Without a commitment to justice in the Middle East and the healing of the growing divide with the Muslim world, there is little chance of a sustainable future. Rabinbranath Tagore – particularly in his links to Dartington – is remembered most as a poet and novelist, painter and lover of nature. But Tagore also had strong and radical political views.
Tagore was deeply concerned about high levels of poverty in India, and elsewhere. He hated the caste system and was totally opposed to religious sectarianism. He was deeply critical of British divide and rule policy which had helped to entrench the divisions between Hindus and Muslims and was the cause of much sectarian rioting and killing, in the run up to Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly fasted to try to prevent such conflict. Tagore was an admirer of Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence and his stand against Hindu/Moslem division, but was critical of Gandhi’s advocacy of hand spinning and his rejection of science and technology. He was also critical of nationalism built on anti-Britishness. He yearned for the East and West to learn from each other and to respect each other.
Tagore died in 1941 an unhappy man. He hated the growth of nationalism which he saw in Germany and Japan and which led to the Second World War. He did not live to see India independent. He would no doubt have celebrated the end of British imperialism in India, which he saw as exploitative and degrading for both exploiter and exploited. But the massive displacement and loss of life that resulted from the division of India between the new countries of India and Pakistan, based on religious difference, the bitter conflict over Kashmir and the nuclearisation of both states, would have broken his heart.
It is these values that Tagore stood for that caused me to suggest as the theme of my lecture that Tagore’s values in the modern world underline Tagore hated the caste system and was totally opposed to religious sectarianism. He was deeply critical of British divide and rule policy which had helped to entrench the divisions between Hindus and Muslims the fact that without justice in the Middle East and the healing of the growing divide between the West and the Muslim world, there will be little chance of a sustainable future.
My argument is that the biggest threat humanity faces is one of growing disorder, failed states, hunger and massive displacement of people as a result of climate change, population growth and unsustainable use of the world’s natural resources. I probably don’t need to remind this audience that this is the view of a wide range of people, including respectable, establishment figures such as Lord Martin Rees, the retiring head of the Royal Society and a world renowned mathematician and cosmologist. He said recently “that this century may easily turn out to be humanity’s last, if we don’t make the right kind of political decisions that will save us from environmental destruction, climate change and an ever expanding human population” (Independent 27th of September 2010). He describes himself as a technological optimist but a political pessimist. Similarly in March 2009 Prof John Beddington, the UK Chief Scientist, said “by 2030 the demand for resources will create a crisis with dire consequences. Demand for food and water will jump 50% by 2030 and for freshwater by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion Climate change will exacerbate matters in unpredictable ways” he concluded that “there’s not going to be a complete collapse, but things will start getting really worrying if we don’t tackle these problems”.
It is not my view that the future is all gloom and doom. I believe, as does Lord Rees, that it is possible for us to resolve the crises that we face, but that we will not do so on a business as usual scenario. We need unprecedented international cooperation to shift the world to a more sustainable way of living in the OECD countries, together with a sharp focus on bringing population growth to an end. The way to do this is to make education available to all which was one of Tagore’s deepest values. We must also eliminate abject poverty, restore degraded lands, manage water more sustainably and shift to non-fossil fuel energy systems. All of this is, in my view, possible but would require a massive historical shift in our way of organising the world and our use of the available resources.
Thus it was that I suggested for the theme of my lecture the suggestion that we need to look toTagore’s values in the modern world if human civilisation is to survive. This means we must bring to an end the ongoing war and conflict between the West and the Muslim world which is causing suffering and bitterness which is bad in itself but also an obstacle to the unprecedented international cooperation needed to deal with the real threats facing the future of humanity. The war in Afghanistan itself is costing $10 billion per week and has now continued for 10 years and is both counter-productive in itself and exacerbates the old Western–Muslim divide, that Tagore so much deplored. It is the failures of support for a just settlement of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, in accordance with international law, that is the root cause of so much of the suffering and bitterness that arises from this conflict and thus continues to distract us from the real challenge that humanity faces.
Things have moved on a little since I suggested this theme for my lecture, with both the Arab Spring and the killing of Osama bin Laden less than 48 hours ago. But the general thesis remains as crucial and relevant as ever, and recent developments provide a real opportunity for us to escape from the mess of current foreign policy towards the Arab world.
It was as recently as 1989/90 that the Berlin Wall came down and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and we saw the possibility of a new world order. No longer would the world be threatened by a mass of nuclear weaponry capable of destroying the world 12 times over. And the massive resources and technology that had been tied up in the Cold War could be redeployed to create a more equitable and sustainable future.
The initial response to this possibility was one of failure. There was a growth of conflictWe must usher in the age of reason, of cooperation, of a generous reciprocity of culture which will reveal the richness of our common humanity.
