Presentation by Dr Christine Marsh delivered at a seminar on the theme ‘Green Connections: Environmental Response and the Arts’, at University of Exeter on 5 September 2014.
How do we respond to seeing our world under threat: from climate change, resource depletion, species extinctions, land degradation? We surely want to do what we can to save it, but what for? Do we aim to avert the most extreme threats in order to continue abusing the world, and probably making most people miserable? Perhaps we can find ways to save the world and make people happier at the same time. Two initiatives a century apart: Tagore and Transition, make conviviality, creativity and celebration central to their approach to world change. The poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) aimed for cooperative self-reliance for Indian villages, seeking to overcome caste, class and religious divisions. He emphasised the importance of arts and crafts, including performing plays and music together. A similar ethos is evident in today’s Transition Initiatives – now numbering thousands in over forty countries. A study has shown that participants value conviviality and enjoyment equally with making progress towards the goals of moving their local economy away from dependence on fossil fuels. There is a circumstantial connection between Tagore and Transition in that the first Transition Town was established in Totnes, near Dartington, where Tagore’s colleague and friend Leonard Elmhirst carried out his own experiment in rural reconstruction, modelled on Tagore’s. In this paper I examine the aims and approaches of Tagore and Transition to test the idea that community self-help focussed on personal freedom and satisfaction is a viable and attractive solution to today’s social and ecological crisis.
The subject of this presentation is relocalisation as a response to social and ecological concerns, looking at how local community self help has the potential to change the world.
I shall look at two models of relocalisation. The first is the Transition Movement begun in Totnes in 2006 by permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins. The movement has since then ‘spread virally to over 40 countries’. The second model, which is over a century older, is the Rural Reconstruction work in India of the Bengali poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore achieved a great deal over a fifty year period, but ultimately failed because the currents of the world were driving in the direction of urban industrial society and the nation state, but it has often been argued that his ideals and approach may be relevant to the challenges of today.
In this paper I examine the aims and approaches of Tagore and Transition to test the idea that community self-help focussed on personal freedom and enjoyment is a viable and attractive solution to today’s social and ecological crisis.
The starting point for this discussion is four writers and their works, and the connections between them.
Rob Hopkins’ latest book on how local action can change the world is The Power of Just Doing Stuff. Professor of ethics Michael Northcott is an enthusiast for Transition. In A Political Theology of Climate Change, his superb study of the connections between climate change and the history of western ideas, Northcott has a final chapter on his hopes for a way out of the impasse, and he evidently sees the best hope as the phenomenal growth worldwide of the Transition Movement.
There is an interesting circumstantial link between Hopkins’ activism and the older two books: a volume of Tagore’s writings in English and Leonard Elmhirst’s memoir of when he worked for Tagore in India in the 1920s.
Hopkins wrote in his PhD Thesis that ‘Transition Town Totnes owes some of its success as a pioneer to Totnes being seen nationally as “a unique cultural centre”, due in part to the “radical experiment in rural regeneration involving the arts, heritage and culture” set up by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in 1925 at Dartington.’
Hopkins gave a talk at the Festival held at Dartington in 2011 to mark Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. Hopkins began his talk by saying: ‘I confess that I know very little about Tagore but I think that he would approve of what Transition is doing’. I think that’s right, Tagore would have approved.
Tagore was a poet, singer-songwriter, story-teller, actor and dramatist, preacher and teacher, and public intellectual.
In many of his essays Tagore criticises the Modern Age, for being ugly, dehumanising, disconnected with nature and community. He insists that humanity has taken the wrong path in the Modern Age.
In one of his talks Tagore said:
In the West the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision. Obviously God made man to be human; but this modern product has such marvellous square-cut finish, savouring of gigantic manufacture, that the Creator will find it difficult to recognize it as a thing of spirit and a creature made in his own divine image. (‘Nationalism in the West’)
A century later:
The machinery of the modern world today is vast and awesome. There is a disconnect between the machinery and the problems it gives rise to. We all depend on these systems but have little control over how they operate, which is why turning to local alternatives like Transition is appealing.
