South Asian Dialogues On Ecological Democracy
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What is SADED?

Niklas Toivakainen
SADED Research Fellow
University of Helsinki, Finland
Working with issues on critical modernity and engagement with Gandhi
Edited By: Daya Lalvani
Notes and comments on “What is SADED?”
Notes and comments on the introductory article "What is SADED?" is a further reflection on the concerns and crisis of modernity and on the urgent need for "Ecological Swaraaj", as articulated by SADED. The focus is mainly on the endeavor to deepen the understanding of the ideological background of modernity and why modernity has the tendency to dominate and undermine tradition, traditional knowledge systems and cosmologies and nature.
Whereas in the document "What is SADED?" it is indicated that "The notion of ‘Ecological Democracy’ incorporates a democratic relationship between human beings and nature", in my comments and notes I try to explore why such a perspective poses great challenges to the modern framework or mindset. "What is SADED?" proposes that Swaraaj is "a deeper concept [than democracy] that incorporates a belief in the oceanic concentric circles of life symbolising just, symbiotic and sustainable relationships in all dimensions of life  that are ever widening, encompassing the entire world as a family". Fully agreeing with this, a short suggestion is given as to why this is the case. In the same spirit as the "What is SADED?" text, my reflections end with an open-endedness as to how we are in fact to understand modernity and respectively "Ecological Swaraaj". As "What is SADED?" notes, "SADED, in its nomenclature itself conveys an open-endedness because the whole intellectual political project of moving towards ecological democracy hinges on the dialogic method." Hence, one could say, my notes and comments on "What is SADED?" is an effort to open up a space or pathway for representatives of modernity and even modernity itself to join this dialogical process, undertaken by SADED. 
As the name already reveals, South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy (SADED) is concerned with what it calls “ecological democracy”. It defines as one of its core missions “[t]o identify ways of articulation of ecological democracy in a manner that it can capture the imagination as a desirable worldview of all sections in India, South Asia and globally in the present times”. In other words, we will not find SADED providing us with a readymade definition or answer to what ecological democracy might mean and how it should or must be understood. Rather, it aspires to provide a forum within which the process of an articulation or articulations of “ecological democracy”, or “ecological swaraaj” — as the more preferable term — can be actualised. As is stated in the introductory description: "SADED, in its nomenclature itself conveys an open-endedness because the whole intellectual political project of moving towards ecological democracy hinges on the dialogic method.”
Even though SADED does not at the outset provide a definition of ecological democracy/swaraaj, the pressing need for it arises on account of the recognition of the current ecological, social and even civilisational crisis and the recognition of the interconnectedness of the social, economical, physical, moral and the spiritual with the ecological. Thus, SADED advocates the view that ecological democracy is a way to “strengthening the idea of comprehensive democracy”. One of the leading guidelines for the work proposed by SADED is the notion that ecological democracy “incorporates a democratic relationship between human beings and nature”. Whereas this is a notion that surely finds resonance with a great deal of the population of this earth, it at the same time poses a potential barrier to many a “modern mind”. One can easily imagine a representative of the modern disenchanted, scientific worldview protesting against the possibility of a “democratic relationship between human beings and nature” — at most, one might say, nature has a place in democracy only to the extent it will be a part of some human interests. For, as we might well imagine, the modern mind might make the claim that nature does not have a language nor does it have a will, and thus it cannot be part of any democratic process.
This modern, disenchanted and scientific worldview — and rational reason as its principle guiding light — with its understanding or conception of the relationship between man, nature and the cosmos at large, has its historical and ideological reasons/background. As one of its key features, modernity and its social, intellectual and economic institutions has largely been built on a hubris-like distrust with and opposition against tradition(s); seeking to suppress all other knowledge systems, which are not produced in accordance with its own principles. Consequently, as the so-called pre-modern societies are known for their close and in varying degree “democratic” relationship to nature, modernity is in a sense naturally characterised by a kind of distancing, arrogant and aggressive attitude towards nature. We all know the consequences of this modern instrumental rationality; its “innovative” as well as its destructive power, whereof SADED’s call for ecological democracy.
As a modern western white male, whose form of life is deeply integrated with modern civilization (despite the internal criticism towards it), I feel a deep need to gain an understanding of why the modern framework has such a power to mesmerize and integrate people as a part of its process. The obvious reason for the want of such an understanding is that, in addition to myself, many of my loved ones and people near to me, are part of this modern form of life; some even to the point of being its advocates and champions. In other words, my aspiration is to find ways in which representatives of modernity, and even modernity in itself, might be integrated into the dialogue suggested by SADED; as voices with their own hopes, fears, dreams and commitments. So what I will try to do now is to make a brief characterization of some of the internal ideological, metaphysical and even to some extent ethical forces within modernity. In the best case, this might provide us with tools for deepening the dialogue with our external and internal “enemy” of modernity.
