Tagorean Drawdown

I love Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (London: Penguin, 2017), with reservations, similar reservations to those I have about his earlier book: Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (New York: Viking, 2007). I suppose I have similar reservations over Hawken’s lectures on youtube, which are brilliant but … but what? That is something to do with his approach not being Tagorean, which I’ll try to explain.

A key difference is that Hawken’s subtitle announces Drawdown as a big Plan, and we know that Tagore did not plan. Tagore’s approach was to get an idea and then see where it might lead, and this applied whether he was writing a story or doing teaching innovatively.[1] Since he did not plan, Tagore was unworried and unapologetic about starting small: with one school, one village, or one individual. The latter is crucial: Tagore referred to the individual – often meaning his own self – a great deal in his lectures around the world. A search for ‘individual’ in my own book on Tagore’s lectures gives over a hundred occurrences of the word. I was searching with a particular occurrence in mind, which I found in the following paragraph:

In ‘The Nation’ Tagore refers to being asked by western friends ‘how to cope with this evil’, the evil being the ‘inflammatory contagion all over the world’ of an ‘aberration of a people, decked with the showy title of “patriotism”’. His answer is that he does not put his faith in ‘any new institution’ but that he puts his faith in ‘the individuals all over the world who think clearly, feel nobly and act rightly, thus becoming the channels of moral truth’. These words, together with the cautionary letter to his own people in ‘The Spirit of Freedom’, show again how Tagore was a non-violent anarchist.[2]

Setting aside ‘The Nation’ as an issue and an ‘evil’,[3] this paragraph illustrates how Tagore differs from Hawken in his approach to world change. Tagore asserts that he puts his faith in individuals rather than institutions, despite having established a rural university in India which he hoped would demonstrate the kind of solution the world needed. He sometimes used the word ‘institution’ when referring to his university, but he worried that putting this creative idea into practice would lead to it being ‘solidified in an institution’, as he had learned from experience is the ultimate fate of promising ideas.[4] If we relate that concern to the many different elements of Hawken’s Drawdown plan, we might judge them to be Tagorean if their success is not dependant on institutions or on delegation, including political representation, but on individuals working on their own free initiative or working with other people in free association.

To make such a judgement we need a good definition of ‘institution’. My Concise Oxford dictionary gives ‘a society or organization founded esp. for charitable, religious, educational, or social purposes’. A search online provides a more dynamic version: ‘an organization, establishment, foundation, society, or the like, devoted to the promotion of a particular cause or program, especially one of a public, educational, or charitable character’. There is no entry for ‘institution’ in general in Hawken’s Index. There are entries for two bodies with ‘institution’ in their names, and also an interesting reference to ‘institutional innovation’. That link points to a section on ‘Women Smallholders’, and the need identified by professor and author Bina Agwar for a measure to ‘[f]oster institutional innovation and collective approaches designed for women smallholders, such as group farming efforts’. The writer of the section states that this tenet is particularly powerful since:

[w]hen women take part in cooperatives for growing, learning, financing, and selling, they achieve economies of scale in their operations and pool their influence, know-how and talent. They also are able to share labor, resources, and risk, such as the uncertain outcomes of trying a new crop or farming technique. [5]

Tagore worked for fifty years to help (male) peasant farmers be more secure and productive, with just this kind of aim in mind, but without the success he hoped for. He set up an ‘Institute of Rural Reconstruction’ called Sriniketan at his university, which would advise and educate village people on how to work together to solve their problems. Uma Das Gupta, the Tagore scholar who has specialised in the history of Sriniketan, concluded that the experiment was not a complete failure but that Tagore was in despair at his aims not being understood and followed by those he put in charge.[6] This does suggest that success requires taking action oneself, not relying on institutions, and not delegating.

There is much one can say that is positive about Tagore’s rural reconstruction initiatives, which he talked and wrote about with passionate conviction, so that one wonders why he involved himself so little personally in the work. William Radice, who was one of the most successful translators of Tagore’s poetry and stories, saw Tagore as primarily ‘the Poet’, who only reluctantly engaged in social duties, probably to meet his father’s expectations. I have tentatively countered that by saying that it is conceivable that early in his life Tagore, as the fourteenth child struggling to get attention, developed a poetry and song writing habit or compulsion.