The current focus of concern is climate change, but measures to address this at national and international levels are ineffective. There is no agreement on restraining exploration and extraction of fossil fuels. Indeed there are government subsidies. Carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise because of flaws in the system of national carbon accounts and emissions trading schemes. Hence the
Climate Change Impasse, from a debate which has been going on for decades:
Scientists have provided increasingly strong evidence that greenhouse gas emissions have been causing the overall global temperature to rise, leading to extreme weather events, ice to melt at the poles and on mountain glaciers, with the threat of the sea level rising by several meters and flooding cities and islands in low-lying areas.
Corporate managers are focussed on maximising short term profits, so it’s in their interests to promote some alternative version of events, whence ‘denialism’ – with occasional mentions of resorting to unproven technical fixes such as geoengineering.
In the view of Political leaders it is best not to alienate corporate interests by reducing subsidies to fossil fuel extraction, or raising prices of fossil fuel energy.
Individual ‘consumers’ or ‘voters’ are blamed for being unprepared to make sacrifices for the good of a stable climate.
In a recent article in New Scientist, George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), reports on psychological studies on how people currently respond to the threat of climate change.
They found that most people are ‘loss averse’, and any apparent uncertainty in climate science results in paralysis. Only around 15% of the population ‘fully accept the threat and are willing to make personal sacrifices to avert it’. Marshall observes that this minority is mainly left wing or environmentalists, and the climate change narrative fits their criticism of industry and growth.
If one is part of this minority, ‘sacrifices’ seems the wrong word. Actions like growing one’s own or buying food locally, not eating so much meat, supporting local businesses, using public transport rather than driving, and not flying, do restrict one’s choices but in a satisfying way. It’s good to feel one is on the moral high ground. Getting together with others who are doing the same is a particular bonus – as the Transition Movement has found.
Transition has grown remarkably fast. Even so, its potential constituency is probably still that 15% Marshall wrote about. Going back to the picture of the disconnect:
8 (pic from slide 2)
The link between atmospheric temperature rise and rising anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide was first modelled in 1975. The time during which industrial-era human activities have affected Earth’s climate has been called the ‘Anthropocene’ starting at around 1800 A.D. Let’s look more closely at the idea of the Anthropocene.
Michael Northcott’s book A Political Theology of Climate Change is a superb example of multi-disciplinary scholarship. Northcott tackles the history, politics and economics behind the climate change impasse. As I’ve mentioned, he brings in Transition as the best hope for breaking out of that. His political theology resonates with Tagore’s views – although the Poet is not mentioned.
Northcott observes that before the Enlightenment, in the Middle Ages, and back to the beginnings of agriculture as described in ancient Hebrew texts, people believed in a God who was in control of the living world. People felt involved in animate nature: the success of crops depended on God’s will and he had to be appeased. But a shift in attitudes took place in the seventeenth century to a perception of the Natural World as the ‘stable backdrop’ of human activities. Denialism, according to Northcott, is an inability to accept that human activities could be having a serious impact on planetary systems.
The roots of our current problems may lie much further back in time than the Industrial Revolution or the 17C. Studies have shown that there was an anthropogenic greenhouse era beginning 8000 years ago with the start of forest clearance for agriculture. This makes land use and land degradation the primary problem, which industrialised agriculture has grossly accelerated.
Tagore too looked back to early periods of human existence. In his lectures delivered in the West he articulates his philosophical anthropology, derived from his studies of the Upanisads, ancient teachings written down in the sixth century B.C. Tagore wrote about the ‘moral world of humanity’ based on the unity of Man and Nature and God, which the Modern West had disrupted. His solution was to revive Indian society, one village at a time. His goal for each village was to bring ‘life in its completeness’.
