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THE CRISIS OF MODERN HUMANISM -Religious, Ecological and Economic Perspectives

Modern Humanism is in crisis. The malaise is manifold and only too evident. Dwindling reserves of nonrenewable resources and rising pollution levels provide a dismal backdrop to high unemployment, continuing inflation, cumulating technological hazards and spillovers, and wasteful consumerism in the developed world; while the less developed countries are plagued by widespread poverty, competitive growthmanship, and growing consumer expectations and exploding populations. Urbanisation and cosmopolitanism have eroded traditional beliefs, values and institutions generating a sense of `loss of control’, and a `modern anomie’, (Mishan, 1986. p.199) There is a corresponding spurt in crimes, suicides, alcoholism, drug abuse, behavioural disorders, depression, schizophrenia and other psychological ` diseases of civilization’ (Capra, 1983.p.24). In the arts, we witness the rise of `mob’ culture, paralleled with sex, violence and the darker side of the human nature. These symptoms of disintegration are accompanied by a rise of religious fundamentalism in several parts of the world, as well as a proliferation of religious cults and mysticism. In some parts, particularly India, this has provided ground to fractures and conflicts along religious lines. Clearly, we are living through a general and deep-seated crisis of civilization.
Such a widespread crisis suggests an essential imbalance in the human experience in the modern world. This imbalance results from the heavy tilt towards the external and sensual. This tilt is inbuilt in the `sensate value system’ of secular societies. According to Sorokin (1937-47), in such a system, ethical values are relative and the sensory perception is the only source of knowledge and truth. Such a value system is a necessary consequence of the externalization and hollowing of the communal and religious experience on the one hand, and the striking successes of self-assertiveness and scientific reason on the other. Unfortunately, these successes have led to a distension of the rational faculty and egoism which has not been balanced by a corresponding deepening of communion with the Self, Humanity and Nature. It is this loss of content which has made the very successes of modern humanism so dehumanising and self-destructive.
The counter blast from religious fundamentalism has been both obscurantist and dehumanizing. The dismal human rights records of fundamentalist regimes the world over, are well known. However, the obscurantist fundamentalist is not alone in his recoil from human dignity and scientific reason. Even well informed scholars, despairing of the contemporary crisis, see Science as “Faustian lust masquerading as dedication to the altar of truth” (Mishan). Thus it is that Mishan (p.224) concluded that “it is surely the love of knowledge, of scientific knowledge, that is the root of all evil -and the seed of his (man’s) self-destruction.”
The one-sidedness of the point as well as the counterpoint is self-evident. What is needed is knowledge for an integral human experience. Such an experience must integrate the communion with nature, internal and external, with the conquest of it; balance the growth of reason with the deepening of intuition; and thereby restore to humankind, its pristine wholesomeness. The importance of Gandhi lay in his early appreciation of this fact.
This paper examines the current crisis in religious, ecological and economic perspectives, attempts to identify some steps needed to transcend the crisis, and some of Gandhi’s views on this subject.

Religion, Reason and Humanism:

