Restoring Our Future

by Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook

The other day there was a report in the news about a little girl in Bombay who had never seen a live butterfly. There must be something drastically wrong with the way we have organised our lives, or the way it is organised for us, to have resulted in our exchanging the beauty of butterflies on the wing for a handful of hi-tech trinkets. The relationship between our internal environment, (human appetites) and the external one (the planet) has to be reconstructed around a less damaging and ruinous relationship.

Traditional Respect for the Earth

The ancient sages discerned a principle of harmony pervading the entire universe. Each individual forms part of all other life and non-life, one with the earth. This concept requires respect for all that surrounds us, since the individual self merges with the rest of creation. Such a perception can form the basis for a just, sustainable society.

There is the millennia-old belief: “Eko devah sarvabhootheshu tishthati” (One God dwells in all living beings). This leads to the notion of samadrishti.  “Sama” means “equal”; “drishti” means “vision” or “sight,” so “samadrishti” means “perceived as equal”. A person who possesses samadrishti perceives, experiences and accepts all people as equal. (1)

With this concept of equality, any action that creates or maintains differences is unjust. Distributive justice follows from it. The existence of structures of power and hierarchies is unjust: all must be equally empowered. The non-material requirements of human beings are no less vital. Satisfying basic material necessities for all is only the first step in the search for equity. All other creatures, too, should be treated as of intrinsic worth and value. The Mahabharata, in fact, recommends that people follow a mode of living, which is founded upon a total harmlessness towards all creatures, or in case of actual necessity upon a minimum of such harm.

On the non-living side, there is the concept of the Pancha Mahabhutas, the five basic elements: prithvi (earth), aap (water), tejas (fire or light), vayu (air), and akasa (space). Bhutas are living beings, creatures. Mahabhutas are prior and superior to living beings, since the very existence of the latter is totally dependent upon them. “All living beings are born and evolve out of the five elements (Mahabhutas) and in death they go back to them.” This is why the Mahabhutas occupy a revered place in Indian philosophy.

A stone today is worn out by erosion, its constituents forming soil from which elements are taken up by plants, which are, in turn, consumed by animals. The stone today could be a part of our bodies tomorrow. Even as we live, and certainly when we die, the elements go back into the soil to be cycled and recycled continuously. Water and air are recycled faster and spread wider. The water from our bodies can reach the other side of the earth and be incorporated into someone else. The oxygen that we breathe together with part of our food provides energy and becomes carbon dioxide which, exhaled, can again be picked up by plants anywhere on earth. All of us occupy space today which was occupied by other bodies earlier and will be in the future.

It is not just that “no man is an island” socially, but that every woman or man is or may become a part of anyone else or any other creature on earth. The inanimate elements today are incarnated, made into flesh, tomorrow, and what is incarnated in one living being becomes re-incarnated in a number of others. These processes mock those who seek limits to temporary human identities of caste, nation or race. Today’s rulers have in them the elements of yesterday’s most abject outcasts.

This is the basis on which so much of the earth’s resources become renewable, not only plants and animals but also the common pool of our human flesh and blood. Those who believe in reincarnation have an even stronger impulse to conserve and protect the environment, for they themselves will literally inherit the earth.

The pollution of the Mahabhutas by industrialised societies, which considers them trivial things to be misused and abused, must necessarily result in violence towards us. For when we pollute the Mahabhutas we contaminate ourselves as surely as if we were consuming the pollutant directly. More and more of the thousands of toxic manufactured chemicals that are dumped into our surroundings are being found in our bodies today.

Just what violence industrialism does to the Mahabhutas, by taking the conquest of Nature as the basis for “development,” can be seen all over the world. This is clearer in India, where sustainable civilisation was built on the principles of respect for Nature, and the use of its creatures and products in a manner to satisfy basic needs without jeopardising their continued life and growth.

Those sadly struck by “The Enlightenment” and its long-lasting consequences have still to relearn humanity’s basic dependence on each individual living and non-living entity in our environment. The conquest of Nature was always a deeply ambiguous idea. Since human beings are also part of the natural world, who is conquering what and whom? Western science remains ignorant of the deeper reason of Nature, which connects with the ancient Indian principle of the cyclical nature of all creation. This insight is absent from linear projections of “progress” that have come out of the West. Those who have faith in the certainty of eternal recurrences have a perspective of infinite past and future. This offers the individual a sense of security and significance, since the individual sees herself/himself as part of the Cosmic Order (Rita). For the Western sensibility the death of the individual puts a term to our concern for this world. Because we do not feel part of a wider order, we remain isolated and our death extinguishes our being, is Death itself. The belief in the linear movement of life leads to an inner fear and loneliness. This, in turn, creates the desire for faith in progress, which expresses itself primarily in the process of appropriation and accumulation. If life continues for the Western individual, it is an after-life, in another heavenly sphere. If the earth undergoes degradation, at least heaven remains inviolate. But concern for heaven is a minority faith now, even in the West. The consequences of materialism have led to a wholesale lack of concern for the fate of the earth after the death of the individual. At the same time, in reaction against this, there has been a growing reverence towards the earth because of the realisation that this is, after all, the only one we have.