Tagore worked to revive local communities and economies for about 50 years from 1891. Leonard Elmhirst worked for Tagore in India for two years in the early 1920s. Tagore’s approach inspired Elmhirst to embark on his own rural reconstruction project at Dartington. So in all Tagore and Elmhirst worked to revive rural life over a span of 70 years.
Their projects had much in common but had different starting points. Tagore’s concern was for village people who were perpetually in debt to urban landlords and moneylenders, struggling to make a living on tiny patches of land using primitive methods. They were helpless, hopeless and fatalistic. Tagore set up an agricultural bank, health and welfare societies, cooperative grain stores, training and research centres and schools, and much else.
Elmhirst was Tagore’s Project Manager from 1922-4 and helped launch the Department of Rural Reconstruction at Tagore’s university. Elmhirst had some success addressing the social barriers, especially in his work with young people: urban students and village boys.
Elmhirst’s concern in Devon was over loss of rural employment, so his aim was to establish rural industries, for agriculture, forestry, food production, construction, furniture, weaving, glass-making.
It has been said that the social structures Tagore and Elmhirst set up were atavistic: forms of paternalistic feudalism. But both were keen on research into modern approaches and technology. Both put considerable emphasis on arts, crafts, performance and festivities, as well as education for all ages.
Reviving local crafts is an important part of rural reconstruction.
[‘Constructive Swadeshi’ and Rural Craft Industries]
Tagore was enthusiastic for what has been called ‘Constructive Swadeshi’, as an alternative to the Swadeshi boycott of foreign goods which Gandhi made part of the campaign for Indian Independence. Elmhirst too saw Rural Craft Industries as an important component of the local economy.
In the 1930s, those working for Tagore took the work towards commercial craft businesses, and away from the original aim of building local self-reliance. There is still a legacy in the lovely Santiniketan leather work and textiles you see on the left. Dartington craft businesses did well for many years but after Elmhirst’s death they were unable to survive in competitive markets, and Dartington is now little more than a brand and Dartington Hall a visitor attraction and conference centre.
Tagore’s and Elmhirst’s projects ultimately failed, but I am suggesting that the principles behind them are being revived in the Transition movement.
Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition, is convinced that local action can change the world.
Transition Town Totnes was started in 2006 as a response to Climate Change and Peak Oil, hence the ‘Energy Descent Action Plan’: people imagine what a less energy dependent future might be like, and draw up a plan for how to get there over 20 or 30 years.
After the 2008 economic crisis, Hopkins had a new ‘Big Idea’. The emphasis changed to a more constructive vision: how to address and reverse economic austerity In 2013 Totnes published its ‘Local Economic Blueprint’, planning to relocalise 10% of the town’s economy – an ambitious target worth big money.
There are now thousands of Transition Initiatives (TIs) in over 40 countries. Whether focused on threats to the planet or on re-building local economies, they are all about ‘intensive relocalisation’: local food, local crafts, local energy, local transport.
The aim is to be self-supporting, resilient and diverse.
A study at Reading University of the failures and successes of Transition Initiatives internationally has shown that participants value conviviality and enjoyment equally with making progress towards the goals.
Hopkins says that for Transition to work it has to be ‘visible, creative, playful, impactful, engaging, thought-provoking and meaningful’.
The slide show a consciousness-raising event put on by Finsbury Park Transition. Successful Transition Initiatives have a lot of colourful events to celebrate their achievements.
Transitions groups are of course not uniformly successful. Some embryonic groups fail at an early stage or stagnate. Others suffer burn out. Their level of ambition and the pace of their achievements vary. But it does seem as if fun and conviviality is an indicator of success.
Tagore made joy and celebration central to recovering Indian society.
Tagore wrote to a friend: ‘All my activities have the character of “play” in them.’
Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister said that ‘Tagore [represents] the cultural tradition of India, the tradition of accepting life in the fullness thereof and going though it with song and dance.’
