The auroville dome, which Suzanne Moore visited, under construction. Photo: Serge Duchemin
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In India, the next stage of evolution involves special socks and a substantial donation

There is no “money” in Auroville, yet the Indian boys at the café were soon bringing me patisserie for bribes. In the form of money.

Arriving in Chennai at 4am was grim. All I wanted was a cold beer. “Not possible. It’s the elections, madam. You may riot.”

I was at a hotel, waiting to be met by an inhabitant of a town I had become fascinated with. It exists to connect to a higher consciousness, and is described as “a site of material and spiritual search for a living embodiment of achieving Actual Human Unity”. Who would not want to go there?

Auroville was founded in 1968 by Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual companion Mirra Alfassa, “The Mother”. Aurobindo was remarkable. The first nationalist to insist on full independence for India, he was jailed for treason and kept in solitary confinement, where he had a number of spiritual experiences. He decided he must help develop transitional beings to become a Supermind. So the Mother created, first, an ashram and then, by 1969, Auroville, a township attempting to live a new form of collective life.

This is how I found myself in what basically looked like a bit of Charles de Gaulle Airport in the middle of a jungle in south India, trying to get a coffee.

There is no “money” in Auroville, yet the Indian boys at the café were soon bringing me patisserie – everything is pretty French – for bribes. In the form of money. I was shown to my room in a Zen house and told, “This is where the Dalai Lama stays.” They then served horrible porridge for breakfast, though I never managed to work out how to pay for it without money. So they seemed very annoyed.

It’s a huge place. One day I trekked miles to meet an old Aurovilian, with wild dogs running around me in the jungle. It was to talk about the philosophy of the place. He had a long, grey ponytail and spoke about repairing the hard drives of laptops for two hours, and then said he was too busy to say more, as he was having a dinner party. It was like something out of Lost. There were, everyone told me, “no drink or drugs” in Auroville. This was not the truth.

Some people there live in the most fantastic designer homes, others in shacks, but all the real work I saw was being done by Tamils. And no one else speaks Tamil, not even the people who have been there 40 years. Everything depends on complex rules, as all “communal” living must.

I was told off for talking near a banyan tree.

Eventually we were allowed into the Matrimandir, a giant golden globe that looks like a James Bond villain’s palace. We had to wear special socks to go in one of the “petal rooms”. It was purple and Star Trekky. We suppressed giggles and pretended to meditate.

A very annoyed Frenchwoman then explained to me that although everything was “shared” in Auroville, “You need to make a donation. How you say? A substantial amount.” The next stage of evolution costs. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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