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Learning to unlearn

Karl 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 experience"

Closing the taps

It 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 development'.

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 resource constraints".

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.

Interest groups

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 nature.

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.

Our opportunity

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.


LANKAPUVATH - National News Agency of Sri Lanka
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