But Tagore was critical of Nehru’s (and Gandhi’s) ambitions for a nation state of India.
I’ve mentioned Northcott’s enthusiasm for Transition; his hope seems to be that the movement will grow to a huge global pressure group to get national and international agreement on restricting the extraction of fossil fuels.
Tagore’s view was that: ‘All systems produce evil sooner or later, when the psychology which is at the root of them is wrong.’
Tagore wanted a new direction for his country, back to the grassroots and village life, discarding the Modern Age, keeping some beneficial science and technology without ‘the greed of profit’.
Tagore’s aim of bringing ‘life in its completeness’ to one or two villages was frustrated when his colleagues’ ambitions extended to dozens of villages, spreading the resources too thin. There is surely a lesson there for the Transition movement.
Which way will Transition go? Northcott’s way or Tagore’s. Influence the machinery of the Modern Age or abandon it for the local alternative?
I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes from Tagore:
The will, which is free, must seek for the realization of its harmony other wills which are also free, and in this is the experience of spiritual life. The infinite centre of personality, which radiates its joy by giving itself out in freedom, must create other centres of freedom to unite with it in harmony.
Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi, The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941 (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1997)
Bose, Buddhadeva, Tagore: Portrait of a Poet (Calcutta: Papyrus, 1993 )
Brown, Lester World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011)
COIN, <www.climateoutreach.org.uk>, [accessed 20 August 2014]
Cox, Peter, The Arts at Dartington 1940 – 1983: A Personal Account (Totnes: Peter Cox with Dartington Hall Trust Archive, 2005)
Das Gupta, Uma, ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921–41’, The Indian Historical Review, 4 (1978), 354-78 (p. 355).
Das Gupta, Uma, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Elmhirst, Leonard, Poet and Plowman (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1975)
Feola, G. and J.R. Nunes. ‘Failure and Success of Transition Initiatives: a study of the international replication of the Transition Movement’. Research Note 4, Walker Institute for Climate System Research, University of Reading, 2013. <https://sites.google.com/site/feolagiuseppe/research/fast-in> [accessed 28/5/14]
Fraser, Bashabi, A Meeting of Two Minds: Geddes Tagore Letters, ed. by (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2005)
Hopkins, Rob, ‘Transition as Cookery: My Presentation at the 2011 Tagore Festival’, <www.transitionnetwork.org/blogs/rob-hopkins/2011-06-16/transition-cookery-my-presentation-2011-tagore-festival> [accessed 28/5/14]
Hopkins, Rob, The Power of Just Doing Stuff (Cambridge: Green, 2013)
Hopkins, Robert John, ‘Localisation and Resilience at the Local Level: The Case of Transition Town Totnes’ (Devon, UK) (doctoral thesis, University of Plymouth, 2010)
Hume, Robert Ernest, ed. and trans. The Thirteen Principal Upanishads: Translated from the Sanskrit (London: Oxford University Press, 1934)
Marshall, George, ‘Hear No Climate Evil’, New Scientist, 16 August 2014, pp. 24-5.
Nehru, Jawaharlal, The Discovery of India (London: Meridian, 1951)
Northcott, Michael S., A Political Theology of Climate Change (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2013)
Royal Society of the Arts, <www.thersa.org> [accessed 20 August 2014]
Ruddiman, William F., ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands Of Years Ago’, Climate Change, 61 (2003), 261-293.
Sarkar, Sumit, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908 (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1973)
Tagore, Rabindranath, ‘City and Village’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 302-322.
Tagore, Rabindranath, Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922)
Tagore, Rabindranath, Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1921)
Tagore, Rabindranath, Personality (London: Macmillan, 1917)
Tagore, Rabindranath, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume TWO: Plays, Stories, Essays, ed. by Sisir Kumar Das (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996)
 Rob Hopkins, The Power of Just Doing Stuff (Cambridge: Green, 2013), p. 65.
 Michael S. Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2013), pp. 307-13.
