Disclaimer: I read the Quran in the light of science, philosophy, ethics, and public policy. This is not a theological discussion, but some rational thinking shaped by the Quran.
“The enjoyment of worldly desires—women, children, treasures of gold and silver, fine horses, cattle, and fertile land—has been made appealing to people. These are the pleasures of this worldly life, but with Allah is the final destination.” (Quran 3: 14).
Nowadays, my hometown Dhaka (the capital city of Bangladesh) never sleeps. There are hours of traffic jams everyday almost until midnight. When I was growing up during the late seventies and early eighties, the city was very different. The Cycle Ricksha (three-wheel passenger vehicle) was the main mode of transport. There were very few cars on the streets and us, as children, used to play car counting; how many cars (or white cars) we can see pass in one hour.
In our extended family, only my youngest aunty had had a car. Her husband was the country head of an international NGO. They had a microbus with a big NGO’s monogram printed on their windscreen. Whenever my aunty came to visit us and entered through the door, me and my younger brother went out to the car without even greeting her. The chauffeur uncle had opened the door and let us sit in. Just being seated in the car was lots of fun. Sometimes we used to call our friends to sit with us in the car.
My father was a mid-level government official. We were considered to be a middle class family. However, being a middle class of the global poorest South did not mean much. Our life was plain and simple. We used to have beef once a week. The beef curry was a luxury food. My siblings and I waited for the beef day of the week. My parents had lived in Karachi (then West Pakistan) before Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971. My mother had a fusion cooking style from what she had learnt and tested in Pakistan. I still remember the taste of her curry.
Now I live in Australia and belong to the same middle class, however, economically speaking, of the richest global North. I have two cars. I can eat beef every day. But my daily struggles are different these days; how can I walk more and stay away from any beef to keep my blood pressure and cholesterol level in check. Every evening, when I go for prayer, I park my car one km away from the masjid and walk to and from the prayer. I have realised that my body is a finite system. I cannot overuse it despite all my cravings and the buying capacity for them. To keep myself healthy, I must distinguish between the need for nourishment of my body and the cravings and desires of my taste buds and strictly follow the recipe of needs.
What is true for a human body as a living system is also true for our planet earth. We are living amid climate emergencies. Science has been warning us about it for a while now. However, our economic model of production and growth did not allow us to act upon it. As today, there is a trade-off between our economic growth and goodness in our environmental. The three pillars of our modern-day economy and lifestyle choices; the fossil fuel-based energy systems and construction material (i.e., steel and cements), and livestock farming, are the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The alternative energy sources have been neither cheap nor reliably stable for our ever-increasing production lines.
Fortunately, renewable energies are getting cheaper and reliable for commercial use at a large scale. Many have begun to think that the green technologies and economic opportunities have become mature enough to fight with the incumbency of fossil fuel. We have already started to see early signs of global warming, such us increasing intensities and frequencies of the natural calamities, coral bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef etc. Global consciousness has been also growing. Our politicians are on the move, though at different paces, depending on their constituency’s overall economic affinities with the fossil fuels or livestock farming.
All these are good news. Better late than never. However, the question must be asked, would we be even here if our alternative technologies had not been able to promise us the same level of growth. The bitter truth is that we would not. We will continue with the use of the fossil fuel as long it is necessary to maintain our productions and economic growth despite all the consequences. We simply don’t have an alternative economic model of no growth or slow growth.
It takes us to the next important question. Our current uses of the global natural resources are already two times over the safe ecological boundaries of our planet earth. We are extracting and consuming increasingly more materials than the capacities of our ecosystem to regenerate them. We are also producing more wastes than the capacities of our soils and seas to absorb them (1). Even if we get the green energy technologies and successfully stop global warming, by the end of the century, how much overuse of our natural resources are really feasible?
Science is telling us that we urgently need an alternative model of an economic growth which will go at par with the regeneration capacities of our ecosystems. Otherwise, the green energies of net zero emissions alone will not be able to save us. The sustainable ecological boundary, our wealth, will create our wellbeing. Beyond that boundary we must choose one at the expense of another. So far, all alternative ideas and propositions have shown one simple truth that we must learn to live with less material goods and compensate the deficit budget with more spiritual plenitudes.
As our religion tells us that a life worth living is an interest free charitable life. Interest creates unlimited personal wealth but most of the time at the expense of common good. Charity creates limited but sufficient wealth and the wellbeing for all. I’m all aware that it is very easy to say but economically speaking will be very painful to do, if not even impossible. Nevertheless, we must try to create an eco-friendly, wellbeing and spirituality centric growth model for the sake of our children and grandchildren, and the generation to come. Otherwise, there will be no redemption of our legacy.
As I am aging, my second personal realisation is that every individual living thing goes toward the end.
“Every soul will taste death. And you will only receive your full reward on the Day of Judgment. Whoever is spared from the Fire and is admitted into Paradise will indeed triumph, whereas the life of this world is no more than the delusion of enjoyment” (Quran 3: 185).
However, what makes me even more active and optimistic to work for the common good, is my religious belief that death is not the end of me nor of my work. According to our theology, the book of rewards remains open for the accounts of legacy. Death consists only the disposal of my biological body machine. Neither souls nor deeds die. I am an embodied soul on the path of an eternal journey in hope and fear. There is no end but an end to meet with ones’ eternal Master.
- Jason Hickel, LESS IS MORE; HOW DEGROWTH WILL SAVE THE WORLD, Windmill Books, London, 2020.