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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 35, August 17, 2013 - Independence Day Special

The Essence of History: Four Crucial Relationships

Sunday 18 August 2013, by Bharat Dogra


The history of the earth since the advent of humankind on it can be largely understood as the history of four crucial relationships—the relationships among various human beings at various levels, the relationship of human beings with nature, the relationship of human beings with other forms of life, and the relationship of the present generation with the generations to come.

What we should try to learn from history, above all, is: what were the most important periods of closer and better co-operation among human beings for the welfare of all? What were the times when people were most compassionate towards each other and towards other forms of life? What were the factors which made such achievements possible and what were the factors that contributed the most to it?

Generally, the welfare and well-being of our world were advanced and distress was reduced when these relationships were formed on the basis of co-operation, care and harmony. On the other hand, distress and destruction increased when these relationships were based on dominance.

1. Relationships among Human Beings

If only one cause has to be singled out for the prevalence of large-scale distress in the world, then this is likely to be the persistence of relations of dominance. It has been a very widespread and enduring practice of human beings to try to dominate others, to get personal benefit at the cost of others, to try to get ahead of others, to impose their own viewpoint. This tendency may be rooted in greed or in ego or elsewhere, but its impact is always harmful. This tendency can be seen in the relationships of individuals, groups, classes and entire nations, as also in gender-relationships.

This relationship of dominance is also responsible for the most exploitative economic systems and the most cruel wars which at their worst have claimed millions of lives. The political history of humankind since ancient times is largely dominated by the strong urge to conquer other nations and people.

While earlier wars witnessed much cruelty and distress, the scale of this was limited by
the technology available at that time. From 16th century onwards new discoveries and inventions opened up the entire world to invaders, and in addition armed them increasingly with weapons of huge destruction.

The French philosopher, Montaigne, wrote at the end of the sixteenth century: “So many goodly cities ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so infinite millions of harmless people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world topsy-turvied, ruined and defaced for the traffic of pearls and pepper.”

In the 20th century the two World Wars and other major conflicts claimed nearly 100 million human lives, at the average of nearly one million lives every year. By the last decade of this century the world has accumulated nuclear stockpiles which added up to a destructive potential which was nearly 700 times that of all the explosive power used in the three major wars of this century, enough to kill all human beings (as well as most other forms of life) many time over.

The relationships of dominance and exploitation of course destroy the dominated and exploited people. But in addition, and this should be emphasised, they also slowly but surely destroy the perpetrators of exploitation and domination. The persons who fill their coffers by inflicting injustice and cruelty on others have to live with a guilt complex that can destroy their peace. To get rid of this guilt they have to lower themselves to such a level of insensitivity that deprives them of simple yet precious joys of life.

In other words, a person (or a group or a nation) who inflicts injustice and injury on others, will either live with a guilt complex (if he wants to retain some sensitivity) or else he’ll have to reduce himself to a level of insensitivity that will prevent him from feeling small but also desprive him of the precious joys of everyday life and this in turn is bound to adversely affect his closest relationships including those with his family members. Thus relationships of dominance are not only destructive, these are also self-destructive.

If A exploits B, then B suffers but directly or indirectly, A also suffers. Another frequently seen aspect of relationships of dominance is that instead of confronting A, B in turn tends to exploit C (being someone over whom he can easily exercise his control or vent his frustration). For example, workers faced by retrenchment or other injustice at worksite sometimes resort to domestic violence. In joint families in India and elsewhere women facing domination take it out on other women members of the family.

Extremely tragic as all this is, an under-standing of these relationships of dominance also opens up possibilities of convincing more and more people about this ‘Burning at both ends’ (this was also the title of my book on this subject)—as the process of exploitation and dominance has within it seeds of destruction even for the exploiter, therefore it’ll eventually help everyone to try to rebuild the world on the foundations of relationships of co-operation and harmony.

Secondly, it is important to identify those periods of history when the relationships of equality, harmony and co-operation were more in evidence, and to try to build further on these sources of inspiration. We need to know more about the forces, movements and personalities who helped to bring such periods based on harmony, peace and cooperation, so that we can learn from such efforts. As the study of such times will tell us, relationships of dominance may have been more frequent in our history but these are by no means inherent in human nature.

There is a lot of evidence today of gender-relationships being affected very adversely by dominance and the injustice arising from it. The Human Development Report (HDR 1995) studies in four developing countries suggest/indicate that two-thirds or more of married women have suffered domestic violence. In the USA domestic violence is the biggest single cause of injury to women. Further studies show that a third of women in Barbados, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the USA report sexual abuse during childhood or adolescence. Each year an estimated one million children, mostly girls in Asia, are forced into prostitution. Studies in four developed countries suggest one woman in six is raped in her lifetime.

