Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A big spot of bother

I came across this brilliant article in the NYT Why Bother? on climate change and what we can do about it.

I think the way the climate is changing (rising temperatures, melting of the polar ice and rising sea levels) and the impact we are seeing on the global food production patterns (droughts causing a food crisis) is nothing short of a calamity. I think we are already into the third world war. An expert recently said in a report in a Singapore paper that the food crisis is more dangerous than terrorism. The Economist calls it the silent tsunami, and it has some figues to support its claim.

The magazine also says that elsewhere, the food crisis of 2008 will test the assertion of Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, that famines do not happen in democracies. Let's not talk about democracies and get distracted here.

But what are we doing about it (compared to what we are doing about terrorism)? Hardly anthing. We are just going on as usual. It's business as usual. People are increasing their carbon footrints. Evermore number of people are travelling in jets (Travelling has become so plebian, Naipaul has said). In the developing economies, as the ranks of the middle class are increasing, people are eating more meat and buying more cars, burning more fossil fuels. Tata's Nano car will contribute to it.

Even developed countries are adding to their energy consumption bills. A small country like Singapore, for example, has increased its electricity consumption by 78% between 1995 and 2007. The reason: Greater ownership of electronic appliances and gadgets. In 1998, about 58% of households owned an air-conditioner compared to 72% in 2003.

The people in the developing countries say, those who had never tasted the pleasure of creature comforts, never owned a car before, never had a lavish lifestyle (conspicuous consumption) will complain that now that it is my turn to have fun, you are talking about climate change to spoil it. I don't give a damn. Let me have my fun. Fair enough, one could say.

But does it mean the onus of bringing the earth temperatures down lies with the people of the developed world alone?

People in the developed countries are aware of this expectation but will this realisation save any trees. The writer of the Why Bother? piece says it succintly:

Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

Gandhi said that there is enough for everyone's need but not enough for everyone's greed in his planet. All faiths teach us the lessons of parsimony and contentment. Greed creates its own problems and we are seeing the outcome now.

Paul Krugman, in his recent column, Running Out of Planet to Exploit, asks:

Last week, oil hit $117. It’s not just oil that has defied the complacency of a few years back. Food prices have also soared, as have the prices of basic metals. And the global surge in commodity prices is reviving a question we haven’t heard much since the 1970s: Will limited supplies of natural resources pose an obstacle to future world economic growth?

Won't it?

So what can be done? While the responsible amongst us can change our light bulbs (thanks to Al Gore), grow our gardens, eat less meat or travel in public transports, the governments need to intervene with rules as they do while tackling terrorism (most people need rules to stay in the queue, for the greater common good). For example, penalise for excess use of energy. Why should petrol be subsidised in poorer countries to enable people to drive cars? In Singapore, petrol is about $2 a litre, nearly same as a 1 litre bottle of packaged drinking water. Does it make any sense? Make things better. For example, make public transport (an unconvenient truth?) convenient and sexier. Better still--encourage telecommuting to work.

One hope is digital nomadism (is it hope or will it be our only choice?). It will cut travel costs. Ensure less need for office spaces. But sure enough, it will need greener gadgets too. So, green IT is good.


Laju K. said...

Zafar, I like this one. You also know I would have told you if I did not.

Interestingly I was just now writing about my love for water etc, and have been thinking about food crisis. Also a reader of mine told me to write about it. And now here you are with it. Not surprised that you have it up here. You beat me to it, have another deadline. Well, I get it in my own time.
Laju K.

Laju K. said...

My goodness, you must have read my mind. I was going to ask you to add some numbers every now and then(as you have done this time) to your blog entries, to appease readers like me.

In fact I was going to suggest a good topic for it, but refrained. Thought I would perhaps do it myself or let you do what you are best at.

Not that I do not like the other stuff; it's just that I happen to like both at different times of the day. I am talking with and without numbers. The quantitative vs the qualitative (subjective). Will stop right here. No more comments on this, I promise.

A very important topic, much more than who slept with whom, which has its own place and should be reported every now and then just for the sake of it?


Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Laju. Glad you liked it. It's a very important topic and worries me.