Unlearning the Pretension to be God

by Gustavo Esteva

I was fully educated in the conviction of being underdeveloped. I was thus fully domesticated in the religion of scaling up.

Unlearning this was not easy. In the 1970s, as I participated in the international debate on peasantry organized by The Journal of Peasant Studies, I began to intuitively suspect the fragility of my dogmas. With some friends, for example, we initiated some experiments reversing some principles associated with economies of scale. We observed that the cost advantage that arises with increased output of a product becomes a disadvantage beyond a certain scale. We thus included in our designs the idea of maximum size, not only minimum size, for optimization. But we were still trapped in an economic mentality. We did not know how to escape from it. (And even the idea of escaping that trap did not come to our minds, so rooted we were in the economic frame of mind).

Four lucky encounters, almost at the same time, changed my mind.

The first was Leopold Kohr, the master of E.F. Schumacher. I am not talking of his great works, but of a very small article, prepared for El Mundo, in Puerto Rico, as far back as 1958. It came mysteriously into my hands in 1992. Kohr explains in it that economic fluctuations after the end of the Second World War “are no longer caused by the system but by the scale which modern economic activities have assumed”. The situation “had begun to outgrow all human control”. And he had a proposal.

Instead of centralisation and unification, let us have economic cantonisation. Let us replace the oceanic dimensions of integrated big powers and common markets by a dike system of inter-connected but highly self-sufficient local markets and small states in which economic fluctuations can be controlled not because our leaders have Oxford or Yale degrees, but because the ripples of a pond, however animated, can never assume the scale of the huge swells passing through the united water masses of the open seas.

I was astonished… Kohr produced a very serious crack in my mental universe. A little later, when I was still navigating my perplexity, a conversation with Teodor Shanin helped me to abandon my Marxist religion with the teachings of the late Marx. Among many other things, Shanin described the consequences of the Soviet obsession with size: the bigger, the better, once they adopted development, instead of justice, as the very core of socialist ideals.

And then, Ivan Illich. I got from his desk, in the early 1990s, a thesis he elaborated twenty years before in Cuernavaca, with Valentina Borremans, to discuss in his seminar with a group of young Latin Americans, mainly socialists. The discussions became Tools for Conviviality. “In the phase in which we are since the 1960s,” Borremans and Illich observed, “the social definition of a maximum, in relation with some basic characteristics of the products of a society, should be the most important political goal.”

Borremans and Illich acknowledged that in the first phases of industrialization the social control of the means of production and the social control of the mechanisms of distribution were the priority, but “what today is necessary is the political control of the technological characteristics of industrial products and of the intensity of professional services.” For them, “the social control of systems of production is the basis for any social restructuring”.

This new politics consists in the search for a community agreement on the technological profile of a common roof under which all the members of a society want to live, rather than the construction of a launching platform, from which only a few members of the society are sent to the stars.

This new politics is a voluntary and communitarian self-limitation, the search of maximum limits in institutional productivity and the consumption of services and commodities, in accordance with the needs considered, within that community, satisfactory for each individual.

Borremans and Illich sowed the seeds to resist the technological imperative, that peculiar modern pathology compelling people to do whatever is technologically possible. I discovered the nature and conditions of such imperative and the alternatives in the pages of Wendell Berry, the poet, the farmer, the philosopher, who incarnates magnificently the marvels of scaling down.

A turning point came when Berry observed that properly speaking “global thinking is not possible”.

Those who have “thought globally” (and among them the most successful have been imperialist governments and multinational corporations) have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought. Global thinkers have been, and will be, dangerous people… Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place.

No doubt, industrial man failed in his pretension to be god. The time has come to reclaim our real condition, as mere mortals, and adjust our behaviour to our own scale.

And so, under the guidance of these radical thinkers I was able to unlearn what I knew about almost everything. I must confess, however, that they opened my mind, but my heart was still closed until I began to listen to the voices I have been hearing for a long time, at the grassroots, the voices of campesinos and urban marginals, always disqualified, the people that should be civilized, evangelized, educated, developed…always described for what they are not, for their lacks…invisible, subordinated, silenced…

Most of those marginalized by the economy live their lives in the present and are placed. Their horizon is their place. For many of them, particularly the indigenous people, a “we” is the first layer of their being: they are a community, not a collection of individuals. And they cannot separate the human “we” comprised of family, friends, neighbours, from the non-human “we” of place.

