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    The Enigma of Kerala

    Kerala (pronounced ker’uh luh) , a state of 29 million
    people in southern India, is poor–even for India–with a per
    capita income estimated by various surveys to be between $298 and
    $350 a year, about one-seventieth the American average. When the
    American anthropologist Richard Franke surveyed the typical
    Keralite village of Nadur in the late 1980s, he found that nearly
    half the 170 families had only cooking utensils, a wooden bench,
    and a few stools in their homes. No beds–that was the sum of their
    possessions. Thirty-six percent also had some chairs and cots, and
    19 percent owned a table. In five households he discovered
    cushioned seats.

    But here is the odd part.

    • The life expectancy for a North American male, with all his
      chairs and cushions, is 72 years, while the life expectancy for a
      Keralite male is 70.
    • After the latest in a long series of literacy campaigns, the
      United Nations in 1991 certified Kerala as 100 percent literate.
      Your chances of having an informed conversation are at least as
      high in Kerala as in Kansas.
    • Kerala’s birth rate hovers near 18 per thousand, compared with
      16 per thousand in the United States–and is falling

    Demographically, in other words, Kerala mirrors the United
    States on about one-seventieth the cash. It has problems, of
    course: There is chronic unemployment, a stagnant economy that may
    have trouble coping with world markets, and a budget deficit that
    is often described as out of control. But these are the kinds of
    problems you find in France. Kerala utterly lacks the squalid drama
    of the Third World–the beggars reaching through the car window,
    the children with distended bellies, the baby girls left to

    In countries of comparable income, including other states of
    India, life expectancy is 58 years, and only half the people (and
    perhaps a third of the women) can read and write; the birth rate
    hovers around 40 per thousand. Development experts use an index
    they call PQLI, for ‘physical quality of life index,’ a composite
    that runs on a scale from zero to a hundred and combines most of
    the basic indicators of a decent human life. In 1981, Kerala’s
    score of 82 far exceeded all of Africa’s, and in Asia only the
    incomparably richer South Korea (85), Taiwan (87), and Japan (98)
    ranked higher. And Kerala kept improving. By 1989, its score had
    risen to 88, compared with a total of 60 for the rest of India. It
    has managed all this even though it’s among the most densely
    crowded places on earth–the population of California squeezed into
    a state the size of Switzerland. Not even the diversity of its
    population–60 percent Hindu, 20 percent Muslim, 20 percent
    Christian, a recipe for chronic low-grade warfare in the rest of
    India–has stood in its way.

    It is, in other words, weird–like one of those places where the
    starship Enterprise might land that superficially resembles
    Earth but is slightly off. It undercuts maxims about the world we
    consider almost intuitive: Rich people are healthier, rich people
    live longer, rich people have more opportunity for education, rich
    people have fewer children. We know all these things to be
    true–and yet here is a countercase, a demographic Himalaya
    suddenly rising on our mental atlas. It’s as if someone
    demonstrated in a lab that flame didn’t necessarily need oxygen, or
    that water could freeze at 60 degrees. It demands a new chemistry
    to explain it, a whole new science.

    Kerala emerged at the end of the eighth century, when a Hindu
    monarchy supplanted a looser, feudal structure. The trade contacts
    of the ancient and early medieval periods–Kerala’s cardamom,
    pepper, turmeric, and other spices were constant attractions (our
    word ginger derives from a word in the local language,
    Malayalam)–eventually turned to more modern, and more
    exploitative, colonial domination. By 1792, the British controlled
    what is now Kerala, dividing it into three districts. The first
    hints of singularity came in that colonial era. In the southern
    two-thirds of the state, the British left the local princes on the
    throne. Hoping for an agricultural surplus large enough to satisfy
    both themselves and the British, these rajahs offered tax breaks
    for the reclamation of swamps and marshes, and they moved to give
    tenant farmers more control over the land. ‘Development policy in
    the whole world is generally considered to begin in the 1940s,’
    says historian Michael Tharakan. ‘But you can see the roots of it
    right from the beginning of the 19th century in Kerala.’ To
    conclude, however, that Kerala under the British was becoming an
    enlightened and democratic place would be a mistake. The tradition
    of caste, bulwark of the Hindu rulers since the eighth century, was
    as strong as ever in the nineteenth. At the top of the heap were
    the Namboodiri Brahmins, followed by the Nairs–soldiers and
    administrators–and various artisanal classes. Below all of them
    were the Ezhavas, roughly a fifth of the population, who
    traditionally made their living climbing palms to harvest the
    coconuts, and the Pulayas, the local untouchables. Within the
    various castes, innumerable complicated subsets emerged, and the
    codes of conduct became ever stricter and more degrading over