As I pointed out, there is a clear moral contradiction residing within the narrative of modernity and its enlightenment and post-enlightenment optimism. This is generated by the two powerful lines of aspiration running through the core of (high) modernity: (i) the ethical aspiration of liberty, democracy, human rights, enlightenment, social equality, etc., and (ii) the strive for accumulated wealth and material well-being. Today, we know empirically that these two core aspirations seem to contradict each other. We know quite well that (ii) has led to devastating consequences on the social as well as the ecological frontiers. The problems on both of these frontiers have a historical as well as a logical basis. Cheap production labour and ever-increasing demand for effectiveness is one of the prime demands of rapid and unlimited economic growth. The consequence is of course an unavoidable exploitation of human resources, that is to say, of human lives; the demand of slavery of one sort or another. On the ecological frontier, economic growth is linked historically as well as logically to the exploitation of natural resources, as economic growth has an inbuilt demand for the consumption of products and products having an unavoidable material basis. So one may then ask: why does the aspiration for economic growth persist so strongly as an icon of our times? Is it so that modernity has abandoned its moral aspirations for that of material wealth?
Obviously, the issue is immensely complicated and multi-faceted and something I cannot hope to account for in such short time. But I shall make some attempts in framing what, to me, seem to be some essential features. The sketch I will set up is of course a very rough one.
Even though economic growth has by now shown its destructive character, the moral aspirations have not been abandoned from the rhetoric. On the contrary, they still live on as a life-giving and motivating force, especially among those who have benefited from the modernization process in one way or another, or among those hoping for their share of the cake. I said that the dominant discourse stresses the importance of economic growth, but as much of the rhetoric shows, the primacy here – on a rhetorical and ideological sphere – is one of instrumental nature. What I mean by this is: Economic growth is seen to be, or rather claimed to be, the instrument for actualising the moral aspirations of (i). So, as one might easily observe in most public as well as in some specialists discussions, the idea is that through economic growth, i.e., through accumulated (material) wealth, we will achieve the aspired moral aims. In this sense, one could say, the moral aspirations function as the primary legitimatising and justificatory forces for (ii). Put it differently, it is not uncommon to stumble upon the claim that either the best, or at least the most realistic, if not the only, way to achieve the moral aspirations of (i) is through the project of economic growth: the destructive social as well as the ecological exploitation is a necessary step towards (i).
It might be concisely summarised how the economic growth aspiration transforms itself into a legitimatising imperative, by characterising its ideological framework. Following Michael Walker’s (The Frasier Institute) claim that “the solution to most of the problems” we face today, is a complete commodification of more or less “everything” in the world, we can get a feel of the underlying framework informing the alleged imperative nature of economic growth (Interview with Walker in the documentary film The Corporation). The main idea, as Walker explains, is that through commodification we transform things into interest-relations, thus directing regulation of them into rational procedures. Another way to put it is that a complete commodification of the world would bring about equilibrium of interests. Much of course needs to be said about this metaphysical claim, but obviously I cannot go into the issue here. What I do want to emphasise though is the ideological presupposition that I believe is clear in Walker’s neo-liberal account, namely that (instrumental) rationalisation is the emancipatory power –one example of this is the belief in the “invisible hand of capitalism”. And one should not underestimate the immense power of such an ideology. Just to make a short indication of the temptation of this narrative and the effect it has, we might think of the energy which is released when the moral conflict of our consumer society is, in the above mentioned way, resolved. That is to say, when the pressures accumulated by the obvious moral contradiction between the moral aspirations of the project of modernity on the one hand, and its aspiration for increasing material wealth on the other hand dissolves due to imagined necessity of economic growth, all that tension and energy is freed and, one should note, directed back into the economic sphere: consumption is not only acceptable but even understood as part of the mechanisms eventually leading to the moral aspirations of (i). This, I would claim, is an essential part of the dominant rhetoric. In other words, the economic growth imperative takes on the form of an ethical imperative.
Thus, the story that should be told is the story and history of the rise and establishment of rational reason to the ideological forefront of modern civilisation. This story will help us to understand what we are dealing with and, so I suggest, it might also help us in our struggles to form a democratic and dialogical process to which all are invited. Now my assessment is that understanding the “what” can neither be done without talking about power-struggles, nor can it be done without taking into account the ethical and ideological dimension inherent in these struggles. This can be seen already at the very core of the modernisation process, in the shift from a mythos to a logos centred society/ideology, beginning already in ancient Greece. One observation worth accounting for with respect to this shift is as follows: Roughly speaking, in the pre-Homeric and Homeric era both terms “mythos” and “logos” could be said to have referred to “speech”. The terms had though, very different meanings. Whereas the former form of speech was taken to be “true”, “sincere” and “authoritative” speech, the latter had connotations like “insincere”, “deceitful” and “disgraceful" (Fredrik Lång 2010, Jaget, Duet och Kärleken och andra idehistoriska essäer, Helsinki:Schildts). The sincere and truthful speech of mythos had its authority secured by the aristocratic and ruling class, while logos was the speech that was conducted at the market and on the squares by “ordinary” people, usually involving commercial activities: in other words, a form of thought and speech with characteristic features of  instrumental/calculative reasoning. Through the shift of power from the aristocratic elite to the “free men of Athens”, i.e., to the squares and to the establishment of the ancient Athenian “democratic polis”, a noticeable shift also occurred at the conceptual level: whereas “logos” had been understood as untruthful and insincere speech, it now acquired more or less the opposite meaning — i.e., truthful, sincere, etc. — while “mythos" started gaining the position it more or less has today: “mythological”. So when Aristotle notes that his contemporary society is shifting from a mythos to a logos centred society, he is voicing a shift in power, in social and cosmological imagination and thought and speech; a shift which overcomes and/or liberates itself from the power-structures of tradition, only to put into motion a new era of power and tradition.
Another example I want to take up is the observation of the framework within which the idea of unlimited economic growth establishes its position. As Charles Taylor has noted, building on Max Weber and others, the contemporary notion of unlimited growth steps on the conceptual/ideological scene reasonably late in modernity (Charles Taylor 2007, A Secular Age, Cambridge (MA) : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). The reason for its late up-come can be understood by recognising that the idea of unlimited growth needs a cosmological/conceptual background which can supply the necessary framework for such a notion’s meaningfulness. Taylor, I believe rightly, observes that the European medieval society, especially with its cosmology, did not have room for any notion of unlimited structural organisation and thus neither for any notion of unlimited (economic) growth. One of the cosmological features which Taylor is concerned with is portrayed by the medieval carnival. Simply put, the carnival’s cosmological function was to mark the end of an annual cycle as well as, and importantly, the end of a structural order, which was turned, so to speak, upside-down and then again reorganised according to the established order. Now the main point is of course that such a cosmological order did not include any clear concept of unlimited growth/development — especially when it came to human conduct/society and secular time — but rather, society had a definitive structural limit to it. As in the case of the ancient Greek society and the shift from mythos to logos, the medieval society also faced, through social and ideological reform and power struggles, a great shift in its cosmological, ideological and conceptual framework. Without trying to make the claim that the only motivational force behind this shift was ideological with its ethical traits, I would like to suggest, with Taylor and others, that the ethical played a substantial role. As many people might be aware of, the larger reformation movement — which started late in medieval period and reached its climax through the rise of the protestant church and its new ethical universe — turned against the moral, theological and political corrupt traits of the dominant (Catholic) church order. As so many elements of the pre-protestant social order, also the cosmological framework and thus the carnival symbolising the limit of social structures, was abandoned for a new “disciplinary society”. Relevant to our topic, the fading and eventually the fall of the old social structure released an immense potential of energy into the “secular development” and structuring of the society: a new social image emerged which not only experienced itself as freed from the limiting framework of the old (to some extent oppressive structures) but even saw it as its moral obligation to structure society on the idea of unlimited human and social structural potential. One should still add the important point that the medieval society’s enchanted cosmology, with its tight connection to a non-mechanistic conception of nature, “had” to be replaced by a disenchanted, rationalistic framework. It is upon this new cosmological imagination that the modern scientific paradigm is built and thus owes its existence to it. In other words, modern science has formed an integrated part of modernisation’s battle against tradition and the non-secular.  This on-going, hubris-like struggle against the traits of “the old enchanted”, ”mythological” world, we see actively at work in our contemporary discourses, stretching all the way from public to academic discussions. One might thus make the claim that the disenchanted, mechanistic worldview enjoys an ethical as well as a political hegemonic position in the imagination of our modern civilisation.
Many more examples could be given of how, within the process of modernization, we find integrated struggles for freedom and overcoming of corruption and oppression. But parallel to such stories, other, more disturbing features about modernity should also be taken into account. Obviously, as far as modernity has been (partly) a story about genuine emancipation, one needs to pay heed to it, and allow its voice(s) to influence us. But the question that keeps inviting itself, is to what extent we can really talk about “genuine struggles for emancipation” when speaking about modern (western) civilization: many would be prone to say that modernity has contributed with nothing but more and more sophisticated, complex and opaque forms of oppression, violence and exploitation. Maybe modernity with its power-struggles is best captured by the term “opportunistic”, maybe even in an indirect way "reactionary".
