The climate crisis has brought human ill-treatment of nature forcibly to our attention though, of course, India’s environmental problems are by no means the product of global warming alone. The staggeringly high rates of air pollution in the cities of northern India, the ongoing devastation of the Himalaya by carelessly planned roads and dams, the depletion of groundwater aquifers, the chemical contamination of the soil, the loss of biodiversity, are all occurring independent of climate change. These varied forms of environmental abuse adversely affect human health and well-being in the short-term. They also raise major questions about the long-term viability of the economic model chosen by India and the world.
Books on how to combat the environmental challenge are now being published in profusion. This column, however, focuses on a work published more than fifty years ago. This book remains much less known than it should, even though its themes were relevant to its time and may be even more relevant to ours.
The book was called Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man. It was written by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who was at the time Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tehran. Nasr, who is now ninety, has led an unusually interesting and extremely productive life. Born in Iran in a family of scholars and writers, he was educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Harvard before returning to his native country in 1958. Declining offers of prestigious and well-paid employment in the West, he taught in Tehran, mentoring generations of students and publishing a stream of books and articles in Persian and English, while also occasionally writing in French and Arabic. However, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 forced him to flee his homeland, for the ayatollahs could not abide independent thought. Nasr has since taught at universities in the United States of America, continuing to publish widely in the fields of intellectual history and comparative religion in particular.
Early in Man and Nature, Professor Nasr remarks that while in the West there was growing awareness of environmental abuse, “usually the same people who discern these obvious problems speak of the necessity of further ‘development’, or war against ‘human misery’ stemming from conditions imposed by terrestrial existence itself. In other words they wish to remove the problems brought about by the destruction of the equilibrium between man and nature through further conquest and domination of nature… Few are willing to look reality in the face and accept the fact that there is no peace possible in human society as long as the attitude toward nature and the whole natural environment is one based on aggression and war.”
Man and Nature was based on lectures delivered at the University of Chicago in the summer of 1966. The book thus addressed a Western and specifically American audience although — since in the matter of development policies countries like India and China have enthusiastically adopted Western prototypes — his warnings may be noted by us too.
Professor Nasr argued that the roots of the problem lay in the realm of ideas. Modern man (I use the gendered pronoun advisedly) had arrogated to himself an absolute authority over nature, a complete freedom to use, abuse, subjugate and dominate nature as he chose fit. “It is precisely the ‘domination of nature’,” wrote Nasr, “that has caused the problem of over-population, the lack of ‘breathing space’, the coagulation and congestion of city life, the exhaustion of natural resources of all kinds, the destruction of natural beauty, the marring of the living environment by means of the machine and its products, the abnormal rise in mental illnesses and a thousand and one other difficulties some of which appear completely insurmountable.”
Professor Nasr added: “The sense of domination over nature and a materialistic conception of nature on the part of modern man are combined, moreover, with a lust and sense of greed which makes an ever greater demand upon the environment.” He deplored “the belief, particularly well developed in America, of boundless and illimitable possibilities within things, as if the world of forms were not finite and bound by the very limits of those forms.”
This false sense of this ‘unlimited power of man and his possibilities’ had been promoted, argued Professor Nasr, by the development of economics as an independent discipline “whose subject is man considered solely as a being with material needs”. Modern science and modern economics had both delinked humans from any idea of moral or spiritual restraint. They had encouraged us to regard nature “as something to be used and enjoyed to the fullest extent possible,” to “be benefited from without any sense of obligation and responsibility towards her.” To survive, humans had now to learn afresh how to live with and alongside nature, thus to restore the sense of the sacredness of nature that (so Professor Nasr believed) characterised non-modern systems of belief and practice.
The first edition of Man and Nature was published in 1968 when Seyyed Hossein Nasr still lived in Tehran. A decade later, he was forced into exile by Islamic fundamentalists. He remade his life in America where he published books on other subjects before eventually revisiting the themes of Man and Nature. In 1996, Professor Nasr brought out a book titled Religion and the Order of Nature, which argued that the “rise of secular humanism and the absolutization of earthly man” in the modern West had “immeasurable consequences” for both human and natural history since now there “was no longer any religious restraint upon the domination of nature and its forces, whether for the purpose of subduing nature itself in order to gain wealth or of conquering other civilizations or both.” Human society, remarked the Iranian-American scholar, had “moved away from the almost universally held view of the sacredness of nature to one that sees man as alienated from nature and nature itself as no longer the progenitor of life… but rather as a lifeless mass,… to be dominated and manipulated by a purely earthly man.”
Religion and the Order of Nature presents an assessment of what different religious traditions could contribute to resolving the ecological crisis. Nasr thus wrote hopefully of “a situation in which religions all over the globe could mutually enrich each other and also cooperate to heal the wounds inflicted on Earth on the basis of a shared perspective of the sacredness of nature.”
This approach runs counter to that of today’s technological optimists, who believe that the environmental crisis shall be solved by new energy sources such as solar, hydrogen, and wind, by moving from cars fuelled by petrol to those run on electric batteries, by carbon capture and geo-engineering. One book just published under the telling title, Climate Capitalism, and endorsed by some of the world’s top tech billionaires, itemises such innovations while confidently proclaiming that humans can “tackle climate change within the world’s dominant economic system [namely, capitalism] and ensure that the wheels of progress don’t come to a halt…”
Professor Nasr, on the other hand, views bad ideas, rather than bad or badly-applied technology, as the root of the ecological crisis, writing that “the present predicament is primarily the consequence of the loss of a sapiental knowledge of nature and an inner spiritual crisis and not simply the result of bad engineering.”
I have sympathy with both approaches, while regarding both as partial. Innovations in the field of renewable energy are to be welcomed; and so too a more caring approach towards nature. But surely lifestyles matter too. Billionaires wish to see climate change arrested without giving up their private planes, their private yachts, their magnificent houses strewn across multiple continents. At the same time, religion in the contemporary world is more often a source of discord rather than amity. While particular individuals may tread more gently upon the earth because of what their faith teaches them, many others are prone to interpreting their faith in ways that promote violence and war. The Buddha, Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are among the very few religious figures who successfully interpreted their faith to promote an environmentally responsible ethic while simultaneously working for interpersonal and intercommunal empathy.
Professor Nasr brilliantly takes apart the mistaken belief that technological ingenuity can assure us humans an ever more luxurious lifestyle. His call for spiritual change is salutary, though perhaps one can cultivate an ethic of respect for nature and restraint in the use of natural resources without (in the conventional sense) being religious oneself. Finally, coming to terms with the environmental crisis may require profound institutional changes as well, a move towards a more decentralised, more transparent, more properly democratic form of representation and governance. A political system in which coal and petrochemical magnates shape how elections are funded, fought, and won, what policies and laws the ruling party must promote, what the media shall say and what it cannot report, is altogether antithetical to environmental responsibility.