    Kerala is now less caste-ridden than any spot in the Hindu
    world; it is a transition more complete than, say, the
    transformation achieved by the civil rights movement in the
    American South. Looking backward, it is clear that some of this
    epic, and mostly peaceful, change can be traced to new economic
    conditions. As the British and the rajahs pushed cash crops instead
    of subsistence farming, and as more and more tenant farmers became
    involved with that market, the need for literacy, for instance,
    grew, and some of the old customs became financially ruinous.

    But a purely economic explanation of singular history is as
    unsatisfying as calling the Civil War a clash between industrial
    and agrarian economies. Economic factors are clearer in hindsight;
    to those who lived through the changes, they seemed much more
    dramatic and less inevitable. ‘The large masses of people accepted
    caste distinctions as part of the order of things’ writes M. K.
    Sanoo, a Keralite historian. ‘Each in his own set place, moving
    along the orbit of caste, as if it was nature. The men of those
    days could not even dream that any change was possible.’ Even
    Tharakan, a devout rationalist, says, ‘Though these changes had an
    economic base, they were mediated at the level of ethics, of moral
    dictums.’ Or, in plainer English, Kerala too had its Lincolns, its
    Martin Luther Kings, and to understand this quick and peaceful
    miracle–and perhaps to repeat it elsewhere–we need to catch their
    temper, see the ideas they set loose.

    Sri Narayana Guru was born in 1856 to an Ezhava family–in
    proper holy-guy fashion, in a hut ‘but a shade better than a
    cowshed.’ As a young man, he renounced worldly attachments and
    began to wander, sitting in caves with legs crossed and meditating,
    fasting, and consorting with lepers. As more people sought him out
    for healing or advice, he and his disciples felt the need for a
    regular temple for worshipping Shiva. At a beautiful spot in a
    river near Aruvippuram, he had his followers build a small canopy
    of coconut leaves and mango leaves over an altar on a rock jutting
    out in the water. The year was 1888. ‘They improvised lamps with
    shells and arranged them in rows. They were lighted at dusk and a
    piper began to play devotional tunes. The whole place was soon
    filled with pious village folk.’ Sri Narayana, who had been sitting
    apart and meditating all night, stood at midnight and walked into
    the river. As thousands watched silently (‘If silence had music,
    the atmosphere was filled with it,’ wrote one corres ondent) he
    descended into the river and then reemerged, holding an idol of
    Shiva. He stood beneath the canopy with it in his arms for three
    hours, totally lost in meditation, tears flowing down his cheeks.
    Finally, at three in the morning, he installed the idol on the

    His action was the Keralite equivalent of overturning the tables
    of the money changers, or refusing to give up a seat on the bus.
    From the beginning of time, so far as anyone knew, only Brahmins
    had ever installed an idol. ‘Yet when Swami performed the sacred
    rite it appeared so natural for him to pick up a small rock and
    install it.’ When Brahmin authorities arrived to question him about
    his action, he gave an answer that still makes Keralites laugh. ‘I
    have installed only the Ezhava Shiva,’ he said, a mockery of
    caste that undermined its rotten superstructure more than his
    actual deed.

    Caste did not crumble immediately, however. Sri Narayana Guru
    and many other reformers spent their lives campaigning for more
    rights–more opportunity, the right to enter and worship at all
    temples–for the various castes. But all the prosaic struggle for
    civil rights went on in an atmosphere of spirituality; more than
    the simple assertion of power by a group too large to be ignored,
    it was also the assertion of a moral ideal, a view of human dignity
    against the oppressions both of feudalism and of faith. ‘One caste,
    one religion, one God for man,’ was Sri Narayana Guru’s rallying

    Since oppression and religion were so intertwined in Hindu
    culture, social progress depended on religious reform, which could
    only come from religious leaders; there’s a sense in which
    activists like Sri Narayana Guru had to be both Martin Luther and
    Martin Luther King. He knew the freedom struggle was about much
    more than political independence. When a student of his said once
    that if all the Indians merely spat at the same time, the
    Englishmen would be drowned, the swami replied, ‘That is true. But
    the mouth becomes dry on seeing an Englishman.’ He was building new
    people as much as a new politics.

