Learning to unlearn
Marx, the German political philosopher once said "History repeats
itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." George Bernard Shaw, the
Irish dramatist and socialist added, "If history repeats itself, and the
unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from
Closing the taps
was late 1973. The world around us was shaken up by an energy crisis
that was unleashed as a result of the newly formed Organization of Arab
Petroleum Exporting Countries as a part of OPEC increasing the price of
oil, by placing production ceilings. Although the reason for the embargo
was political, related to US action in supporting Israel, the outcome
was an eye-opener to a world that at the time was not at all sensitive
to the finiteness of energy and other natural resources and the
possibility of taps being closed of its 'uninterrupted' flow. With the
post-world war economic boom, the growth of economies the likes of Japan
and the many glitzy but energy guzzling city-scapes were all viewed with
awe and thought of as symbols of and the way forward for, 'modern
Challenging conventional wisdom
I was then a student reading for my post-graduate degree in Resource
Economics at the Hawaii University. The East West Centre had offered me,
as a cub university assistant lecturer in development economics from Sri
Lanka, a study scholarship.
With the turmoil of the energy crisis unfolding around us, the EWC
initiated a long-term workshop program with a view to setting up an
Environment Institute to add to its existent study scope of food,
culture learning, technology, population and communication.
It was initiated by Dr. Kenneth Watt, a visiting fellow from the
California University at Davis, who had earlier published a work
suggesting the vulnerability of the world's largest and the most
powerful economy, that of the US with the title "The Titanic Effect".
As a young student, listening to him speak, I was deeply impressed
with Dr. Watt's knack for challenging conventional wisdom and the
alternative thought processes he generated in our minds. His knowledge
of the principles of Buddhist economics, Mahatma Gandhi's ways, the deep
respect he had for mother-nature, all stood out in sharp contrast to
what I learnt at my regular economics classes.
There I was fed with huge doses of Chicago school's Friedman types
seeking the 'price mechanism' with a few managerial fixes, as the
panacea for solving all problems faced by human-kind.
Dominant cultural beliefs
"Unsteady State; Problems of growth, culture and environment" was the
one year workshop Dr. Watt offered and I became a keen participant in
it. The design of the workshop was to take what were called "Dominant
Cultural Beliefs" (DCBs) representing conventional thinking of the time,
on issues such as use of resources, models of growth and styles of
living. and to test them with empirical evidence for if they held true
in the short (One to 10 years), medium (11-50 years) and long (over 50
years) terms. Some examples of the likes of them were "Application of
chemical fertilizer increases agricultural production"; "Growth is
good"; "Big is better"; "Technological innovation can overcome all
Our team working on the various aspects of the project came out with
the findings that indeed proved that while some of the DCBs held ground
in the short and some in the medium term, none of these held true in the
long term. What it brought out was the fallacy of the beliefs of the
many and the fragility of the relationship we had with our ecosystems
and the self-denial with which we were living our lives.
Today, after more than three and half decades, the world we live in
is faced with critical issues such as climate change, resultant threat
of global warming, sea level rises, increasing poverty, frequent
incidence of pandemics and financial and economic crisis. Clarion calls
are made for taking on drastic life-style changes, seeking better
managerial systems, seeking harmony and for mending our ways with mother
We indeed have a lot of learning to do from history and our follies.
Most of the learning I believe, needs to be geared towards a process of
unlearning of what we have learnt, experienced and believed to be right
throughout our lives passed on to us as conventional wisdom,
'scientific' knowledge, customs and/or cultural traits.
We also need not only to understand the nature of the 'unsteady
state' we live in, but also the workings of the various political and
other interest groups that influence the sustenance of the conventional
order purely for short-term gain.
Within our context in Sri Lanka, we have a huge opportunity as we
take-off on a 'new' journey of our development to provide leadership and
empirically prove to the world at large, that a non-glitzy, people
friendly sustainable development model can indeed work for us.
We already posses a good dose of the ingredients needed to do that;
an ecologically and culturally diverse natural resources base, a
heritage with ample proof of adoption of sustainable systems, a
philosophical and conceptual base for practising sufficiency economics,
a will to change at the leadership level, increasing literacy in
info-communications and youth and children who have been sensitized to
environmental and sustainability issues.
What we still lack is our ability to develop adequate resistance to
the ways of interest groups, the reliance of a section of our elite of
the dominant cultures' unsustainable lifestyles and sensitizing our
populace to the negative impact of media exposures of opulent and
wasteful ways of living.
Unlearn to learn
Like was said by Marx and Shaw, we have still to see the tragedy or
are simply incapable of learning from history itself.
Let history not repeat itself again on us and to make that not
happen, what we perhaps need to do, is not to go on learning what we
know, more and more, but to take on a process of unlearning of what we
have learnt and adopt fresh ways of doing things as we move forward.