Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Degradation of nature - II

Creeping normality is the way a major change can be accepted as the normal situation if it happens gradually. If the same change took place in a single step or short period, it would cause a lot of hue and cry. In Collapse, Jared Diamond discusses how societies have slowly destroyed themselves without noticing the harm they were doing until it was too late because the affects happened very gradually. An example that Diamond uses is people and societies slowly using up all their resources. Success may hide impending disaster as it might have done to Easter Islanders.

A question often asked is,  ‘Why bother about little critters? Human lives are more important.’ This argument ignores various ecosystem services that different organisms provide for free – nitrogen fixation, pollination, seed dispersal, etc. Some of these services can be replaced by human agency but they will prove expensive and some of these services will never be known till long after the damage has been done and it is too late to do anything about it. As an example of inter-relationships in nature that may not be immediately apparent, Charles Darwin writes in On the Origin of Species:
I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Mr. H. Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that "more than two thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England." Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Mr. Newman says, "Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice." Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!
Environmental issues belong to a class called 'wicked problems' which are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. They are very different from relatively "tame", soluble problems in mathematics or chess. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad and a purely scientific-engineering approach cannot be applied because of the lack of a clear problem definition and differing perspectives of stakeholders. Their solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior. These problems have a lot of ambiguity and the consequences are difficult to imagine.

Most wicked problems are connected to other problems. Complex interdependency among various components means that trying to  solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. You cannot talk about 'optimal solutions' to these problems because there are ideological, cultural, political and economic constraints which keep changing over time. In Collapse, after identifying 12 sets of environmental problems like soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, issues due to alien species, etc., Jared Diamond writes:
People often ask, 'What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?' A flip answer would be, 'The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!' That flip answer is essentially correct, because any of the dozen problems if left unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other, if we solved 11 of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.
Global climate change has been called a 'super wicked problem' because it has the following additional characteristics: time for addressing it is running out,  it has no central authority and those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it. Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall explores several psychological issues that come in the way when addressing the issue of climate change. For eg. it has no clearly identifiable enemy, has dispersed responsibility and diffused impacts making it very difficult to motivate and mobilize people around it.

When meddling with nature, it is better to err on the side of caution. From large dams to smart cities to the proposal to interlink rivers, such large multi-crore projects have always been favorites of politicians, technocrats and contractors. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains why these large projects are attractive no matter how much empirical data about their harm is provided:
It is often a major source of distributing patronage through contracts, political financing, building new networks of political obligations, generating politically powerful blue- and white- collar specialist jobs. It is also often a technology of electoral mobilization and a means through which an impression of grand political performance can be created. Such a project gradually becomes an end in itself and cultivates a certain forgetfulness about its effects on the life-support systems of a community.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Degradation of nature - I

'Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist', said John Maynard Keynes. One of these defunct ideas is the environmental Kuznets curve which assumes that environmental degradation tends to get worse as economic growth occurs until average income reaches a certain point after which further development will lead to improvement of the environment. Most of the decision-makers seem to be hostage to this idea.

In this blog post, George Monbiot writes about a group called economodernists in UK whose ideas seem very similar to what is very often propounded by many in India – modernization, development, technology, urbanization, emphasize manufacturing, etc., displaying a simple minded view of the environment and not considering for a moment the possibility that poverty may be an iatrogenic outcome of their proposals.  Economists seem to be the perfect examples of what Peter Drucker said, 'Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.'

They remind me of a line from an old Hindi song - naam bade aur darsan chote (famous names with short-term outlook). As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in Antifragile, 'Where simplifications fail, causing the most damage, is when something nonlinear is simplified with the linear as a  substitute.' And relationships in the environment are full of non-linearities. Economists are unaware of Orgel's second rule - "Evolution is cleverer than you are." (It does not imply that evolution has conscious motives or method but that the process of natural selection, though itself not intelligent, clever or purposeful, produces results that are ingenious.)

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the worst problem of modernity is that one person gets the upside and a different person gets the downside 'with such transfer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal'. The decision-making elite living in cities are themselves not going to suffer from the terrible ill-effects of environmental devastation that the poor suffer from. This makes them contemptuous of environmental safeguards and makes them think that a concern for the environment is detrimental to economic growth. In an article by Ramachandra Guha, there was an extract from a book by John Kenneth Galbraith followed by comments by a Berkely geographer Carl Sauer:
if we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, or decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed! 
A cultural explanation for this silence had been previously provided by the great Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer. Writing in 1938, Sauer remarked that ‘the doctrine of a passing frontier of nature replaced by a permanent and sufficiently expanding frontier of technology is a contemporary and characteristic expression of occidental culture, itself a historical-geographical product.’ This frontier attitude, he went on, ‘has the recklessness of an optimism that has become habitual, but which is residual from the brave days when north-European freebooters overran the world and put it under tribute.’ Warning that the surge of growth at the expense of nature would not last indefinitely, Sauer — speaking for his fellow Americans — noted wistfully that ‘we have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot. We do not like to be economic realists’.

When discussing nature, economists tend to think that what is unknown is non-existent. The  myriad relationships between the entities in nature are to economists what flies are to wanton boys, to be killed – or ignored – for their sport, without considering them important enough to complicate matters. Development which is grounded in the idea that humans can gain absolute control over nature is short-sighted. People keep talking about economic growth but seem blind to the fact that India has 18%of the world’s population and 4% of the world’s water which should be an alarming statistic.

