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.

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