    In the morning, every road in Kerala is lined with boys and
    girls walking to school. Depending on their school, their uniforms
    are bright blue, bright green, bright red. It may be sentimental to
    say that their eyes are bright as well, but of all the subtle
    corrosives that broke down the old order and gave rise to the new
    Kerala, surely none is as important as the spread of education to
    an extent unprecedented and as yet unmatched in the Third

    Though Christian missionaries and the British started the
    process, it took the militance of the caste-reform groups and then
    of the budding left to spread education widely. The first great
    boom was in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in southern Kerala,
    where the princes acceded to popular demands for ever more schools.
    When leftists dominated politics in the 1960s, they spread the
    educational programs into Malabar, the northern state that had been
    ruled directly by the British, and began granting scholarships to
    untouchables and tribal peoples. By 1981, the general literacy rate
    in Kerala was 70 percent–twice the all-India rate of 36 percent.
    Even more impressive, the rural literacy rate was essentially
    identical, and female literacy, at 66 percent, was not far behind.
    Kerala was a strange spike on the dismal chart of Third World

    The government, particularly the leftists who governed for much
    of the late 1980s, continued to press the issue, aiming for ‘total
    literacy,’ usually defined as a population where about 95 percent
    can read and write. The pilot project began in the Ernakulam
    region, an area of 3 million people that includes the city of
    Cochin. In late 1988, 50,000 volunteers fanned out around the
    district, tracking down 175,000 illiterates between the ages of 5
    and 60, two-thirds of them women. The leftist People’s Science
    Movement recruited 20,000 volunteer tutors and sent them out to
    teach. Within a year, it was hoped, the illiterates would read
    Malayalam at 30 words a minute, copy a text at 7 words a minute,
    count and write from 1 to 100, and add and subtract three-digit
    numbers. The larger goal was to make people feel powerful, feel
    involved; the early lessons were organized around Brazilian teacher
    Paolo Freire’s notion that the concrete problems of people’s lives
    provide the best teaching material. ‘Classes were held in cowsheds,
    in the open air, in courtyards,’ one leader told the New York
    . ‘For fishermen we went to the seashore. In the hills,
    tribal groups sat on rocks. Leprosy patients were taught to hold a
    pencil in stumps of hands with rubber bands. We have not left
    anyone out.’ For those with poor eyesight, volunteers collected
    50,000 donated pairs of old eyeglasses and learned from doctors how
    to match them with recipients. On February 4, 1990, 13 months after
    the initial canvass, Indian prime minister V.P. Singh marked the
    start of World Literacy Year with a trip to Ernakulam, declaring it
    the country’s first totally literate district. Of the 175,000
    students, 135,000 scored 80 percent or better on the final test,
    putting the region’s official literacy rate above 96 percent; many
    of the others stayed in follow-up classes and probably had learned
    enough to read bus signs. The total cost of the 150 hours of
    education was about $26 per person.

    Organizers knew the campaign was working when letters from the
    newly literate began arriving in government offices, demanding
    paved roads and hospitals.

    Many people, sincerely alarmed by the world’s ever-expanding
    population, have decided that we need laws to stop the growth,
    that, sad as such coercion would be, it’s a necessary step. And
    they have some cases to point to–China, for instance, where
    massive government force probably did manage to contain a
    population that would otherwise have grown beyond its ability to
    feed itself. But as that country frees itself from the grip of the
    communists, the pent-up demand for children may well touch off a
    massive baby boom. Compulsion ‘does not work except in the very
    short term,’ writes Paul Harrison in his book The Third
    (Viking Penguin, 1993), and his case in point is
    India, which tried to raise its rate of sterilization dramatically
    in the 1970s. To obtain recruits for the ‘vasectomy camps’ erected
    throughout the country, the government withheld licenses for shops
    and vehicles, refused to grant food ration cards or supply canal
    water for irrigation, and in some cases simply sent the police to
    round up ‘volunteers.’ It worked, in a sense: In 1976, 8.3 million
    Indians were sterilized. But Indira Gandhi lost the next election
    largely as a result, the campaign was called off, and it was ‘ten
    years before the number of couples using modern contraception rose
    again to their 1972-73 peaks,’ Harrison writes. India’s population,
    which grew by 109 million in the 1960s and 137 million in the
    1970s, grew 160 million in the 1980s. That is the population of two
    Mexicos, or one Eisenhower-era United States.