And there are obviously both visual as well as historical reasons for such suspicion. Among others, Winin Pereira has noted the intrinsic and, as he claims, fundamental links between modern science (perhaps even modern rational/instrumental reason) and commerce or exploitative economic structures and thus warfare and political power-structures. As he writes: “Western science required and requires large funds for carrying out its investigations. Such supporting funds could only be accumulated through unjust processes” (Winin Pereira, 2006, From Western Science to Liberation technology, 4th edition, Earthcare Books, Kolkata, India). Pereira is pointing to the established interdependent relationships between scientific research, political ends and means, technological development and the politics of economy.
As a historical and conceptual fact, which I have already pointed out, the rise of rational/instrumental reason to the forefront of modern civilization is an event internally linked to economical/commercial activity. So reflecting on the current situation with the increasing shift of power to corporate control, one may wonder whether the corporate and financial powers are an opportunistic feature of modern civilization — i.e. that corporate power has managed to take advantage of the transforming processes of modernity utilizing techniques of manipulation, conspiring within the framework of modernity — or whether the growing corporate power is an internal, natural and necessary consequence of modernity.
As these theoretical and historical questions continue to challenge our understanding, the current, everyday world is a battlefield between increasing corporate power and the struggle for ecological democracy and swaraaj. It is thus not surprising that all the listed thematic areas of SADED are in one way or another concerned with this battle. The areas are:
  •  Sustainable Agriculture; Kisan Swaraj Abhiyan (Farmer's Swaraj Campaign)
  • Water-Rivers-Flood Management
  • Ecology, Dignity and the Marginalised Majorities
  • Koi Bhookha Na Soye Samvad (Let No One Sleep Hungry)
  • Himalaya Swaraj Abhiyan (Save the Himalaya Camapign)
  • Adivasi Survival Globally
  • Inter-Continental Dialogue
When thought through, all of the six first of these thematic areas are concerned with the interconnectedness of the social, economic, physical, moral and spiritual with the ecological. So is the last one. But even more than that, the last of the thematic areas noted by SADED calls for a different kind of or alternative globalisation process. Currently, the term “globalisation” means the process of evolving and strengthened global markets. SADED’s Inter-continental dialogue alternatively could be understood as a struggle for a global village in which, among other things, the above mentioned thematic areas are taken into the core of the process — not the globalizing of the markets — in ways as not to create a hegemonic and elite system of authority, but rather in ways as to preserve, include and respect the diversity of voices around the world, believing, as it were, in the principal force of unity and love between all living beings.
Let us ask once again why “ecological democracy”?
  • “Ecological” because of the imminent ecological crisis, but also because ecology is an integrated part of the forms of life of many cultures and worldviews in ways that do not resemble the modern, scientific and mechanistic understanding of nature.
  • “Democratic” because of the belief that no one person, culture or worldview possesses the absolute truth and because of the belief in equality. In a true democracy every one has an equal right to raise a voice.
The deepest shortcoming in modern democracy though, is that the criteria for which voices are allowed to participate in modern democratic processes, is highly dictated by the modern paradigm of “rational” reason/discourse — which in turn is built on a very limited notion of “reason”. Hence, many voices are completely left out. This might be one of the reasons why SADED views “swaraaj” to be a deeper and more encompassing concept than "democracy". Whereas the concept of democracy, as it has developed in the west, has always been tightly connected to the rise of rational reason and discourse — in its every-increasing “disenchanted” and secular form — and thus has a tendency to leave out voices not embracing this modern formula, “swaraaj” is a concept of what one could call a deeper moral character. What I mean by this is that “swaraaj” — especially as used by M.K. Gandhi — is a concept which takes the strive for self-rule of every individual as a bases, irrespective of his or her cultural or civilisational mind-frame: every “voice”, so to speak, is legitimate. The concept of “ecology” deepens this alternative paradigm even further, for now we not only speak of swaraaj for every individual, but incorporate other animals, other life-forms like plants, etc., and even possibly nature and the cosmos as a whole — we do not yet know the limit or limitlessness of ecological swaraaj.
Ecological swaraaj is a huge challenge at least to the modern rational mind. It challenges us to learn to listen and to speak outside of the boundaries of rational discourse, exploring the depths of our own consciousness and our relationship with others — call this introducing our moral conscience, our moral intelligence, to the core of our discourses. Importantly, such intelligence — which we all do possess — is not dependent on a deep understanding of the historical and ideological reasons for modernity and its hegemonic rational reason with its institution. Deepening one's understanding of swaraaj and its connection to non-violent relationships and dialogue, which is in a sense an ahistorical process (although not meaning that historical analysis has no place here), is key to dissolving the current civilisational crisis we are facing. The initiative and work of SADED is thus of immense importance.




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South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy