‘Listen. Here’s the voice of the planet’

The first edition of THiNK brought together an electric range of cutting-edge voices from across the globe. A reading of what excitements this yielded

November 19, 2011 in Culture
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FOR THE moment, we at TEHELKA are inhabiting the afterglow of THiNK 2011 — a festival of ideas TEHELKA hosted in collaboration with Newsweek (USA) in Goa over 4-6 November.

To merely say THiNK 2011 was a success would be to undermine the heartfelt response that has flowed in from those who were there. There was praise of course: almost everyone who attended said they had never been to an event like this one. But there was something larger that both hosts and audiences felt, something that was beyond our control as the event’s architects. Some who were there called it “magic” — that unknowable X-factor that breathes special life into things. But perhaps, in this case, the X-factor had a name: it was the power of thought and the sheer electric circle of engagement shared thinking can create.

For three days, from 9 am to 6.30 pm, not one chair sat empty. As idea after idea hurtled onto stage, speakers and listeners of every hue — students, scientists, corporates, tribal activists, inventors, artistes, movers and shakers, people from Goa and people from across the world — sat bound together in a sort of livewire trance: responsive, keen, feeding off each other’s energies, building something memorable.

If THiNK 2011 had one resounding message — it was to affirm that there is nothing more rejuvenating and noble in the human enterprise than the idea of thought, articulated with nuance and complexity. And if the event had one success, it was to accord that idea the excitement and centrality it deserves; to acknowledge that nuanced thought is — and must be — the key driving force in every society.

TEHELKA’S SPECIAL issue this week is meant to share some of the excitement of THiNK 2011 with readers who were not in Goa. Unfortunately, try as we might, this can only be a fraction of the lived experience. The written word cannot recall the balm of pianist Anil Srinivasan’s keys, braiding the idea of music and thought over three days; the ache of Israeli singers Noa and Mira Awad singing Ave Maria; the energy of Kailash Kher and Remo; the Sufi high of Sain Zahoor or the comic challenge of Papa CJ and the theatre troupe Menagerie. Nor can we evoke the acetylene energy of listening to 66 speakers in quick succession or the colours and textures of the nine artists who painted live at the venue.

But there are other distillates that can be shared. When we first started inviting speakers to THiNK, we followed no particular pattern: we only knew we wanted to spark new ideas through an eclectic mix of real-life players in the thick of contemporary events at one end of the spectrum and, at the other, get pure frontier thinkers, people shaping the future to come.

Yet curiously, three days of talking by extremely disparate speakers yielded some fascinating patterns.

The first lesson THiNK 2011 threw up is that thought has no eminent domain. As RTI activist Aruna Roy said, “You do not have to be educated to be able to think. The illiterate can also be very wise.”

Both she and tribal activist Dayamani Barla — daughter of a dispossessed farmer from Jharkhand — exhorted the powerful to listen to the poor and dispossessed, to understand why their inviolable relationship with Nature was not just a plea to safeguard their own livelihood but for the world itself.

Roy and Barla got a standing ovation, and, fascinatingly, their message reverberated through the days ahead. Speaker after speaker reiterated the same thing: Stuart Hart, one of the founding fathers of the ‘base of the pyramid’ economic theory, urged corporations to include the “voice of the planet” into their business practice and revise their idea of shareholders to include the urban and rural poor because their “competitive imagination” would drive new innovation and help create a ‘new capitalism’.

Pavan Sukhdev, former banker and head of several UN initiatives on green economy, also urged the world to put a value to Nature. “We cannot use Nature as free,” he said. The financial meltdown in the US and Europe had cost $2 trillion and their rescue packages made world headlines; yet each year the world was losing $4.5 trillion through deforestation and no one was taking notice.

Essar head Prashant Ruia acknowledged the inevitability of this clamour for change. “We need to get used to a new way of doing business,” he said. “One where we need to take into account not just profit, but also how our investments affect the environment, how they affect the people displaced.”

In fact, immense and imminent change was the leitmotif at THiNK 2011: every speaker pointed to a sense that the human race was poised at a momentous threshold. The Great Disruption, to quote Thomas Friedman, when Mother Nature and Father Greed hit the wall at the same time was here. The underlying question every speaker was inadvertently answering was: where do we go from here?

PART OF the excitement of THiNK 2011 was its kaleidoscopic concerns: science-investor Justin Hall-Tipping demonstrated how energy might soon be free; Carl Dietrich presented the flying car; astronomer Mike Brown upturned the idea of our solar system; and biophysicist Gregory Stock offered a sneak preview of life ahead when parents will be able to design their babies at birth, picking their gender, colour, IQ levels, beauty prowess and values — challenging the very notion of life, god and the universe itself.

One of life’s deficiencies is that we are born into the idea of a norm. We are told to live by a reality cast in stone. The only worthy opponent this reality has is the power of thought

Other speakers from Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh and India — writers, artists, architects, politicians and political thinkers — grappled with the nature of contemporary realities: hate, prejudice, nationhood, terrorism and the power of forgiveness and moderation.

But ultimately what triumphed was the transformative power of sensitive conversation. In its long and tumultuous journey, TEHELKA has always firmly believed in the possibility of building bridges — of talking not merely to the converted but bringing different, often violently different points of view, into a sane circle of reason and nuanced dialogue.

In the past, we have brought together grassroots leaders, corporates and politicians on the same forum; this time too, we strove to bring disparate worlds within hearing distance of each other. The greatest challenge of journalism is not just to expose but to open windows in the silos we inhabit.

One of life’s greatest deficiencies is that we are all born into a dominant idea of the norm. From the moment of our birth, we are taught to toe the line — to mimic, to do as others do, to understand and abide by the shape of reality as we inherit it. We are told this reality is cast in stone. It is the formidable cage in which we are reared and must live.

There is only one worthy opponent reality has: the power of thought. The shape of reality is constantly changed and bent by those who dare to question the norm. And the greatest gift thinking gives us is the knowledge that nothing is inevitable.

So can corporations ever have a change of heart? Can big money ever reinvent itself? Can democracy deepen? Can wars be averted by talking?

We will never have those answers until we start talking and questioning and listening. At THiNK 2011, five speakers got the most resounding applause: two tribals from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, two women from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and one reformed jihadi from the UK. And at the end of the event, a mining CEO’s wife asked to meet the tribal woman who had sworn to resist mining companies till her dying breath. “I want to talk to her more and understand what’s happening on the ground,” she said.

If there was an X-factor at play at THiNK 2011, this heightened desire to understand and listen surely had something to do with it.

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