The intuition of a Unity that overlies all nature, and the power of this Unity, is at least as old as humankind. Both religion and magic represent efforts to come to grips with this power. Over the ages, the mystic experience of extraordinary individuals has sharpened and deepened this intuition. But since ordinary individuals are denied this experience, humankind in general has to rest content with a blind faith in such a Unity and Power.
Blind faith is strengthened by the promise of an after-life and deepened by external practices. All religions embody such an externalization, bringing together rituals, practices and cultures, which serve as props to belief, or were simply the accidents of history. In order to make men confirm to these externals, most religions resort to a second externalization. This innovation is the transcendental “God” -who stands outside and above humankind. Thus religious experience -external rituals, practices and culture on the one hand, and a transcendental God on the other. This two-fold externalization led to the conflict between religion and humanism in the Age of Reason.
“Beware of the man whose God is in the skies,” warned George Bernard Shaw. Once God was separated from man, it became possible to oppress man in the name of God. A transcendental God would contradict man, and in all such contradictions, humankind had to give way. The lure of heaven seemed to suck into the hereafter, human desire for justice and happiness, reconciling humanity to injustice and sorrow. This reconciliation was reinforced by quietism in face of divine of divine omniscience and omnipotence. To shake this quiet, to rouse man to action, it appeared necessary to many to deny God. Such a denial raised the eternal question: “If God is good, why is there Evil?”
A second problem with religion was fresh in human memory, when the Age of Reason dawned. This was the memory of the religious wars of Europe. The externals of religion obscured their commonality, and congealed their differences. Religious differences are problematic: How can God be one, men essentially similar, and yet religions be different? One God -One Man -Many Religions -is a contradiction that reason rejects. And since men cling to the rational faculty even in faith, reason-in-faith or theology, was the seed-bed of much intolerance and religious violence. Religious violence subsided only when theology or reason-in-faith, weakened. In the West, it was Faith that weakened. In India, it was Reason.
The Reconciliation of Religion and Humanism in India:
Reason dissolved into the mystic experience in India. Mysticism, instead of rejecting the contradiction of religious diversity, embedded in the human and the divine, experienced its reality. For instance, the renowned Indian mystic, Sri Ramakrishna, claimed to have experienced the truth of all religions. Thus Indian mysticism accepted the contradiction, and thereby denied ground to conflict.
Indian mysticism also experienced the real world, as interplay of the mundane and the divine, interplay of form and substance. This led it to look to the divine in man. This approach was the basis of many efforts to reconcile activism and harmony, self-assertion with integration. In modern times, this dialectic of the mundane and the divine was expounded first by Swami Vivekananda, while Mahatma Gandhi was its most popular social practitioner. The mystic vision which perceives reality as interplay of sensory and super-sensory aspects co-existing in an all-embracing unity could provide ground for what Sorokin calls, an “Idealistic value system.” Such a system could reconcile religion and humanism.

The Rise of Scientism and Fundamentalism:

Instead of idealism, post-independent India is witnessing the spread of a sensate value system, and conflicts. This is partly due to our educational system. As Capra (p.39) remarks, “Our culture takes pride in being scientific ..... It is dominated by rational thought, and scientific knowledge is often considered the only acceptable kind of knowledge. That there can be intuitive knowledge or awareness, which is just as valid and reliable, is generally not recognized. This attitude, known as scientism is widespread, pervading our educational system and all other social and political institutions.”
As a result, generation after generation of students leave the system without any intuitive feel for the inherent dignity of man, and the inner unity of Man, God and Nature. Intuitively impoverished and repelled by the aridity of scientism, and the anomie of the modern age, increasing number of the educated recoil into superstition and religious fundamentalism. Since fundamentalist movements emphasize theology and the externals of religion, they pave the way for religious conflicts and conflict between religion and humanism.
The rise of religious fundamentalism is a blind recoil to the rise of scientism, a reaction to reason without intuition, to knowledge without myths, to progress without harmony, and most importantly, to a life bereft of the hope of afterlife. Religion, it is said, is man’s response to the eternal poignancy of death. And the hope of an after life has been the anchor for self restraint, through the ages. The extinction of this hope by scientism, has led to a rapid disintegration of self-restraint. On the one hand, this had led to a collapse of the value system, vitiating the relations between man and man. On the other hand, we see a breakdown of the symbiosis between Man and Nature.

