Life - When being practical is suicidal
by Narendra Murty
Nowadays, whenever the question of saving the planet from environmental devastation comes up, and it is suggested that we are zooming down the road of a kind of development that is not sustainable, that we are on a collision course with nature – we are told to come up with ‘practical’ solutions. It is said that we cannot stop this runaway engine of economic development and any talk of slowing down is impractical. So, ‘practical’ solutions are demanded instead of criticism. Well, I personally think that the time for ‘practical’ solutions is over. Today, the world has arrived at the brink of disaster precisely because of all the ‘practical’ things that have been done in the last few decades.
Let us take a small sample of the ‘practical’ things we have done’ with respect to only one thing for the time being, the use of land.
Forty per cent of the forests have been cut down in the last century, most of it in the last 50 years. At the present rate, it would only take another 50 years to remove another 40 per cent and turn the earth into a pressure cooker. Now this is a very ‘practical’ thing to do. We need more land for our cities, for more industries, for more agriculture to feed the world population, to grow more bio fuels, for more roads to run more and more cars and so on. All are ‘practical’ things to do.
However, if you want to save the planet (which is not a ‘practical’ thing to do since it will not generate profits, will not create industries) you would have to give up the hunger for more land. The solution is simple. Do not cut down any more forests, and do not encourage more urban spread. Set up industries on barren land (not economical) and do not divert croplands to cultivate bio fuels. Reduce the number of cars instead. You cannot add millions of cars every year, and expect to have the resources to run them – petrol or roads or whatever. You must realise that there is only so much land.
Therefore, we have brought ourselves to a stage where the ‘practical’ is turning out to be suicidal for the next generation and the future. However, worrying about the next generation and the future is again not ‘practical.’ Today’s profit motive is ‘practical.’ Thinking about what our children would inherit, is ‘impractical.’
So things as they stand, if at all we are interested to save the planet, we have to start doing a whole lot of highly ‘impractical’ things. Today it is a no-win situation where the ‘practical’ is suicidal and the solution is ‘impractical.’
Let us take for instance, our addiction to fossil fuels. Sixty per cent of the electricity generated in the world comes from burning coal. In addition, burning coal accounts for 43 per cent of all annual carbon emissions of the world. In quantitative terms, this is 2.7 billion tons of carbon emission every year. Understandably, this deals a devastating blow to the environment. So why do we keep on burning coal when it is so dangerous? When it is threatening the life of this planet? Why can’t we switch over to clean energy sources like wind and solar power? Because burning coal is cheap, and is supposed to be economical. Moreover, wind and solar power are uneconomical. In other words, an activity can be economic and ‘practical’ even if it plays hell with the environment, whereas another activity, if at some additional cost, preserves and protects the environment as well as our future, is considered uneconomic. So let us burn all the coal we can lay our hands on. It is ‘practical.’
However, we should also bear in mind that even if we do succeed in switching over to solar and wind power, these sources cannot support the growing levels of energy consumption. To put it differently, at the present level of technology of solar and wind power, these sources of energy would not be able to meet the world energy demand.
Therefore, what is the practical solution? We cannot sustain the level of economic growth with our limited supply of resources. We have to bring down our energy needs. We cannot go on building high rises, and shopping malls, pack them with air conditioners and elevators, raise our energy needs, and pretend there is all the energy available for the taking. This kind of practicality is possible only with cheap fossil fuels like coal, which kill the environment. In order to avoid suicide and preserve the future of our children, we would have to switch over to the use of solar and wind power, though uneconomical, and curtail our consumption of energy by bringing about a drastic change in our values and lifestyles, to reduce our consumption levels. Yes, I know, it is ‘impractical.’
Nevertheless, one thing we must understand. The earth cannot support the current level of expansion and growth. It is already groaning under its weight because there are natural and ecological limits to everything. EF Schumacher had warned, “Unlimited material consumption and infinite economic growth is not possible on a finite planet having finite resources.”
There is only so much land. There are limited resources. The bubble of economy cannot expand indefinitely, since these natural limits would stop it.
Admittedly, it is difficult to convince the ambitious to tone down their quest for wealth, which is putting tremendous pressure on the depleting world resources. They cannot think of the long term. They exist and can function only in the short term. The future does not exist for them. They can only see the reality of today’s profits and nothing beyond it. In addition, the environment is a problem, which does not encroach on your short term. It does not appear on your balance sheet. However, one thing is clear as daylight. No economy, no matter how technically advanced, no matter how sophisticated – can survive if the environmental support system is collapsing around it.
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