Bandra is Deconstructing Human Courtship

Last month, good friend Supriya tweeted:

She followed it up this month with:

I think this is indicative of a larger and more significant trend. Bandra is reinventing romcoms, but in reverse, and for yourself.

See, humans have always been masturbating, which is having sex with yourself. Considering that monkeys and chimpanzees also masturbate, maybe this goes back to our common ancestral primate. But the point is that having sex with yourself came first.

In the last few years, we have had the self-esteem and self-love movements, which encourage you to love yourself, not just have empty and meaningless sex with yourself. So now when it comes to ourselves, we have both sex and love.

But jumping straight into love is indicative that you are from a bad Bollywood movie, or possibly Bingo Little. Surely there should be some interaction and exploration of shared interests and attraction which leads up to love instead of just diving in and giving your heart away? And that is where Bandra Zumba classes come in: they encourage you to flirt with yourself by winking at yourself in the mirror. Bandra has essentially made self-love much easier by creating the important preliminary step of self-flirtation. Combined with other great inventions like Elco’s panipuri, the Pali Village Cafe sangria, and the Bandra East to Kurla skywalk, this will surely help Bandra in coming close to the standards of greatness set by Mumbai’s premiere neighbourhood, Mahim. But I digress.

In the future, Bandra will no doubt complete the deconstruction of the romantic comedy by somehow inventing a situation in which you accidentally encounter yourself thanks to a contrived coincidence. I urge the august members of the GRCA[footnote]Guys who love Romantic Comedies Anonymous, but also Gentlemen’s Romantic Comedy Association[/footnote] to keep a watch out for this happening.

Christmas Tree Whataboutery is the Stupidest Whataboutery

For the last few years, Delhi in Diwali seemed to be getting better and worse simultaneously. Better, because as the campaign against firecrackers in schools continued, and as the police started enforcing the midnight (was it 10 pm?) limit on bursting crackers, cracker use was dropping, and crackers themselves became less noisy. Worse, because despite dropping cracker use, Diwali getting more and more commercialised meant that traffic kept getting more nightmarish and costumes got more garish.

In the last two Diwalis, though, the shift away from crackers, which until now just had to overcome force of habit, ran up into sudden, vicious pushback of “How dare people tell us not to burn crackers! This is a threat to Hinduism!”

The idea that burning crackers is related to Hinduism on any level beyond sixty years of habit is stupid, but I won’t go into that right now.

The idea that Hinduism is under threat is even more stupid, but I won’t even go into that right now.

No, what I will write about in this post is one particular brand of whataboutery that is trotted out in dubious support of the original ‘threat to Hinduism’ argument. Because there are multiple whatabouteries which people are pushing in defence of crackers. Including:

  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using cars first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using air conditioners first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you fix crop burning first?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when millions of goats are slaughtered on Eid, huh?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when thousands of Christmas trees are chopped down on Christmas?

All of these except the crop burning one have nothing to do with firecracker pollution. Cars and air conditioners are admittedly greenhouse gas emitters, but don’t directly fill the air with unburnt sulphur and toxic gases. Neither does goat slaugher, and nor does chopping down Christmas trees.

But the Christmas tree whataboutery is such a special kind of stupid that I will now devote the rest of the post to debunking it. In a vast universe of stupid statements, this manages to be simultaneously ordinarily stupid, and, Pratchett-character-like, so stupid that it goes around into the other side to be sensible.

First, the ordinary stupidity. Worldwide, Christmas trees are not chopped down from virgin forests, you idiots! They are cultivated on farms and fresh ones are planted every year. Christmas tree decoration is not causing deforestation or denudation. Meanwhile, while they are growing, they are happily acting as carbon sinks.

Does that mean that they are completely environmentally benign? Probably not, because wherever they were planted was once a diverse forest or grassland rather than a single-species plantation. To that extent, a Christmas tree farm is a bad idea. But then, so is every other intensive farm on the planet, including wheat, rice, and marigold and chrysanthemum.

And on to the bit where the argument is so stupid and wrong, that it turns into something that actually makes sense.

Accusing Indians of choppping down trees for Christmas is stupid because most Christmas trees sold in India are not Christmas trees at all, but metal or plastic rods with green plastic leaves. So no actual trees are getting chopped down.

Why the argument still makes sense at some level despite being so wrong is because all that plastic is ultimately coming from petroleum or wood pulp extraction. If it’s from wood pulp, again, it would in all likelihood be coming from a managed forest and not from denudation; and if it’s coming from petroleum, that’s your carbon footprint right there.

Fortunately, there is a very simple, and environmentally friendly way to have a Christmas tree in India that involves neither plastic trees nor cutting down a tree from a forest, nor cutting down a tree at a tree farm. It was advised to me by Nilanjana Roy last year: get a potted plant, decorate it for Christmas, and then look after it for the rest of the year. Your garden gets an extra plant, and your Christmas decorations look all that nicer. So that is just what I did last Christmas.

 

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It was fantastic.