The word “world”, in western languages, has no subject and object. The equivalent in Zapotec is labsa ba yu, a composed word that means: I/we, in this place; my horizon, that is, the circle that my eyes can reach around me; the other side, what is beyond my horizon. The real “world” is everything within my visual horizon, my place, my “we”. The rest is a mystery.

I have been told that there is in Yucatán, in the south of Mexico, a very peculiar construction, built more than a thousand years ago. It has a hole that goes down into the earth for more than 100 meters. The building and the hole are oriented in such a way that the sun penetrates to the end of the hole only one day every year. That day marks a great fiesta, a celebration. On that day all the campesinos begin their agricultural work. It is well known that the Mayans, like most indigenous people, had amazing astronomic knowledge. They knew how to observe and follow the sun and the stars and how to organize their lives according with their movements. They never dared to conceive the idea of controlling them.

Plato warned us. An abstraction, he said, implies taking away from reality an aspect or quality and putting it in our minds. We must put it within brackets, to avoid any confusion: it is not reality. Many names have been used to allude to the condition of that “it”: an image, a representation…whatever, but not reality. In time, however, we lost the brackets. And later, even worse, we started to think that our senses can cheat us but what we have in our minds, our abstractions, are the true reality, the real reality. And we started to assume that we were really living in those abstractions. Our language reflects this attitude. We assume that we live in a specific city, a certain nation, planet Earth…in spite of the fact that no one can live in abstract entities, like a city, a country, a planet. Or we think that we are lawyers or engineers, catholic or Buddhists, students or teachers, assuming as our being the abstract category in which we can be classified. And we orient our thinking and our behaviour not in terms of our real world, our place, where we can really do something.

If you want to see where you are, says Wendell Berry, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.

If we think locally, we would do far better than we are doing now. The right local questions and answers will be the right global ones. The Amish question “What will this do to our community?” tends towards the right answer for the world.

If we want to put local life in proper relation to the globe, we must do so by imagination, charity and forbearance, and by making local life as independent and self-sufficient as we can –- not by the presumptuous abstractions of “global thought”.

In 1988, we had in Mexico City the illusion that we had the city in our hands. After the fiesta of autonomy revealed by the earthquake of 1985 a massive movement emerged, articulating most organizations of the barrios, the neighbourhoods. At one point we created a kind of alternative government. “We have been very irresponsible”, said the leader of one barrio at the beginning of our conversations; “we concentrate all our efforts in our place, but after all we live in a city. Now that we have the city in our hands, let’s see what can we do for it”. For several months thousands of us discussed what to do. At the end we reached a solid consensus: the city does not exist. Only a pathological mind will try to conceive and treat this monstrous settlement of 15 million (25 million now) as one thing, one reality. We are very different. We are thousands, millions, of ideas, ideals, realities, imaginations, projects… We must not be treated as if we were the same. But that is exactly what happens to us, every day. Both the market and the state treat us as if we were the same…

The time has come to stop this destructive foolishness, which risks the very survival of the human species. Yes, it is time to scale down and behave as the simple mortals that we really are.

References:

Berry Wendell (1970) Think Little. A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural. San Diego/New York/London: Harcourt Grace.

Berry, Wendell (1987) Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Berry, Wendell (1991) Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse: Twenty seven propositions about global thinking and the sustainability of cities. The Atlantic Monthly, February.

Berry, Wendell (2000) Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington: Counterpoint.

Berry, Wendell (2015) Revolution Starts Small and Close to Home. Yes Magazine. Spring.

Borremans, Valentina and Ivan Illich (2006) La necesidad de un techo común (El control social de la tecnología). Obras reunidas I. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica. Prepared on September 1971 for Illich’s seminar in CIDOC.

Kohr, Leopold (1992) “Size Cycles”. Fourth World Review, N. 54.

Shanin, Teodor (1983) Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and ‘the Peripheries of Capitalism’. New York: Monthly Review Press.