Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Forgotten Map by Manfred Max-Neef: A Critique

The present is a reflection of the past. The state we are in today, whether good or bad, is a result of our actions of the past, the decisions that we made and the paths that we chose. Equally, the paths we choose today will determine our future.

The article is mainly concerned with the fact that the current state of spiritual vacuum and emotional turbidity that today’s generation finds itself in is a direct consequence of the ill-conceived decisions that were taken by the past generations. According to Max-Neef, human civillisation has chosen to bask in materialism and reason, while ignoring the spiritual. So while the world of brotherhood among all creations and nature introduced by St. Francis of Assisi was forgotten, we lapped up the principles of Machiavalli. Be it Pico Della Mirandola and Francis Bacon, or Giordano Bruno and Decartes, one point of view has always dominated, and shaped the perspective of people, the perspective of narrowness and mechanism.

In science, we have celebrated the doctrine of Galileo and Newton, who put reason and logic above all else. We have accepted mathematics and cold hard facts as the core of the so called scientific temperament. Goethe, at the same time had expressed the idea that the goal of science is spiritual enlightenment. That it is not possible to isolate the observer from the observed. That a spiritual dimension underlies everything physical. However his ideas have been obliterated by the sheer popularity of Galileo and Newton.

Thus, according to Max-Neef, our previous generations set humanity off on a downward spiral that has culminated in today’s world of unmitigated discontent and angst. As opposed to understanding, which is a holistic approach to learning, mankind has embraced knowledge, which is fragmented and incomplete. We are, therefore in a state of complete chaos, which is nothing but a result of the failure to take better decisions in the past.

The future, however does not have to be as hopeless. The decisions we will take today will present themselves in the future. We have to veer more towards harmony and true understanding as opposed to merely gathering knowledge. But for that to happen, a paradigm shift is required in the ‘language’ the governs this generation. According to the author, every generation has a dominant language the has to be consistent with the particular demands of that era. That was true until the present era, where ‘neo-liberalism’ has taken over the world. To change our approach to perception, we first need to change this language. Only then can the future generations escape the circle of spiritual poverty and detachment.

The article, although giving mostly one side of the argument, is not bereft of truth. Max-Neef feels quite strongly for the subject, as evident from his language and choice of words. It is true that for the most part, today’s generation is unsatisfied and frustrated. It can also be argued that such dissatisfaction is a result of the emotional bankruptcy and moral destituteness of present humanity as a whole. The decisions of the past, which included following the single-minded pursuit of knowledge leaving no room for spirituality has no doubt led to such a scenario.

Nevertheless, it is also true that such a pursuit has led to what we call progress. Perhaps if we had put more emphasis on spiritual upliftment, we would have been satisfied with whatever we had and not strived for a more convenient world. So while we can mourn all we want the loss of spiritual enlightenment, we have to accept that without the fruits of progress brought forth by the collective decisions that humanity took, living would have been a lot more difficult than it is today.


The article states that route taken by man all through these ages has led to the current global crisis. The author feels life would have been very different if man had taken the alternative route that had come across him though out his history. He tries to trace back in time, where man went terribly wrong in making decisions. He brings to notice few people from different periods of time whose ideas of love, spirituality, soul, hope are suppressed by ideas of fear, reasoning and mechanism and depression.

At first it feels like the author is trying to regret at whatever man has done. It feels like he is trying to convey that man has made some major blunders in making some major decisions, which is very true when we look back to history, but we don’t know under what circumstances those decisions were made. Sometimes situations have aroused in history like in wars where some decisions had to be made whether good or bad. The author tries to trace back an alternative route, by pointing at some decisive bifurcations which man can trace again to make the world a better place.

Man, through all the ages has always been selfish in all aspects. He feels it is safer to be feared than loved. People began to believe in only what they see, or was it people were brainwashed to believe only what they see. We see in history, how Christianism, during it upcoming shunned every other religious idea that was against it. Everything else was just suppressed or oppressed. Missionaries were sent all across the world to make people believe only on their ideals. As the author rightly points out the Christian virtues such as faith, hope and charity have metamorphosed into schizophrenia, depression and narcissism.

Man began to believe in reasoning and had the feeling that he was on his way to discover the truth which led to confusion on what was right and wrong. In this chaos, the ultimate truth of spirituality, god, love was lost somewhere. Man has progressed, but is it to just isolate himself from the society, lose his social identity and try to find virtual identities where he is someone else. Is it that man wants to escape from what is happening in the world or has he realized that some major blunders have been made in the past and its better not to indulge more. Or is he at just another bifurcation in life which he should not have taken.

I personally have always felt that we are in an age of ignorance because whatever is being done has no inner meaning or ultimate understanding. We are just happy in skimming through the surface and happy in collecting data and flaunting about it. Man has all the knowledge he wants about anything, all at the click of a button. The respect of value of knowledge is gone. Like the author says the journey in accumulations of knowledge has been great but where is all this leading to.

Every generations has its theme, the article says that man has been pretty good or successful in tackling the historical challenges prevalent in those periods by respective languages of those times. But isn’t this contradicting with earlier topics discussed in the article that man has failed in taking the decisions which could have led to a better world.

The author points out the emergence of neo-liberal discourse (a programme of methodical destruction) in the last three decades which has led to the doom and all the chaos. The result of which is a large gap between the rich and the poor. Money began making money. Rich became richer and poor became poorer. Bringing in a new theory that the rich are powerful and are the decision makers giving no place to huge mass of common people in any decision making. I sometimes wonder how the same man with money is so different from his counterparts with no money.

The article makes us realize we still have time to reflect back on what we have done and try to find an alternative map out of this confusion. The article is written in 1992, after which the map has gone much more complicated. One might feel how can an individual bring about a change or even think about bringing a change in this current world of chaos and confusion. But the problem is we begin to look at things largely and ignore all the small things. We’ll have to start out with bringing about changes in small things which sometimes can become a TIPPING POINT or may even become the new language of this period.