But inequality, domination and discrimination were not always the basis of gender relation-ships. In fact if we consider the roughly 40,000 years of the history of human beings on earth, then probably for the first 30,000 years or so the gender relationships were more equal and just in most parts of the world. As Chris Brazier writes, “In fact the early people would have eaten much more vegetable than animal matter—it was women who gathered the fruits, nuts and berries that sustained people most of the time. And if hunting and gathering people that still exist are anything to go by, these early humans probably had a deep respect for women and their contribution....Women could be counsellors, leaders, doctors and law-givers—and had their own special status as holders of the most sacred mystery of all-that of birth. ...From 25,000 BC the worship of the Great Goddess mother was practised all over the world, from the steppes of southern Russia to Australia. Women’s status was much more equal then it is today.” As an example, Brazier mentions that in the marriage ceremony of ancient Egypt the husband pledged never to oppose his wife’s wishes.

This shows that human relationships of dominance, inequality and injustice should not be taken for granted. Few people know that for the greater part of human history, gender relationships were more equal and harmonious than what these have been in recent decades and centuries. Such aspects of history need to be better known or else we can easily become too pessimistic.

In India and its neighbourhood (including present-day Nepal) there was one such time around 6th century BC when the message of Gautam Buddha, Mahavir and other sages spread far and wide. Such views also flowered during the reign of King Ashoka around 2nd century BC. During medieval times, again we see a very inspiring revival of such ideals in the form of the teachings of Guru Nanak, Sant Kabir, Garibnawaz and other saints of Bhakti and Sufi movements. The freedom movement is another inspiring time when a very large number of people made tremendous sacrifices to fight injustice and dominance.

2. Relationship of Human Beings and Nature

Relations of dominance are seen not only among human beings but also between man and nature and between man and other forms of life. The tendency of looking upon nature as something to be dominated and conquered has been responsible to a significant extent for ecological ruin. Of course human beings have to meet their various needs, obtain food, clothing and shelter, and in the process they have to make certain demands on nature, they have to obtain water from rivers and food from land. It is certainly possible to do so while maintaining an attitude of respect and co-existence towards nature, preserving the clean and beautiful flow of rivers and protecting the fertility of land. There is evidence that in some ancient cultures there was an attitude of reverence towards nature, an attitude which survived till much later times among many indigenous groups.

Providing a summary of Mayan ethics the New Internationalist writes: “According to the Guatemalan Mayan vision of the cosmos, every form of life emerges from the same origin or seed. Some seeds become trees, others flowers, others water, others human beings. Thus each creature is inextricably linked to all others and what one does to a tree affects not only the tree but oneself and other creatures. This inter-relatedness calls for profound respect between people and their Creator, between people and nature, and among people themselves. The aim of the Maya is to keep their relationships with the world around them, and also the inner life of each person, in perfect balance according to the rhythms of the cosmos.” This journal goes on to say that Mayan ideas have much in common with those of other indigenous cultures of the Americas, especially in their holism and respect for the environment.

In 1855, the Indian Chief of Seattle responding to pressures from the United States President to sell the land of what is now Washington State, had this to say: “How can we buy or sell the sky or the warmth of the land? Such thoughts to us are inconceivable. We are not in possession of the freshness of the air, or the water-bubbles. Every corner of this land is holy to my people—they remain holy in the memory of my people—from the sparkling pine leaves, the sandy beaches and the mist of dark brooding forests, to the songs of insects... We know that White men do not understand our way of life. Land to him is not a brother but an enemy. After conquering a piece he proceeds to the next... Our God is the same God that you worship. His compassion extends equally to White men and Indians. This land is precious to Him and harming it, therefore, would be an insult to our Creator.”

However these views of nature increasingly came in conflict with the tendency which existed even in ancient times, of making excessive demands on nature, inflicting grave damage on land and water sources, and thereby sooner or later also bringing disaster on human beings. John Bellany Foster writes: “The history of precapitalist and preindustrial societies is full of examples of social collapse brought on by environmental depredations.” Thus while the attitude of reverence towards nature certainly existed in ancient and indigenous traditions, they should not be romanticised too much as the conflict with other viewpoints based on excessive expansion and exploitation appeared sooner or later in most places.

In the conflict of these views—one stressing conquest of nature and the other stressing co-existence with nature—the former attitude started asserting itself more and more with the passage of time. The progress of science should have opened our eyes to the dangers of making excessive demands on nature but in reality something entirely different happened. The unravelling of the mysteries of nature appears to have decreased the awe of it, and encouraged the view that as we know its secrets we can conquer and dominate it. Philosopher of science and one-time Lord-Chancellor of England Sir Francis Bacon observed that the conquest of nature constitutes “the real business and fortune of the human race”. He said nature must be “bound into service” and made a “slave”.

