Watching everyone prepare excitedly for Earth Hour on 26 March, my 11-year-old daughter asked me a question that would occur to most children: “What’s the point in switching off the lights for one hour, when they remain switched on for the rest of the year?”
Children see things the way they really are, with clarity. For them, the symbolic can’t stand in for the substantive.
My daughter has other questions too. If greenhouse gases (GHG) are causing climate change, why don’t we stop using things that produce GHG? If there is indeed an increasing loss of biodiversity at a rate that makes it the sixth mass extinction, why aren’t we stopping it? If polythene bags are choking the earth, why do we use them? If we are polluting and depleting groundwater, why don’t we do something about it? She asks these questions often, because my responses never give her the answers.
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A few years ago, I too asked myself a few questions. I knew that there might be no final answers to them, but I hoped to find some that would be sufficient for me.
It took me a year to get those. I had to discipline myself to trawl through Nature, Science, and many more such journals. I met scientists and tried to understand them. For a business guy who had abandoned science 20 years ago, this wasn’t easy. At the end of the year, I was convinced that climate change and the other myriad forms of ecological crisis were real. Not just real, but staggering in scale and complexity.
Then I started asking myself the same questions that my daughter asks. Over time, I have formed the answer to them, sufficiently for me.
Five inter-related issues characterize humanity today, and these have a bearing on my answer.
Growth is the supreme economic goal everywhere in the world. It also has become the supreme social and political goal. There is some recognition that growth has certain pernicious effects that must be controlled or minimized. But these are footnotes of little importance. A zero growth economy is by definition bad, really bad, and completely undesirable.
Consumption is seen as the most definitive measure of well-being; it is also an inalienable right. While we recognize that consumption is not sufficient, it has still become the proxy for whether people are doing well or not. Human ingenuity and desire fuel a potent spiral of ever increasing consumption.
More than three billion people the world over live in poverty. That they can come out of their condition is one of the common human goals. Even among the other 3.7 billion people, there are wide gulfs. Socio-economic equity is a desirable state, and to strive for it a fundamental human right.
Population is growing. From 6.7 billion people on the planet today, humanity will be close to 10 billion in 40 years. It was only 1.8 billion at the turn of the 20th century. Each of these 10 billion will have an equal right to an equitable socio-economic status, and to consumption.
It sounds silly to state the obvious, but it is necessary for the sake of completion. Almost all human economy is invested in modes of production, facilitation and consumption, where ecology is at most a peripheral criterion. Changing this has significant cost: economic, social and psychological.
The five points above are either facts or notions that are intrinsically good and desirable. Let’s place these in the context of two elemental issues.
There is an increasing loss in connectedness among people; connectedness with each other, with where they live, with the intended and incidental impact of their work and life. This is loss of social and psychological meaning. There may be greater technological connect, but that is not connectedness. We are individually empowered and collectively adrift like never before.
Human beings are selfish, among other things. Today, selfishness is increasingly combined with individualism. We are also designed to gratify immediate desires and needs, rather than later ones. We can indeed do things for the long term—for example, life insurance—but on the whole we cannot, and will not, compromise on today for tomorrow.
To stop GHG, to preserve groundwater, to eliminate polythene, to preserve biodiversity—in short to save this planet, as we inherited it—we have to contend directly with all this. Growth, consumption, greater socio-economic equity, increasing population, and a hugely invested world—we have to contend with these too. All this while we ourselves don’t feel connected to most things. We have to be willing to compromise short-term self interest, while fulfilling the long-term interest of the planet, and perhaps of humanity. We need to be wise, inordinately wise (I can’t think of a better word), to make this happen.
How difficult is that? I have started believing that it’s near impossible. I fear that our collective wisdom cannot keep pace with our intellectual powers, harnessed by our elemental desires. This is my answer for myself; I don’t want to present this bleak prognosis to my daughter. So I leave her questions unanswered.
Anurag Behar is co-CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at email@example.com