    Kerala–and a scattered collection of other spots around the
    world, now drawing new attention in the wake of the United Nations’
    Cairo summit on population–makes clear that coercion is
    unnecessary. In Kerala the birth rate is 40 percent below that of
    India as a whole and almost 60 percent below the rate for poor
    countries in general. In fact, a 1992 survey found that the birth
    rate had fallen to replacement level. That is to say, Kerala has
    solved one-third of the equation that drives environmental
    destruction the world over. And, defying conventional wisdom, it
    has done so without rapid economic growth–has done so without
    becoming a huge consumer of resources and thus destroying the
    environment in other ways.

    The two-child family is the social norm here now, said M.N.
    Sivaram, the Trivandrum–capital of Kerala–representative of the
    International Family Planning Association, as we sat in his office,
    surrounded by family-planning posters. ‘Even among illiterate women
    we find it’s true. When we send our surveyors out, people are
    embarrassed to say if they have more than two kids. Seven or eight
    years ago, the norm was three children and we thought we were doing
    pretty good. Now it’s two, and among the most educated people, it’s
    one.’ Many factors contribute to the new notion of what’s proper.
    The pressure on land is intense, of course, and most people can’t
    support huge families on their small parcels. But that hasn’t
    stopped others around the world. More powerful, perhaps, has been
    the spread of education across Kerala. Literate women are better
    able to take charge of their lives; the typical woman marries at 22
    in Kerala, compared to 18 in the rest of India. On average around
    the world, women with at least an elementary education bear two
    children fewer than uneducated women. What’s more, they also want a
    good education for their children. In many cases that means private
    schools to supplement public education, and people can’t afford
    several tuitions.

    Kerala’s remarkable access to affordable health care has
    provided a similar double blessing. There’s a dispensary every few
    kilometers where IUDs and other forms of birth control are freely
    available, and that helps. But the same clinic provides cheap
    health care for children, and that helps even more. With virtually
    all mothers taught to breast-feed, and a state-supported nutrition
    program for pregnant and new mothers, infant mortality in 1991 was
    17 per thousand, compared with 91 for low-income countries
    generally. Someplace between those two figures–17 and 91–lies the
    point where people become confident that their children will
    survive. The typical fertility for traditional societies, says
    Harrison, is about seven children per woman, which ‘represents not
    just indiscriminate breeding, but the result of careful strategy.’
    Women needed one or two sons to take care of them if they were
    widowed, and where child mortality was high this meant having three
    sons and, on average, six children. In a society where girls seem
    as useful as boys, and where children die infrequently, reason
    suddenly dictates one or two children. ‘I have one child, and I am
    depending on her to survive,’ said Mr. Sivaram. ‘If I ever became
    insecure about that, perhaps my views would change.’

    Kerala’s attitude toward female children is an anomaly as well.
    Of 8,000 abortions performed at one Bombay clinic in the early
    1990s, 7,999 were female fetuses. Girl children who are allowed to
    live are often given less food, less education, and less health
    care, a bias not confined to India. In China, with its fierce birth
    control, there were 113 boys for every 100 girls under the age of 1
    in 1990. There are, in short, millions and millions of women
    missing around the world–women who would be there were it not for
    the dictates of custom and economy. So it is a remarkable
    achievement in Kerala to say simply this: There are more women than
    men. In India as a whole, the 1991 census found that there were
    about 929 women per 1,000 men; in Kerala, the number was 1,040
    women, about where it should be. And the female life expectancy in
    Kerala exceeds that of the male, just as it does in the developed

    Whatever the historical reasons, this quartet of
    emancipations–from caste distinction, religious hatred, the
    powerlessness of illiteracy, and the worst forms of gender
    discrimination–has left the state with a distinctive feel, a
    flavor of place that influences every aspect of its life. It is,
    for one thing, an intensely political region: Early in the morning
    in tea shops across Kerala, people eat a dosha and read one
    of the two or three Malayalam-language papers that arrive on the
    first bus. (Kerala has the highest newspaper-consumption per capita
    of any spot in India.) In each town square political parties
    maintain their icons–a statue of Indira Gandhi (the white streak
    in her hair carefully painted in) or a portrait of Marx, Engels,
    and Lenin in careful profile. Strikes, agitations, and ‘stirs,’ a
    sort of wildcat job action, are so common as to be almost
    unnoticeable. One morning while I was there, the Indian
    ran stories on a bus strike, a planned strike of
    medical students over ‘un

    reasonable exam schedules,’ and a call from a leftist leader for
    the government to take over a coat factory where striking workers
    had been locked out. By the next day’s paper the bus strike had
    ended, but a bank strike had begun. Worse, the men who perform the
    traditional and much beloved kathakali dance–a stylized
    ballet that can last all night–were threatening to strike; they
    were planning a march in full costume and makeup through the
    streets of the capital.

