others. In short get back the “self-reliance” of the bygone era.

The lifestyle of warlis

The 2nd chapter talks about “Sustainable lifestyle of Warlis”. This research about tribal lives forms the one of the core areas of the author’s life and this book as i understand. I liked some things in this chapter and i quote them one-by-one.

I have always read negatives about tribal shifting cultivation in my textbooks. But this one liner argument makes a lot of sense to me… may be there is more to it but i am convinced by this as of now. I have this swadeshi bias you see: P. “Shifting cultivation is being blamed for much deforestation and soil erosion. But it only causes damage because most of the forest has been devastated for commercial purposes, thus forcing the cultivators to leave too little time for regeneration

I enjoyed this short story 🙂 Not to insult the modern day engineers but i find this indigenous knowledge aspect very interesting.

Halley's blog crab

A person from Bombay bought a piece of agricultural land in a Warli area and called in an expert water-diviner to point out locations for wells, at a cost of Rs 500 for each. He then drilled a borewell at one of the spots, going down more than 20 metres, for which he spent about Rs.22,000 and got not a drop of water. Lahanu then suggested that he dig open wells at two places which he indicated without charging him a single paisa“.

Lahanu and other warlis locate water by observing land crabs. The mounds of wet mud that crabs excavate and leave around their holes indicate the presence of water below. The larger the number of crab holes at a given spot, the greater will be the availability of water

Halley's blog indian green initiativesIndustrial solutions

This part i found very thought provoking as it sort of questions what i had learnt in the business sustainability course in term-IV.

The author says “changing to “less polluting” products is not enough to provide sustainability. No industrial product is fully “green” and making slight improvements to claim viridity will not prevent drastic degradation.

The carbon tax thing that is in news these days also meets with some criticism on two counts by Winin. Such taxes will allow the rich to continue polluting with impunity while the rest will continue to suffer. Nor will such taxes be used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: the basic problem remains untouched.

On Development

Halley's blog consumption

On aping the western mode of “development” Winin says …“There is no way in which all the people in the Two-Thirds world can achieve the rates of consumption of those in the One-Third world without essential resources running out and pollution making life on earth impossible”.

I think years later Al-Gore said the same in his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”.

He also dismisses the criticism against alternative development thinkers that they are “idealistic” or “romantic”. He says “Those who advocate the supremacy of “bottom line” must learn that the real bottom line is not profit and loss, but what the battered planet can bear”

Anti-TNC Tirade ?

There is some stuff about HLL in 1987 using its buying power to deliberately keep down the return to the tea growers while at the same time retaining a high profit margin through retail sales. He also goes on to quote some sources about the traffic between top government posts and top posts in the company. And there is a lot more of criticism on HLL’s export policy etc. Btw the source is authentic … this is one of them from EPW ‘ 86.

But HLL is now HUL and its been over 20yrs now. So let us hope all is well now.

(Else …I can’t survive in b-school please understand: D)

There is more such in sections titled “Procter’s Gamble on P&G” and something on Cadbury’s Cocoa cultivation policy and Colgate Palmolive’s rock bottom wage rates for sub-contracted labour.

Again i will assume that if they were all real then they have all been resolved now (since its been 20yrs) and all is well (Else …I can’t survive in b-school please understand: D)

Superstitions

While the author very well agrees that while some of practices followed by tribals/indigenous people may be deemed as blind superstitions… that is no reason to dismiss all of the indigenous practices as junk. I found this one instance fascinating.

Halley's blog moon phases

Our farmers, for instance, sow seeds at particular phases of the moon. They believe that if so planted, better crops will be produced. This has always been discounted by the “educated” as superstitious, because the calculable effects of lunar gravity and light on plants are insignificant. Recently, however, it has been found that many of the insects that attack these crops have life cycles in phase with the lunar ones. The crops, particularly vulnerable at certain stages of growth, are dependant on the time at which the insects are the most destructive.

The Future

Halley's blog joyful frugality

The author drawing from jainist, buddhist, christian, hindu teachings suggests that the future lies in moving beyond the narrow definition of self-interest and embracing simplicity and in understanding the holistic view of man as a part of nature. He suggests that people should adopt a life of “joyful frugality” which the accumulation of goods and services clearly does not furnish. He says that reducing consumption increases well-being as it eases the burden of imposed appetites.

I also liked this stuff from Richard Lannoy’s “The Speaking Tree” quoted in the book

One feature of universal significance is the importance which the Indian civilisation has attached to the simplification and reduction of needs through self-scrutiny. At its most positive a means to reduce social conflict and the dehumanisation inherent in the pursuit of material gain, this kind of humility is rare in Western science and technology. It is also the touchstone of our success or failure to reduce tension even within the domain of our personal lives. In an overpopulated world with severely limited resources the current Western method of expansion and cultivation of needs is plainly unrealistic. The wisdom of smallness and the zero principle, encouragement of small-scale pluralistic activity in community living, a nonviolent ecological perspective, all of which originate in self-scrutiny, are age-old Indian responses to life’s dilemmas….

Desi-ness sort of overtook me while i was writing this post. So if it sounds overtly jingoistic or patriotic please excuse: P. But if you are from India and thinking this is all piece-of-junk… then i think it is time you strongly considered your nationality again: D. Hehehe…joking 🙂 … Phir-bhi-dil-hain-hindustani: D

About the author:

I write mainly about the stuff i read … Post 2010 …there might be a bit of overload about sustainability stuff … development issues… some economics etc… blame my bschool education not me :). I am not an activist.. i am just a small fish … so don’t get judgemental about me … especially some of the “-ism” posts.

I love this bit from Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s speech “A call to service” that he made in 1904.

“Many of us are apt to imagine that those who loom largely in the eyes of the public are the only ones that lead really useful lives. We sometimes talk and write as though only one or two individuals were really doing useful work and the rest only vegetating. It is however, a mistake to think so. A nation’s greatness depends upon its average man and woman”

“You may not be privileged to make any large contribution to the world’s knowledge by research and scholarship, but every one of you can lead better, more earnest lives on account of the education you have received”

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