Reason and the Technology Trap:

Reason is the function of the intellect which discriminates, measures and categorizes. The rational method consequently consists of breaking up thought and problems into pieces and arranging these in their logical order. This method is “an essential characteristic of modern scientific thought and has proved extremely useful in the development of scientific theories and the realisation of complex technological projects.(Capra, p.59). Consequently, modern Humanism saw scientific reason as the principal architect of human happiness and freedom (Larmont, 1973, p.130). The results have, however, been discouraging, and “Everywhere the problems seem to be growing faster than the solutions” (Schumacher, 1974, p.123). The root of the cumulating failures lies in the limitations of scientific reason.
Using the methods and fruits of scientific reason, man has sought to control Nature. But his control is imperfect, and frequently inadequate. It is imperfect because, rational knowledge is necessarily fragmented. It is inadequate because, it is also fragmentary. There is much that man does not know, and much that he cannot know.
If the unknown is predictable, it can in principle be grasped by reason. But reason is ever surprised by the unpredictable unknown, that surface sooner or later. “It is the cunning of Nature to catch reason by its blind side!” to paraphrase Hegel.
The blindness of reason looks worse, when we allow for human error -clouded question rooted in limited imagination -and half -knowledge. This, as we all know, is dangerous. And the dangers increase with the scale of intervention. Large scale makes the unpredictable itself predictable, leaving one to mutter with Murphy: “If something can go wrong, it will.”
The dehumanising tendency of modern technology is what Gandhi had in mind, when he denounced machinery and industrialisation. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” he warned,” The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (Britain), is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts” (Gandhi, 1962.p.16). If these were his fears in 1940s, what anguish would he have felt if he had seen half a century later, when massive global industrialisation is taking place.
In a more spiritual vein, he observed that “Gods would not inhabit a land made hideous by the smoke and the din of mill chimneys and factories.” The Western mode of production he found is the vacuity of its basic outlook, its materialistic and hedonistic principles, which have generated exploitation, inequalities and unemployment. Gandhi abhorred `labour-saving’ devices, for “men go on `saving labour’, till thousands are without work, and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation.” (Gandhi, 1954.p.41) He felt therefore, that production should follow the path of non-violence -without exploiting society and Nature.

Economic Institutions, Values and Eco-balance:

But, “Economics, with its basic focus on material wealth, is today the quintessential expression of sensate values,” (Capra, p.193). In Economics, all ethical values are treated as only relative, and only the sensory perception of individuals is taken as the source of truth and values. Gandhi bemoaned this, “Economics that hurts the moral well-being of an individual or a nation, is immoral and therefore sinful, “... and that “Economics to be worth anything must be capable of being reduced to terms of religion or spirituality.” (Mathur .J.S.ed. 1994. p.71)
The values and concerns of conventional Economics are not older than the Industrial Revolution. Before the industrial revolution, medieval Europe regarded the natural world as a projection of the sacred. With this sacralisation, went the notion of “just” prices, “elevating” work which provided use values for the individual and the group, “turpitude” of usury and obsession with consumption - true rewards being served for afterlife. In India, sacralisation was extended to human relations with nature as well - with Earth being imaged as Mother Goddess, birds, animals, trees and rivers being worshipped and protected. Continuing this ancient tradition, Gandhi’s view of life was also holistic. He reaffirmed the need for man’s relations with plants, soil, animals and other human beings, to be non-exploitative. The relationship should be symbiotic, and mutually beneficial, for a sound ecological balance, necessary for the health and happiness of life on this planet.
This even led to injunctions against ploughing in some tribes, although in general, it only provided a more reverential and modest scale of intervention in the workings of Nature. Such an attitude was supported by Gandhi, who recommended soil conservation through small scale, intensive and individual farming, based on organic farming, and was against the practice of forcing the pace of natural processes that would lead to soil exhaustion through deep ploughing and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides (Nayar, 1995, p16). And such a technology was followed in Medieval Europe, with economic activity at a low level of stationary equilibrium. Such a low stationary equilibrium could easily be secured by communal property -and so communal property was the most important form of property in medieval times.
Communal property declined, and private property increased in importance, as the limitations of the low equilibrium were exposed by war and the rising consumer expectations, fuelled by trade. Private property and the market mechanism, eulogised as the “invisible hand”, were found to be best suited to mobilize individual energies for economic growth and material well-being. The limits of this process unleashed by trade and industrial revolution are now being experienced in the developed countries. It increasingly appears that the invisible is turning into `invisible fists’ (Boulding, Or should we call it “an invisible foot that kicks the common good to pieces.”(Daly, 1973.p18)
Consumerism, which lies at the heart of the material and technical progress of recent times, is only limited by the direct cost of production and innovation by the individual producers. This cost is paid by the consumers. However, neither the consumers nor the producers pay for the costs of pollution, spill over and depletion, which the production and use of such goods inflicts on the surroundings. These costs are therefore `external’ to the private transaction between the producer and the consumers. They are paid, not by the immediate beneficiaries of the transaction, but by the society, or by future generations.
Since the society or the future bear the external costs, free markets fail in controlling them. This is because the unborn future, and the unformed collective, finds no representation in the market place. The market responds to the demand, and offers of contemporary and private parties. This is why the market economy has precipitated an ecological crisis (Burrows, 1979, pp.51-80).
One such crisis is illustrated by the Aswan Dam. The Aswan dam was planned to irrigate vast tracts of land in Egypt and benefit the peasants. Instead, the peasants now pay more for fertilizers, since the dam has denied silt to the soil. The silt itself is clogging the reservoir, at an alarmingly rapid rate, while the canals carry with the water, snails and the dreaded disease `schistosomiasis’ to the farmers. Farmers are losing large tracts of land which are highly salinated and have become water-logged. Fresh water has been diverted to the fields from the Red Sea, destroying Egypt’s sardine fishing. This is how Nature raps man’s knuckles, when his reach exceeds his grasp!
Nature is both revengeful and niggardly. Not only are resources exhaustible, but ecological destruction is irreversible. And where it is irreversible, it takes far longer to create than to destroy. But to destroy Nature, is to self destruct.
Even as resources are running out, pollution levels are rising alarmingly. Apart from the familiar accumulation of smoke, noise and effluents, there is a rapid spread of “virtually invisible industrial wastes that if allowed to accumulate beyond critical levels, could destroy man’s habitat, or destroy man himself” (Mishan, p.211). For instance, there is the growing accumulation of plutonium and other radio-active materials in the atmosphere. This is bound to increase with the nuclear industry. Considering that even less than a millionth gram of plutonium is carcinogenic, and that some plutonium escapes during handling and production, that each nuclear reactor handles 400-500 lb. of plutonium per annum, and that plutonium is indestructible for all practical purposes, the situation is extremely alarming. (Commoner, 1972, p.57)
Secondly, there is the daily increase in the manufacture and use of new synthetics, chemical, food additives, drugs, fertilizers and pesticides, whose long term health and ecological effects whether singly or in combination are not well understood (Mishan, p.211). As these effects surface, the beneficiaries of technological progress turn out to be its victims.
The ecological crisis has been compounded by the `Technology Trap’. Modern consumerism has been hijacked by a runaway technology powered by the drive for larger profits and greater growth. As a result, fragmentary advances in technology are hurriedly transferred into the market on a large scale. The large scale introduction is cumulating the hazards of the advances, while hitherto unknown side-effects emerge shocking some of the `advances’ into `withdrawals from the market.’ Private property and research have catalyzed piecemeal technological advances. But when introduced into holistic biological and ecological systems, such piecemeal `advances’ can precipitate a wholesale retrogression! (Roegen, 1971,p.19).
This `Technology Trap’ is epitomised in the thalidomide tragedy, wherein thousands of pregnant mothers who were sedated by the `wonder drug’, thalidomide, are now suffering the anguish of rearing deformed children (Mishan). The message of the tragedy is clear: Even if the present generation escapes unhurt from the spillovers of modern technology, the unborn generations will suffer irreversible damage from the accumulated hazards.
There is no easy escape from the cleft stick of dwindling reserves and rising pollution. However, some measures may be tentatively suggested.








