Back to basics

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Cooperation is the cornerstone of humanity, some have not forgotten this

sometime in mid-2007, the world underwent a major demographic shift. For the first time, the earth's population was more urban than rural. The world had gone to town.

In terms of human history this may seem a welcome development, but it would be erroneous to say the countryside produces only bumpkins. The wheel was presumably a rural invention. And what would have city dwellers done without bread and grain from the countryside? Rural contribution to progress has always been held in less esteem. The city liberated humans from the tyranny of the soil and gave them the avenue to develop skills, learn from other people, study, teach and develop social arts that made country folk seem bumpkins. Our early civilizations, in the Indus valley, in Egypt, in China, in Greece, in Syria and Rome, were all urban. The Renaissance happened in the Italian city states. Cities in Europe were the harbingers of the scientific and industrial revolution. In modern Asia and Latin America, megapolises swallow farmlands as ever more villagers seek a better life in the city.

But life in the city also created complications. In ancient and mediaeval times epidemics shrunk urban populations--sometimes it fell by a quarter. Country people died too, but the city-dwellers were especially vulnerable. Their health depended then--as it does today--on clean water and sanitation, which few have, and medicines, which many can't afford. But cities tantalize with electricity, motorized transport, luxurious homes, TV sets. Those who can afford no longer need to knock on their neighbours' doors, they don't huddle into collectives. Those who cannot, aspire.

Today rural centres seek to replicate the urban. Geographer-ecologist Jared Diamond has a compelling phrase to describe this situation: consumers outnumbering producers.

There are some, however, who spurn modern amenities, go against the tide of atomization and prefer the good old virtues of altruism and cooperation. The Meshrams in Maharashtra are amongst those who don't want any of the modern complications. They give out their surplus produce for free, keep their consumption to the barest and have minimum use of cash. Is there a lesson for an economy that seeks minimum use of cash, but only substitutes it with plastic?

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