Spinoza Prize winner Joyeeta Gupta tries to do things differently

When Gupta told Pranay Sanklecha her story

Leading the Charge through Earth's New Normal For the future generations: Joyeeta Gupta at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland | Courtesey World Economic Forum
Pranay Sanklecha Pranay Sanklecha

Life is lived forwards, said the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, but it can only be understood backwards.

These words came to mind as Professor Joyeeta Gupta told me about her journey from a childhood in India to a professorship in the University of Amsterdam, and to being the latest winner of the Spinoza Prize.

The Spinoza Prize (€1.5 million) is awarded by the Dutch Research Council and is named after the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. It is the highest honour a scientist can receive in the Netherlands; the Dutch Nobel, if you will.

As Gupta told me her story, one impression was of forward momentum, of constant movement and progress. All of it could be explained by one underlying theme.

All her life, it seemed to me, she has refused to accept that the world must stay as it is. She has consistently asked: Why can’t we dream of a better life?

Joyeeta Gupta was born and mostly brought up in Delhi in an educated middle-class family. She went to a convent school and then studied economics at university.

Her ambition, however, was to be a lawyer. She used to read Perry Mason when she was young. “I really liked it. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer, my father didn’t. He would send me to Patiala House, to go and see the criminal law courts in Delhi. So although I wanted to study law, I decided against criminal law.”

At that time, you could only study law as your second degree. So she did economics and then the plan was to move on to studying law.

Gupta wrote an essay in her application explaining her inability to take TOEFL and pay the $100 fee. Harvard accepted the application. It gave her a place, but no scholarship.
We need, Gupta suggests, a reorganisation of the entire economy. We need to reimagine what well-being is; what flourishing is; we need to create a different world so that we don’t destroy the planet.

Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth, said Mike Tyson. And just as she was on the cusp of realising her ambition, life punched Gupta in the mouth. Her father, an Air Force officer, suffered a heart attack a few months before his retirement. That meant there would be no post retirement job. This changed the financial circumstances of her family.

Her uncle invited her to stay with his family in Ahmedabad. “At that time,” she said, “education in Ahmedabad was free for women.” So, she went to Ahmedabad.

The financial circumstances demanded that she earn money while studying.

She saw an ad in the paper: a consumer insight journal needed an editor. The job would take eight hours a week, the ad said.

Gupta offered to do it in four hours. She got the job and did it for three years.

Simultaneously, she wrote a column on consumer issues for the Indian Express every Saturday for three years.

While doing all of this, she said, she decided to apply for a scholarship to Harvard.

I blinked. What?

“Harvard,” she said, “was a childhood ambition.”

To appreciate the crazy courage of this, you have to get into a time machine.

Today, it is normal for Indians to study abroad. Back then, before liberalisation, it wasn’t just hard―it wasn’t even on the radar. To dream of studying at Harvard for a middle-class Indian was in itself a radical achievement of the imagination. And then, to move beyond dreaming and make it happen―it takes something very special to do this.

Harvard charged $100 as application fee and it also required the TOEFL qualification. Gupta did not have the money to pay the fee or take TOEFL.

At this point, many people would have stopped. Gupta didn’t.

She wrote an essay in her application explaining her inability to take TOEFL and pay the $100 fee. Harvard accepted the application. It gave her a place, but no scholarship.

Then, the Inlaks Foundation gave her a scholarship.

In the late 1980s, the Harvard graduate fell in love with a Dutch man and moved to Holland. (Their son is now 22.)

One of the obstacles she faced there was that she could not speak the local language. Rather than find a reason to stop, she treated it as a hurdle to jump over. She wrote to the environment ministry and got a job writing stuff up in English and became an in-house consultant to the ministry.

In that job, she was told: in-house, in our private meetings, you can say whatever you think. But as soon as it’s public facing, you have to toe the party line.

A few years later, her ex-boss at the ministry, Pier Vellinga, who had become director of the Institute for Environmental Studies of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, called her. He said: ‘I have a job for you where you can think and say what you want.’ And thus began her journey into Dutch academia. She has done research on how good governance can help solve climate change crisis.

Professor Gupta’s approach to issues of climate change is similar to her approach in life: she questions norms; she refuses to accept conventions that constrain. Why does it have to be the way it was before, she asks. Why can’t we imagine something better and different?

There are two sides to this. On the one hand, there is a clear-eyed acceptance of reality: in a paper published in the journal Nature, Gupta and her co-authors argue that meeting the minimum needs of people will lead to us crossing the safe planetary boundaries of emissions. In fact, they further argue, some of these boundaries have already been exceeded.

On the other hand, there is a refusal to simply bow down before the status quo, and there is the same radical act of imagination that was involved in applying to go to Harvard. Gupta asks: Why do we have to continue living this way? Why can’t we do things differently?

We need, she suggests, a reorganisation of the entire economy. We need to reimagine what well-being is; what flourishing is; we need to create a different world so that we don’t destroy the planet.

Do we really need this?

Let me relate two facts I learned from her.

Fact 1: Scientifically speaking, the wet bulb temperature is a function of heat and humidity in the air. But from a human perspective, it is best seen as a measure of heat stress: it is the point at which a human body is no longer able to cool itself down by sweating, because when the wet bulb temperature is reached, sweat is no longer able to evaporate from the skin.

And once this happens, the human body immediately begins to overheat. Symptoms come on quickly: fast pulse, heavy sweating, vomiting, dizziness. In a matter of hours, people suffer organ failure, unconsciousness and, ultimately, death.

This―the breaching of the wet bulb temperature and the associated human tragedy―has already happened several times in India in 2022 and 2023, and if we continue with business as usual, will happen even more frequently.

Fact 2: India has crossed the limit on water overuse. It has reached the point where we are using water above the so-called “recharge rate”. In layman’s terms, we are drawing down on our water savings account, and at some point it will hit zero.

People dying of heat and drought―this is already happening, says Gupta, and it will happen more and more to more people if we continue with business as usual.

So perhaps it may be worth listening to her when she says we need to reorganise the economy and reimagine what a flourishing and successful human life is.

This will be an enormous effort and will require sacrifice and create burdens. This is the other big focus of Gupta’s work: it is not enough that humanity addresses the climate catastrophe, she says. It must do so justly. We have to establish just and equitable distributions of emissions, and just and equitable access to food, water, energy and infrastructure.

All of this sounds rather like dreaming, doesn’t it?

Well, yes. That’s rather the point. Gupta’s professional life is living testimony to the power of having dreams.

As I said earlier, Gupta has consistently asked: Why can’t we dream of a better life? Her life is an embodiment of dreaming the impossible.

It is also, I now realise, an embodiment of something else too, something much harder than dreaming.

It is an embodiment of working to make the dream come true.

The writer is a former professor of philosophy, who lives in Austria.