The City and the Forest
What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase ‘planetary city’? Does it remind you of Central Park or does it remind you of vast tracts of land covered by skyscrapers and landfills? Probably the latter isn’t it?
While we worry about cyborgs taking over our societies, the most widespread manifestation of mechanical civilization is the city. The city, of course, is not just the city, but also huge infrastructural networks that cities use to extract, communicate and transport matter and information. Everything from oil tankers to fiber optic cables are manifestations of the planetary city.
Is the city the only incubator of civilization? We’ll turn to Tagore for an alternative.
There has always been a market for bearded men dispensing wisdom. While there’s always an internal audience, the insiders tend to be conservative and boring. Their job is to uphold all the hierarchies and power structures of the societies from which they arise.
Far more interesting are the cross over sages, the people who appeal to audience outside their cultural watershed. It helps when the sage has something to say in opposition to the reigning orthodoxy of the recipient culture and articulates a position that’s suppressed in the mainstream but needs an legitimate outlet.
In the modern era, the surest path to hitting the Guru top 20 is to say something useful and important against mechanical civilization. It worked for Rousseau, it worked for Marx, it worked for Tolstoy and it worked for Tagore. What can we glean from T’s wisdom on this topic?
Around the time he won the Nobel, Tagore wrote a book called Sadhana, which was his take on Indian spirituality. The book can be read in many ways but for our purposes, its most important thesis is the claim that Indian civilization took its birth in forests. Don’t take that claim too seriously! - whatever its truth in the past, our civilization, such as it is, is vehemently opposed to forests today. But it helps us pose a question:
What is a forest civilization - as an ideal, if not historical reality?
And a follow-up:
What would a forest civilization look like if one was born in the 21st century?
We are very very far from that future; if Bolsonaro gets reelected in Brazil (or refuses to step down if defeated), we will be one step closer to destroying the largest forested region in the world. But we can dream of a different future and start small experiments wherever we are. Let’s continue our reading of Sadhana to grasp what Tagore has to say about this forest civilization business.
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