Per Capita Energy Consumption: in oil equivalent (kgs)







Source: Development and the Environment, World Development, 1992.

The first step would be to block the runaway consumerism. This step has to be taken first by the developed countries, which set up the consumer standards for the rest of the world. A simple example will prove the point. As Table 1 shows, the per capita consumption of the developed countries are about 30 times that of the less developed in which 90% of the world population lives. If this 90% attains the consumer standards of the developed countries, the energy needs of the world will increase by seven and half times! Such a high intensity of resource use cannot be sustained by Mother Earth. And this problem is likely to aggravate if consumerism continues to grow unchecked in the developed world.
A second step would be a better management of renewable and a higher utilization of perennial resources. This implies that the use of renewable resources should be restricted to an optimum rate, that the preservation of biodiversity should be improved, and that the technological matrix should be shifted to perennial resources. The last implies a shift from fossil fuels to solar, and other perennial and renewable energy resources.
A third step would be to moderate the scale of intervention in nature in various fields until sufficient knowledge accumulates for a holistic and a long term picture of the effects of intervention. This means that the pace, at which technology is being transferred from the laboratory to the market, has to be slowed down by multi-directional and long-term research.
All these measures would need to be backed up by numerous institutional and cultural changes. That is because, consumption patterns, methods of resource management and technological change are themselves increasingly produced by economic institutions. And these institutions express and reinforce the sensate value system.
It is evident that the market mechanism and the state are not capable of lifting humankind out of the ecological crisis, and the Technological Trap in the present state of consciousness and values. A new ecocentric and humane set of values and consciousness have to be reinforced even while devising measures and institutions better equipped to face the coming challenge. Without a radical refashioning of values and consciousness, any attempt at social engineering is bound to collapse, as the recent developments in the socialist world show.

Humanism, Consciousness and Education:

Humanism is the hope and belief that man can be happy on this side of death. To be happy is to be free. But universal freedom is incompatible with egoism, since one man’s freedom ends where another man’s freedom begins. Moreover, the unlimited drive to satisfy egotistic wants, has launched humankind on collision course with Nature.
It is true that egoism is often tempered with an altruistic concern for others and an aesthetic concern for Nature. Unfortunately, egoism dominates altruism, which in human beings is volatile, and partially and unevenly distributed. Usually therefore, it is not the shifting sands of altruism, but the hard bedrock of egoism that provides ground to wants.
The conflict of egotistic wants can be tempered by concern for others and morality. But morality denies freedom. For “is not liberty to do evil, liberty?” And so, it appears that “the very essence of moral life is bondage” (Randall, 1973, p.59). Moral obligation conflicts with egotistic wants, and reason knows of no sure way of reconciling the two.
Societal control and state control simply suppress egoism, freedom and happiness, breaking down with the efflux of time and influx of opportunity. Science control is not more effective. When ineffective, it produces Frankensteins. And when inadequate, technology can easily be used in the service of crime or a police state. The lessons of human history give strength to the gloomy diagnosis of Ilya Ehrenberg:”If a discovery or technology can be used for evil purposes, it will be so used.” The success of science in controlling the human psyche is even more fearful to contemplate than its failure.
Only Self control is compatible with the humanist demand for freedom and happiness (Randall, p.59). Unfortunately, self control cannot be inculcated by rational and verbal arguments alone. Only in rare individuals can egoism and myopia be dented by rational arguments. Thus reason can stress the recreational uses, undiscovered values and the stabilizing diversity of Nature. But the power of reason is blunted by the more basic egotistic drives in most individuals. And the horrific prediction: “If this goes on, Man will destroy himself !”, flounders on the rocks of human myopia and optimism. This failure of intellectual arguments results from the fact that only rare individuals embrace purely intellectual artefacts with the depths of their being. When these artefacts are weakly supported by experience and intuition, they do not carry conviction and fail to grip the minds of the masses. Hence, only when individual egotism and myopia is tempered by an intuition the inner unity of Man, Nature and Eternity can rational arguments for eco-balance have a chance of succeeding. What is needed therefore is an educational system which deepens and sharpens this intuition.
To be successful, such an educational system must be rooted in the eternal and not the ephemeral. If life is transient and death final, if all that is, is only sensate -self restraint loses its enduring appeal. Sublimation of egotistic drives for a reified `cause’, `movement’ or `party’, cracks up under the relentless pressures of time and the sensate world. Thus the knowledge of the Eternal and Infinite is essential for self-transcendence.
Indian mystics of various schools have been aware of this for some time. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, felt that the end of education is Service. In his Nai Talim or New Education (Nayar, 1995, p.25), Gandhiji aimed at the `harmonious development of the individual, in dynamic interaction with the environment, in a spirit of dedicated service. He required a life-centred, activity-centred, problem-centred and production-centred method of education.’ Swami Vivekananda, who advocated `man making education,’ wanted “religious education to be imparted -mystical humanist education in our terms” (Gokak, 1980) Similarly, Tagore emphasised “Beauty along with Truth and Goodness ... in Shantiniketan, for education in the aesthetic sense.” Many organisations such as the J.Krishnamurthy, Sadhu Vaswani and Sri Satya Sai trusts, Sri Aurobindo and Sri Ramakrishna Missions, are running educational institutions along these lines. Unfortunately, as Prof. Gokak laments, none of their experiences seems “to have caught the fancy of any educational authority.” What is needed is an evaluation of the experience of these institutions in the light of the needs of a multi-cultural, humane, and eco-centric society.

