Realizing ‘Humanity’ Via Commodity

BY DR AKMAL HUSSAIN

Over the last three centuries following the Industrial Revolution, the stress on the earth’s ecosystem has been building up and may now have reached a critical point. Each stage in the production, consumption and waste disposal of industrial products involves the generation of heat through fossil fuels. Consequently, greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. This has resulted in the phenomenon of global warming: the underlying socioeconomic basis is the impact of the forms and levels of production of the industrial era on the planet’s ecosystem.
Climate change associated with global warming has caused an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme climatic events, such as droughts, floods and hurricanes. These phenomena have caused large-scale destruction of life and livelihood. Not only human beings, but other living creatures and plants will also be adversely affected by climate change over the next four decades. If average temperatures exceed 1.5 to 2.5 degrees centigrade, over the next four decades, 20 to 30 per cent of plant and animal species are likely to become extinct, according to the UN Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change. At the same time, the disposal of toxic waste into soils, the hydrologic system and the atmosphere is undermining the ability of the earth’s life-support system to provide fresh water, air and fertile soils.
The environmental crisis has created the imperative for the human community to unite in undertaking mitigation measures. Beyond the immediate public action required, there is the fundamental issue of restoring the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain life in the long term. This endeavour can only be undertaken by recovering our humanity and a shared sense of the sacred in nature, which is an essential feature of our humanity.
The consciousness that emerged from the social and economic life within capitalism is characterised by a particular relationship between humans, commodities and nature. Individuals and organisations within the market-based system are pitted in aggressive competition in the pursuit of profits and consumer goods. The ‘Other’, is seen not as an essential fertilising force in the growth of the self, but as a means of achieving material ends.
The individual is driven by an insatiable desire to acquire more and more commodities, which are seen as the emblem of a person’s worth. Commodities are perceived, not simply in terms of their material function as objects of convenience, but as the receptacles of the qualities of sexuality, efficacy and power. Thus, qualities which are inherent to human beings are alienated from them and transposed into commodities. We are then invited by the production system to acquire commodities, not simply to fulfill our material needs, but essentially to repossess ourselves.
It is not surprising that within such a mode of production and associated forms of consciousness, nature is seen as just an exploitable resource. There is a tendency to objectify nature as if it were divorced from the spiritual experience of knowing ourselves as human beings connected to God. The crisis of the environment is rooted in a relationship between humans, nature and commodities that alienates humans from themselves. In this sense, the environmental crisis is essentially a crisis of human civilisation.
Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, in discussing the concept of value, suggests that commodities cannot be of value because they are merely useful. What is of value is human functioning. Amartya Sen has drawn from Aristotle to formulate the concept of human development. For human beings to function as human beings, they must have entitlements to health, education, income and a range of human rights that constitute freedom.
One can suggest that an important dimension of human functioning has not so far been considered in development literature: developing our sense of beauty and experiencing our own nature through a relationship of care and compassion for other human beings, as well as nature. This involves a re-awareness that the mountains, the trees, the rivers, the soil and all living creatures are part of a sacred unity that simultaneously sustains our physical and spiritual life.

-the writer is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Forman Christian College University and Beaconhouse National University
-by arrangement with The Express Tribune