Calcutta Notebook


Till just a few decades back, the concept of ever continuing progress had a strong hold among reputed scholars. In his famous lectures published under the title 'What is History', Prof E H Carr has given two quotes to show how well entrenched this view was. The first quote from the introduction to the first volume of The Cambridge Modern History, said, "We are bound to assume, as the scientific hypothesis on which history is to be written, a progress in human affairs". The second quote was from the last volume of this history, in which historian Dampier felt no doubt that 'future ages will see no limit to the growth of man's power over the resources of nature and of his intelligent use of them for the welfare of his race." Today with the experience of recent decades, this view is likely to be hotly contested. While most people would agree that 'man's power over the resources of nature' has indeed been increasing rapidly, they are also likely to raise huge questions about whether man has made 'intelligent use' of this power for the welfare of his race (not to mention other forms of life).

While Carr himself also was optimistic about the future of humanity, he nevertheless raised some important questions. He said, "At the present time, few people would, I think, question the fact of progress in the accumulation both of material resources and of scientific knowledge, of mastery over the environment in the technological sense. What is questioned is whether there has been in the twentieth century any progress in ordering of society, in mastery of the social environment, national or international, whether indeed there has not been a marked regression. Has not the evolution of man as a social being lagged fatally behind the progress of technology?"

This as well as even more disturbing questions have been raised about the 20th century which despite all the amazing advances of science and technology also turned out to be the most violent and destructive century.

Chris Brazier who has written a short history of world has summarized a lot of data to tell the world that the scale of devastation of human life in the last hundred years should alone be enough to dispel any lingering illusions about the inevitability of progress. During the 20th century some 150 million people died in war. About 100 million died in the great famines of the century. A further 100 million died as a result of government repression.

It is even more important to stress that these statistics can never come even near to capturing the pain and suffering of the victims of the most cruel weapons that humankind invented in this century, or the lasting distress suffered by those who lost their near and dear ones. All this, after a point, is truly beyond description.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin said of the 20th century: "I remember it only as the most terrible century in human history".

If one goes back farther to about 500 years or so, when in the post-Columbus world the foundations of the modern world were being laid, people again see a series of unforgivable but also unrepentant crimes against humanity unfolding one after another.

At the time of Columbus' first voyage in 1492 the Americas were the home of nearly 100 million people (compared to a European population of only about 70 million at that time). Within the next 100 to 150 years, nearly 90 million of these indigenous people perished. Judging by the world population at that time (about 600 million) this means that nearly one seventh of the world population was finished off within 100 to 150 years. Many of them died in wars started or instigated by the new comers and many others died in the epidemics brought by them.

Columbus forced the Taino Indians in Hispaniola to bring him an ounce of gold every three months. Those who did not, had their hands chopped off while escapees were hunted down with dogs. Regarding the impact of the advent of the 'civilised' people in the new world, the priest Bartolome de Las Casas wrote : "For 40 years, they have done nothing but torture, murder, harass, afflict, torment and destroy them with extraordinary, incredible, innovative and previously unheard of cruelty." Las Casas estimated that 50 million Indians perished in Latin America and the Caribbean within 50 years of Columbus' landing.

According to Wayne Ellwood who prepared a special issue of the New Internationalist on this subject : "Scholars now reckon that 90 percent of the indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out in a century and a half—the greatest demographic collapse in the history of the planet and the proportional equivalent of nearly half a billion people today."

The genocide was later repeated in Australia. According to Robert Huges, author of the 'Fatal Shore' : "It took less than 75 years of white settlement to wipe out most of the people who had occupied Tasmania for some 20 thousand years."

However, soon there were so many deaths among native Indians that slaves had to be imported from Africa to toil in the new world. Wayne Ellwood estimates : "The Atlantic slave trade lasted nearly 400 years during which time 15 million Africans were shipped to the Americas. Conditions during the crossing were so horrific that between a half and a third of the African captives died on route. Of the rest, most died within a decade of their arrival in the strange new land."

This was followed in the 19th century by a rapid phase of annexing African territories, which included brutal annihilation. In a period of only 20 years, the population of French Congo was reduced by one-third of its former size. When the Germans established themselves in South West Africa, more than half of the population was exterminated. In Asia perhaps the world's largest ever plunder was accompanied by equally ruthless violence and deceit. Finally the fierce competition for colonies within the imperialist powers led to the first world war.

As this short historical review makes it amply clear, in any review of progress it needs to be asked who prospered and who were sacrificed at the altar of prosperity of others. Such questions remain highly relevant in the 21st century as inequalities have increased further in many countries.

It is only by raising questions about people and groups who had to suffer so much that any notions of 'progress' can be evaluated in a just way. Perhaps what is even more essential is to study not only the condition of all human beings at various time-periods but to instead look at all life-forms. If instead of asking how has the life of human beings changed during the last five hundred years one may ask ‘how have all species changed during the last five hundred years’ then there will be a very negative answer. The reason is that the natural habitats of all life forms including forests, oceans, rivers, estuaries and coastal areas, wetlands etc have been damaged on a massive scale largely by man's activities. In addition, various species have also been hunted or overfished to the point of extinction or high levels of depletion.

Indeed the biggest question marks on the inevitability of progress arise due to environmental problems particularly climate change.

The Global Environment Outlook Report prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme has said on a note of warning, "In the future, the continued degradation of natural resources, shortcomings in environmental responses, and renewable resource constraints may increasingly lead to food insecurity and conflict situations. Changes in global biogeochemical cycles and the complex interactions between environmental problems such as climate change, ozone depletion and acidification may have impacts that will confront local, regional and global communities with situations they are unprepared for."

Commenting on the current development pattern the GEO report declares quite explicitly : "The use of land, forest, fresh water, coastal areas, fisheries and urban air—is beyond their natural regeneration capacity and therefore it is unsustainable." Further this report says, "Global developments in the energy sector are unsustainable."

The World Resources Report (WRR), prepared by the World Resources Institute with the UNDP and UNEP said, "The world is not now headed toward a sustainable future, but rather toward a variety of potential human and environmental disasters."

The 21st century may witness the pinnacle of technological advances yet it cannot be denied that at the same time the prospects of sustainable progress are more threatened today than ever before.

Vol. 48, No. 11, Sep 20 - 26, 2015