On April 18, 2015, Earth Day volunteers at my university – the National University of Singapore – will devote several hours to help clean up the accumulated trash on a Singapore beach that will otherwise wash away into the ocean to contribute to its more than gradual strangulation by plastic. My new book The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future also seeks to contribute in a similar way to the recognition that human behavioral and attitudinal change will have to take place if we want to save the planet for our children. The book adopts a long historical view to understand the causes of the crisis of planetary sustainability and explores alternative cosmologies—now marginalized—that were embedded in Asian societies.
Human behavioral and attitudinal change will have to take place if we want to save the planet for our children
The greatest risk to sustainability now is the continued pursuit –and even obsession—with models of GDP growth by rising Asian societies such as China and India. Yet technological – ie geo-engineering, solutions are not feasible largely because no one can predict their unforeseen consequences which may be worse than the problem they address. Purely market-driven solutions are also unlikely to work—although they can certainly play a role—because the market has developed significantly to maximize profits from irreplaceable natural resources. We will need to alter our behavior and world view to overcome one of the most fundamental tenets of Enlightenment modernity—the conquest of nature by man. Historically, no major Asian tradition has advocated this kind of human overreach and it is time once again to probe these views. Hundreds of millions of people –and living beings—are being affected by the crisis of modernity and many of these vulnerable communities are turning to fragments of their organicist and pantheistic cosmologies to protect their livelihoods.
The book develops several concepts to grasp how and why it is necessary to grow an alternative vision of the world. Two concepts in particular are ‘circulatory history’ and ‘dialogical transcendence.’ Circulatory history seeks to show that histories are by no means principally national; historical developments and contributions have circulated across Eurasia since the Bronze Age and the emergence of cities. As such national histories, which are often used to justify the sovereignty of nation-states so they may assert their prerogatives in a competitive capitalist world, cannot be sustained; nations must acknowledge history as a shared and interdependent collective heritage.
The idea of dialogical transcendence is more complex and tries to show that transcendence is not only a religious idea but has played a historical role in authorizing the moral basis of opposition to an unjust order and the renewal of society. Ideas of a communist utopia or human rights represent such kinds of transcendence. The idea of sustainability can become such a transcendent moral ideal which can energize individuals and collectives to not only mobilize for it, but to lead a life according to the ideal. To be sure, it cannot be a pure and exclusive ideal—which can sometimes be found in ‘global greenspeak’—that denies other aspirations, but must evolve in dialogue with the needs and aspirations of the poor and vulnerable in particular places.
Beyond developing concepts to grasp our present condition, the book embodies the possibilities and hope for these communities and the rest of us. I explore organizations and networks in Asia as well as allied forces across the globe—NGOS, inter-governmental and trans-national organizations, scientists, religious groups, publicists and other activists—who are making an effort to bring the issue of responsible use of the commons to global awareness. They often join hands with vulnerable communities to utilize a great variety of contemporary laws and arguments to reinforce the protection of what was once the commons. Note that twelve percent of the earth’s lands are already under national or international protection. A new hybrid notion of the sacred may well be emerging that refers to the inviolability of the natural commons.