    Sometimes all the disputation can be overwhelming. In a long
    account of his home village, Thulavady, K.E. Verghese says that
    ‘politics are much in the air and it is difficult to escape from
    them. Even elderly women who are not interested are dragged into
    politics.’ After several fights, he reports, a barbershop posted a
    sign on the wall: ‘No political discussions, please.’ But for the
    most part the various campaigns and protests seem a sign of
    self-confidence and political vitality, a vast improvement over the
    apathy, powerlessness, ignorance, or tribalism that governs many
    Third World communities.

    How can the Kerala model spread to other places with different
    cultures, less benign histories? Unfortunately, there’s another
    question about the future that needs to be answered first: Can the
    Kerala model survive even in Kerala, or will it be remembered
    chiefly as an isolated and short-term outbreak from a prison of

    In the paddy fields near Mitraniketan, bare-chested men swung
    hoes hard into the newly harvested fields, preparing the ground for
    the next crop. They worked steadily but without hurry–in part
    because there was no next job to get to. Unemployment and
    underemployment have been signal problems in Kerala for decades. As
    much as a quarter of the state’s population may be without jobs; in
    rural villages, by many estimates, laborers are happy for 70 or 80
    days a year of hoe and sickle work. And though the liberal pension
    and unemployment compensation laws, and the land reform that has
    left most people with at least a few coconut trees in their house
    compound, buffer the worst effects of joblessness, it is
    nonetheless a real problem: In mid-morning, in the small village at
    the edge of the rice fields, young men lounge in doorways with
    nothing to do.

    To some extent, successes are surely to blame. A recent report
    published by the Centre for Development Studies looked at the coir
    (coconut fiber), cashew processing, and cigarette industries and
    concluded that as unions succeeded in raising wages and improving
    working conditions, they were also driving factories off to more
    degraded parts of India. Kerala’s vaunted educational system may
    also play a role. Because of what they are taught, writes M.A.
    Oommen, ‘university graduates become seekers of jobs rather than
    creators of jobs.’ In Kerala, says K.K. George of the Centre for
    Development Studies, ‘the concept of a job is a job in a ministry.
    When you get out of school you think: `The state should give me a
    job as a clerk”–an understandable attitude, since government
    service is relatively lucrative, completely secure, and over, by
    law, at age 55. Large numbers of Keralites also go into medicine,
    law, and teaching. That they perform well is proved by their
    success in finding jobs abroad–as many as a quarter million
    Keralites work at times in the Persian Gulf–but at home there is
    less demand.

    The combination of a stagnant economy and a strong commitment to
    providing health and education have left the state with large
    budget deficits. Development expert Joseph Collins, for all his
    praise of progress, calls it a ‘bloated social welfare state
    without the economy to support it,’ a place that has developed a
    ‘populist welfare culture, where all the parties are into promising
    more goodies, which means more deficits. The mentality that things
    don’t have to be funded, that’s strong in Kerala–in the midst of
    the fiscal crisis that was going on while I was there, some of the
    parties were demanding that the agricultural pension be

    But the left seems to be waking up to the problems. Professor
    Thomas Isaac–described to me as a ’24-karat Marxist’ and as a
    wheel in the Communist Party–said, ‘Our main effort has been to
    redistribute, not to manage, the economy. But because we on the
    left have real power, we need to have an active interest in that
    management–to formulate a new policy toward production.’ Instead
    of building huge factories, or lowering wages to grab jobs from
    elsewhere, or collectivizing farmers, the left has embarked on a
    series of ‘new democratic initiatives’ that come as close as
    anything on the planet to actually incarnating ‘sustainable
    development,’ that buzzword beloved of environmentalists. The left
    has proposed, and on a small scale has begun, the People’s Resource
    Mapping Program, an attempt to move beyond word literacy to ‘land
    literacy.’ Residents of local villages have begun assembling
    detailed maps of their area, showing topography, soil type, depth
    to the water table, and depth to bedrock. Information in hand,
    local people could sit down and see, for instance, where planting a
    grove of trees would prevent erosion.

