Hey India, the future is that-a-way

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If human society is to progress into becoming the civilisations that science-fiction writers and thinkers have envisaged, there needs to be a clear and committed drive towards engendering non-regressive ideals.

Seated on the third rock from the Sun, human society must introspect about its ideals of progress, lest it become calcified.

Some time ago, a student of architecture brought me this book titled Boomtown 2050: Scenarios for a Rapidly Growing City. It is about the Australian city of Perth written by Richard Weller, an Australian architect. In Australia, a country where one of the most abundant natural resources is land itself, cities have a tendency to sprawl. This tendency is even more severe in Perth, an isolated city on the continent’s western coast, making the growth pattern unsustainable. The book talks about several possible growth trajectories and suggests one that is perhaps the most optimal. What I found most striking about the book is that it is not written just for the experts. With full-page colour pictures on every other page, sparing text and easy narrative, the book is a delightful read to even someone who has no particular connection to either Perth or Australia. The book seems to be a colourful invitation to fellow Australians to think about these urban issues and make intelligent choices for future generations.

This culture of looking far into the future is not new in the developed world. For corporates, planning for the future is a matter of survival; for government planners, it is the job definition; but even popular writings from the developed world often present a thorough-going intellectual effort to reach out to the farthest borders of the future.

Science fiction–writer Isaac Asimov painted a future world when the humanity has colonised not just the moon, or other planets in the solar system, not just the nearby stars like Alpha and Proxima Centauri, not just the millions of stars that extend all along the Orion Arm, but the entire Milky Way Galaxy. Vast galactic empires were built, “star wars” ravaged powerful stellar kingdoms, with the whole empire throbbing through cycles of growth and decadence like their puny earthly counterparts. These developments occur, in the imagination of the master writer, something like 25,000 years in the future!

If a forethought that stretches out to twenty-five millennia does not boggle the mind, this one surely does. In the ’60s, Soviet engineer Nikolai Kardashev thought about future civilisations of mankind and classified them based on their energy-utilisation levels. The first is Type I civilisation, also called a planetary civilisation, that can store and exploit all the energy available on its parent planet. Then there is Type II civilisation, a stellar civilisation, that has learnt to exploit all the energy present in its parent star. Type III civilisation, an energy guzzler of galactic proportions, can tap into sources of energy from all over its parent galaxy.



And when, and in what embraceable future, is our humanity going to nimbly hop over these stages of infancy, childhood and youth? According to the physicist and futurist Michio Kaku, we are expected to become a Type I civilisation in a couple of centuries from now; Type II will take a few thousand years; and to reach Type III — be forewarned — you must be prepared to wait for about 100,000 to a million years!

The developed world became what it is today because, at some point or other, those societies were consumed by the fever of progress, what cognitive scientist Steven Pinker calls the “progressophobia”. Any number of thinkers of 19th-Century Europe were preoccupied with the thoughts of an ideal future society, of the perfectibility of the human condition, of a future world free from strife and malady, offering the possibility of infinite progress. (It is ironical, however, that all that hope was stifled, and progress stymied, by two deadly world wars in the following Century.)

It might therefore seem counter-intuitive that the popular preoccupation in India is about a return, an impossible regression, to the fabled Ramarajya. Even today, if an Indian writer of Indian languages wishes to write about something that is to be deemed noble and worthwhile by standards of popular writing, it is almost always about Vedanta or Gita, the myths, the epics, our great traditions — in one word, about the past, about the years that were dead and gone. It is almost never about the future. In India, the past is an obsession and the future an illusion. I recall the tender advice of the Jedi master Quigong to his little disciple Anakin Skywalker, from the Star Wars saga: “Your focus determines your reality.” If we are obsessed with some obscure past glory, rubbing our eyes hard to penetrate the foggy and uncertain folds of the past, our present is likely only to continue to be the same — foggy and uncertain.

The fate of a country cannot be determined a small number of exceptional people, however competent they are. What the common man feels and thinks, the average Indian, the one among the crowds, is what goads or guides the country along its wobbly progression — more so in a democracy. A significant portion of India must develop the guts and good sense to shift the attention from the past and focus on the future. This section will dream up a future India, free the country at last from all the scars of the past. This section will be the “massive barrier-breakers of Immortality” to echo Sri Aurobindo’s words from Savitri. By the force of their thoughts and deeds, the dream of a lovely India can hasten to become real.

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