Tagore’s written oeuvre is huge, and creative writing was only a part of it. It is clear that social reform was a major preoccupation for him, with deep connections to philosophy, religion and science, which I’ll indicate with a few examples.

The ideal of taking action oneself is karma-yoga in Hinduism: the path of enlightenment through work.[7] In an early essay from Tagore’s lecture tours, he wrote this:

To live in perfect goodness is to realise one’s life in the infinite. This is the most comprehensive view of life which we can have by our inherent power of the moral vision of the wholeness of life. And the teaching of Buddha is to cultivate this moral power to the highest extent, to know that our field of activities is not bound to the plane of our narrow self. This is the vision of the heavenly kingdom of Christ. When we attain to that universal life, which is the moral life, we become freed from the bonds of pleasure and pain, and the place vacated by our self becomes filled with an unspeakable joy which springs from measureless love. In this state the soul’s activity is all the more heightened, only its motive power is not from desires, but in its own joy. This is the Karma-yoga of the Gita, the way to become one with the infinite activity by the exercise of the activity of disinterested goodness.[8]

On the connection with science, we have Tagore’s conversation with Albert Einstein in 1930 which was noted down and published as an appendix entitled ‘The Nature of Reality’ in his essay collection The Religion of Man. At the start of their discussion, Tagore drew on science to explain his understanding of universal life:

The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the Universe is human truth. I have taken a scientific fact to illustrate this—Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their inter-connection of human relationship, which gives living solidarity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe.[9]

In conclusion Tagore said: ‘My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the Universal human spirit in my own individual being.’ Tagore’s conversation with Einstein has interested leading figures in science.[10] The idea of the symbiosis between the individual self and the universal self may have a connection with quantum theory, with the individual self a particle in an entangled granular universe.

With the Karma-yoga ideal in mind, we can consider the set of solutions to global warming put forward by Hawken, and we find a surprising amount that can be done without institutions or delegation or representation, and that set of actions could be called ‘Tagorean Drawdown’. On the other hand, one could argue that the entire Drawdown book is made of ‘institutions or delegation or representation’, on the basis that neither writing and nor publishing is active engagement, the present article, of course, included. Talking about action to a live audience is perhaps closer to action, and both Tagore and Hawken did/do plenty of that. But it makes me think of the actors who interest me most: people growing food for themselves and for local people, who say they don’t have time to write, even when they would like to and others urge them to because there is interest out there and sharing their know-how could help others to take action. At the end of his book, Hawken offers encouragement to those taking action by saying they are part of a movement, and I would argue that movements – a wave form of change? – waste effort and tend to peter out, and are not Tagorean. What we need at this point is a more explicit definition of what a Tagorean Drawdown might be, rather than what it is not.

What is ‘Tagorean Drawdown’?

Hawken defines Drawdown as a turning point. In the case of global warming, Drawdown is envisaged as the moment in the future (in Hawken’s big plan, Drawdown is thirty years in the future, in 2050) when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will have peaked and are expected subsequently to go into decline. Climate change is probably not something which Tagore was aware of or concerned about.[11] His concern was wider than that. It was the Modern Age brought in by the West which troubled him. So it makes sense to define ‘Tagorean Drawdown’ in relation to the Modern Age; to see it as the turning point some time in the foreseeable future when the Modern Age has peaked and is about to go into decline. Tagore did not plan, so we do not need to set a target date, and indeed such a change may be triggered by a sudden crash, and could happen at any time, almost over night.