Such a viewpoint cleared the way and provided the justification for very large-scale disruption of environment in the last few centuries. However, as rivers were turned into sewer-lines, the rain became acidic, and even the life-giving sunshine was made hazardous by the depletion of the ozone layer. During the last few decades there has been growing realisation of the need for harmonious co-existence with nature instead of striving to dominate it. At the same time the failure to tackle climate change related issues has created a survival crisis. Domination brings destruction while a protective attitude towards nature also protects the life and livelihood of people.

3. Relationship of Humankind with
Other Forms of Life

As the most capable and powerful form of life on earth, human beings have a special protective role towards other forms of life, but instead they’ve adopted a highly destructive role.

We’ll also do well to remember that all other forms of life, whether in the oceans or on land, whether wild or domesticated, have to bear the adverse impacts of the environmental ruin unleashed by us, while we human beings alone are responsible for unleashing this ruin. When our activities bring death and disease to them, we do not even hear their silent protests.

Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s leading experts on biodiversity, recently summarised the current state of other forms of life in an article in the Time magazine. Biologists generally agree, he says, that “on the land at least and on a worldwide basis, species are vanishing 100 times faster than before the arrival of Homo Sapiens”.

“The ongoing loss in biodiversity is the greatest since the end of the Mesozoic era 65 million years ago. At that time, by current scientific consensus, the impact of one or more giant meteorites darkened the atmosphere, altered much of the earth’s climate and extingui-shed the dinosaurs. Thus began the next stage of evolution, the Cenozoic era or age of Mammals. The extinction spasm we are now inflicting can be moderated if we choose. If not, the next century will see the closing of the Cenozoic era and the start of a new one characterised by biological impoverishment. It might appropriately be called the Eremozoic era, the age of loneliness.”

It is significant that half of the world’s forest loss over the course of human history occurred between 1950 and 1990. In the fragile ecosystems of the world’s tropical forests—where 50 per cent of the world’s species reside—half of the forest cover is now gone and half of what remains is fragmented and degraded.

According to J B Foster, “The rise of capitalism led to a loss of wildlife on a scale never before seen in human history. The spread of commerce resulted in the death of hundreds of millions of large animals at the hands of traders. In the fifteenth century, sables were common as far west as Finland, but by the late seventeenth century they could only be found in Siberia. By the end of the eighteenth century, nearly every species of fur-bearing animal in Siberia had been decimated and Russian fur traders had to move to the northern Pacific islands, where they killed 250,000 sea otters between 1750 and 1790.” With the extermination of fur-bearing animals in western Russia, the fur trade became one of the driving forces behind European expansion into North America. In 1743 the French port of La Rochelle, a centre of trade with Canada, imported the skins of 127,000 beavers, 30,000 martens, 1,200 wolves, 12,000 otters and fishers, 110,000 raccoons and 16,000 bears.

According to the UNEP, “Around one-third of the world’s coastal regions are at high risk of degradation, particularly from land-based sources of pollution and infrastructure development. European coasts are most affected, with some 80 per cent at risk, followed by Asia and the Pacific, with 70 per cent of the coast at risk.”

Although serious local threats to the biodiversity of oceans and seas have been reported for a long time, recent updated estimates of the extent of the loss to world fisheries have set alarm bells ringing. In a recent paper published in the Nature journal, two Canadian biologists, Ransom Myers and Boris Worm, have presented estimates which show that in the last 50 years, overfishing has removed nine out of ten large predators—big fish like tuna and cod. These latest and most comprehensive estimates by biologists from Dalhousie University have imparted greater relevance and significance to several scattered reports which had warned earlier about the fast depleting fisheries and other forms of life in several ocean areas without attracting much attention.

The World Resources Report (1991) said: “Many regional fisheries in fishing areas such as the Northwest Pacific and the Southern Ocean show signs of drastic over fishing... The Antarctic fisheries turned from one species to another during the past 18 years as each harvested species has declined because of overfishing.”

How did such enormous losses occur? Largely because legally permissible fishing technology had become “as devastating as dynamite” and in addition several illegal practices were also adopted. The permitted technology included computerised ships as large as football fields and nets wide enough to swallow a dozen Boeing 747s which could gather up 120 metric tonnes of fish in single sweep.

Describing the use of this technology, the acclaimed report Imperilled Planet, published by the MIT, wrote: “Every evening as the sun goes down over the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean, thousands upon thousands of km of almost invisible nylon netting are unfurled into the sea... Besides their intended catches of squid and tuna, these almost indestructible walls of death, each up to 65 km. long and 12m. deep, trap hundreds of thousands of dolphins, seals, turtles, sharks, salmon and seabirds in an indiscriminate marine holocaust.”