New World Order: Other Directions

There is growing uneasiness with the methods and directions of human `progress’. Any reorientation in the direction and methods of `progress’ requires a remoulding of consciousness. Since the existing social consciousness is trapped within the matrix of the contemporary social system based on the sensate value system and egotism, a beginning must be made with the formative consciousness through the educational system.
However, the products of a new educational system which balances reason with intuition, self-assertion with harmony, and the sensory with the super-sensory, will be dysfunctional in an economy and society geared to a sensate value system, and powered by self-assertiveness, and cut-throat competition. Hence, social and economic reforms must follow the new consciousness. It would be utopian to attempt to anticipate their outline with any measure of precision. However, some broad direction of such economic and institutional reforms can be tentatively suggested.
Since the free market ignores the external costs of individual transactions, economic intervention by the state should redress this neglect. Hence, the policies of tax and subsidies must be reoriented to reflect the ecological and long term impact of different forms of production and consumption. For instance, bicycles and cycle-rickshaws, which are eco-friendly may be subsidised, while fossil fuel driven vehicles, must be taxed, so that their purchase price also includes their cost to the environment and the society’s
future. Secondly, since scientific research and technological progress tend to be piece-meal and market-centred, rather than holistic and eco-centred, economic intervention by the state must reorient these forces of `progress’. Thus the tax-subsidy policy must be used to direct research into eco-friendly lines, and to encourage a switch in the technology base from fossil fuels to solar energy, or from synthetics to cotton and biodegradable fabrics, etc.
Thirdly, local communities have been found to be more sensitive to ecological needs. Hence, democratisation and economic empowerment of local communities must proceed hand-in-hand with a closer collaboration of these communities, with ecological and eco-friendly action.
Finally, eco-friendly entrepreneurship, ecological management, and ecological research must be
integrated at the post-secondary stage, in order to supply the human inputs for the above measures. These suggested reforms are neither exhaustive, nor final. Reforms can obtain a measure of finality and completeness only with experience. What is immediately needed therefore is practical action. Only such action can launch humankind on a new course of exploration of the interplay and harmony between Humanity and Nature, and ensure human survival, freedom and happiness, in the long run.


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