Punjab’s Resource Curse

A resource curse is when a place that has abundant supplies of natural resources (usually crude oil) ends up worse because of it. The concept explains, for example, why:

  • Saudi Arabia, which has so much crude oil, is nevertheless such a horrible place for human rights
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a supplier of all the rare minerals that go into our cellphones, is torn apart by civil war
  • Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh, which produce so much of India’s coal and iron ore, are miserably poor and underdeveloped compared to places which only buy up the power and steel products

Less extreme and gruesome examples of the resource curse include Dutch Disease, in which having lots of natural resource exports makes all your other industries less competitive. So even though the Netherlands didn’t descend into poverty or dictatorship after the discovery of natural gas, the rest of their economy suffered.

Although the Netherlands (and Norway!) managed to stay intact as democracies1, having lots of natural resources certainly does seem to make you more susceptible to dictatorship or authoritarianism, or at least make it harder to build democracy and the rule of law. This EconTalk episode, in which Leif Wenar talks about refusing to trade oil with dictatorial regimes is an interesting discussion on that. (For what it’s worth, I found it highly worth hearing, but it left me unconvinced because it didn’t really address the issue of oil and other commodities being very fungible in trade. But still very intriguing; and the bits about how to use resource revenues for the community or nation rather than to enrich dictators has interesting tie ins with the work of Elinor Ostrom2, which I am also reading these days.)

After hearing the episode and ruminating on it for a while, I had a moment of insight. That insight was this: Punjab has a resource curse too. The resource in question is fresh water.

My narrative goes something like this: for centuries, the five rivers (plus the Indus) in the Punjab made it a little more fertile than, say, the Ganga-Jamuna Doab or the Cauvery delta. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the Green Revolution was to Punjab what the invention of the oil well was to Texas or Arabia. The introduction of thirsty and productive hybrid varieties of wheat and rice meant that suddenly the abundant water resources, instead of being left to flow, were being rapidly converted into foodgrains3.

As irrigation, electrification and groundwater pumping stepped up, so did foodgrain production (though productivity eventually stagnated). Simultaneously, the slow decline of manufacturing began. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the freshwater resource curse became as bad in Punjab as the petroleum resource curse became for Arabian states, playing out in:

  • Khalistani separatism and terrorism
  • Police retaliation and brutality
  • The steady consolidation of the Badal family over the Shiromani Akali Dal

Meanwhile, as the state itself went bankrupt, and the power company even more so, manufacturing became practically unviable (being so far inland from a decent port doesn’t help either); and the drug abuse epidemic took off. And here Punjab is today, where manufacturing is unviable, agriculture itself is looking unsustainable after years of pumping groundwater and growing rice has left the soil waterlogged and unsuitable for cultivation, people across the state are drug addicts, and the best option for anybody with ambition is to migrate to Canada or Italy4. What a mess.

 

Saints, Transhumanists, and Death Eaters

In the past few years, my regular reading and podcast listening included:

And a few months ago, I realised that all these books and articles and episodes, which I had read as part of regular subscriptions, or unconnected curiosity, shared a common theme, and a theme, in fact that was linked to my reading from ten years ago: the Harry Potter series. That theme is the quest for immortality, and the pushback against it.

This will require a little bit of detail. Allow me to explain, because summing up will be inadequate. Let’s start with the Peter Brown book.

Reading The Cult of the Saints, you find out just how weird early Christianity was2. There were all sorts of different sects, any holy person could wander off and start his own, and, of course, there was the role the saints played after their lives.

According to The Cult of the Saints, the fact that Christianity made room for saints rather than just holy men was one of the things that helped it spread far and wide (even if with inconsistent practices), especially compared to Judaism. Judaism enjoined you to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was an onerous task in the ancient world. But with Christianity you could always go to the closest shrine of a saint.

What truly connects the early saints to everything else I mentioned, though, is what people believed about their lives and deaths. Which was this: that the saints weren’t as dead as ordinary people.

The gleaming white shrouds, the incense, the strict control of demonstrations of grief were a triumphal reminder of Christ’s triumph over “black death.”

The “shining way to Paradise” of Christian art and liturgy had in no way rendered translucent the facts of death for the average Mediterranean man.

Hence the emotional force that thrust the graves of the martyrs into prominence. Here, at least, were the graves of the very special dead. They had died in a special way; they lay in the grave in a special way; this fact was shown by the manner in which all that was most delightful and most alive in late-antique life could be though of as concentrated in their tombs and even (perhaps, as we shall see, particularly) in detached fragments of their dead bodies.

The late-antique cult of the martyrs represents, therefore, a consistent imaginative determination to block out the lurking presence, in the cemeteries of the Mediterranean world, of “black death.”

Their holiness meant that their remains didn’t decay3, and that their extant, non-decaying remains made their gravesites sources of powerful holiness that you could tap into to get your wishes fulfilled.

Peter Brown writes further that eventually – with the Protestant reformation and especially the Puritans – Christians came to look on death as natural and sweet grace, but this was very far from how Christianity had started out:

… the distance between early-modern Christian attitudes to death and those applied in late antiquity to the cult of the martyrs. The martyrs had triumphed over death; the iconography of the saints in late antiquity made no attempt to encompass “grim death” and “sweet grace” in one symbol. As Andre Grabar has written, “The imagery of a martyr’s relics is never in any case an imagery of the memento mori; rather it strives by all means in its power to proclaim the suppression of the fact of death.”

This was the first connection I drew: that the attitude of early Christians towards martyred saints was much like the admiration a Death Eater would feel towards Voldemort for managing to overcome death4.

I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death.

And it was the early modern Christians who took up a more Dumbledorish view of death:

And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.

Did the obsession with longevity or immortality transitioning into an acceptance of peaceful death happen only with Christianity? I haven’t read enough to say about, for example, Judiasm, Islam, or East Asian religions. But in India, Jainism talks about Tirthankaras having extraordinarily long lives; so a conflation of holiness and immortality is there too. And in Hinduism, where you find all sorts of contradictory statements depending on where you look, we have:

  • The claim that lifespan keeps dropping as we move from the Satyuga into the Kaliyuga; so that longevity is a desirable thing, but one that is associated not just with individual effort, but with the age and environment as a whole
  • As a counterpoint, we have the Mahabharata where Aswatthama is cursed with three thousand years of immortality; in which he will suffer all manners of disease and wounds; while also being isolated from any human contact – again, echoed by Voldemort’s shadow existence in the Harry Potter books.

suppose that the closest Greek myth comes to immortality and warning against it is the story of Orpheus trying to pull Eurydice out of the underworld and failing. But as I said, I’ve not read enough.

Let’s move on now to Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy. Because of his simultaneously admirable and frustrating way of never spelling things out so that you, the reader, have to do a lot of the work, it took me some Googling and Wikipedia reading to realise that the Jean le Flambeur trilogy is set in a world that took the ideas of early twentieth century Russian cosmists and set about making them real:

Fedorov argued that evolutionary process was directed towards increased intelligence and its role in the development of life. Humanity is the culmination of evolution, as well as its creator and director. Humans must therefore direct evolution where their reason and morality dictate. Fedorov also argued that mortality is the most obvious indicator of the still imperfect, contradictory nature of humanity and the underlying reason for most evil and nihilism of humankind. Fedorov stated that the struggle against death can become the most natural cause uniting all people of Earth, regardless of their nationality, race, citizenship or wealth (he called this the Common Cause).

Achieving immortality and resurrection of all people who ever lived are two inseparable goals, according to Fedorov. Immortality is impossible, both ethically and physically, without resurrection. We can’t allow our ancestors, who gave us life and culture, to remain buried, or our relatives and friends to die. Achieving immortality for individuals alive today and future generations is only a partial victory over death – only the first stage. The complete victory will be achieved only when everyone is resurrected and transformed to enjoy immortal life.

Fedorov stated that people needed to reconcile the difference between the power of technology and weakness of the human physical form. The transition is overdue from purely technical development, a “prosthetic” civilization, to organic progress, when not just external tools, artificial implements, but the organisms themselves are improved, so that, for example, a person can fly, see far and deep, travel through space, live in any environment. People must become capable of “organodevelopment” that so far only nature was capable of.

(Wikipedia: Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov)

Clearly, Fedorov took things much further than the early Christians (who believed that only saints could conquer death) or the Harry Potter mythos (in which anybody can conquer death but only Voldemort did); and prescribed conquering death for everybody. Without giving detailed spoilers, let me say that Rajaniemi’s books are about how the consequences of this actually happening are horrible.

And more interestingly, the Wikipedia page claims that Fedorov and the other Russian cosmists are the link between Christianity (though the Russian Orthodox flavour and not so much the Mediterranean late-antiquity flavour) and current day transhumanism. That is to say, the cosmists started off from Russian Orthodox Christianity, and came up with cosmism; and cosmism then inspired modern day transhumanists.

I won’t quote in detail from the New Yorker piece or EconTalk episodes, because the links above are free to read or listen; but current day transhumanists and life-extenders certainly do give off a vibe of having decided that any technological means necessary to end death are worth pursuing. To be fair, the article and the podcast both do draw distinctions between the sort of transhumanists who want to increase the quantity of good health and the ones who want to eliminate death altogether, but even so, there is a substantial number of people out there who seem unwilling to accept the finiteness of life.

The New Yorker piece does end with an equivocation about how the human race has always wanted to live longer while also seeing beauty in death; but I think the Peter Brown quotations above show that the two impulses may not have been equal at all times, but ebbed and flowed.

But it has certainly been there for a very long time, I realised recently. Because, in the period of laziness between realising this connection, and actually writing it up, I coincidentally came across one more literary work where the tension between chasing immortality and accepting death, and that literary work is supposedly the first ever piece of human literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh. The In Our Time episode on The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how Gilgamesh, horrified by the death of his friend (and perhaps lover) Enkidu, journeys across the world to find the immortal Utnapishtim and learn how to be immortal himself; only to be told that immortality is no longer on the shelf, and to be content with a life well lived. And Gilgamesh accepts.

Perhaps the transhumanists are right, and this time is different. But if they are, they will be running up against, and overturning a preoccupation that has been with us as a species since we created culture, and one where for the most part, we’ve been on the side of accepting death. Who knows just what painful changes we’ll need to make, to adapt to life without death?