Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas

Against Modernity

Progress is an illusion. It is tradition that offers us a true way forward.

MOdernity 1

One of the effects of what we’ve now come to know as modernity is that if you’re not up there with the rest of the crowd following “fashion” then you must be backward. Fashion has many guises and its most obvious manifestation is the clothes industry (the words clothes and fashion are now interchangeable) where models manage to look progressively glamorous whilst they progressively wear less and less. This is a trick, and in this trick lies a moral.

Behind the jargon of political correctness and the hype of the advertising industry, the idea of modernity stands as naked as the fashion models. Like them, it exudes glamour at the same time. But it is the fleeting glamour of built-in obsolescence, and its nakedness attracts and devours. This process is most evident in the garish cities to which people are attracted like suicidal moths to a powerful street lamp. It is estimated that over 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities before the end of this century. Think what will happen to these people when the water stops flowing through the taps, as it will inevitably do, and the flush toilets stop working in the high rise blocks.

Seasoned travellers sometimes face the unexpected, and this happened to me in Indonesia during a visit to this mosaic of a country before the financial meltdown in 2008. My colleagues in the Institute of Ecology in Bandung were taking me to a madrassa (Qur’an school) in one of the neighbouring villages. It was described blandly in advance as an alternative school system that employed “traditional methods”. But I was in for a surprise. The person I was first introduced to was the “marketing manager”. A marketing manager in a Qur’an school? This puzzled me. “The economic crisis in the country never touched us,” he told me. “Why?” I asked. “Our fresh produce is in great demand, especially in the cities,” he replied, patiently. My puzzlement grew into curiosity: Qur’an schools equal economic independence, but how could that be?

I was led into a village community, which practiced organic farming for economic self-sufficiency in what was described to me as the traditional way. Here is another example of how modernity plays tricks with words. It is fashionable in the developed world to go into “organic farming” yet the methods used by this movement are as old as the hills, and the people of this village have got it right – it is the “traditional way”. This was one of a network of Qur’an school villages that had survived the ravages of colonialism. Apparently there are hundreds of them and the particular village I was taken to supports about 300 students whose ages ranged from twelve to eighteen. A third of them were female. Most of the learning activities centred in and around the mosque and, when they were not studying, the male students worked in the fields. The female students worked in the packing sheds grading and weighing the produce for market. The village also boasted a herd of dairy cows and a fish farm. There was also a clinic and sports facilities.

The remarkable thing about this community was that the whole ethos of it was non-institutional. I didn’t get the impression of being in a regimented, over-organised place. The feel was that of a village – a community of people of which the students were a part. The income derived from agricultural produce supported the students. The students paid no fees and they were housed and fed by the village. And yet the village made a profit. I then saw the point of the marketing manager.

My discussions with the Imam, who was also the head of the community, ranged amongst other things to self-sufficiency and the way the Muslims used to trade internationally without the help of the banks. I told him about certain Muslim groups in the West who are advocating a return to traditional trading through the use of gold and silver coins. His response was that he does not trust paper money and that his community traditionally kept their surplus wealth in gold. This is how they saved themselves when the crisis hit the country and the banks collapsed.

So we are back to tradition again. The fashion today is for banks and for paper money, which is at the root of the environmental crisis, but any critique of this is considered to be a bit unfashionable, if not loony. Such is the power of fashion and the path to “progress” – another fashionable buzzword, but what does it mean? The term’s application relates almost exclusively to economic progress, but the fact that this is causing massive pollution and species extinction at an alarming rate are issues people are not willing to look at squarely.

And then there is “sustainability”. It is now the buzzword in eco-economics. Very fashionable in fact, but nobody can agree what it actually means. Here in Indonesia, however, we have people living sustainably after the very traditional fashion of their forefathers and learning to cope with the dominant model at the same time. No definitions needed here – just getting on with it. So, tradition is best. It is not about a monopoly of any one faith or nation or tribe or group. Tradition has evolved out of centuries of responses to the rhythms of nature; importantly, it is in context. It is not subject to the vagaries of one economic theory or another, and neither is it dependent on the impulses of global financial markets. This is real progress. It is not polluting and it does not line the pockets of corrupt politicians, racketeers, petty officials and trans-national corporations. Such tradition is by the people, for the people.

 

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