BY DR AKMAL HUSSAIN
In the preceding article (A Planet in Peril”, March 14), I had argued that the available scientific evidence suggests that the environmental crisis is the result of the way capitalism has impacted the ecosystem through the levels and forms of production, consumption and waste disposal. This intrusion into nature now threatens the life support systems of the planet: breathable air, fresh water and fertile soils. Over three centuries has emerged not only an environmental crisis, but grave economic inequality that threatens the very fabric of society. These phenomena are rooted in a particular relationship between humans, commodities and nature engendered by the capitalist mode of production.
In a market system, individuals are driven to maximise their material welfare without regard for others. Within capitalist social relations in which individuals are pitted into aggressive competition, the other is seen either as an instrument or a threat in the pursuit of individual greed. Thus, the possibility of experiencing the other as a vital fertilising force in the growth of the self is restricted: a sense of loving care for the other that defines our humanity and which is enjoined in all the wisdom traditions of the world, is banished to the margins of our consciousness.
Traditionally, in pre-capitalist society, commodities were seen to be simply useful, and social status in popular consciousness was based not on how much an individual owned but by how much was sacrificed for others. Aristotle, the 4th century BC Greek philosopher, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argues that goods cannot have value since they are merely useful: what is of value is human functioning according to the principles of virtue. Shah Hussain, the 18th century AD Punjabi sufi poet, says, “Those who have accumulated millions, that too is mere dust”, and “those who have cared for others need not fear death (for they will live forever)”. By contrast, in the consciousness inculcated within capitalism, commodities are seen to have supernatural features. A man wearing cologne will have women dropping from the sky; an expensive motor car imparts to the owner a magical efficacy, power and status. Thus, qualities of sexuality, power and beauty, which are inherent to human beings, are transposed into commodities. We are then invited to acquire commodities, not merely for their material functions as objects of convenience, but essentially, to repossess ourselves.
Capitalism, with a structural tendency to continuously increase output, has also shaped a psyche such that the individual consumer has an insatiable desire for acquiring more commodities. Within such a mode of production, it is not surprising that nature is seen as an exploitable resource. For a sustainable relationship between humans and nature, it is necessary to recover our sense of beauty and experience our own nature through a relationship of care and compassion with nature. This involves a re-awareness that the mountains, the rivers, the trees, the soils and all living creatures on earth are part of a sacred unity that sustains our physical, as well as our spiritual life. Islam, as indeed other religions, inculcates a sense of the sacred for nature. Phenomena in nature are seen as manifestations or signs of the Creator. Religion (from the Latin religio) means re-establishing the ligament with God. The Holy Quran invites us to re-establish that ligament whereby in prayer or in beholding God’s creation we become aware of His presence as loving mercy (Rahmah): “… whithersoever ye turn, there is Allah’s countenance” (The Holy Quran, Surah 2, Verse 115).
It can be argued that the loving mercy of God is manifest in His creation, both in the sense that through nature, the sustenance of physical life on earth is enabled and also in the sense that the beauty of nature nurtures our own spiritual being. Nature thus provides an opportunity for us to live on earth and yet experience the transcendent. We simultaneously inhabit the ephemeral and the eternal.
To build a better future, the challenge is to establish a new relationship between humans, commodities and nature: a relationship that is informed by a re-awareness of our humanity and sense of beauty, which wisdom traditions through the ages have sought to develop.
-the writer is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Forman Christian College University and Beaconhouse National University
-by arrangement with The Express Tribune