We have known, at least since the late 1960s, of the hazardous effects that the relentless expansion of the sovereign human species has had on planet earth, its myriad non-human denizens, and on its future. The title of the Club of Rome’s seminal 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, sounded a clarion call, urging us to wake up and address the imminent costs of rushing along a path of exponential economic and population expansion on a planet with finite resources. And finite capacities for absorbing the products and waste of such reckless expansion. Unequivocally, The Limits to Growth predicted – on the basis of substantial research – that the global per capita industrial output would peak in 2008, followed by a rapid decline; that global food reserves per capita would peak around 2020, then fall rapidly; that global services per capita would reach a peak around 2020, then collapse swiftly; that the world’s population would peak in 2030, and then dive precipitously. The report also laid out proposals for how we might achieve economic and environmental sustainability, but this called for radical self-discipline. As we know, Cassandra is condemned to going unheard. No one – at least no one who enjoyed power, influence, and political authority – paid the slightest attention. They just went right on exploiting the planet’s reserves of fossil fuel, seeping toxins into soil and pouring effluents into water, poisoning the air, fraying the ozone layer, ensuring the rapid destruction of habitats for a wide range of species, accelerating the release of greenhouse gases, presiding over the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps and the degradation of the ice cover in the Third Pole, as the Hindu Kush-Karakorum- Himalayan belt is known.
The anthropologist and pioneer of cybernetics, Gregory Bateson, wrote presciently of this crisis decades before it proclaimed itself in its fullness, when he observed that a species that could outstrip its habitat was doomed to suicide. We are that species. We have imagined ourselves to be the owners of the earth, when we are merely its transient and unruly tenants. We have disregarded the rights and needs of the species that are our fellow tenants of this planet. We have wrecked the earth. With every step we take, every debt we owe to our ecosystems, we burden the earth. We ensure planetary catastrophe and the destruction of our own species.
This is a process that was set going during the European Enlightenment, and its advocacy of sovereign status for the human species – specifically its white, European, Christian, male, elite segment – and its understanding of the earth as a bottomless reserve of resources to be exploited. Given the mercantile and early industrial ethos in which it originated, the Enlightenment enshrined the contract as a secular replacement of what had been regarded as a sacrament in sacred culture. In place of the universal dominion of God and the obligations of feudal society, it enshrined the laws and bylaws of private property, sanctified by the market. In place of the canon of the seasons and regions, the ethic of taking only what was necessary for one’s needs while respecting the needs of others, especially other species, the Enlightenment legitimised limitless greed through the doctrine of utilitarianism. Proposed as a normative ethical doctrine for the maximisation of well-being and benefit for all society, utilitarianism very swiftly assumed the aspect of a pragmatic policy: Whatever could be used to the benefit of the privileged sections of humankind could be acquired – through trade or force, guile or larceny, theological sophistry or outright seizure.
Through the mechanisms of industrialisation, colonial exploration and imperial expansion – mechanisms that would assume monstrous forms as they extended across the globe – the contractarian, propertarian, and utilitarian emphases of the Enlightenment set going the momentum of capitalism and the logic of planetary catastrophe. Within Europe, peasants and villagers were dishoused and displaced, forbidden by violent enclosures from access to their ancestral commons, forced to migrate to the towns and cities, there to join a newly emergent labour force, immiserated and dehumanised by brutal working conditions and the Iron Law of Wages. Every value, every relationship, every expression, every distinctive understanding of space and variant experience of time was reduced to the terms of capital, contained, flattened, standardised. Every hope, dream, reverie, desire, and aspiration that opposed such reduction was pushed to the wall, denounced as incendiary or misguided, ostracised, rendered vulnerable and marginal.
From that same Enlightenment which gave us the invaluable conception of individuality, the insistence on reason as the guiding principle of public life, the inviolate guarantee of civil rights, and the rule of law – there also proceeded yet more unimaginable abominations. In the colonies, the Enlightenment legitimised, through the dubious discourses of racial science and xenophobic pedagogy, genocidal extermination in the Americas, shameless expropriation in Asia, ruthless subjugation in Africa and Australia. It condoned and normalised the horrors of fiendishly inhuman forms of labour such as plantation slavery and diasporic indenture; the extraction of labour and revenue, the draining away of the lifeblood of the colonies to feed the vampires of the imperial centres. Not surprisingly, opposition to such evils as slavery often came from religious associations such as the Quakers; resistance to xenophobic pedagogy often came from those who looked to the Orient for cultural inspiration and sustenance, such as poets, philosophers, and philologists.
Despite the anti-colonial movements of the mid- 20th century and the various expressions of popular resistance across the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st, this vampirical global system has remained entrenched as the dominant paradigm of human organisation – worse, it has been replicated and expanded by all the formerly subjugated regions of the world, newly free to pursue their own destinies yet trapped within the dominant paradigm. It is against the tyranny, the delusional and self-destructive tyranny of this system that we take a stand in this anthology. Beautifully and sensitively brought together by Vinita Agrawal, Open Your Eyes calls – from its resonant title onward – for an urgent awakening to the crisis in which humankind finds itself. It calls, also, for a new attentiveness to what remains magical and mysterious about our world. And it summons us to a re-enchantment of all that has been violated and rendered desolate. Open Your Eyes offers the world a diverse and persuasive polyphony of voices, to disregard which would spell insanity. The poets and prose writers who have contributed to this anthology are voices of wisdom, despair, love, courage, and hope. From the prospect of ruin, they recall us to the possibility of redemption, to a place of natural and human potentiality emancipated from the clutches of the vampire. In the memorable opening line of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, they remind us that “[t]he way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.” We ignore them at our absolute peril.
Ranjit Hoskote 26 August 2020 Mumbai.
This foreword by Ranjit Hoskote was penned for Open Your Eyes - An Anthology on Climate Change edited by Vinita Agrawal, published by Hawakal.