While it might be hotter than hell, I think I may have found some version of Heaven on Earth. The relentless drone of traffic and car horns is long gone, despite it featuring prominently in my scene just 24 hours before. Instead, I hear nothing but the rustle of palm trees and a symphony of cacaws coming from the crows perched in the branches above.

Sweat drips down and off my face, but the steady breeze quickly rushes it away. The sun is deadly, but refuge can be found under the awning that stretches across the rooftop terrace.

I’ve heard many things about the Indian state of Kerala. Despite being small in terms of both population and area (although the term small takes on new relatively in the behemoth of humanity that is India), it’s somewhat of a darling in the world of development. Kerala still remains one of the “poorest” regions in India, but it does better than all other Indian states in a number of key areas, the most poignant being life expectancy and literacy rates.

This disconnect between economic and human development has left many economists and other development researchers a bit puzzled. But it’s given me a chance to romanticize about the way things could be, hopefully offering some food for thought as to how to move forward in creating sustainable societies.

Kerala was one of the first places in the world to democratically elect a communist government. In the years after Indian independence, it instituted some policies usually looked down upon by The World Bank and IMF, specifically comprehensive land reform. This, combined with the Keralan people’s perspective of society, has led to an improved human experience even though material conditions have remained relatively unchanged. 

After being in Kerala, speaking with a few people, and learning about the place, it seems to be a region with an anomalous contentment for what they have. While the whole world was (and is) scrambling to boost industry and to expand GDPs, Kerala recognized itself as an agricultural state and didn’t try to drift too far from this identity. This strategy catapulted it to the top of all Indian states in what really matters: health and well-being.

Sustainability and agriculture go hand in hand. Farming ties us to the Earth, reminding us of our dependent relationship with nature. Yet for most of human history, this dependence was a source of great suffering. The material conditions of pre-industrial rural life were harsh, and our collective efforts of the past 300 years are clearly an effort to rid ourselves from this painful dependence. Our actions, both in agriculture and in industry, reflect this desire to flee from suffering. But as we slowly uncover the effects of this ideology on the Earth, it should become clear that perhaps it’s time to change our perspective.

Automation will slowly replace manufacturing jobs. We’re told this automation will create more opportunities we can’t yet imagine, and it likely will. But we should be asking if more industrial jobs, or occupations that support it, are really what we need?

Focusing our efforts on creating employment without having to create more stuff is critical for building sustainable societies.

But this will require a significant cultural shift. Material pursuits would need to be replaced with artistic expression and spiritual exploration. And we would need to accept a far more important role for us as individuals in deciding the path of progress.

We’re not there yet, but someday we will be. Shifting our perspective about the role of agriculture in society and what it is we hope to get out growth is a good first step.

Yet this is not something that can be forced. On it’s own, no policy or incentive system can bring about cultural change. This change will come when there’s a broader ideological shift from viewing ourselves not as separate from nature but rather as a part of it.

The people from Kerala refer to their state as “God’s Own Country.” They are quite aware they’ve been blessed with something special, and they seem prepared to embrace that as best they can.

Kerala faces its own challenges, though. A healthy and educated youth wants to work, but they are struggling to find opportunities in Kerala. The region is experiencing somewhat of a brain drain as its best and brightest go elsewhere in search of rewarding opportunities.

Some might call this poor planning, but I am going to choose to call it being ahead of their time. Kerala does not exist in a vacuum, and perhaps now it’s living the consequences of having fooled itself into thinking it does. But the lessons to be learned from this part of the world are worth thinking about no matter what.

Sustainable societies are first built from within. Understanding how our individual thoughts and actions affect the world as a whole will help us identify what we’re doing well and what we could be doing better.

We are a part of Mother Earth, each one of us a tiny cell making up the great organism that is Life. The harshness of the material world has forced us to look away from this truth. And that’s okay. It’s gotten us this far. But as our needs change, so should our actions. We no longer need to rise above the natural forces that affect us, but rather learn how to live with them in harmony.

Agriculture requires this of us, and by working to restore its prominence in society, we can begin to redefine our understanding of ourselves and of our relationship to nature, paving the way for societies grounded in social and environmental justice.

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