The writer is a member of Compost Heap, a group of academics and activists working on alternative imaginations.

Dividing Lines: Of science, Gandhi and climate change

Published Dec 1, 2018, 7:16 am IST
Updated Dec 1, 2018, 7:16 am IST
Gandhi could combine the ethical, the political and the cognitive in new and experimental way.
The Gandhian paradigm can be applied creatively to climate change not by picking superficial slogans but reading it and living it out as a method.
 The Gandhian paradigm can be applied creatively to climate change not by picking superficial slogans but reading it and living it out as a method.

Decades ago in the heat of the McCarthyite period, scientist Robert Oppenheimer was being interrogated by the United States congressional committee. He was asked why did he produce the atom bomb. Oppenheimer explained it away by saying the atom bomb was a scientific experiment, a technical answer to a technical question. Yet this same man, a few months earlier, claimed in Los Alamos, when the bomb was first tested, that he had known sin. He recited a piece from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am death, the conqueror of worlds”. The poignant story of this great atomic scientist reveals that science often tends to be reductionist, avoiding questions of ethics, anthropology and philosophy.

When science faces a crisis it has to go beyond the rigidity of paradigms and examine context and ecology. Sadly, most scientific professionals are not equipped to do this. This is what prompted British scientist John Ziman to say that “the scientists know as much about science as a fish knows about hydrodynamics”. It does not mean that he cannot swim. It is just that when the waters turn muddy, he is at a loss. He needs to go back to the roots, the cosmology and epistemology of a question.

 

I am emphasising these narratives because as one confronts the issue of climate change, one sees the same syndrome of technical answers to technical questions. One senses the absence of myth, philosophy and ethics in the resolution of the problem. If there is a political issue, it is one of a hysterical nationalism, which confronts the injustices of the past rather than the responsibilities of the future. The developing nations, including India, want the industrialised West to take the major burden, claiming it is now their turn to develop. This narcissism of development blinds us to the vulnerabilities we are imposing on our own people. In this context, Gandhi’s ideas of Swadeshi and Swaraj go far beyond the parochial nationalism of our time.

Swadeshi captured the sense of the local, the vernacular and the neighbourhood. It was a concern for the oikos and the region, a sense of what could be created and sustained locally. It was an attempt to sustain local languages, skills and livelihood, protect local competence against obsolescence. Swaraj was a more encompassing term, where the neighbourhood expressed a link with the cosmos, a care, a trusteeship of the planet, emphasising the connectivity with the world. Such a sense of interconnection was caught beautifully in a statement that British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead made during a Harvard lecture. He knocked his head gently and claimed: “Gentleman, I have disturbed the most distant star”. Gandhi represents a similar sense of connectivity in his idea of the oceanic circles where a dew drops and the ocean were connected through a spiralling cosmos. Here scale becomes central to morality, responsibility and trusteeship. The ideas of Swadeshi and Swaraj transcend the European parochiality of borders, of security as a grid emphasising locality, hospitality and a sense of the planetary commons. As climate change practitioners we need to go beyond idiot ideas of Gandhi as a mere luddite and see how his ideas fit seamlessly into an ethics for the future.

In fact, in a more playful way, we can visit the debates between Gandhi and Tagore on the Bihar earthquake. When the earthquake struck Bihar, Gandhi first set up a relief system under Rajendra Prasad, which worked with care and efficiency.

Reflecting on the earthquake, Gandhi claimed that the Bihar earthquake was a punishment for the crime of untouchability. Tagore asked Gandhi how could he confuse the moral and geological. Gandhi said he knew the difference but he was concerned with the systems of erasure and forgetting that follows a disaster. He wanted a connect between nature and man, which would lead to some moral creativity to a citizenship of responsibility and reform. This is precisely what is missing in the debates on climate change despite Pope Francis’ insistence that climate change was an ethical issue. Gandhi could combine the ethical, the political and the cognitive in new and experimental way. The ashram was a laboratory of the future and it is precisely such ethical and scientific experiments that the debate on climate change needs and lacks.

The Gandhian paradigm can be applied creatively to climate change not by picking superficial slogans but reading it and living it out as a method. In this context, we need to borrow a philosophical distinction between the idea of system and lifeworld. A system is a statement of abstract formal properties but a lifeworld is a lived world, a world of the body and the sensorium. One needs the complementarity of both to understand the ecological problems of today.

Gandhi thought of himself as a scientist; treated his body as a test tube for his moral and physiological experiments. The body becomes the site for resistance, for ethical innovations regarding consumption. Gandhi also provided a critique of the idea of progress and the concept of vulnerability so central to the understanding of disasters it resonates his concern for the last man, his idea of trusteeship as a sense of caring. Climate change has been read in arid, secular anthropocentric terms. In fact, it reminds one of the biologists Lynn Margulis’ comment that historians and scientists are so preoccupied with man as the centre of history and the cosmos, that she was prompted to set up a trade union to emphasise the role of bacteria in history. Margulis’ collaborator James Lovelock coined the idea of Gaia to capture this systemic interdependence; this needs to combine myth and science today.

Climate change provides a moral challenge to India to create new experiments, to read nature and industry. The question is whether we have the courage to accept the challenge.

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