Tuesday, April 21, 2015


The world will be celebrating the Earth Day tomorrow, on 22 April. I am not sure that it makes much sense to devote one day to thinking about the earth, while we keep exploiting her for 364 days a year, but still, let's hope that the 'noise' made on this one day will trigger some sustained changes somewhere...

Continuing with the thread of my thoughts - so far I have tried to show the link between our quest for sustainability and our lifestyle choices as a society. Last week I talked briefly about the transition from agricultural society to industrial society. 

The back-of-the-envelope calculations in earlier posts have shown that 10,000 years ago the transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agricultural lifestyle was intuitively driven by humans' looking for sustainability. Simple agriculture too was not good enough to sustain the human population beyond the 16th century when the seeds of industrialization were sown. How has this transition put the sustainability in jeopardy rather than securing it?

On what basis do I say that sustainability was put in jeopardy by industrialization? 

This can be understood on a broad scale without going into mathematical calculations. With industries mushrooming, the land had to be shared by agriculture and industry, the available manpower also got divided between these two activities. It was left to the land and people engaged in agriculture to provide the basic necessities of life for themselves as well as for those engaged in industry and related activities. There was a rise in the overall productivity, but the rise in population outstripped it. In 1960s we were 3 billion people, within 40 years we had crossed 6 billion! 

According to one of the estimations that I have come across, if everyone on the earth was to live the industrialized lifestyle of the American people, the earth can sustain only 1.5 billion humans. The fact that about 7 billion people are today somehow managing to live on the earth, is due to the fact that majority of these are still living lifestyles that are closer to simple agriculture than industrialised. In other words, the inequity in the world has become a necessary condition for the survival of human civilization as our population is growing towards the 10 billion mark within this century! 

In the course of the transition to industrialized society humans had also invented an artificial 'resource' called MONEY. This was a convenience that allowed everything to be valued on the same scale in relation to everything else. It also provided an easier substitute for the complicated transactions involved in barter system, which required goods or services to be exchanged in actuality. The barter system had depended on a 'coincidence of wants' - a barrier to widespread trade - that was eliminated with the use of money. 

Many of the resources going into simple agriculture (e.g., rainwater) did not cost money. But as agriculturists tried to maximize the output by using industrial inputs (e.g., use of water from an artificial reservoir), it was convenient to assign monetary 'value' to the industrial inputs vis-a-vis the agricultural produce. Money also allowed easy buying of necessities of life as and when required, for an individual not directly engaged in production of these necessities. Soon saving monetary expenditure and making monetary gains became the ultimate purpose of all human activities - the means became an end in itself. 

This focus on a totally fictional resource de-linked us from the natural cycles of which we are an integral part. A typical urban citizen today does not need to understand how food is produced, processed, packaged, transported, traded, in order to get access to it. He/she knows that they can go to the shopping mall round the corner any time of the day and pick up a food item that catches their fancy in exchange of a few pieces of specially printed paper (or using a piece of plastic!). Some of us are lucky enough to have this fictional resource called money in ample quantities to be able to satisfy our true as well as perceived needs. Most of us feel the pull of the 'needs' but do not have the 'power' of money to be able to fulfill all our desires. This economic inequality in turn has lead to discontent and also made us all greedy. 

The urge for 'growth' and 'development' that pushes us further and further into industrialized society is thus also driven by a quest for sustainability - but this distorted idea of sustainability is based on only one resource - money - a resource that has no meaning or value in the real world outside human society! The monetary value of any product or service is determined by the push-pull of supply and demand, rather than the actual 'value' of the natural resources being used or the 'price' in terms of damage being caused to the ecosystem. As a result, while we have seen economic prosperity being brought in through industrialization, this has come at the cost of becoming an increasingly inefficient and wasteful society. 

Most of us do not wish for our ecosystems to break down, but we first want to make sure that we have our coffers full of money - this abstract creation of our own mind. Once that is achieved, we will turn to preserving and protecting the ecosystems that provide us with what we REALLY need for living. What can be more ridiculous than this???

Priyadarshini Karve
Director, Samuchit Enviro Tech


    Samuchit Enviro Tech.     samuchit@samuchit.com     www.samuchit.com

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