Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Village Model

This last summer I had a wonderful and unique opportunity to travel to India with a friend who has family in the country. During the course of our month-long visit we stayed for almost a week with his grandmother in Ahmedabad, a city of over five million individuals. On our last day in the city we took a rickshaw to the Satyagraha Ashram, established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917. Although it is no longer active (it was converted to a museum in 1963) in its heyday it saw Gandhi lead the famed salt march in protest of authoritarian British laws that taxed the sale of salt. The museum erected in the ashram has an impressive and powerful collection of artifacts from Gandhi’s life as well as presentations of his teachings.

Most of Gandhi’s teachings seem very intuitive to me – their truth is in their peace and simplicity, and I couldn’t disagree with most of them. One of his philosophies that I initially objected to was a call for the return to villages, a complete decentralization. I couldn’t accept it at face value; my life, country, and society were entirely at odds with it. What good could come from rejecting thousands of years of progress to return to the simple and seemingly insignificant lives our ancestors had lived, long before the advent of microwaves, Ipods, cars, modern medicine, or electricity?

I soon had an opportunity to have these questions answered. After we visited the ashram we took another rickshaw to Gujarat Vidyapith, a university also established by Gandhi. We had arranged to meet with Sudarshan Iyengar, who was the vice chancellor of the university. He was running late, and because of his limited time he asked us to talk with him in his car on the way to his next appointment. The three of us piled into the back seat, and his chauffeur drove us on our way. After brief introductions he asked us if we had any questions about Gandhi, and I asked why Gandhi was so fixated on villages. He gave me four key reasons.

First, any centralized economic system is necessarily economically and socially stratifying – there will always be poverty. Villages equalize all individuals; everyone shares in the labor for food and all other basic necessities. Secondly, there is greater independence. This sounded rather counterintuitive to me, but Sudarshan’s explanation made a lot of sense. In our extremely affluent society, we feel like we have a nearly infinite freedom of choice. Food from around the world is conveniently available at Wal-Mart, we can spontaneously choose to travel thousands of miles in short periods of time, and we have access to an absolute deluge of information through libraries and the internet. But we are completely dependent on infrastructure beyond our control – as soon as something like oil is eliminated, we are completely helpless. Contrarily, in villages you control all of your own factors of production; you’re never at the mercy of an unstable other. Thirdly, our economic system is endlessly consumptive. No matter how efficient we think we are at using our resources, on an infinite time scale we will eventually run out, which is indeed a scary thought. Villages can exist on the same plot of land for millennia without exhausting their food supply or causing damage to the land. The final reason was that the moral system in our society is all about the individual. Every facet is geared towards serving “me.” I believe that this has lead to a decline in our culture and society as a whole. We’ve become overbearingly narcissistic, selfish, and impatient. The village is the exact opposite. Everything is about the group, how it can better the lives of those in the community. Thinking outside one’s self like this solves most of the aforementioned problems.

I won’t say that I’m a complete convert to Gandhi’s line of thinking, but it has made me think a lot about my own life and my place in society, and the world for that matter. There are some important things we can take away from this alternative societal model. I asked Sudarshan if there was a possible way to reconcile Gandhi’s model with the structure of society today. He said that of course it wouldn’t be reasonable for us to abandon our cities and start a new life in villages, but we could change several things in the way we live our lives to be more environmentally friendly and create a better society. Essentially, we must think about what we really need and try to eliminate all else. Is weekly takeout Chinese a necessary fixture in our life, or can we survive with simple home cooked meals? He told me to ask my parents, and then grandparents, if they were happy growing up with their respective levels of material possession. The lesson we can take from that is that not all of our labor-saving devices are necessarily required to have a happy life. We can reduce the size of the community we think we need. We can do away with cars and switch to bikes, which reduces dependence on oil, decreases consumption of resources, and eliminates locations farther than we can bike. Another step we can take is having a garden – producing our own healthy food instead of being dependant on processed foods from grocery stores. By simply using only what we need, we can remove greed from our lives. We can be more generous with our money and resources. We can stop pillaging the earth’s limited resources and stop fueling our system’s infinite consumption. We become more self sufficient, and finally and most importantly, become happier. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have and want, we become free to enjoy what we do have, and what is ultimately important – the freedoms we enjoy, the beautiful earth we live on, and the loved ones we share our lives with.

Robert Francis, Guest Blogger
Freshman at Brigham Young University

No comments: