Sharing the pie

[Aseem Shrivastava] Policymakers say that the size of the pie in developing countries has to be enlarged before it can be distributed more equitably. But the way a country’s economy grows will determine whether there is anything left to distribute at the end of the growth process.

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Albert Einstein

Three closely related ecologies – involving us with the environment (natural), with each other as human communities (social), and with ourselves at a subjective plane (mental) – have been thrown out of balance by the enormity of the changes precipitated by the industrial revolution which began in Europe in the 18th century. With their ambitious developmental goals, Asian economies, especially China and India, have recently taken over from where Japan and the West left off. Given that every three out of eight people in the world is a Chinese or an Indian, there is cause for real global concern, given their present growth rates.

The issues are myriad and complex but they all point together in one direction: thanks to the three streams of ecological consequences, our modern (corporate-consumerist) way of life has been put into question by the enormous progress of technology and the explosion of population during the last few centuries. As we saw in Part I of this essay (–-and-we-–-are-in-peril.html), the path to ecological catastrophe has been paved by the well-oiled dynamics of the world market, fuelled in recent times by the forces of corporate globalisation. There is a definite method in the madness today. The smoother global market processes become, the greater the ecological disorders that follow from their operation. Governments usually find themselves powerless to bring about the necessary radical changes in policy that are called for. The impasse over the international negotiations around emissions-reductions to stem the tide of climate change is a case in point.

To believe that profit-seeking, growth-maximising corporations would together consent to the internalisation of (increasingly international) externalities, and thus be willing to pay the costs of the damage that they cause (which most economists hold out as the market solution to the ecological crisis) is to fail to appreciate the enormous political power (nobody today is more powerful!) that is wielded by the world’s ‘overclasses’ – its investor elites, financial institutions and transnational corporations. The view also fails to recognise that so much of the ecological damage (such as permanent loss of biodiversity and possibly runaway climate change) being caused by rapid economic growth is actually irreversible and thus impossible to redeem in man-made money. Concrete losses can never be made good by compensations in abstract terms. This is a theme we shall return to in the next part of this essay.

The first part of this essay began the analysis of some of the flawed philosophical assumptions on which so much of the intellectual defence of modern economics (against ecological charges) is based. The second part continues with the dissection of further errors in the reigning way of thinking.

Technology alone will not do it for us 

To begin with, it has become necessary to point out that the planet, which is said to be in peril, can readily do without us, as it once did. If every single one of us returns to the bowels of the earth as a consequence of the ecological imbalance which we are helping to precipitate, the planet, physics tells us, will likely continue to roll in its spatial orbit at this edge of the galaxy – though unable to support any organic life. The laws of planetary motion, as much as of entropy, will continue to operate in our absence, just as they once did, when human beings had not appeared on earth. A tree can lose many of its branches and still survive. [I] We[/I] are the ones who are altogether dispensable, not the earth which supports us. The conquerors of nature might well find themselves among the conquered.

Moreover, it is critical at this juncture to acknowledge the nature of the power that modern technology bestows. Our competitive hubris – involving myths about ‘the conquest of nature’ – is ignited just at the time when what is required of us is utter humility. It is certainly true that the systematic application of modern scientific knowledge has helped to create a formidable technological edifice which has greatly enlarged the possibilities before humanity. Human lifespans have been significantly lengthened by discoveries in medicine. Thanks to the miracles of aeronautical engineering, journeys which used to take months by ship can now be completed in hours. Rapid developments in electronics have enabled us to instantaneously see and hear things happening at any point on the earth’s surface. The growth of information and telecommunication technologies has connected all humanity for the first time. No one can deny the enormously greater power that humanity can wield today in its attempt to live a good, meaningful life.

But, like Prometheus in the Greek myth of old, we are also subject to the punishment that is reserved for us if all these successes feed our hubris rather than our humility. ‘The conquest of nature’ can be no more than a lethal myth if people die every day from tiny viruses and bacteria (as, for instance, in the case of the spread of swine flu) and if our bodies remain all too vulnerable to the elements whenever they decide to unleash their force upon us – increasingly in response to our own prior excesses. The full might of the US was unable to do much to stop the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Nor has the superpower-in-waiting, China, been able to prevent the enormous damage being caused by Typhoon Morakot. As extreme weather events multiply around the world we are only now beginning to see what anthropogenic climate change amounts to in practice.

No, technology alone will not do it for us, if only because of its enormous power to precipitate ecological harm on a scale unprecedented in history. Technologies of resource extraction, transport, freight, manufacture and distribution have grown in power to such dimensions that it has become difficult to see how the same practices and intellectual habits which have caused the ecological problems can help to solve them. It is time that Einstein’s words (quoted at the start of this essay) are heeded.

Most of modern technology relies on the use of fossil fuels and non-renewable resources. There have been no significant breakthroughs which would strengthen hopes that the use of renewable resources and energy supplies can quickly replace existing industrial and transport systems on the scale – and with the speed – required. Climate scientists point out that the window of opportunity for concerted action to prevent runaway climate change will close well within a decade from now.

“We cannot command nature except by obeying her”, Francis Bacon, the original advocate of ‘the conquest of nature’ had to acknowledge. The truth of this paradox can only be digested in a spirit of humility. Hubris will only obfuscate and confuse what is actually quite readily understood in its absence. The planet will wreak havoc on us even as we aim to build a ‘smarter’ one.

Compartmentalised thinking is unholy!

Thanks to decades of relentless specialisation in knowledge, compartmentalised thinking informs the bulk of policymaking and planning today. As we saw in the case of Larry Summers, economists (with some noble exceptions) typically pretend that the economies they analyse and propose policies for operate in an ecological vacuum. If at all the environment figures in their calculations, it appears almost as an afterthought, when the external costs of market transactions have to be reckoned with (that too, mostly in theory alone). Isn’t it ironical that a discipline as important as economics, which defines itself as a study of the allocation of scarce resources among alternative ends, should be mostly manned by practitioners who in their aggressive growth prescriptions pay so little heed to the fact that not only are resources vanishing from the world, the modern industrial system is today caught in a sharp pincer movement between resource exhaustion and the growing menace of pollution and climate change?

The same amnesia about ecological context informs the thinking, plans and actions of engineers, technocrats and state bureaucracies. Account is rarely taken of the ecosystems within which industrial, infrastructure or mining projects are undertaken. This is especially true in developing countries like India where, we are repeatedly told, the conflict between development and ‘the environment’ must be resolved as often as possible in favour of the former, given the great needs of large, poor populations. The possibility that the supposed conflict between development and the environment is a mis-statement of the real challenge (to allow the poor to make a decent livelihood in sustainable ways) is never considered. The reason has to do with the fact that planners adopt a presumptuous attitude in which it is assumed that technological modernisation and Western standards of living must be the goal for all. What if such affluence would make the earth uninhabitable in the not-so-distant future? What if the dominant model can never be generalised for the entire world’s population?

If there is one lesson that one might draw from the young science of ecology, it is that phenomena – man-made as much as natural – are deeply interdependent and dynamic. Human interventions on behalf of economic growth and development take place in concrete ecological contexts. Non-human nature is not passive to this. She responds in her own mysterious ways, often to the detriment of human communities. This is as true of the many large dams that have silted over, bringing about destructive floods, as of the pollution of the oceans by the oil tankers, causing severe reductions in the fish population. The side-effects of human actions frequently outweigh the intended ones. Examples – from the long-term consequences of deforestation for the water-cycle to the growing frequency of disasters being precipitated by anthropogenic climate change – can be multiplied without limit.

The catch in the game is that the benefits of such interventions typically accrue to one set of people in human society, while the costs (at least in the short- to medium-term) are borne by another set. The powerful and the wealthy are in this way successful at being able to shift much of the ecological costs of their actions to distant human communities that lack the power and the resources to respond. In the long run, as the ecological balance of large self-correcting systems is upset, there are no winners. Everyone reaps the whirlwind.

We are being repeatedly lectured by policymakers as to how the size of the pie (in developing countries) has to be enlarged before it can be distributed better. The question of equity is postponed in order to favour the priority of overall economic growth. If what has been said earlier about the relationship between ecological imbalance and growing socio-economic differences is true, many of the environmental effects of ‘dis-equalising’ growth will kick in to jeopardise economic growth before the size of the pie becomes large enough to distribute to a wider cross-section of the population. The way a country’s economy grows will determine what will be left to distribute at the end of the growth process. In particular, the growth process has to have due respect for ecological limits and balances if it is to be sustainable at all, let alone fair.

Taking reasonable cognisance of carbon emissions and the degradation of natural capital, while researching the growth of developing countries between 1970-2000, environmental economist Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University reaches the shocking conclusion that their GDP per capita actually fell over the three decades of the study! India’s growth rate per capita was barely sustainable when account was taken of the degradation of ecosystems and nature.

Dasgupta’s conclusions should sound a note of warning for practitioners of development economics. He notes that “we should be circumspect about market-friendly solutions to environmental problems. Externality markets are inevitably thin, meaning that without a sympathetic involvement of the state, the elite would be expected to enjoy the spoils from ecological services.” Further, “development policies that ignore our reliance on ecological capital are seriously harmful – they don’t pass the mildest test for equity among contemporaries, nor among people separated by time and uncertain contingencies.”

It is clear that the lack of a holistic vision in which the myriad interactions between human society and the natural environment which supports it are understood as a complex unity lies behind the routine failure of development policies to address the long-standing issues of poverty and inequality. There is little doubt – given their enormous dependence on common property resources and remote ecosystems – that ecological harm reaches the poor long before it hurts the affluent. Contrariwise, as we have seen, socio-economic imbalances manifested in such things as growing inequity in the distribution of income and wealth ultimately have profound consequences (often far-flung and stretching into the future) for ecological balance.

One way to consolidate one’s grasp of this point is to consider what happens to the constitution and behaviour of a city’s traffic as its income and wealth distribution gets increasingly inequitable.

The cul-de-sac of Nanonomics

Consider a city where most people travel by bicycles, rickshaws and buses. Some (perhaps 25%) travel by scooters and motorcycles. Only a privileged miniscule minority (maybe 5%) own cars. Next, let’s imagine that with economic growth the wealthy get a lot richer and some of the more modest households (earlier using motorised two-wheelers) turn into middle class consumers who can now afford small cars. Most people, however, still have to rely on public transport, bicycles and rickshaws for their everyday travel needs.

With access to the global market for automobiles, and living as they do in a society driven by status-conscious consumption, the likelihood is that the wealthy (now a lot wealthier, after economic growth) will start using much bigger, fancier cars, which will often use more fuel per mile travelled. They will also acquire more cars per household. Their overall contribution both to ambient pollution and congestion would rise per capita. The same would happen for the upwardly mobile middle class, which would transition from two-wheelers to cars. If some fraction of the poor commuters are able to move to motorised two-wheelers, the outcome is compounded. The net result, especially with a rising urban population, would be a shrinking of road space and a perceptible rise in pollution, unless very strict (and privately costly) fuel efficiency standards are imposed on consumers. There will be less space for the majority of people. The air – for people who cannot afford air-conditioned transport – will also be more polluted.

Under such circumstances, the rich are likely to insulate themselves from the pollution by relying even more on air-conditioned cars, raising fuel consumption and pollution in the process. They would stem the negative effects of congestion and growth in time spent on the roads by relying more on handy information and telecom technologies to do substantially more work while their chauffeurs pilot them around town. Moreover, in a society driven by invidious consumption, they would be setting new standards for consumption for social classes below them.

It is readily seen how the inequalities built into the initial conditions under which the ‘automobilisation’ of the city happens are exacerbated by the socio-economic dynamics that prevail. It is also obvious how the conditions of urban ecology deteriorate over time for everyone concerned as a vicious cycle of feedback loops threatens to drive the city over the edge. A socially irrational outcome results from altogether rational consumer behaviour (fed by persuasive advertising, needless to add). The whole turns out to be more than the sum of the parts.