According to another estimate, in 1993 shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico caught and threw away an estimated 34 million red snappers, including many juveniles. High technology made it possible to sweep up in a few days catches that earlier took a season, even though much of the catch was dumped overboard or used later as animal feed or even fertiliser.

In factory farming to an amazing extent there is a single-minded pursuit of increasing production while completely ignoring the distress of animals. Chickens are placed so close to each other that they cannot even move, and their beaks are cut off to prevent them from pecking each other in frustration. By nature scrupulously clean animals are forced to remain for long hours in their own excreta. The reckless pursuit of quick and fleshy growth of animals to get more profits leads to equally reckless search for cheap sources of high protein feed and animals are sometimes given feed based on their own waste and the meat of their own brothers and sisters (animals and birds of the same species). Cows are routinely given oxytocin injections to pull out even that milk which they are not yet ready to yield, causing them a lot of pain and harming their health. Indiscriminate exposure to chemicals and antibiotics has become widespread.

The extent to which farming practices have been dehumanised can be seen from the following advice given by a leading magazine of ‘pig production engineers’ called Hog Farm Management: “Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him like a machine in a factory. Schedule treatment like you would lubrication.”

Sometime back when the price of wool fell in the international market, millions of sheep were killed in Australia and mass graves were dug to bury them. The Time magazine reported on January 14, 1991: “Across the rolling countryside, the normal peace of rural life is being shattered these days by volley of gunfire. Under the hot summer sun in the Southern Hemisphere, rifle shots echo over the rangelands as sheep farmers execute one of the largest animal holocausts in history. The scenes can be pitiful. Some farming families turn away in tears and drive off quickly after delivering their gentle charges to the slaughtering pens. There, next to mass-burial pits dug in grazing tracts or on the outskirts of rural towns, firing squads take over in a project designed to kill 20 million sheep during the next year.”

If anything worse is possible then this is inflicted on animals used for various laboratory experiments and testing for products like cosmetics and drugs. The New Internationalist has summarised this pain and suffering: “Nearly 200 million animals are subjected to painful experiments in laboratories around the world, even though medical research on animals has been judged to be 71 per cent unreliable. In the course of these tests, animals may be given electric shocks, injected with diseases or experimental drugs subjected to toxic chemicals or radiation.”

Thus we’ve been very selfish and increasingly very cruel in our attitudes towards other forms of life—in farms and forests, in rivers and oceans. It is one of the most compelling requirements of ethical life that this attitude should change in a basic way and humankind should adopt a protective attitude towards other forms of life.

Deep concern has been expressed at the tendency to usurp more and more resources of the planet for human beings leaving less and less for other forms of life. According to J.B. Foster writing in The Vulnerable Planet, “Human beings now use (take or transform) an estimated 25 per cent of the net photosynthetic product (NPP)—that is, the plant mass fixed by photo-synthesis—over the entire earth (land and sea), and 40 per cent on land.” As human beings take more of the primary productivity of the earth for themselves, less is left over for other species. According to Meadows and Randers, the authors of a path-breaking study titled Beyond the Limits: “Somewhere along the path of NPP usurpation, there lie limits. Long before the ultimate limits are reached, the human race becomes economically, scientifically, aesthetically, and morally impoverished.”

4. Relationship of Present Generation
with Next Generation

Every generation inherits a certain world from its ancestors, and leaves behind a certain world for the next generation. An important criteria for evaluating any generation is whether it leaves behind a better world than the one it inherited. If we examine this question carefully and honestly, then the present generation cannot escape the verdict of history that at no other time has any generation left a more dangerous world for the next generation. For the present generation, there may be a unique indictment not faced by any previous generation that this generation allowed life-creating conditions to be disturbed, perhaps permanently, in the form of the worsening threat of climate change. In addition, there is the worsening threat from weapons of mass destructions (WMDs), terrorism, the danger of WMDs falling into the hands of terrorists, the rapid spread of several hazardous technologies and substances etc.

In social life also the next generation will suffer the adverse impacts of growing disintegration and alienation. The available information on a wide range of indicators of social disintegration tells us clearly that this is increasing very rapidly, perhaps more rapidly than ever before. Many of the scars are likely to haunt us long into the future, as the worst victims of this belong to the young generation.

What we have provided above is a very quick review of four crucial relationships which can provide a framework for a much more relevant study of history, a study which will help to link us to planning for very critical times ahead when we face a crisis of survival and increasing distress despite all the obvious technological advances.

The author is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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