“Before this political civilization came to its power and opened its hungry jaws wide enough to gulp down great continents of the earth,” Tagore wrote in “On Nationalism,” his 1917 book of essays, “we had wars, pillages, changes of monarchy and consequent miseries. But never such a sight of fearful and hopeless voracity, such wholesale feeding of nation upon nation, such huge machines for turning great portions of the earth into mincemeat, never such terrible jealousies with all their ugly teeth and claws ready for tearing open each other’s vitals.”

The climate emergency we are tipping into today — the tearing open of our mutual vitals — is a product of our collective failure to adhere to limits. An economic system that demanded endless growth and endless consumption was always too much to ask from a planet whose resources are finite. Yet, as Tagore recognized, the same avarice and contempt that led us to war against the earth would also lead to catastrophic, endless wars among peoples. At the time of his writing, World War I was underway. Tagore saw that conflict as the first of the modern wars that showed us the great power we had gained to destroy the natural world along with our fellow humans. The massive military industries created during that conflict pointed to an even more inhuman future that might be in store.

“The gigantic organizations for hurting others and warding off their blows, for making money by dragging others back, will not help us,” Tagore wrote. “On the contrary, by their crushing weight, their enormous cost, and their deadening effect upon the living humanity, they will seriously impede our freedom.”

Until his death in 1940, Tagore wrote about the dangers of militarism, race hatred, and a brutal type of industrial development that had begun to disfigure the natural world. The industrialization of warfare has now given us powers to destroy other human beings and the earth itself on a scale surpassing even Tagore’s warnings. Even those whose lives have been dedicated to the project of American militarism have begun to recognize the destruction being wrought. In the era of climate crisis, the relationship between environmental destruction and the destruction of human life that Tagore decried in his writings has become perhaps the central issue of our time.

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Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)