    And the mapmakers think about local human problems, too. In one
    village, for instance, residents were spending scarce cash during
    the dry season to buy vegetables imported from elsewhere in India.
    Paddy owners were asked to lease their land free of charge between
    rice crops for market gardens, which were sited by referring to the
    maps of soil types and the water table. Twenty-five hundred
    otherwise unemployed youth tended the gardens, and the vegetables
    were sold at the local market for less than the cost of the
    imports. This is the direct opposite of a global market. It is
    exquisitely local–it demands democracy, literacy, participation,
    cooperation. The new vegetables represent ‘economic growth’ of a
    sort that does much good and no harm. The number of rupees
    consumed, and hence the liters of oil spent packaging and shipping
    and advertising, go down, not up.

    With high levels of education and ingrained commitment to
    fairness, such novel strategies might well solve Kerala’s economic
    woes, especially since a stabilized population means it doesn’t
    need to sprint simply to stay in place. One can imagine, easily, a
    state that manages to put more of its people to work for livable if
    low wages. They would manufacture items that they need, grow their
    own food, and participate in the world economy in a modest way,
    exporting workers and some high-value foods like spices, and
    attracting some tourists. ‘Instead of urbanization, ruralization,’
    says K. Vishwanathan, a longtime Gandhian activist who runs an
    orphanage and job-training center where I spent several days. At
    his cooperative, near the silkworm pods used to produce
    high-quality fabric, women learn to repair small motors and
    transistor radios–to make things last, to build a small-scale
    economy of permanence. ‘We don’t need to become commercial agents,
    to always be buying and selling this and that,’ says Vishwanathan.
    He talks on into the evening, spinning a future at once humble and
    exceedingly pleasant, much like the airy, tree-shaded community he
    has built on once-abandoned land–a future as close to the one
    envisioned by E. F. Schumacher or Thomas Jefferson or Gandhi as is
    currently imaginable. ‘What is the good life?’ asks Vishwanathan.
    ‘The good life is to be a good neighbor, to consider your neighbor
    as yourself.’

    A small parade of development experts has passed through Kerala
    in recent years, mainly to see how its successes might be repeated
    in places like Vietnam and Mozambique. But Kerala may be as
    significant a schoolhouse for the rich world as for the poor.
    ‘Kerala is the one large human population on earth that currently
    meets the sustainability criteria of simultaneous small families
    and low consumption,’ says Will Alexander of the Food First
    Institute in San Francisco.

    Kerala suggests a way out of two problems simultaneously–not
    only the classic development goal of more food in bellies and more
    shoes on feet, but also the emerging, equally essential task of
    living lightly on the earth, using fewer resources, creating
    less waste. Kerala demonstrates that a low-level economy can create
    a decent life, abundant in the things–health, education,
    community–that are most necessary for us all. Gross national
    product is often used as a synonym for achievement, but it is also
    an eloquent shorthand for gallons of gasoline burned, stacks of
    garbage tossed out, quantities of timber sawn into boards. One
    recent calculation showed that for every American dollar or its
    equivalent spent anywhere on earth, half a liter of oil was
    consumed in producing, packaging, and shipping the goods.
    One-seventieth the income means one-seventieth the damage to the
    planet. So, on balance, if Kerala and the United States manage to
    achieve the same physical quality of life, Kerala is the vastly
    more successful society.

    Which is not to say that we could ever live on as little as they
    do–or, indeed, that they should. The right point is clearly
    somewhere in between. Logical as a middle way might be, though,
    we’ve not yet even begun to think about it in any real terms. We’ve
    clung to the belief that perhaps someday everyone on earth will be
    as rich as we are–a belief that seems utterly deluded in light of
    our growing environmental awareness. Kerala does not tell us
    precisely how to remake the world. But it does shake up our sense
    of what’s obvious, and it offers a pair of messages to the First
    World. One is that sharing works. Redistribution has made Kerala a
    decent place to live, even without much economic growth. The second
    and even more important lesson is that some of our fears about
    simpler living are unjustified. It is not a choice between suburban
    America and dying at 35, between agribusiness and starvation,
    between 150 channels of television and ignorance.

    It is a subversive reality, that stagnant/stable economy that
    serves its people well, and in some ways it is a scary one. Kerala
    implies that there is a point where rich and poor might meet and
    share a decent life, and surely it offers new data for a critical
    question of our age: How much is enough?

    Excerpted with permission from DoubleTake, a magazine of
    photography and literature (Summer 1995).
    Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 56070, Boulder, CO
    Back issues $12 from 1317 W. Pettigrew St., Durham, NC 27705.

    Published on Oct 9, 2007


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