 The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume TWO: Plays, Stories, Essays, ed. by Sisir Kumar Das (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996)
 Leonard Elmhirst, Poet and Plowman (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1975)
 Robert John Hopkins, ‘Localisation and Resilience at the Local Level: The Case of Transition Town Totnes’ (Devon, UK) (doctoral thesis, University of Plymouth, 2010); Peter Cox, ‘The Background’, in The Arts at Dartington 1940 – 1983: A Personal Account (Totnes: Peter Cox with Dartington Hall Trust Archive, 2005), pp. 6-14 (p. 6).
 ‘Transition as Cookery: My Presentation at the 2011 Tagore Festival’, www.transitionnetwork.org/blogs/rob-hopkins/2011-06-16/transition-cookery-my-presentation-2011-tagore-festival [accessed 28/5/14]
 Very many biographies of Tagore have been written; Tagore: Portrait of a Poet by Buddhadeva Bose (Calcutta: Papyrus, 1993 ) conveys his creativity (rather than his interesting life) particularly well.
 Tagore, ‘The Modern Age’, in Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922), pp. 115-130.
 Tagore, ‘Nationalism in the West’, in Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1921), pp. 1-46 (p. 6).
 Lester Brown on the local food movement, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011), pp. 175-8.
 Northcott, p. 121.
 Northcott, p. 124.
 Northcott, p. 14n.
 Northcott, pp. 99-100.
 George Marshall, ‘Hear No Climate Evil’, New Scientist, 16 August 2014, pp. 24-5.
 Northcott, p. 4.
 William F. Ruddiman, ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands Of Years Ago’, Climate Change, 61 (2003), 261-293 (p. 261).
 Northcott, p. 190.
 Ruddiman, p. 261.
 Robert Ernest Hume, ‘An Outline of the Philosophy of the Upanishads’, in The Thirteen Principal Upanishads: Translated from the Sanskrit (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), pp. 1-72 (p. 1).
 Tagore, ‘The Second Birth’, in Personality (London: Macmillan, 1917), pp. 77-107 (p. 80).
 Tagore, ‘City and Village’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 302-322 (p. 322).
 Uma Das Gupta, ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921–41’, The Indian Historical Review, 4 (1978), 354-78 (p. 355). (Later refs. to ‘Das Gupta, Sriniketan’)
 Das Gupta, Sriniketan.
 Uma Das Gupta, ‘“Constructive Swadeshi” at Santiniketan’, in Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 16-24. Sumit Sarkar, ‘The Gospel of Atmasakti—Constructive Swadeshi’, in ‘Trends in Bengal’s Swadeshi Movement’, in The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908 (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1973), pp. 31-91 (pp. 53-63).
 Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Introduction, in The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941 (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1997), pp. 5-6.
 Das Gupta, Sriniketan, p. 376.
 Hopkins, pp. 78-80.
 Hopkins, pp. 38-40.
 G. Feola and J.R. Nunes. ‘Failure and Success of Transition Initiatives: a study of the international replication of the Transition Movement’. Research Note 4, Walker Institute for Climate System Research, University of Reading, 2013. <https://sites.google.com/site/feolagiuseppe/research/fast-in> [accessed 28/5/14]
 Hopkins, p. 105.
 Tagore, , letter to Patrick Geddes, 9 May 1922, in A Meeting of Two Minds: Geddes Tagore Letters, ed. by Bashabi Fraser (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2005), pp. 68-9.
 Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (London: Meridian, 1951), pp. 318-9.
 Northcott, p. 313.
 Tagore, ‘The Nation’, in Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922), pp. 143-53 (pp. 152-3).
 Tagore, An Eastern University, in Creative Unity, pp. 169-203 (pp. 200-1).
 Das Gupta, Sriniketan, p. 376.
 Tagore, ‘The Second Birth’, in Personality (London: Macmillan, 1916), pp. 77-107 (p. 101).