Environmental abuse has various harmful effects like  air pollution, forest and pasture loss, degradation of crop lands, and poor sanitation and water supply. This results in various costs to society like ill health, lost income, and increased economic vulnerability. It has been estimated that the cavalier treatment of the environment is costing India over 5% of GDP annually. In an article, Denial of Catastrophic Risks, Martin Rees says:
I believe these "existential risks" deserve more serious study. Those fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, possible carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth. But we should be more concerned about events that have not yet happened but which, if they occurred even once, could cause worldwide devastation.  
The main threats to sustained human existence now come from people, not from nature. Ecological shocks that irreversibly degrade the biosphere could be triggered by the unsustainable demands of a growing world population. Fast-spreading pandemics would cause havoc in the mega cities of the developing world. And political tensions will probably stem from scarcity of resources, aggravated by climate change.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - VI

You know that teenagers are rebellious and think that they know everything there is to know. You think that it would be better to leave them alone till they have a change of heart like Mark Twain: 'When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.' (The quote is probably apocryphal. It  is like a Yogi Berra quote, 'I really didn't say everything I said. [...] Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know.')

I once heard Naseeruddin Shah say that children should be left alone to find their own way since they won't listen to you anyway. Then he added sheepishly that inspite of knowing this he keeps advising his children, saying that one is not able to help it. It sounds a familiar situation. It is said that you spend the first half of your life being ashamed of your parents and the second half of your life being ashamed  of  your children.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Gandhi said that an important lesson he learnt in life was that reason has its limits. Reason can take us up to a point beyond which, it doesn’t work. He wrote in Young India in Nov. 1931, 'Nobody has probably drawn up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I, and I have come to this fundamental conclusion that, if you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also.'

Reason can only appeal to the head and you must find ways of reaching somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, only then a rational discourse can begin to proceed. As Prof. Bhikhu Parekh says in Gandhi in the 21st Century (transcript of a lecture)
Reason has its limits and Gandhi says sometimes you can find a strong rationalist becoming a strong advocate for violence. For example: if I am unable to persuade someone then the rationalist would say: “these guys are morally obtuse, no use talking to them, they are not being reasonable, they are not human” – and therefore it is found rationally legitimate to engage in violence against them. And Gandhi’s argument was that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realize.             
Most people have some irrational behavior or the other which they often indulge in especially when under some sort of pressure. It will be like the story of Neils Bohr. A visitor to his house was surprised to find a horseshoe above the front doorway. Tradition asserts that a horseshoe brings luck when placed over a door.  He expressed incredulity that a man of science could possibly be swayed by a simple-minded folk belief. The physicist replied: 'Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.'

I first read about economics when I was in IIMA and when I read about the rational actor model, I thought it made sense. But one discipline’s trivia is another discipline’s focus and when I started reading a bit more about psychology I started realizing that the simple conclusion about human behaviour is simplistic. The abstract reasoning favored by economists ignores the realities of how human beings think and act. People are not mechanical robots. Many of their decisions are influenced by psychological factors like regret, love, hate, ambition, conformity, herd behaviour, etc.

Some market forces like advertising can interfere with enlightened decision-making.The problem of social  norms being replaced by market norms has to be considered in each situation instead of a knee-jerk shift to cash incentives. Conflicts of interest and skewed incentive structures do bias decisions. I saw a quote in Predictably Irrational by an economist who lived 200 years ago, John Maurice Clark (it has been an eye-opener for me to see that many people who lived a long time ago had a better idea of human nature than most decision-makers today):
The economist may attempt to ignore psychology, but it is sheer impossibility for him to ignore human nature ... If the economist borrows his conception of man from the psychologist, his constructive work may have some chance of being purely economic in character. But if he does not, he will not thereby avoid psychology. Rather, he will force himself to make his own, and it will be bad psychology.
Blindly following the rationality advocated by scientists and what Ashis Nandy dismissively calls 'the witchcraft called economics' has social costs. Trying to separate ideas from emotions and thinking that pursuing ideas unburdened by emotions is a good thing can have harmful consequences. This might end up creating a society of psychopaths (or economists; some might think that there is not much difference between the two) which is not the ideal situation. They lack the realization that knowledge without ethics is inferior knowledge. I saw this quote by Erich Fromm in Bonfire of Creeds warning about the divorce between  reason and feeling caused by the increasing objectification of people in the modern world:
Logical thought is not rational if it is merely logical...(Paranoid thinking is characterized by the fact that it can be completely logical...Logic does not exclude madness.) On the other hand, not only thinking but also emotion can be rational... 
Reason flows from the blending of rational thought and feeling. If the two functions are torn apart, thinking deteriorates into schizoid intellectual activity, and feeling deteriorates into neurotic life-damaging passions.
The split between thought and affect leads to a sickness, to a low-grade schizophrenia from which the new man of the technocratic age begins to suffer...There are low-grade forms of psychosis which can be shared by millions of people.
Demonetization, Aadhaar, 'truth machine', destructive weapons, etc. are dreamt up by the kind of psychopath described above. It took me a long time to realize that  the pathology of rationality is more problematic than the pathology of irrationality. It promotes the man whose beast within triumphs. (I had thought that I was well educated before my stroke but, strangely enough, a substantial part of my education happened after my stroke.)  It is reported that when someone told Gandhi that the wildlife in India was rapidly disappearing, he said that 'wildlife is decreasing in forests but it is increasing in cities'. As T.S. Eliot said:
And the end of all our exploring
          Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.