The city administration, faced with this growing crisis, can respond in a variety of ways. In the name of growth and development, it can promote the use of cars and motorised private transport by refusing to impose special levies on them, and even giving them tax rebates at the time of purchase. Along the same lines, it can argue for more road space, carry out slum demolitions and evictions, build more flyovers and double-decker roads in order to tackle the issue. Or it wakes up to the underlying causes of the problem and begin to pay far greater attention to public transport in the city, investing in more and better buses, and perhaps in a metro/rail system if urban space permits.

One idiosyncratic feature of this whole process deserves comment. As the consumption of cars and motorised two-wheelers, as much as the construction of roads and flyovers and medical bills (on account of the effects of pollution and commuter stress) increase, the GDP of the country will register perceptible improvement – even as the actual well-being of the population is on the decline. If the policymaking authorities rely on this rising GDP (and tax collections) as the measure of their success and an index of development and progress, they are likely to take decisions which can only go on compounding the problems of the people. They are unlikely to go in for policies which promote good public transport especially since the accretion to the measured GDP of the nation will likely be a lot less if this alternative course is pursued.

In this way government policies, far from tackling the problem, would make it far worse in the end. It is worth asking whether this isn’t exactly what is happening to Indian cities since the ‘liberalisation’ of the economy began a few decades ago.

Four lessons

This leads us directly to the following familiar insight. Einstein, once again, said it better than anyone can: “Not all that’s countable is worth counting, and not all that’s worth counting is countable.” The idea that only what’s measurable is what matters has been one of our most formidable illusions for long. It is time for policy elites around the world to give it up before it’s too late to prevent runaway ecological chaos.

Three other important lessons must be drawn from what has been said. Social problems do not have individual solutions, though wealthy elites have the resources to delay a clear perception of this truth. In India, privileged classes have long found private solutions to what are actually public challenges. Transport is only one instance of this general phenomenon. There are also drinking water (tackled through the enormous growth of bottling), health (dealt with by increasingly unaffordable drugs and private hospitals), education (tackled through expensive private schools or by sending young people abroad) and electricity (shortages managed through captive generation). The reader can surely find even more examples of the same thing happening in several other areas. In all such cases, serious problems begin to arise sooner or later for a growing majority of the people who are increasingly denied access to basic goods and services. Exclusion is built into the very warp and weft of our ‘public’ life!

The focus on the individual consumer, or company or nation (rather than on community or human society as a whole) is at the root of the difficulty, as Gregory Bateson had pointed out long ago. One needs to view the problems faced by the individual consumer/company/nation as some of the flashpoints for a general ecological crisis of the socio-economic system.

Thirdly, solutions to problems that tackle the supply side of the market (more cars, roads, flyovers, breathing masks, drugs etc) are intrinsically fated to make the problem re-emerge in another form in the future. The reason has to do with the fact that in a capitalist society, demand catches up with supply in no time, especially as new problems are birthed in the process of tackling the old ones.

This finally leads us to the moral that when problems emerge in dynamic (‘self-correcting’) systems, they call for systemic answers, not isolated ones. Isolated solutions will necessarily set the stage for a new set of problems, the remedies often being worse than the disease. As the urban transport story makes clear, these new problems may be profitable for private entrepreneurs and corporations in the short run. They may earn handsome royalties by patenting new inventions. This will also contribute visibly to the growth of the nation’s GDP and to the government’s tax collections. But society as a whole loses in the long run from such temporary palliatives. What is required is an ecologically integrated approach which can settle issues once and for all. Social problems cannot be tackled by adopting a merely technocratic approach.

We need a fresh ecological vision in the light of which many of the emerging social challenges of today can be faced. The tasks are cut out for us – as nations, institutions and individuals. Ecological aspects of human psychology and values that influence our efficacy in these tasks are addressed in the last part of this three-part essay. We might find that human consciousness is the last bastion of the domination of certain Occidental follies that one has to face.

Infochange News & Features, October 2009