Rabindranath Tagore in Africa as the two sides withdrew from the continent and old unresolved tensions flared up into a series of wars, within rather than between nations with women and children as the a million people were killed in a systematic and organised campaign of violence, lasting three months. And despite the existence of a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, the world stood aside and did nothing. At the same time there was a terrible outbreak of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans following the collapse of Yugoslavia. These failures demonstrated how the world system had been organised for so long around the division between the Soviet bloc and the West that when new problems arose, there was a complete incapacity to take appropriate action.
Then after this period of failure, matters improved with the ending of the conflict in Sierra Leone in 2002 following which many of the conflicts in Africa were brought to an end. Ethnic cleansing was halted in the Balkans after the war in Kosovo ended in 1999. There was then a period of great progress as the opportunity created by the end of the Cold War started to come to fruition
The Kyoto protocol was agreed in 1998 and this meant the industrialised countries agreed to move first to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and to provide support to developing countries to develop non-fossil fuel energy systems.
At the UN millennium assembly in 2000 the world agreed to mark the beginning of the new millennium through an agreement to work together to meet the Millennium Development Goals and thus systematically to reduce poverty across the world
In Doha in 2001, the world agreed to launch a trade round with the aim of making trade rules fairer for the poorer countries
In Johannesburg in 2002, the sustainable development Summit called to review progress 10 years after the Rio summit made a clear commitment to guarantee development to the poorer countries within a global determination to create a sustainable way of life.
But this window of opportunity to create a new world order closed after the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. There was a pause before the declaration of the War on Terror but once this new, unwinnable war was declared, the possibility of creating a new world order was lost. There is of course no doubt that the attack on the Twin Towers was a great crime but there was agreement on this across the world and a willingness to cooperate to catch and bring to justice the perpetrators. The response of the Bush administration to this attack was completely irrational. It made no sense to massively increase defence spending, beyond the spending of the Cold War in order to catch and defeat Osama bin Laden and the pernicious ideas which he sought to spread; indeed the declaration of the war on terror and the attack on Iraq probably helped to spread his ideas rather than weaken them.
The conclusion we are forcedTagore could see how humanity could and should escape from the divisions of race, religion, empire and nationalism and seek to promote human dignity. Whether or not this was attainable in his time, these are the values that are now essential for the survival of human civilisation. to reach is that President Eisenhower was right to warn the American people of the dangers of the power of the military/industrial complex. Eisenhower was a general in the Second World War, and a Republican president, but he used his retirement speech as president to warn the American people that the vested interests tied up in the armaments and military establishment could distort foreign policy. It is impossible not to conclude that it was the military industrial/ complex that drove policy after the attack on the twin towers. It was easier to find a new enemy and declare new wars than make the changes needed to deal with the current problems of the world.
Tagore said in 1932, when visiting Iraq “we must usher in the age of reason, of cooperation, of a generous reciprocity of culture which will reveal the richness of our common humanity”. This is the conclusion I want to put before you today.
Tagore, writing, thinking and traveling the world in the early part of the 20th century, could see how humanity could and should escape from the divisions of race, religion, empire and nationalism and instead seek to promote human dignity and create conditions were all cultures could learn from each other and live in tune with and with respect for nature. Whether or not this was attainable in his time, these are the values that are now essential for the survival of human civilisation. Instead we’ve been diverted–by the military/ industrial complex into a new bitter division, to replace the division of the Cold War, but this time based on a reinvigorated division between the West and the Muslim world that gives us new wars and new racism.
However, as I have said, recent developments have provided an increased possibility of challenging this terrible error. The phrase “the war on terror” has been quietly buried; the US is withdrawing from Iraq; the Arab spring makes it harder to demonise the Arab/Muslim world and the death of Osama bin Laden creates an opportunity to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. It would be wrong for us to be complacent and believe that all will now be well, but it is possible to see a better path opening up. And there is a special obligation on people in the UK to call for a change of direction, because our foreign policy so often acts as a echo and amplifier of the errors of US foreign policy. The clearest example of this was Blair’s unconditional support for the attack on Iraq, about which he was not honest with his country. If the UK had not been willing to support the Iraq invasion it would have been much more difficult for President Bush to persuade the American people to do so.
I understand that those were inspired by the arts, the beauty of nature, poetry and music often feel disdainful of politics, but I wish to end with two quotes from Tagore himself. The first makes clear that this disdain for politics is nothing new. Tagore wrote in a letter from his ship on return voyage to India from Europe in 1921 “politics … in every country has lowered the standard of morality, has given rise to a perpetual contest of lies and deception, cruelties and hypocrisies, and has increased inordinately national habits of national vainglory”.
But just as did Tagore, we have to work with the reality that we face, and I can only conclude by repeating his plea in his reply speech to the welcome address the king of Iraq in 1932:
Human civilisation has crossed the boundaries of racial and national segregation. We are today to build the future of man on an honest understanding our varied racial personality which gives richness to life, on tolerance and sympathy and cooperation in the great task of liberating the human mind from the dark forces of unreason and mutual distrust of homicidal pride of sect and lust of gain.