Tagore’s concerns about the Modern Age were articulated in many of his essays which were originally public addresses. Tagore wrote the last of these in 1941 shortly before died. He was too ill to read it himself so it was spoken for him on 14 April, to mark his eightieth birthday, then published as a booklet with the title ‘Crisis in Civilization’.[12] The crisis Tagore described was not the Second World War alone. It was the ‘spectre of a new barbarity strid[ing] over Europe, teeth bare and claws unconcealed in an orgy of terror’, ‘the fumes of oppression pollut[ing] the atmosphere’, ‘the spirit of violence’ in the psychology of the West. More than that, it was his own disillusionment with the West and Britain in particular, a country whose culture he had admired and trusted, some of whose people he praised for their courage in fighting for freedom, a few he had loved for their goodness, but a country in which he had lost faith. He compares the British and the Russians, the world’s ‘two great Powers’, condemning the British which ‘trampled on the manhood of the subject races under their rule, keeping them in a moribund state’, but praises Soviet Russia for striving for the welfare of all its tribal peoples.[13]

The essay ends on a tentative hopeful note, as Tagore looks forward to a ‘turning in history after the cataclysm is over and the sky is again unburdened and passionless’.[14] The notion of the sky being ‘unburdened’ reminds us of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but Tagore was not alluding to that, rather to the imperialism of the West in the Modern Age, which has worsened since Tagore’s lifetime, while hiding behind a smokescreen of so-called ‘development’, growth and progress. To begin the process of a Tagorean Drawdown we would need to endeavour to retreat a hundred years and begin again from where Tagore’s efforts left off. Tagore put his trust in individuals acting rightly, and there are examples now of people showing how to provide for themselves in innovative ways that others can emulate, such as Mandy Barber of Incredible Vegetables.[15]

Returning to Hawken’s Drawdown with Tagorean Drawdown in mind, it is important to bear in mind that Hawken and his colleagues are not actively engaged in the solutions to global warming that they have identified. Their work has been to construct a model using data about what other people and groups – and institutions – are doing which they judge could contribute towards reaching the point when greenhouse gases peak. We can use the same dataset to identify activities which have the potential to change the world’s direction away from the Modern Age towards local community self-reliance and the joyful ‘life in its completeness’ which Tagore envisaged. This will be the subject of my next chapter.


[1] Tagore, letter to Patrick Geddes the town and city planner, 9 May 1922 (Bashabi Fraser, ed., A Meeting of Two Minds: Geddes Tagore Letters (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2005), pp. 68-9.)

[2] Christine Marsh, Tagore Speaks to the Twenty-First Century (2016), pp. 213-4. Emphasis added.

[3] Since it is complicated, I will not at this point go into why Tagore focused his criticism of the world on the nation, nationalism, patriotism and the associated distortions to identity and society. He brought this to the world’s attention in 1916 with his book of lectures entitled Nationalism, but it comes through again even stronger in his 1922 book Creative Unity.

[4] ‘I was young and old at the same time, when my aspirations had the sureness of maturity and, not having passed through the buffetings of experience, were youthful in their ferment of unbounded expectancy. Since then the burden of responsibility has grown heavy and its path intricate. I have come to know the inevitable limitation of ideas when solidified in an institution.’ (Tagore, letter to Elmhirst, 10 July 1930, in Purabi, pp. 106-7.)

[5] Hawken, p. 77.

[6] Uma Das Gupta, ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921–41’, The Indian Historical Review, 4 (1978), 354-78 (pp. 377-8).

[7] Marsh, Tagore Speaks, p. 34.

[8] Tagore, ‘The Problem of Evil’, in Sadhana: The Realisation of Life (London: Macmillan, 1915 [1913]), pp. 45-65 (pp. 57-8).

[9] Tagore, ‘The Nature of Reality’ in The Religion of Man (London: Macmillan, 1931), pp. 222-5.

[10] Marsh, p. 260.

[11] We cannot be sure of that. It is possible that Tagore (1861-1941) was aware of the work and ideas of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who was ‘the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change’. (Wikipedia)

[12] Tagore, ‘Crisis in Civilization’, in Towards Universal Man, pp. 353-9, note p. 382.

[13] ‘Crisis in Civilization’, p. 356.

[14] ‘Crisis in Civilization’, p. 359.

[15] Incredible Vegetables, www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk .

This entry was posted in anarchism, deep ecology, environment, land, permaculture, Rabindranath Tagore, rural reconstruction, social reform, Transition movement. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Tagorean Drawdown

  1. Pingback: Tagore and the Gunny Bags | tagoreanworld

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