Any system advocating continuous growth is not sustainable even in the short term, whereas a cyclical system can continue indefinitely, provided there is no waste produced. There is no such thing as refuse matter accumulating and polluting in Nature. Whatever one creature does not require is utilised as food by others. It is only humans who can and do produce large amounts of persistent waste.

The Buddha came to the conclusion that the problems of the world were the direct result of the desires and greed of human beings. Greed requires more than basic needs for its satisfaction, with the result that not only is society upset but the environment too. From this he developed his notion of dharma, which was based on the close connections between animate and inanimate nature, the integration of human beings with all the rest of creation. If we perceive these connections then we will exercise the required self-regulation so that all human beings can live in harmony with each other as well as Nature.

The Jain doctrine likewise, of jiva-ajiva underlines “the integral view of life, whereby all things, the living and the non-living are seen as parts of a whole, of a single order.”

Such thinking is also common among aborigines in every place where old civilisations were not disturbed, destroyed and occupied by invaders. To the native peoples of America and Australia, every part of the earth is sacred. They believe that they are obliged to use natural resources sparingly, so that future generations will be able to satisfy their basic needs. The desolation of large parts of Africa is a direct consequence of colonial and neo-colonial violations of such fundamental principles.

These principles are remarkable because they were perceived when there was no threat to survival from disappearing natural resources or environmental deterioration. The ability of our ancestors to foresee that these were necessary for the maintenance of life, demonstrates the depth of their insight. The West lost this understanding long ago, but Deep Ecologists are rediscovering some of these basic truths now.

Such values, of course, have seldom been accorded universal assent. Rapacious rulers and frequent invaders were more concerned with the accumulation of surplus wealth than with the preservation of their surroundings. Growing populations did result in environmental change. But since the majority of the people were content with basic necessities, such changes never became cataclysmic. But now that “development” has come to mean the legitimising of greed, who can foretell what violence lies in wait for humanity — for the “beneficiaries” no less than the victims?

As long as the discussion remains general, it is easy for individuals to feel powerless to influence great issues, and easier to turn aside from them. Every individual can practice social justice or rather, to use a traditional term, righteousness, our modern dharma, without waiting for the rest of society to change.

 Changing Our Lifestyle

Western economics claims “consumer rights” as fundamental ethical rights. “What I want, I have a right to obtain”, provided only that it does not restrict others’ rights to do the same. The criteria people normally use when attempting to satisfy their wants are: “Do I like it?” And perhaps more so: “Can I afford it?” This implies that the money at the disposal of an individual has been justly earned, that no one has been impoverished or damaged by its acquisition. It further implies that the purchase contemplated has in no way harmed or exploited those who produce it or the environment. In other words, money itself overrides all other ethical considerations. The whole system is supported by our obtuse ignorance of the damage done by the acquisition of our “just rewards”, that is, by our money and all it can buy. Such a narrow understanding of self-interest has led, not only to appalling global injustices, but also to the ravaging of the environment. It has taken the latter to bring once more to the notice of the “privileged” the cruel unfairness of the system to their fellow human beings.

When environmental considerations are taken into account, altruism and true self-interest converge and coincide. Damage to the environment is damage to others is damage to the self. One has to ask: Is it harmful or beneficial to the environment? Does it increase equity? Does it harm other living creatures? Housing or hamburgers, transport or toilet paper, every feature of our daily lives, should be subjected to this simple test. The need for a simple lifestyle logically follows from a holistic vision of the integration of human beings in Nature. It does not mean a religious asceticism for its own sake, a denial of pleasure. A simple lifestyle can provide a “joyful frugality,” which the accumulation of goods and services clearly does not furnish.

For Western economies, the lack of a consumable is a burden to be borne by deprived persons. But those who have voluntarily reduced their consumption find that it increases well-being, liberates from a mere transient quenching of imposed appetites. Reducing consumption furnishes benefits, a shedding of burdens, personally as well as environmentally.

Development means unfolding the full potential of every human being. Human beings have a need for dignity, for love and affection, for care and concern, for the freedom to express their creativity, to control their own destiny, to preserve their own culture, to feel fulfilled, to be educated for life, to know that their life on earth has been worth living. But all this should be and can be within the constraints of universal equity. Indeed, most of these less tangible needs do not require the amassing of wealth, which is why they have so little prominence in existing “development” patterns.

