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Reply To: The Air We Breathe


Very interesting article, Stephen – both the mythical aspects of the air we breathe and your subsequent thoughts about the collective journey we are taking.

Speaking from India, I can tell you we are in utter chaos. Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, they have been pushing the fascist philosophy of Hindu nationalism – and it has become even more virulent as they returned to power in 2019 with an even bigger majority. The country is for all practical purposes a police state now: protesters are jailed without bail, journalists are targeted regularly, and draconian laws are being framed. On the social front, Muslims get lynched with frightening frequency and right-wing leaders get away with hate speeches regularly. You will understand the gravity of the situation when I say that I am taking a risk making this post, as Big Brother’s eyes are everywhere.

But then came Corona, and dealt a blow to our already crippled economy. It also showed our country for what it was: a land where the majority live in abysmally poor conditions, despite our pretensions to becoming a global super power. And the poverty is rooted in our culture, the one we praise as golden. This was the great eye-opener: unless India does some serious introspection and go ahead with real social reengineering, our chance of existence as a viable nation itself is under threat. Our leaders still make bombastic statements, but they have started to sound hollow of late. India after Covid will be seriously different from India before Covid.

(BTW, this has forced me to reevaluate my understanding of Indian myth. So far, I was seeing it from the viewpoint of an upper-caste Hindu. But the moment the POV is changed, the myth also changes. But that is another topic altogether!)

Now, coming to the world: we were fed the lie that the current industrialised society is the only possible one. (And as an engineer, questioning this will get me burnt at the stake as a heretic!) But I had an epiphany of sorts when talking two engineer friends one day, when Greta Thunberg suddenly came on the TV screen. These two guys started grinding their teeth and cussing her – I was so shocked at the anger of mature men against a teen! Why the overreaction? But as I mulled it over, I understood – she was threatening the very basis of their worldview – that of the Engineer as the Controller of Nature.

And this is where I think, the next paradigm shift is coming – we will soon be looking at a “post-industrial” world. Industry as we know it is of very recent origin. It was a pathway that humanity took; but it was only one of the many possible pathways. Where we went wrong, was in getting ourselves to believe it was the only pathway. And contrary to what my engineer friends think, technology need not be for controlling the environment – it can be for adapting to it also. But for that, the POV has to change, and that is very difficult (we are seeing it with the major religions). Greta was showing that different POV, and to my friends it was like the safety net was being suddenly taken away from under the trapeze act they were playing.

So, I think that will be the paradigm shift in my personal journey as an engineer too. Already I have shifted over to Chemical Plant Safety – a field where I am trying to reduce the impact of industry on humans and the environment – but as I move towards the twilight of my career, I have decided to shift my focus to exploring how we can use engineering to live without industry as we know it.