Gandhi Was Perfectly Sensible to Call Industrial Civilisation a ‘Nine Day Wonder’

Ecological economist Mark Lindley says Gandhi’s ideas about economics are unpopular in India because its middle class is more eager to jump on the affluence bandwagon than take stock of the looming environmental crisis.

Mark Lindley. Credit Sajai Jose

Mark Lindley. Credit: Ratheesh Pisharody

Mark Lindley first got interested in India at the age of nine, when his father – the then Washington bureau chief of Newsweek – visited the country to report on the inauguration of the Republic in 1947.

Decades later – as a historian of modern India – Lindley authored books and essays on the independence struggle, centred on Mahatma Gandhi’s role in it.

Interestingly, this exposed him to the alternative economic thought of J.C. Kumarappa – one of Gandhi’s closest associates – and in turn to the early history of ecological economics, an area he now specialises in.

Most recently he has been studying the findings of a landmark research project conducted at the University of Zaragoza in Spain, which assesses the long-term viability of non-renewable resources, especially the critical metals and minerals that make high-tech society possible.

Another aspect of his work focuses on the concept of ‘economic man’, a cornerstone of mainstream economic theory, which he considers “noxious” for aggravating the many social and ecological crises confronting the world.

Traversing musicology, history, economics and ecology, Lindley’s has been an unconventional scholarly journey of a truth seeker, rather than that of a conventional academic career.

This interview was held in Bengaluru, where he recently delivered a series of lectures and public talks on ecological economics, which were organised by voluntary groups Graama Seva Sangha and the Ecologise network. The lectures were hosted by prominent academic institutions including the Indian Institute of Science and the National Institute of Advanced Studies.


Mark Lindley recently delivered lectures and public talks on ecological economics in Bengaluru. Credit: Ratheesh Pisharody

Excerpts from the interview: 

The environmental impacts of our current economic model, particularly climate change, are increasingly well known. Less discussed is the threat posed by depletion of non-renewable resources, an area you focus on. Can you tell us more about it?

Yes, depletion of non-renewables is a key aspect of the galloping environmental degradation due to human agency. This depletion is easier to measure than some of the other aspects, because the non-renewables – the fossil fuels and the minerals that we mine for economic use – aren’t alive. They have less of the vulnerability and none at all of the resilience that some of the biological factors of nature have – plants and fish and helpful bacteria and all that – which we humans also depend on for our livelihoods.

For about a year now I have been studying a method invented by a Spanish colleague for measuring the economic significance of the depletions of the ores of the various chemical elements that are mined. For instance, the copper in our electric wiring and the cobalt in our batteries and the phosphorus in phosphates for our artificial fertilisers. And also the mercury – which, by the way, since most of it that the Earth has to offer to us has already been mined – is now in the oceans a lot more than before and is making a lot of big fish poisonous to eat.

What according to you are the short-term and long-term implications of such resource depletion? How worried should we be and what can be done about it, if at all?

It would be good to know which natural “buckets” of ores for this or that useful chemical are nearly empty, and also how costly, energy-wise, it would be to recover and repurify some of the stuff by “urban mining” from landfills. The most problematic and costly ones would be the ones which we should all learn soon how to recycle.

The longer humankind can put off the day when each bucket is empty, the more time our clever engineers will have to figure out some ways of making do without mining the stuff in question, and the more time the rest of us and our children would have to learn how to face the issues cooperatively instead of fighting wars over them.

The Indian state, and the country’s policy/media elite, view subsistence farming as unviable. They champion an urban, high-tech future where the majority lives in “smart cities”. Given the grim picture of resource depletion that you have outlined, just how realistic is this vision?

First of all, let me say that even if subsistence farming might be productive enough to enable the folks on the farm to subsist, it won’t do for a country where a lot of people are living in towns and cities. The farms have to produce more than enough for the farmers to eat, they have to produce enough for the other folks too.

And, no matter how “smart” a city is in the sense that you mean, the cost – in terms of consumable energy and in terms of money – of transporting food to the people there from the countryside is far greater than the cost of bringing nourishing stuff from the field to the plate in nearby villages. Likewise, for the costs of getting back into the soil our organic garbage, which can – after nature has processed it properly – “nourish” the soil and make it agriculturally productive.

And meanwhile, contagious diseases spread quicker in crowded places than in places with a lot of fresh air. So, certain things that may look smart from one kind of perspective touted by a lobbyist, may not be very smart from a deeper point of view.

You have talked of the social and environmental damage done by the concept of the “economic man” in mainstream economic theory. Can you elaborate?

The ideal economic man of orthodox neo-classical economic theory doesn’t “satisfice” but always “maximises.” [It] doesn’t know when to stop, always wants more, gets obese, buys so many clothes and gadgets that there’s a storage problem [for middle-class folks] and so on. But while each additional bit of stuff tends to offer less satisfaction than the previous bit of the same kind of stuff, the depletion of natural resources and the various kinds of pollution mount up at the same rate as was due to producing the first helpings that were more satisfying.

It gets to be eventually a lose-lose game. Our children will lose out because of the present-day depletions, pollutions, global change, super-bacteria and mass extinctions and their children are likely to lose out even more.

If you don’t give a damn about children and grandchildren, then of course there’s less to worry about.

Isn’t it time economists dumped the GDP? What would you recommend in its place?

I am not smart enough to answer that second question. Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya [Sen] and a French economist named Jean-Paul Fitoussi and more than a dozen other economists pondered it a few years ago in a document commissioned by the president of France, without claiming to provide the answer, even though they agreed that GDP “mis-measures” our lives (even back in the 1930s, Simon Kuznets – who was the smartest man advocating that kind of economic calculation back then – knew that GNP shouldn’t be taken as a measure of national welfare). But they didn’t say exactly what would be an accurate measure.

My take on it is that an adequate amount of production – adequate for the size of the population – is needed, plus a modicum of fairness in the distribution. We don’t have that modicum of fairness today, the inequality is far greater than it was 60 years ago, and meanwhile we need a modicum of ecological sustainability. In that regard as well our political leaders are being misled by too much focus on GDP.

One reason why they focus on it is that if the GDP grows they can hope to get more tax revenues without having to raise the tax rates, which is an unpopular thing to do and then you would have to deliver clearly better governmental services in order to get re-elected. It is easier to tout the GDP.

You have been openly critical of economists like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, whom many admire for their “pro-poor” stance. What exactly is your grouse?

I grouse more about Amartya than about Stiglitz. Stiglitz was snarky about The Limits to Growth, the first Club of Rome report released in 1972. I think the report was on the right track and that the proper attitude toward it – if you were smart enough to find defects in it – would have been to offer improvements as to how to assess the limits to economic growth inherent in the natural material heritage that we have here on Earth.

And by the way, I really don’t think humankind is going to migrate en masse to the moon or Mars or anything like that. It’s a silly idea. We evolved on Earth and our existence is dependent on some very unusual circumstances of the planet – the temperatures and the atmosphere for example.

Stiglitz and another very sharp economist, Robert Solow – somewhat older – assumed in the 1980s and 1990s that ways could forever be found to substitute additional capital and/or labour and/or technology for any natural resource that might run short, no matter how numerous the human population might become and no matter how ample the per capita rate of consumption. They were mistaken. Stiglitz has seen it clearly and is now a member of the Club of Rome.

And by the way, it seems to me that a straightforward theoretical corrective to the mistake is in an article by Partha Dasgupta in a mid-December 2013 issue of EPW, where he sets out a theory of four basic factors of material wealth: not just capital and labour and knowledge, but also something that he, Dasgupta, calls “natural capital” but I would call “natural heritage”.

My grouse against Amartya is louder. He is certainly – no question about it – “pro-poor” and in favour of increasing everyone’s capacities and opportunities regardless of gender, caste, race, religion and all that. But his insight that expressions of ostensible concern about children and grandchildren can be a way of drawing attention away from people’s present deprivations has, in my humble opinion, caused him to underestimate the gravity of the environmental issues.

As an economic theorist he doesn’t acknowledge our [diminishing] natural material heritage as an independent factor of productivity. I wish he would accept Partha Dasgupta’s way of seeing it.

You are fond of quoting Gandhi, who called western-style industrial civilisation “a nine days wonder”. Almost a century later, do you think he was right? Why then are his economic ideas still so unpopular?

It’s more than a century now. He wrote that sentence in 1909. I think it’s an undeniable historical fact that the western-style industrial civilisation, which gave rise to 20th century style affluence was based on converting fossil fuels into smoke and ashes, and I think that to call an economy based on exhausting non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels “a nine days’ wonder” is perfectly sensible, provided you attribute an appropriate duration to your metaphorical day – more than a decade, but much less than a century.

As for why Gandhi’s ideas about economics are unpopular in India, I would say it is because Gandhi was tough, the independence movement, which he led to success is fading into history, and the great Indian middle class is now more eager to jump on the temporary – alas – affluence bandwagon than to take stock of the galloping environmental degradation which we humans have launched.

As an author of a book on J.C. Kumarappa, can you offer a “Kumarappan”, big-picture diagnosis of the present situation? And a prescription too, considering the great economist never shrank from giving one.

If you insist. I see two great problems overall. On the one hand, the human population is too big and the rate of per capita consumption among the affluent is too big, taken together and considered in relation to our natural resources. The broad prescription in this regard would be to curtail these things – gradually rather than violently. I support the “degrowth movement”. The idea is not that economic degrowth should go on forever, but that it should go on until the economy is of a size that the Earth can sustain for an indefinite period.

On the other hand, the inequalities of wealth between nations and within many of the nations, are now far too stark. It’s social poison.

For addressing both of these great problems constructively – rather than destructively with new variants of fascism – I think love is not enough, we need healthy fear too. Fear of “angry mother nature”, and among the rich and powerful a healthy fear of hatred from those who are getting the short end of the stick.

There is one special little prescription that I have taken to touting for the economics profession in particular. It’s a bee in my bonnet. I think we need a lot of economists who have studied chemistry. You can’t get very far in understanding the natural environment and agriculture and human welfare without studying things like geology and meteorology – climate and monsoons – and soil science and public health and you can’t understand any of those topics unless you know chemistry.

I used to say that the economics professors ought to do it, but then I realised that none of them are going to bother since they already have their professorships, and so now I say that we need a bunch of new economics professors who studied chemistry as undergrads before taking up economics as post-grad students. I wish some grad schools would take up this idea.