A true flowering of humanity could occur only at a constant, modest, yet secure, level of consumption. It is possible to have better education, health, and quality of life without ever-rising incomes. Perhaps, rather than talking about “zero growth” or “negative growth-rates”, which unnecessarily frightens people, we might begin to discuss “positive rates of reduction”; for that would suggest liberation from some of the burdensome, crippling, and indeed, suicidal, consequences of present ways of living. We can start the process simply by reducing the purchase and use of non-necessities. In a sense, we can make use of the “magic of the marketplace”, not only by choosing what we buy, but also by choosing what we don’t buy. But even this doesn’t address the question of the liabilities that will accumulate for subsequent generations.

Healing the Future

Is the ideal possible? One of the problems we, as individuals, have is of reconciling our intention to live a just life with the unrelenting pressures exerted on us by an unjust society. We cannot separate ourselves completely from the system without becoming wandering mendicants (sanyasis). We might, for example, consider shifting our emphasis from personal success and personal gain to personal responsibility. Reducing one’s consumption need not wait for politicians’ pronouncements or economists’ encouragement. The problems have global dimensions but they work through individuals, and this gives each of us the power to exert a decisive influence on the world. We will be following the path to social justice if we base our actions on the old prayer in the Book of Proverbs: “Give me neither riches nor poverty, but enough for my sustenance”.

We need changes in our lifestyle that emphasise voluntary, Buddhist, Christian, Gandhian simplicity. The traditions on whose strength we can draw exist in both Eastern and Western cultures; it is simply that a possible coming together of these in a creative and holistic alternative has been hindered by the spread of industrial monoculture.

Richard Lannoy, in The Speaking Tree, explores the whole range of Indian civilization and culture. He shows that our traditions make it difficult for us to adapt to the Western industrial system. At the end of it he reaches the fundamental and inevitable conclusion that it is not Indians who need to be squeezed into the Western mould, but rather that the Western system itself is incompatible with life on this planet. (2)

He concludes: “One feature of universal significance is the importance which Indian civilisation has attached to the simplification and reduction of needs through self-scrutiny. At its most positive a means to reduce social conflict and the dehumanization inherent in the pursuit of material gain, this kind of humility is rare in Western science and technology. It is also the touchstone of our success or failure to reduce tension even within the domain of our personal lives. In an overpopulated world with severely limited resources the current Western method of expansion and cultivation of needs is plainly unrealistic. The wisdom of smallness and the Zero principle, encouragement of small-scale pluralistic activity in community living, a nonviolent ecological perspective, all of which originate in self-scrutiny, are age-old Indian responses to life’s dilemmas — the fine flower of crisis”.


1. K. S. SRINIVASAN, “Tradition Vs. Modernity”, The Times of India, 3 October 1986.

2. Richard LANNOY, The Speaking Tree, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 431.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT (by Michael Sawyer): This essay first appeared in PEREIRA, Winin and Jeremy SEABROOK, Asking the Earth: The Spread of Unsustainable Development, London: Earthscan Publications, 1990; as Chapter Eleven: “Restoring Our Future”. We are here using the version from the Indian edition, Goa (India): The Other India Press, 1992. (pp. 263-271).  We are grateful to Jeremy Seabrook for permission.

EDITOR’S NOTE (MS): Perhaps best known as the founder of the Centre for Holistic Studies in Mumbai, a research center dedicated to providing resources to support a vision of society based on social justice and harmony with the natural world, Winin Pereira is also the author of numerous books and articles. His titles include: Tending the Earth: Traditional Sustainable Agriculture in India, Bombay: Earthcare Books, 1993; Inhuman Rights: The Western System and Global Human Rights Abuse, New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997 and Global Parasites: 500 years of Western Culture, Bombay: Earthcare Books, 1994, co-authored with Jeremy Seabrook.

Jeremy Seabrook is a prolific writer with a career dating back to the late 1960s. Besides having written novels, his numerous books on social justice and environmental issues include: Notes from another India, London: Pluto Press, 1995; Children of Other Worlds, London: Pluto Press, 2001, a comparison of child labor in nineteenth Century London and present-day Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Consuming Cultures: Globalization and Local Lives, Oxford: New Internationalist TM Publications Ltd, 2004. His website offers more information, lists of publications, et al.

On a personal note, in 1995, during a year of traveling through India and Southeast Asia, I had the privilege of meeting both Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook in Winin’s Mumbai home. It was a brief encounter but I remember to this day the graciousness and warmth with which they welcomed me. Pereira spoke of the changes taking place in his native India, and more specifically of the rapid transformations occurring within Indian society. Our meeting lasted perhaps only an hour or two over a cup tea but even during this short time one had the sense of being in the presence of a person of great wisdom and vision. Sadly, Winin Pereira died in 1999.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi